Thursday, December 29, 2011

Connect

A guy from my church invited me over to indulge in homemade pizza and Star Trek. When he opened the front door, I greeted him with my fingers spread in the Vulcan salute. I stopped short at saying, "Live long and prosper." I am not a Trekkie; I am a pastor, which means some days I watch Deep Space Nine in an effort to connect.

The episode ("By the Pale Moonlight") was handpicked; it boasted moral dilemmas concerning deception, warfare, and human sacrifice. The Commander (Sisko) broke laws and rationalized it, following the precedent of our forefathers Abraham, Moses, and David. All leaders have breaking points and selling prices. All but Him who hung cursed on a tree (Gal. 3:13).

When the episode continued, we had time to kill and calories to burn, so we moved the couch and enabled X-box Kinnect to scan our bloated bodies. For ten minutes we braved rapids and collected coins. Then we coughed and wheezed and enjoyed snapshots of us flying through the air like amateur cheerleaders. The captions read, "Jumping Buddies" and "Surfing Pals." We didn't upload them to Facebook for general viewing.

With more pizza to eat and enough time for another episode, we returned the sofa to Netflix position. We returned to the final frontier to learn another lesson about galactic leadership: Pride cometh before the fall. And the Valiant crew suffered a mighty fall. I ended our time with a cookie.

All in all, it was a productive day of ministry: Four X-box games; three pieces of pizza; two Deep Space Nine episodes; and one chocolate chip cookie. I love my job.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Emotional Health

I just scored lowly on an Emotional Healthy Inventory. Taken from Peter Scazzero's book, The Emotionally Healthy Church, the test revealed my low tolerance for "Embracing Grief and Loss." On the other principles of emotional health, I rated well. Grief and loss induce thumb-sucking.

Perhaps the greatest emotional loss came when my parents put my dog to sleep. Liz and I had returned to Worthington for a weekend break from college. News of my dog's condition was not good. Tumors covered her body. Lethargy slowed her movements. When she greeted me at the door, her tail wagged for the first time in a week and the last time of her life.

We took the dog to an emergency clinic. We knew the clinic was not going to remove the tumors. But it would take away the dog's pain. My father paced the hallway, choking back tears. My mother stared at the floor. When given the choice, we opted to hold our dog when the vet administered her shot. She did not flinch. We sobbed.

I remember my father wrapping his arms around us: my mother, Maggie, Liz and me. Only one other time had I seen my father so emotionally unraveled. He wailed. Our tears intensified.

Other experiences in my life have merited grief. Broken friendships and buried loved ones. Dashed hopes and unwarranted criticism. Personal failure and family suffering. And a lifetime as a Cleveland Browns fan. But nothing has rivaled the death of my dog and the decades of repressed sorrow that flooded from my father's eyes.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Memories

I started a writing project a month ago. I am recording vignettes of my early life. The project provides an opportunity to be disciplined in a craft and nostalgic about my childhood.  About my mom swearing. About my arm breaking. About my suspicious neighbor giving candy to kids. About old friends and rivals and anything that bubbles to the surface.

Some day I hope to read these stories to my children, even if they're partial and somewhat flawed. I likely exaggerate my accomplishments; I probably dramatize my trials; I certainly miss a quote or scenic detail. The essence of the event is captured, but the specifics are skewed. Time is like a carnival mirror, it has a way of distorting what is true.


On the other hand, as I've practiced the virtue of remembering, another fruit has resulted: accuracy. A few stories into my childhood, and I began to recall the pattern of our living room carpet, the layout of my neighbors backyard, the street name of my best friend's drive, and the pitch of our dog's bark. The more work I put into memory, the more I remembered.

I want to continue to develop this, for we live in a culture-of-the-moment. Here: the art of recall is fading. Now: the science of history is outdated. This would be bad news if news weren't ever-breaking. But it is. So is our culture. Ever-breaking. Always-broken.


But there is a solution to the hectic, amnesic, and broken culture-of-the-moment. Memory. Walter Brueggemann wrote, "Amnesia renders the human community lean without resources, unprotected from the past, and left with the need to invent and reinvent endlessly" (Word the Redescribes the World, 10). So I reminisce.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Truth Between Us

I agreed with an agnostic today. "The world is brutal. People can do good. We all make choices." I supported my arguments with Scripture and a smile. She shared with tears in her eyes and a tissue in her hand. She has a brain tumor, and good works cannot save her. Neither can they save the planet.

"The world is brutal."

Perhaps Eden was more wild than we give her credit for. She was a habitat for both the lying snake and Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. She required Adam's sickle and promised pain to Eve's labor. (Note: Birth pains increased in the curse of Genesis 3, which implies a moderate level of pain were a baby to emerge).

But life East of Eden is abundantly more cruel. Miscarriages and market crashes. Head colds and brain tumors. Warts and strokes. Shame. Abuse. Loneliness. And separation from God.

The world is brutal. We can blame bad parents and corrupt governments until the day melts to darkness. Its brutality, though, goes deeper. It goes farther. The ground is cursed and humankind caused it (see Genesis 3).

"People can do good."

Even in this God-cursed, sin-scarred world, little boys and quiet girls reflect the image of God. Hard-working women and industrious men reflect the image of God. Some on purpose. All by nature. But this innate capacity to mirror God in our thinking, relating, creating, and doing good does not save us (see Genesis 1:26-2:25). For we could never do enough good to feed the hungry, foster the orphans, end all wars, and earn God's favor. Our best good is filthy rags.

"We all make choices."

I wore jeans today instead of slacks. I selected a sweater instead of a tee-shirt. My parents took me to church when I was a child. Other parents starve their kids and take their medications. I prefer my coffee black. I ate Chinese food for lunch instead of hamburgers. My parents raised me to be financially responsible. Other parents abandon their kids or die in childbirth.

We all make choices, but no choice happens in isolation. Previous experiences affect us: the brutality of the world; the goodness of our family tree. Eve's choice affected Adam's affected mine.

In the end, there is one choice that matters: Do you love Jesus?

Not: Did you suffer?
Not: Did you do good?
Not: Did you wear khakis to Panda Express.

Do you love Jesus? As much truth as there might be between me and anyone else, this alone has eternal importance.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Contradictions

My preaching feels fraught with contradictions. I hear them come out of my mouth, so I screen the seats for reactions. Nothing. I expect people to rise from their seats, hands to wave through the air, someone to shout, "That doesn't make sense."

To date, interruptions have been minimal. One lady fainted during a worship service. One couple left for a roller derby bout. Two weeks ago a baby doll uttered a mechanical cry. But no one has argued against my discrepancies.

Or, perhaps, the variances are not mine; they belong to the Bible.

Before I get the heresy millstone hung around my neck, I admit what I am talking about is apparent contradictions--what  theologians call "already/not-yet" tensions, which result whenever heavenly ideals rub against earthly realities. The Bible is full of them.

The OT prophets spoke in (apparent) contradictions: You are a royal priesthood; you are a stiff-necked people. I will never leave you; the glory of the Lord departed. Jesus spoke in contradictions: The Kingdom of God is upon you. Paul spoke in contradictions: To the saints in Corinth..."

I speak in (apparent) contradictions:
I tell people the world won't be right until Jesus returns; then I tell them to make it a better place.
I encourage people to reject the world and be holy; then I tell them to be engaged and on mission.
I rail against legalistic practices; then I tell people to read the Bible daily and pray without ceasing.
I remind people God doesn't need our money; then I pass the offering plate.

The list goes on. Every preacher could add his own. I am waiting for the day someone rises from her seat, waves her hand through the air, and shouts, "That doesn't make sense." At least I'll know she was listening.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Rio

I wanted to shake my tail feathers but I was sitting in church. While the dance policy is not in writing, it's understood that dancing is prohibited. That is, unless you're young enough to miss all the innuendos in the movie Rio.


The film is a visually stimulating tale about birds in love, about overcoming fears, about fighting for friends, and, at the basest level, about procreation. The flashing colors, fighting monkeys, and festive music mask the exotic undertones. Lionel Richie brings them to the fore.

Last night our church consumed Rio and popcorn. My wife and children had seen it, but I'd only caught the tale end. (Sorry for that). I was a little nervous, however, because I'd read the review on Plugged In Online, Focus on the Family's movie review extension. The website does a good job of communicating positives and negatives elements of a film. They provide specific details to support their critique.

Reading their review of Rio had me wondering if I had authorized cartoon pornography as an outreach event. I was a mess. I had sent postcards around to fifty families to spoil their minds with the debauchery of Brazilian birds! Among its list of vices was cross-dressing, rap music, two-piece bathing suits, and dancing. They even referenced Lionel Richie!

Then I watched the movie. It was fun, noble, and did not live up to the warnings waged by Christian movie reviews. We can make things sound worse than they are.