When Prayer Doesn’t Seem to Work

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Paul told us to pray constantly (1 Thes 5:17).  This sounds good for people of faith, when it appears to be working.  I don’t mean by this that God becomes for us a magic genie and that we get exactly what we ask for (which would be nice but most people of faith realize that that is not what faith is all about).  But what gets frustrating and disheartening is when we pray for something and it seems like we get no response.  Not, “Yes.”  Not “No.”  Not, “Try this instead.”  But rather we don’t seem to sense an answer at all.  Then what are we to do?

One of the simple games I used to like to play as a kid were the puzzles where you had to draw a line through a maze.  You kind of intuitively had to guess which the right way to go was because if you guessed wrong, you could travel a long way with your pencil to reach a dead end.  In real life, people develop mazes, sometimes with hedges, and sometimes in corn fields, and people spend hours trying to find the solution.  As children and adults we like all this because it often parallels with experiences we have in real life. Life can feel just like that, particularly when we hit a dead end.  We get to an end which wasn’t meant to be where we were supposed to go.  But we don’t want to backtrack, it seems like such wasted energy.  But maybe sometimes that is precisely what God wants and intends for us to do (and learn from it).

Another parallel I see today is in hearing.  I distinctly remember as a child hearing things my parents and grandparents could not. Oftentimes they wouldn’t believe me! I try to use this to my advantage today.  When my own children hear something I do not, instead of dismissing it, I try to pay attention to it.  I ask them lots of questions about the noise they are hearing.  I might not be able to hear it, but that doesn’t mean there is no noise. In like manner, I think sometimes when we get stuck, God is going to give us a solution that we have been praying for through another person.  Again, like backtracking, we might not like this.  We often like to solve our problems by ourselves.  But maybe asking someone else for help is just what God wants us to do.

Whatever the challenge, remember, God isn’t going to leave you at a dead end, even if you feel like that is just where you are. God will lead you over, under, around that barrier – or maybe down another path which isn’t blocked at all.  I think when we feel blocked, even after prayer, we need to talk it out, listen, and be patient.

Of course this applies to prayers about others and about groups (like congregations and families) as well as individual prayers.

I still believe Paul was right.  Pray constantly.  But we also need to be open to discerning God’s answer and flexible on what we are called to do next.

What do you think?

Until next time,

Tom

Worship Like It’s 1999

These past two weekends I have had the joy of being a part of installing pastors at two area churches.  Doing so surely made me reflect back over the time since I have been installed at Parkway (in September of 2008).  As I welcomed my two new brothers in ministry, and spoke with their nominating committees and congregations, I offered them in those moments my best advice in light of my own and many other experiences I have learned of over the years.

But more and more, I am focusing on one item that I didn’t raise to them at the time but I am growing increasingly convinced is a big issue in ministry in all churches in 2014.  I think electronic communications are causing more problems for churches than helping them today.  I’m not quite to the point of many essays I have read entitled, “Is the internet killing the church?” But I do think it is distracting us hugely from what is central.

When I arrived in 2008, I was told, by many sources, “Pastor, do you want to know what an issue is in our church?  Communications!”  Tell that to a guy coming off active duty with a penchant for technology and writing and I thought, “Well, this is right up my alley!”  Since 2008 at Parkway we have created brand new Facebook pages and Twitter feeds.  On top of this, we have redesigned our website (at least three times), put out a much more detailed newsletter than most churches twice our size produce, put announcements in bulletins, send out text messages, and, of course, email after email.  We send out a weekly email called, “This Week at Parkway” which has all of our events.  We also have something that is kind of a reverse answering machine which we can record information into and send out to all of our members and friends called a Phone Tree. We have made exterior signs and put up banners for various events.  On top of this I have been posting sermons on Facebook and in the recent past, we put audio versions of the sermon on the website. We have actively pondered how to re-post choral pieces on line.  And we have church physical mailboxes which always fill up with printed and written messages.

I’m not saying all of the above meets everyone’s standards of tastes or style.  We regularly get input of, “We need more of this” or “less of that” in this medium or another. Nevertheless, if our issue was relaying information in the church, I’m ready, six years later to hang up the “Mission Accomplished” banner.  There is no way, no matter how one prefers their church communications (a major issue in the 21st century as not everyone has embraced each of these communication mediums) that anyone even remotely interested in Parkway cannot easily find out when, where, and how of each and every event.

So, the church has gotten to that promised land of where we need to be, right?  Not exactly.

If I could go back to 2008, when someone said, “Do you want to know what our problem is – communication?”, I should have responded, “Well, why aren’t we talking to one another?”  I believe spiritual experiences happen between people, not between people and electronic media.  If people were talking to each other, they would know what was going on.  Hindsight, as it were, is always 20/20.

I’m not saying we can totally go back to 1999, or before, when there was little to no electronic media in church communications.  We live in the world we live in. Our neighbors largely are not going to look us up in the Yellow Pages or make a decision on whether to go to a church or not by what’s on the physical sign out front.  Website pages, Facebook pages, and the like need to be current and give people a visual image of what to expect when they come in the door.

But I do believe we have to get back to the concept that when people walk into the door – our churches needs to be spiritual places where people come to connect with God and with one another.  And that is not going to happen via a newsletter, a blog, a Facebook post, a Tweet, or a text message.  When we can’t be there, the old technology from 1999 is still probably the best – the phone – with a live person on the other end talking with you.  But, better than that, is connection in person.

I know it is ironic that I am posting this on a blog which will get reposted via Facebook and Twitter.  I probably am going to put it in a future church newsletter too.  But, I would just say the one last piece of advice that I would give to new pastors is that you can have the best website, blog, and church newsletter in the business and it is not going to build your church.  We need to get back to, “Where two or more are gathered, I am with you.”  I believe it is vital.

I will still email sermons to folks who live out of town, or who were traveling.  I will still post blogs now and again.  At home, I will re-post and comment on items that I find interesting online on Facebook and Twitter.  But I am going to stop trying to recreate everything online for folks who aren’t here. The person in the office or hospitality area is more important than twenty I can email. If people are curious (and are local) I hope they will come and see here at Parkway what is going on. Because what is special about Parkway, and so many other churches, is the people. It is through them that we connect with God and build community.  And even with pictures and stories, you can’t connect with them online like you can in person. The more we get together, the more we are drawn closer to God.  And if folks can’t get to church, we in the church need to go and see them, in person.  That’s where I am going to put my focus in 2014, much unlike 2008.

Communication, in person, like it’s 1999.  That’s my focus right now.  Communication with God.  And communication with God’s people.

What do you think?

Until Next Time,

Tom

Disagreeing with Solomon

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There is much in the media this week about corporal punishment due to some high profile cases involving NFL players.  It has generated much talk on the radio, on the internet, and in the news.  I therefore thought it time I write something about this as a pastor.

Corporal punishment is employed by a majority of parents in our country.  An even higher majority received corporal punishment as children.  And, there is a Bible verse, from Solomon no less, encouraging it “Spoil the rod and spoil the child” he famously wrote. I, myself, have spanked my children at times. So, by far, the safest route would be for me to write something in favor of it.  But I’m not.

I do not believe that corporal punishment damages the psyche of most children.  I do not think it makes children grow into violent people as adults either.  I do think Solomon believed what he wrote when he wrote it too.  But I am opposed to corporal punishment because, bottom line, I do not think it works. Think back to when you were a kid and adults spanked you, did it change who you were to get spanked?  Did it change your outlook on life?  Did it seriously influence your behavior when you were away from the person who spanked you?  For me, the answer to all of those questions would be no.  I also know that just as plenty of good people were spanked as children, plenty of bad ones were too.  I don’t see it influencing at all if someone turns out good or bad.  I do acknowledge that it may cause children to temporarily change their behavior to suit the adults in the area.  But, in the end, it can easily can encourage more crafty bad behavior as much as anything else.

As a pastor, I don’t toss Solomon’s maxim off easily.  But I do always turn to Jesus and look to him as the ultimate example (I could go off on a tangent of how we “religious folks” tend to quote the Old Testament more than the New but I won’t).  While Jesus did once use violence to make a point – driving the money changers out of the temple – there is no image of him doing this or encouraging it between powerful adults and far weaker children.  I think Jesus would encourage parents or those in charge of children to use their minds more than their brawn to discipline them.

Another part of the Bible does come into play as well.  When asking if someone should eat food sacrificed to idols, Paul, on the one hand, says there are no other gods so it isn’t a real sacrifice anyway (I am greatly paraphrasing here) but he also said not to do anything to make other people sin.  I think as Christians we need to recognize while most parents employ corporal punishment not to really hurt but to scare their children into better behavior – there are people who go overboard with this and think they have God’s license to do so.  There are children who come away with physical bruises, or worse, from parents who think they are doing “God’s will” as they use their might against their own offspring, supposedly to “correct them.”  I think God’s people need to forcefully say that this is not what God wants.

I do think failure to discipline a child will spoil the child.  Solomon was right on that.  When my parents or administrators were disappointed in me, when they convinced me my actions were not helpful, and when I saw the fruits of my own bad behavior, it helped me change course.  But being hit with a paddle had nothing to do with that.

Failure to discipline is a problem in our society.  I just think we are better than using rods to do so.

What do you think?

In Christ,

Tom

Ray and Janay Rice and Time For Change

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At this time of year, Ray Rice is used to being in the news, but not in this way. As anyone who watches the news on the internet or on TV by now, Mr. Rice was indefinitely suspended by the NFL because a video surfaced showing him punching Mrs. Rice in the face and knocking her out. Both husband and wife are dismayed by the media coverage and feel this is a private matter left to them. I am sure they are both worried about his professional prospects in the future. To me though, what it highlights isn’t at its core about the Rices (certainly not just about them).  If at least for a moment, with our short attention span in our society, it highlights the cultural norm, worldwide and historic, of violence against women.

Here are just a few fast facts to refresh us on the topic:

~ In Guatemala, two women are murdered, on average, each day.

~ In India, 8,093 cases of dowry-related death were reported in 2007; an unknown number of murders of women and young girls were falsely labeled ‘suicides’ or ‘accidents’.

~In Australia, Canada, Israel, South Africa and the United States, between 40 and 70 percent of female murder victims were killed by their intimate partners.

~In the State of Chihuahua, Mexico, 66 percent of murders of women were committed by husbands, boyfriends or other family members.

~Worldwide, up to 50 percent of sexual assaults are committed against girls under 16.

~An estimated 150 million girls under the age of 18 suffered some form of sexual violence in 2002 alone.

~The first sexual experience of some 30 percent of women was forced. The percentage is even higher among those who were under 15 at the time of their sexual initiation, with up to 45 percent reporting that the experience was forced.

~Over 60 million girls worldwide are child brides, married before the age of 18, primarily in South Asia (31.3 million) and sub-Saharan Africa (14.1 million). Violence and abuse characterize married life for many of these girls. Women who marry early are more likely to be beaten or threatened, and more likely to believe that a husband might sometimes be justified in beating his wife.

Is it just that the Rice’s are singled out for what is a worldwide phenomenon?  No.  Kind of like getting a speeding ticket, sometimes if you are in the eye of the law, you are going to get caught at something you might never have if you were elsewhere doing this same thing (and many others have and will continue to do the same).  Regardless, and even if provoked, a man should control his anger and never act out in violence against anyone, more less his wife. Men and women are given their strength to protect one another – not abuse one another.

But far more significant than this one case is that the litany of facts listed above (and these are but a few) do not stop us in our tracks about what is “normal” for half of the human race. We have got to train up a new generation on what is and is not acceptable. And using your strength against someone weaker is not who we are called to be.  For Christians, it is the absolute last thing Christ ever would do.

When is it time for change?  Now.  Let us get the word out, particularly to those closest to us, that violence against women is not like an epidemic (something new that has just swept in).  It is an unhealthy norm for humanity. It has been true for countless generations.  Yet, we have unlearned many harmful practices in the past and we can unlearn this one.

If you are a woman experiencing violence in the home, let someone know.  There are many professionals, including your clergy person of choice, who will help connect you the support that you need.  Do not suffer alone.

This is not just a personal issue for the Rice family.  This is an issue that plagues humanity.

By God’s grace, may we change.

Until next time, 

Tom

 

Peace? In Today’s World?

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One of the most peaceful settings I encountered this year was right before Parkway’s Sunrise Service on Easter Sunday.  Lafreniere Park was beautiful, the weather was gorgeous, and lots of our members and many who were just in the park that morning, came to give thanks to God for the resurrection of Jesus and what it means to all of us.

What do we do though, when we gather in the name of the Prince of Peace, and yet encounter stories in our news (or maybe in our lives) which make us feel anything but peaceful?  What if instead of the above, we feel like this:

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I don’t think the answer is to close our eyes and hum, “I’m so Happy.”  As a matter of fact, after the crucifixion, the Bible tells us the world looked more like the second picture than the first. I suspect it was how God felt at the time. Being a follower of Jesus doesn’t mean burying our heads in the sand and just thinking “positive thoughts.”

There is injustice in the world.  There is evil in the world.  I do believe this needs to be addressed. I do think Christians need to be involved and not wall ourselves off from the world.  I don’t find pacifism or isolationism as the answer.  Nevertheless, we need to address problems, to the best of our ability, as Jesus did (who didn’t run away from trouble).  We need to remember that Christians are called to overcome evil, not with evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).  We need to look for lost sheep who might be called back before it is too late. And one of overall principles we must keep is that our way, Jesus’ way, was to transform rather than destroy.

Yet, we are still imperfect (and live in an imperfect world).  Sometimes we can’t transform.  We have to decide what the right thing to do is on such occasions for the collective good.  

But let us never just meld into the population and have our opinion non-distinct from the crowd.  Let us never forget who we are.  May we always be distinctive as followers of Jesus Christ.  And let us remember the end, which has already been determined, is not here yet and God is still God.

Peace to you in months with troubling news (be it far or near),

In Christ,

Tom

Who Made the Situation in Ferguson? We All Did.

There are two vital elements feeding the situation in Ferguson.  And we (all Americans) have fed it (over the last three decades in particular).  

First, the police in Ferguson, MO are taking a great deal of heat these days.  Personally, I don’t think it is exactly fair.  This is not to say that the Michael Brown situation doesn’t need to be thoroughly investigated, it does.  But all this press about our “militarized” police personnel around the country ignores the fact that our police officers face a far different situation than police personnel faced in days gone by.  It is a dangerous and different world.  And we have made it so.

I grew up in a very gun friendly culture.  No one could accuse the world I grew up in in the 1960s and 1970s as pro-gun control.  Most parents I knew had a gun in their home as a measure of self-defense. No one thought twice when, as a teenager, I went out target shooting, with other teens.  As early as college, I knew more than a few guys who had their own guns – to hunt with and to protect themselves if they lived in a cagey neighborhood.

But, starting in the 1990s, I began to hear the regular drumbeat, particularly in certain political circles, that massive gun-control was right around the corner.  The result has been a rush, not on gun control, but on the purchase of guns.  The gun industry has ratcheted it up too.  Ordinary citizens aren’t just buying handguns, shotguns, and deer rifles (the norm when I was young).  They are buying military grade weapons and any thought offered that ordinary citizens do not need such weapons is met with arguments that a totalitarian government is right around the corner and we “have the right” to buy anything, in any quantity, and take it anywhere without any restrictions whatsoever.  We are cranking out guns and weapons for purchase like popcorn.  And who has let this happen without challenge?  You and I have.  We now live in a world where people (not law enforcement personnel or security people but just some person no one knows) can walk into the grocery store, not just carrying a pistol, but a military grade weapon and we don’t challenge it as crazy.  Our police want and need military hardware because they can find themselves fighting someone like on a battlefield today.  With drug gangs, all armed with weapons made in the US, they might face a platoon of criminals with military weapons.  That’s one piece of the equation.

Second, we have been manufacturing more than just weaponry, we have been building prisons like they are going out of style.  Towns lobby for prisons like they used to for military bases. We imprison people more than any industrialized nation and at a rate higher than many of the nations we consider human rights pariahs in the world.  And who fills these prisons?  At a highly disproportionate rate, minorities do.  And it is easy for a place like Ferguson where minorities make up a majority of the city everywhere, except on the police force, for one situation to set off trouble like lightning hitting a dry forest.

If the response to an event seems disproportionate, on both sides, it is because there is much more at play than just this situation. 

I hope churches wake up and find their voice in this day and age.  It is not going to be easy to get to a better “normal.” We can build something better than more guns and prisons. We don’t have to accept our society the way it is.  And the change needs to start with us.

I still think Jesus points the way.

Pray for peace in Ferguson.  May God be with everyone, on both sides of the line up there.  And may God’s people be the ones who not only pray but work for peace and reconciliation.

What do you think?

Tom 

What Dreams May Come

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One cannot be struck, if you have followed Robin Williams’ film career, at a parallels between an aspect of one of his movies, What Dreams May Come, and his own death.  In the movie (spoilers), Williams portrays a man who lives through the tragedy of the accidental death his children.  He too later dies from a different accident.  But in this movie death is not an end to anything (as I believe it is in real life).

His character awakes in Heaven, which is initially drawn from his own dreams.  He finds family there (his children), friends, and all sorts of new people to meet. But his wife, however, is not there. This is not because she is still alive on earth.  It is because she could not cope with the loss of both children and husband and has committed suicide. Those who commit suicide do not end up in heaven – according to the film. They are in hell (also largely devised by their own imaginations).  Williams’ character heroically decides heaven can’t be heaven if his wife isn’t there – and he goes to get her.

In looking today at the reviews, of which there are many, on the Internet Movie Database – they vary between the great majority of folks loving the movie but about twenty percent giving it the worst rating ever.  Their reason?  Too sappy.  Too melodramatic.  And, I suspect, a target of the neo-atheists who seem to be everywhere on the internet these days poking at anything that has to do with faith.

My reaction to the movie was mixed but for completely different reasons.  It is visually stunning, I liked the characters, and the acting was super.  But theologically I had a big problem with heaven seeming to center on us.  God is not a big part of heaven.  The characters do not focus on God much at all really.  And that, beautifully portrayed or not, is a gaping whole when presenting the “Kingdom of God.”

By contrast, though, what I was intrigued by, was the movie’s implicit critique of hell.  How can we be called to love people in this life and then in the afterlife dismiss them?  How does God love creatures he has created and them send them to torment forever?  The film does underscore that people in hell choose to be there (and stay there by their own choice).  This was largely C.S. Lewis’ concept of hell.  Nevertheless, an underquoted verse in Scripture says that God wants everyone to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4).  Wouldn’t that mean that by there being some permanent hell that we can thwart God’s will?  That, in itself, would be most odd.

I suspect that hell, as presented in the movie, is largely what crushing depression feels like – not in the world to come, but in this world right now. It appears that is what Williams was dealing with.  It is tragic, not only for Williams, but for any human being to deal with this alone. Just as Williams’ character was willing to go into dark places out of love for his wife in the movie – there are lots of people today willing to take that journey to help people out a mental and spiritual dark hole they find themselves if they are willing to let someone in.  There is a way out.

I do believe our lives are a gift.  I think the last thing God wants is for us to take away the precious gift this life is.  An often unspoken aspect of suicide is that when someone we love or admire commits suicide it raises the threat of future suicides of those they have influenced. I always consider suicide like a mental and social deadly virus.  It is a permanent “solution” to problems that most often are not and it is a virus that is contagious. We have to be diligent in fighting this threat.  Who is to say what possible futures are closed with each suicide?

At the same time, I trust in God when it comes to what will come after this life. I think it is going to be even more stunning than we can dream of in our most wonderful moments of inspiration. God loves us.  And I trust in our Creator that what will be – should be.

If you find yourself in a dark place, as Williams must have yesterday, please find someone to talk it through with.  You are not meant to be alone when you find yourself in a dark place.

And know that you are loved by your creator, and very likely, by many many others.

Thank you God for Robin Williams – his wit, his talents, and the gifts he brought all of us. It is my hope that he will be a soul we all encounter in Your Kingdom.  And may our memory of him not exist in the dark place where it ended by in the great light he lived.

Until next time,

Tom

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