Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Christmas Cancer

It's back. The cancer returns every time this year. Some call it discontentment. Others call it snow. I call it Advent Season--the time of year when every retailer and non-profit begs for your money. Every friend and coworker petitions for your time. When our joys and longings should fix their gaze on the Christ Child, we're busy checking calendars, advertisments, and end-of-the-year donation boxes. 'Tis the season.

I need not prolong my rant. Others have chronicled how we've taken Christ out of Christmas and allowed the holiday to metastasize into a greedy, gloomy, malignant month. I'm not immune. My diet of ginger cookies, Lightening Deals, and mixed nuts is no different than the average American. My giving percentage (toot, toot) is probably better. It is noted, Christians (and religious people), on average, give more than non-Christians/religious (3% to 1.5% is the statistic I've heard).

But a generous tax-deductible roll does not immunize my lust for the latest gadget or my children from requesting American Girl doll accoutrements. In fact, they've each written a letter to Santa in the past week. I wrote mine a month ago. Greed is a genetic disease.

Allegedly, generosity is the antidote. Anyone who has braved a church or cathedral during Advent Season knows that it is better to give than receive. Jesus said so: verily, verily. Sadly, when we compress our generosity into one merry month, it feels forced, manufactured, and burdensome. Giving goes good with every season. When we distribute our charity and gift-giving throughout the year, the stench of obligation does not taint the offering. I'm convinced this is why people burn candles and cut down fir trees for Christmas: to mask the odor with artificial vanilla and actual balsam.

The cancer will return again next year. I offer no solutions; I make no resolutions. I'm just going to try and enjoy it. The greed and the snow cannot kill my joy. It's kept alive by Jesus.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Five Guys, Burgers, and Burdens

The answer the perennial question, "How many thirty-something pastors can fit into a Holiday Inn room?" is five. I discovered this while visiting Baltimore last week for the national ETS Conference. Every few years I attend the event with colleagues. We share an Alma mater, small church ministry experience, and an appetite for dicey, theological issues. Needless to say, we're a pretty wild bunch.

The topic for the week centered on Inerrancy and the Word of God. I wanted to hear what scholars had to say about the theme, and if they could explain to me why the NT authors didn't quote the OT authors verbatim; or if my appreciation for The Message in any way hurt my credibility as a pastor. (They did; it doesn't.) I took copious notes, live Tweeted twice, and purchased fifteen books to add to my shelves. (The hefty discount on printed material is worth the price of admission.)

Transparently, the most important aspect of the trip was the opportunity to share burgers, beds, and ministry burdens with other pastors. We divided and conquered for the parallel sessions, but reconvened each day to eat and sleep. In our conversations, we critiqued the papers we read, swapped stories about "evangelical celebrities" we greeted, and waxed eloquently on the oral culture of the Bible we study.

And when that three minutes of conversation ended, we came to issues of the heart--family, ambition, finances, and regrets. One pastor grieved a family that just left his church. One pastor disclosed a looming legal issue. One pastor lamented the socioeconomic woes facing his church. One pastor confessed his overwhelming intensity. One pastor expressed concern for a lack of evangelism in his church and personal life.

Our disclosure was less a request for counsel, than a plea for prayer. So we did. Our final night in the Holiday Inn, we interceded for one another. The unity of the Spirit was palpable. Praying did not solve all our problems, but it did increase our intimacy...which is saying a lot, because there were five of us in a room.

Burdens bind men together. We should share them more often.

Monday, November 4, 2013

My Mole Removal - A Preventative Measure

I did not chose baldness. It interrupted my hairline -- a small dimple on a healthy crop. These sorts of things do not go away. Once a hairline starts to backpedal, it does not reverse. Once a bald spot emerges, it only expands. I looked in the mirror and saw the inevitable. I was aging. Vanity gave me a noogey and left a mark.

So I chose to hasten the process. I bought a pair of Conair clippers and shaved my crown. That was the day Sharon reared her big, fat, ugly head. She was a mole of such gargantuan proportions that I named her.

Five years have passed, and Sharon and I have become close companions. Weekly we meet in the bathroom for a rendezvous with the clippers. She screams as the razor-sharp teeth come close. A few times they've bitten her. She bleeds. And when I'm done with my grooming, Sharon whispers in my right ear, "I'm still here. Bigger than ever."

Tomorrow at 11:20 a.m. I'm putting Sharon to rest. The time has come.
She's not cancerous, not technically. She's a mere, aesthetic blemish on my otherwise handsome head. But her faceless, naked presence reminds me of a different kind of cancer: My pride. The desire to cover up flaws, appear glossy, and make believe that I will live forever haunts the typical American. Wrinkle creams, Viagra pills, hair dyes, and gluten-free diets are marketed as elixirs from the Fountain of Youth.

These are lies, of course. The Bible depicts a single line to eternity, and it has more to do with the Rose of Sharon, than a Mole named Sharon. I have to remember that Jesus finds me lovely, even when I can always find something wrong with my face.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A Note to Self

Dear Self,

Some days will discourage you. Personal goals and productivity will rush out the door like fire drill sergeants. Energy and enthusiasm will ebb, not flow. Distractions will distract and critics will criticize. They'll buffet your sense of control and good intention.

You might be playing the part of husband or dad, pastor or peer, child of God or recovering egoist. Discouragement crouches at every door.

On days like this you might want to give up and move away. That cabin in the woods will whisper to you. That green grass will lure you to another side. That new start will promise to revive you.

Don't buy it. Don't cash out. Don't move on.

You've had those days. They've come and gone. Frustrations always abated. Anxieties  always dwindled. Ambition always rebounded. Personal experience has borne witness: New mercies come in the morning.

Believe me, Self.

More importantly, believe God's Word. He said it first: Tomorrow will take care of itself; and God will take you, Self.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Sloppy, Good Service

I found two rotting bananas on a tray in our church auditorium. They were leftovers from Sunday's Fellowship Time. Ellie had been walking around offering fruit and donuts to people in our congregation. Every week she assumes the role of server. She carries trays of salty and sweet snacks to folks as they mingle in hallways and around their chairs. Week after week, Ellie delivers the goods.

Other kids have played the role of server, but none with the consistency and charm that Ellie radiates.  I have a hard time turning down the cherubic six-year old. Her large brown eyes take the teardrop shape of a Precious Moments sketch, and she asks, "You want some?" I grab a donut hole.

Minutes later she returns with a new supply. "You want some?" I snatch a plate of pretzel sticks.

She comes by three more times before the music starts. "You want some?" Apple slices. Chex Mix. Off-brand Oreo cookies. She cannot be denied. (I should have her collect the offering.)

Ellie and her sister Annie at Leesburg Fall Festival.

Ellie is effervescent as she serves, but not flawless. On more than one occasion, I've witnessed her mishandle the tray. Edibles plummet to the floor. And without a moment's hesitation, she snatches them up, repositions them on the tray, and targets the next customer, as if nothing ever happened.

"You want some?"

This is sloppy, good service at our church. We allow kids like Ellie to help at  an early age. We show grace and practice the two-second rule. We eat things we don't want in the name of Jesus. And every so often, we have leftover bananas.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Ode to Zelda the Wondercat

Zelda didn’t come home after the most recent rain storm. Two days passed before we took notice. After three days, we pronounced her dead. Her departure comes as no surprise.

For the past few years Zelda the Wondercat fought routine seizures, exercised poor grooming habits, and showed signs of savagery. No amount of food and water satisfied her. Litter box instinct abandoned her. And her behavior at doorways betrayed a feline version of dementia: She never seemed certain if she wanted to be inside or outdoors. Twenty times a day: in she came/out she went/in she came/out she went.

And then the cycle stopped. After twelve years, seven homes, and three states, her quiet death in some uncertain shrub, window well, or alley feels anticlimactic and, perhaps, a bit unjust. Although, I suppose her incessant meowing and late burst of affection was Zelda’s way of telling us she was nigh on life number nine. She never did learn English.

We searched our basement, garage, and neighbors bushes for her body, but to no avail. She left nothing to bury. All we are left with is a brand new container of litter and memories. When we finally broke the news to our children, Claire did not miss a beat. "That means I can get a lizard." We nixed that idea. A little respect for the dead is a learned behavior.

Godspeed, Zelda the Wondercat. May God take you where the fleas don't bite and you seize no more.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Hacksaws and Sermon Preparation

On Sunday morning I cut open twelve tennis balls with a hacksaw. I had to stop at Walmart on the way to the church building to purchase said tennis balls. I had to travel back and forth to my father-in-law's home to retrieve the wallet I left on the kitchen table to purchase said tennis balls. In total, I dedicated forty-five minutes to preparing a craft for my wife's Sunday School class instead of preparing for the sermon. (My offer.)

This is a typical Sunday morning for a disorganized pastor of a small church. If there was such thing as a perfect routine to prepare for preaching, I don't have one. The content is finished by Thursday night; its execution on Sunday morning is a blur.

Sometimes I drive through McDonald's for coffee. Other times I stop at Walmart for donuts, craft supplies or object lessons. When I arrive to the church I turn on some lamps in my office, brew a pot of coffee (if I've not gone to McD's), print my notes, visit the bathroom several times, declutter the common areas, upload the PowerPoint, send reminders via text, and rush to distribute Sunday School lessons and a flow of worship before the sound guys and worship band arrives. 

I always intend to quiet my heart and pray more than I do. I always expect to reserve time for one more read-through of the passage. I always plan on meditating on my major points longer than I do. I always hope to be focused, orderly, and stationed with a grin on my face at the front door to greet the first volunteer who walks in. But more often than not, my face is locked into the computer, hammering out last minute notes, or else I'm blazing through the hallways on a mission to locate my misplaced Bible.

I suppose I could make better use of my time on Thursdays to insure all the details for Sunday morning are in place. Perhaps I wouldn't feel so hectic. Perhaps it would result in greater clarity during my messages. Perhaps I could create a more welcoming environment if I weren't crouched on the floor wielding a hacksaw as people walked in.

Then again, there is something respectable about a pastor who prepares with hacksaw. He keeps you guessing. Predictability is overrated.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Christianity Is Not a Crutch

If Christianity is a crutch, than atheism is a wheelchair. I've never liked the crutch argument; it's always carried the punch of a "Straw Man" to me. Christian faith is not for the faint-of-heart or short-of-breath. Only those who are willing to walk tightropes, dig graves, and turn cheeks are worthy of the call.

As I understand it, the argument goes like this: Faith is for those who are not strong enough to  bear their own pain. Belief in God helps people make sense of loss, grief, and tragedy. People of faith demand meaning where there is none, which helps them persevere.

In other words, it shows greater strength to view suffering as natural, random, and morally neutral. To declare life as a bunch of happy accidents and chemical reactions takes true grit.

I disagree.

Faith makes several bold assertions. "There are no happy accidents. We are more than chemical reactions. We are intelligently designed creatures by an infinitely wise God, who has not left His world alone, but actively engages with human affairs."

Such claims require Christians to interpret life through a cipher of divine purpose. God has His reasons for flash floods and prostate cancer and unanswered prayers and domestic violence. Of course, these reasons are not written in neon (or Scripture, necessarily) for public viewing. Any Christian who claims inside information on why God permitted tornadoes in Joplin or armed lunatics in Navy Shipyards, has turned his crutch into a bludgeoning tool.

What a Christian can claim with confidence is that God has built cause and effect into his creation. Hence natural consequences abound. Diabetes isn't the result of a malevolent God, but malnutrition. Criminal activity isn't prompted by a distant God, but by fatherless children. I oversimplify to stress one side of the argument.

I also must acknowledge that God permits these bad things to happen. In some cases, He even prescribes them. A recent sermon series through the book of Habakkuk has made that evident. Even before Habakkuk, God prescribed genocide for Canaanites, flood waters for Noah's neighbors, and boils for Job. After Habakkuk, he prescribed death by crucifixion for Jesus.

Nevertheless, these examples are anecdotal. The mass extinction of Hittites does not explain the Killing Fields. (That was Pol Pot's neurotic evil). Job's skin disease does not explain my grandmother's cancer. (That was cigarette's deadly carcinogens.) The Great Flood (Gen. 6) does not explain the recent destruction in Colorado. (That was an accident of global warming and residential zoning.)

The thinking Christian must constantly walk the tightrope, wondering if the tragedy of the day is an act of God or law of nature. She must also recognize these ideas may overlap. So the crutch becomes their balancing pole.

We must respect that God has a reason, even if He does not tell. We must fight the urge to import theological meaning to  natural disaster, even if we have biblical precedent. We must look for a bigger picture, even if momentary pain blinds our eyes. We must cling to the hope of heaven, even if archeologists and telescopes have uncovered no such place. We must swallow our pat answers in the face of another one's pain, even if we believe God has a greater good in mind.

If it is a crippled psyche that searches for meaning in the face of tragedy, I am happy to limp on a line. For as long as I limp, I am alive.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Discipleship meets Video Games in Man UP 2.0

My friend Micah doesn't just play Angry Birds, he dominates. He will not proceed to the next stage until he achieves three stars and a high score. To call him compulsive would be an understatement: perfectionist hits the spot.

Other men from my church play Minecraft, Modern Warfare, Halo, Ticket to Ride, Bejeweled, Free Flow, Animal Farm, and twenty varieties of virtual sports. My guilty pleasure is the old-fashioned crossword puzzle and the occasional bout of Ninja Fruit. We live to play. We love the points. We fight to conquer. We level up.

Were the Christian life as voluntary, satisfying, and productive as video games, modern men would be spiritual tzars. Most of us, however, are still reaching for the teat (Hebrews 5:11-14) and coasting on the memory of Sunday school lessons or Bible college crib sheets. Our discipleship level has not risen beyond novice.

I can't figure out if the problem today is with Christian men or the church we've designed for them. (Probably both.) The Sunday service certainly does not rival the graphics or story line of the lastest Xbox release.* Nor does the hour of interaction comes close to the collaboration, collective movement, and partnership required of any Mass Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG). The gaming world has drawn something out of man--evident in the time, money, and emotion we pour into it--the church can learn something from.**

I can hear these lessons as bullet points.
  • Compared to virtual reality, church services are boring. We need to get more creative.
  • Compared to virtual reality, church relationships are isolated. We need to get more connected.
  • Compared to virtual reality, church ministry feels unproductive. We need to make more impact.
  • Compared to virtual reality, church growth is slow. We need better marks of progress.
So how do we engage our men? Again, bullet points:

  • Call them out -- we need to Man UP!
  • Create engaging environments -- late night battle zones; early morning boat rides
  • Celebrate growth and hold men accountable -- arbitrary awards and experience points for accomplishing spiritual tasks
Other churches have started Fight Clubs. This Friday we're launching Man UP 2.0.
Perhaps all of these efforts will prove unfaithful to the notion of "secret rewards" in the Sermon on the Mount. I fear misleading our men in my personal effort to be relevant.

The greater fear, though, is allowing our men to continue going the way of the game. Virtual worlds and Angry Birds will take captive our discretionary time. No energy, appetite, or devotion will remain for spiritual community and personal growth.

I cannot accept this fate. Game on.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Ten Things I Feel Guilty about

On a recent trip to South Bend, my wife and I began to confess all the things we feel guilty about. I'm not sure what prompted the conversation, other than guilt, but I found the entire experience to be cathartic. I've thought regularly of this subject in the days since, because I've come to realize the powerful role guilt plays in our lives.

Before jumping into my list, I'll add a reflection from author Andy Stanley on the topic. He associated guilt with indebtedness. "I owe you," guilt declares, over and over. These debts compile emotional interest, and lead us to avoid our many lenders. When I verbalized some of these guilt issues, however, I found that others were not to blame.

I chose my own guilt, and for that I feel ashamed: I owe myself better treatment than that!

  1. Feeling too much guilt: It's neither fair to myself or to others to assume we have a debt/lender relationship. Certainly relationships require some give-and-take, but the keeping a record of wrongs or advances, does not reflect biblical love (1 Cor. 13).
  2. Not visiting Great Grandma Anna (GGA): Recently, GGA was moved into a rehabilitation unit. For the past few years she lacked energy and felt poorly. She cannot explain her slow recovery, but I attribute it to life in the mid-eighties. We didn't visit her much before her admission to Grace Village, but I've not visited her at all since then. A benign source of guilt has turned sour.
  3. Not flossing my kids' teeth (or having them floss): I'm pleased when the girls brush their teeth at the end of the day. When they add a morning brush to their routine, I'm thrilled. Flossing might set me over the edge. However, after my eldest daughter had a cavity filled, I started to feel bad about how we enforce oral hygiene.
  4. Rust stains on my car: The general state of both our cars is poor. Crayons, papers, and fast food wrappers cover the floors, streaks mark the windows, and rust has slowly consumed the edges of its exterior. I'm sure I could research how to get rid of the rust and protect it from future wear. Usually, I don't fret about it. But when I pull into my parents' driveway or notice someone I know driving behind us, the feelings of guilt arise.
  5. All the phone calls, texts messages, encouragement notes, and thank you cards I never sent: Half of the people who attended my and Liz's wedding twelve years ago are still waiting for a Thank You card from us.
  6. Abandoned goals: I have many: marathon training; book writing; learning archery, the banjo, and how to fix a leaky pipe; developing a stand up comedy routine; praying. My ambition is inversely related to my daughters' ages. The older they get, the less drive I have. By the time they're twenty, I may be dead.
  7. Not saving money: I could probably increase my giving, too, but my savings patterns have already made the 62-year old version of myself cringe. That Tim is planning to work until he's seventy-two. Fortunately for him, I will have left much to be finished by him.
  8. Eating: I can't pass up on a dessert or side-dish that someone made but no one else is eating. I hate for a cook to feel slighted.
  9. Waste, excess, and consumption: When I hear our faucet drip; or I see food scraps on my kids' plates; or I add up the monthly expenses of our cat and dog; or run to the store for batteries, vitamins, and Ibuprofen, I can't help but think that our level of gratitude does not come anywhere close to our access to goods. We owe God more thanks. We owe other nations more giving.
  10. That pesky thing called sin: I know there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1), but I cannot help thinking I owe him. I'm eternally indebted.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Fireworks and Trash Cans

I watched the fireworks with my own two eyes. The crowds of people around me watched them through two-inch screens. iPhones and Galaxies lit up faces as explosions ignited the sky. Like my fellow patriots, I wanted a record of my 4th of July experience. I wanted a memory.

I pulled out my phone and snapped a few stills. Promptly, I returned my phone to my pocket. I prefer gazing at the heavens, not glass.

The fireworks display reached its crescendo. The Grand Finale lasted a minute, flashing and booming and leaving a trail of smoke. We, the people of the United States (and Winona Lake), set down our phones, clapped our hands, and rushed to our cars to beat traffic.

As Liz and I began our commute to her father's house, a few questions occupied my mind.
  • Why do Americans love to blow things up?
  • What do we do with so many video clips and photographs of fireworks?
  • Why do feel the need to record and micro-document our entire lives?
The answers came quickly. 
  • Americans blast things because we're free and brave. Nothing says independence like TNT.
  • My brother-in-law sent his pictures to his sister who lives in New York. Apparently the Big Apple's display is no rival to Winona Lake's. The rest of us find ways to post, share, pin, and form digital community with our images. We shoot to share. Eventually we delete.
  • The lure to micro-document our lives is driven by same impulse the devil tapped when he tempted Jesus to jump from the temple. "Throw yourself before the crowds. Let then angels catch you. Become a spectacle. Everyone will love you." Of course, Jesus turned the devil down. The Son of God was more intent on loving everyone than receiving their momentary affections. He came to give, not receive. His life was a ransom, not a self-promoting news feed.
I'd be unfair if I didn't clarify: Not all social media is self-promotion. Not every shared photo is vain glory. Many of us snap pictures to send to friends and relatives. Those instances can create meaningful connections. 

But a ten minute clip of fireworks over the lake is destined for the trash can.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Eleven Examples of My Ego (minus 1)

"Can I ask you a question?" a fellow pastor asked me. "I know you don't do Facebook, but you're on Twitter and all the other social media. But by now, is it simply a matter of pride?"

"No," I answered quickly. I made a side remark about fantasy football, and then paused to consider the question. Did pride keep me from Facebook?

What an ironic question. If we are honest, ego is the driving force of the social media empire. Pride drives us all to Facebook. And pride keeps me off. Some day this empire will crumble; pride always falls. Sadly, my life has no shortage of egotism. Below are eleven examples:

  1. This blog: My posts are often responses to something I observe, think, or overhear. In the response I may overstate my reaction or exaggerate the observation to spin a more compelling narrative. My topics ramble. My target audience roams.Nevertheless, I publish weekly because I think I have something good to say, or at least a good way to say something.
  2. Public Speaking Pro: I read Aristotle's book Rhetoric, and I understand the public speaker's trifecta: Ethos, Logos, and Pathos. I am a stranger to none. I can punch a line, provoke a thought, and garner trust with a smile. While I'm a few hours short of Outlier (10,000), another decade of homilies is sure to earn me stage time at Catalyst.
  3. People-skills: I can't handle power tools or computer programs, but I can hold a conversation. Here's my favorite ice-breaker: "If you could be any county fair food, what would you be?"
  4. Psychoanalysis: After several cycles through the TV series The Wonder Years, I've become an expert on interpersonal problems. They all stem from bad relationships between children and their fathers. Problem: Struggling in your marriage. Question: What was your relationship with your father like? Problem: Can't keep a job. Question: What was your relationship to your father like? Problem: Halitosis. Question: What was your relationship with your father like?
  5. Dad of the Year: Speaking of fathers, I happen to be a pretty good one. I read to my kids and take them parks. I involve them in ministry and encourage their uniqueness. I pray for their future husband and have purchased a compound bow I can sling around my should when they bring potential boyfriends over.
  6. Model Husband: When I say "model husband," I'm not talking about my body (although that's the next point); rather, I pride myself in the amount of quality time I spend with my wife. Furthermore, I speak to the other four love languages she is so fluent in -- words of encouragement, acts of service, gifts, and touch. Indeed, Liz makes it easy by being so lovable.
  7. Fuel Points: Nike+ has inspired a resurgence in my running career. I pine for the automated voice and feedback loops telling me how fast and how far I ran. The graphical comparisons with others in the Nike+ Community double my pride: my average mile trounces other men my age. My calf muscles are beginning to look chiseled again.
  8. Self-discipline: In college I wrestled with being duty-driven. Love compelled me to do little; duty held me steady. School performance: duty-driven. Spiritual performance: duty-driven. Relationships: duty-driven. After some counseling and a few years of post-collegiate rehab, I realized duty could morph into self-discipline--a fading quality in the Instant Age. I'm a regimented reader, regular writer, routine runner, and avid advocate for alliteration. I've been touting my self-discipline horn ever since.
  9. Shiny, bald head: I chose baldness as a matter of vanity. One summer day after a sweltering scooter ride, I removed my helmet and noted something horrible. My hair had been matted in just the wrong way to expose a patch near the front where baldness had taken my roots. Literally, it took them and removed them and left a gaping whole dead center. I tried sculpting my hair to cover the hole, but it remained. Every time I looked in the mirror, I stared directly at it. I would never be able to hide it. A few days later, I did the only sensible thing a twenty-nine year old man would do: I owned my baldness. I shaved my head.
  10. Bible awareness: One time I lay on my bed and asked Liz to pick a random chapter from the New Testament. I proceeded to tell her details from the chapter. My success rate exceeded ninety-five percent. My recall for Bibles and books (and actors' names) is a source of pride. I lament the day my eyes go bad or memory diminishes.
  11. Now back to social media: I tweet, therefore I am. I Instagram, therefore I was. I YouTube, therefore, I will become...famous. Social MEdia is the great MEgaphone for ME. The lure of fame and the hope of connection underscore its success. Nonetheless, most people are lonely and disconnected. I am no stranger to this fact. I'm playing the game like everyone else. I've simply chosen to drop the "social" aspect from the media: I use it to broadcast, not network. Twitter, YouTube, and Blogger are platforms that push my message and promote my thoughts. Pure pride says: "My digital voice is worth your time." If I want to be social, I'll meet you at a coffee shop, write you a note, send you a text, join you for a small group discussion, or sit with you at a bonfire. Pride does not keep me from Facebook, but drives me to every other platform.
I could go on and on about my pride. Examples abound. I won't bore you, though. I have too much self-respect for that.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Literacy Gang Fights Summer-Setback in the Name of Jesus

My wife and I read to our children regularly. They have recently begun to read to us. Their voices convey the magic of early literacy. For children without books or an adult to read to them, I feel great pity. I've often wanted to counter this problem.

I first encountered the concept of a literacy gap when working in a Denver public high school. I grew up in the suburbs. Minorities were few and mostly Asian. Their school performance put mine to shame.

The kids at George Washington High School lived a different story. Many of them rode the bus an hour to attend their school of choice. Many associated with gangs--solid red tees and over-sized blues tainted the hallways. The White and Asian students secured their own wing of the school in the International Baccalaureate program. The remaining students pushed and shoved and meandered through the rest of the building. Fights broke out regularly. Class participation happened on occasion.

Perhaps my memory has dramatized the sights and sounds of inner city education. Nonetheless, I perfectly recall the impoverished sense of literacy and grammar. The epidemic has spread to Warsaw, Indiana.

Sociologists, politicians, and educators alike have tried finding ways to eliminate the achievement gap. Individualized education plans, full-day kindergarten, block scheduling, tutors, mentors, and after-school programing top the list.

But these solutions don't account for one major issue: summer break. For the student who comes from a home where reading is not valued, literacy will take last place to soccer camps, cartoons, and water play. This phenomenon has been deemed the "summer-setback theory."

The theory is straight-forward: Gains made in reading during the school year fade during the summer. Like any muscle suffering atrophy, the mental muscle grows from repeated practice. Daily reading groups help students learn to read; two months of video games, camping trips, daytime TV, and bike rides do not.

The problem continued to gnaw at me. I began to envision myself riding a golf cart through a nearby trailer park. I'd fill the vehicle with books, bags of candy, and a giant blanket to sprawl out on. I'd announce my visits with a PA system and ditty that put the ice cream truck's to shame. I'd ask other adults from my church to go with me. We'd be a band of readers: the Literacy Gang.

Perhaps my imagination exaggerated the sights and sounds of a mobile library ministry. Nonetheless, the Literacy Gang took flight today. Fifteen kids, twenty-five books, and one hundred Tootsie Rolls later, I believe we're on to something. A simple ministry is born.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Gleanings from My Trip to Urban Hope (Philly)

Eleven people crammed into a twelve-passenger van. We were under strict orders to shower and wear clean shoes. Nothing puts a damper on a road trip like foot and body odor. We left shortly after six AM on a Friday. Desintation: Urban Hope (UH) Training Center and Church in Philadelphia.

UH comprises a full block in the Kensington neighborhood of North Philadelphia. It is a city set on a hill. We intended to bask in their light.

Three married couples, two teens, and three college-aged students took their seats. We smelled fresh, looked forward, and set out to have God teach us something about His mission and compassion. We were not disappointed.

The majority of residents surrounding UH are Puerto Rican. Drug dealers stand on the corners next to men washing cars and kids playing in the spray of fire hydrants. Latin beats scream from passing cars; trash dances on the sidewalks as people walk by.  The need for Jesus is palpable.

Our team arrived on Friday night, in time to participate in the outreach program for teenagers (R.O.C.K.). Saturday 's events included prayer walks, service projects, a visit to little Cambodia, and feeding the homeless at Love Park. On Sunday we worshiped with the church family before beginning our long return trip.

All in all, the trip was memorable, enjoyable, and stretching. Like any ministry experience, it opened my eyes to needs beyond my typical range of vision and deepened my connected to my teammates.

In addition, several unlikely gleanings from Philly stand out. 
I like Christian rap. The small sampling of Lecrae and Toby Mac I heard on the trip led me to bob my head and pump my fist. But the KB's song "Church Clap" may have started a revolution, not only for me, but for our entire church.

Matching shirts are a blessing and a curse. For our prayer walk, the UH staff sent us out in matching green tee-shirts. If our pasty skin was not conspicuous enough, the clans of four clad in bright green sent off a signal: Prayer is coming. The first guy to see us headed in his direction, jumped from his stood, darted in his door, and turned the lock before we could say hello. The neighbors new the drill. It's why a guy named Josh hid his join and a kid named Christian invited into his home to pray for his cancer.
Water Ice tastes so good. Philly's homegrown product is a cross between Italian ice and sorbet. It comes in a variety of flavors--pina colada, lime, lemon, blueberry, and cherry, to name a few. And anyone with a cooler, chain, and padlock can sell it from her front porch. A kid named Nasir brought me to the porch where he purchases his Water Ice for fifty cents. I gladly indulged.

Not everyone has heard of Jesus. The guys on Ella Street had. Of course, their information didn't line up with Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. They told me Jesus smoked pot. They must've been reading the Gnostic gospels. Sadder yet, when our team visited a Buddhist Temple in little Cambodia, the lady who gave us a crash course on how to pray to Buddah, admitted she had never heard of Jesus Christ. Twenty years in the US had not afforded her a single mention of the name above all names.

Church people and services need to loosen up. The kids ran circles in the basement before the service began. One lady drank a Mountain Dew and smoked a cigarette on the street before the opening song. Nothing started on time. One song switched from English to Spanish mid-chorus. Seven people took the microphone at various points to lead various elements. More than ten others walked up front to request prayer--for incarcerated family members, job needs, health needs, salvation needs. Toward the end of the morning, one girl committed her life to following Jesus. Neat and orderly worship services do not always produce life change.

Nicknames are crazy good. One of our team members was a quiet, college student. I personally invited him to join us a few months ago. He'd already returned home for the summer, but seemed eager to go with us to Philly. He started with the weakest connection to the rest of our team. Then he received his nickname. K-J-C. (The 'C' is drawn out). Twelve hours in a van and a few nasty dunks on basketball court brought him into the fold.

We never fully grow up. The amount of farting, dancing, teasing, and wrestling that took place on our trip underscore the fact that we never really grow up. Some of us less than others. The prime example of this child-likeness came at Love Park. After feeding and praying with several homeless people, we approached the fountain at the center of the park. The background of illuminated buildings created a magnetic glow to the water. It drew two of our team members in. Followed by six others. Within minutes, they were sopping wet and trying to dunk one another.

There is no Plan B. God uses people to reach the lost. It begins with prayer and moves to the streets. There is no perfect sales pitch for Jesus. Many of the lives that have been transformed in Philly were the spoils of weeks, months, and years of conversation. The decision to follow Him takes time when people realize what repentance truly means. Some folks don't want to or know how to turn from their misery, suffering, or selfish ways. But when Christ-followers model the Christian life and speak about it freely, it gives unbelievers a picture of God's love and patience.

White boards are good for praying. We wrote the name of every person we met on a white board. It quickly filled up. This is how they pray for people at UH. Learn a name. Pray for the person until they decide to follow Jesus. Time and time again, the staff encouraged us to pray for people in our sphere of influence. We were not expected to go home and pray for twenty names from Philly, but to find twenty names from Leesburg, Warsaw, and Winona Lake. Pray for my neighbors. Pray on my streets.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Becoming Awesome

Product DetailsI bought a self-help book. Start is the title. John Acuff is the author. He wrote it with wit, a wry grin behind every key stroke.

The dust jacket of Start tells me to "Punch Fear in the Face. Escape Average. Do Work that Matters." I'm a pastor: there's nothing average about my daily diet of coffee talks, mass emails, grammatical outlines, and youth group grocery stops.

But to call myself awesome is a stretch.

My blog readership remains low. My self-promotion leveled out in high school. My batting average in D-League church softball continues to decline. My only stupid human trick is the ability to stick out my stomach so that I look pregnant.

Awesome alludes me.

My hope, however, is that a focused read of John Acuff's book will begin the transformation. More readers, better self-promotion, increased batting average, and the ability to juggle flaming torches while reciting the alphabet backwards. Hebrew alphabet, that is.

The good news is this: Change does not happen over night (pg. 28). In fact, it starts in the morning. At 5:30. My alarm goes off. I seize the day.

Awesome begins with an incredibly average routine: Bible reading and prayer; typing and jogging; making the coffee and walking the dog; rousing my children and kissing my wife. If I can set a good tone for my home before leaving for the day, I feel like I'm ascending the path of awesome.

Awesome husband and father may not result in a pay raise or keynote speaker slot at the National Awesome Conference in Atlanta, GA, but it pleases God, honors my family, and instructs my church. That's worth losing a little of sleep over.

Monday, May 20, 2013

I Might Be the Antichrist

I was having a crisis of faith. Most of us do—it’s not entirely novel. Either we question the fact of God or the sincerity of our belief. We don’t want to be fools and hypocrites. My crisis of faith, however, was different: I had reason to believe I was the antichrist.

I aced Bible college, stomped my seminary colleagues, and collected more honors than livestock at the county fair. Success fed my spiritual ambition. I wanted to build a mega-church, run for office, end war, alleviate poverty, cure cancer, star in a reality show, and walk on water. These were lofty goals, but in my mind, I had the spiritual charisma to achieve them.

I had grown bold, smart, strong, and which fed my antichrist inklings. The pieces seemed to fit.

What would the folks in my church think? I have a few announcements this morning. The Pierced Hands ministry will meet this afternoon. The Swollen Knees prayer meeting on Tuesday is moved to seven o’clock. And I am the antichrist. There might be a mass exodus, but, more likely, I predict an influx in our weekly attendance. Fanatics always draw a crowd. My better judgment told me that subtlety was a more effective strategy.

As I pastor, I manufactured smiles. Charm was my predominant quality. I laced sermons with humor and conversation with wit. I could get kids to giggle and old ladies to snort. Perhaps this steered from the typical caricature of the antichrist—the Russian tyrant, the Middle Eastern terrorist, the US president—but I was convinced the affable evangelical was a more likely candidate.

Subtlety is the mark of the beast. The antichrist is a con artist, not a carjacker. He is a magician, not a bully. He uses slight of hand, turn of phrase, and sustained eye contact to deceive. And he smiles.
I could mask a wicked heart with morality and bury a lie in the deck. I could preach the gospel of self-improvement, self-fulfillment, and self-actualization. Preach cheap grace—shallow friendships, minimal sacrifice, euphoric worship—and tickle people’s ears. The gospel of the con-Christ, the slight-of-hand Jesus.

The foolproof route to apostasy is to skirt the topic of Jesus altogether: speak solely to the Self. Use phrases like Reach YOUR full potential; Chase YOUR dreams; Embrace YOUR destiny. Strip people of the word obedience, and fixate on improvement. Show people how to smile. The antichrist’s job would be easy in America. Our culture is ready for such a time as this. Perhaps I’m the man to lead it. Then again, I may just be an average, self-possessed Christian.

NOTE: I wrote this several years ago after mixing up my pronouns while singing worship songs. Instead of singing "Thy will be done," for example, I'd sing "My will be done." It worried me. I submitted the article to a few online magazines. No one took it. Yesterday I resurrected it for a sermon on testing the spirits (1 John 4:1-6). When I read it to my congregation, the silence was eerie. I hope I didn't get myself in trouble!

Monday, May 13, 2013

More than Lip Service

I take Sunday mornings for granted. I won't deny the fact. I spend my week studying Scripture, consuming podcasts, highlighting books, and conversing with other people about their faith. For me the weekly worship service has become a rallying point, not a recharging station.

But for the masses who spend the week folding laundry, spreading sheets, filing papers, mailing invoices, cutting trim, answering emails, cleaning carpets, and grading tests, Sunday mornings take on a different meaning. For church service we settle mostly for lips: a little teaching, a sprinkling of songs, and some pleasant interchange with familiar faces.

The world wears us down.The daily grind can feel godless. Netflix, little league, and coffee breaks don't sustain our souls. We are starved by Sunday. So Sabbath rest sounds satisfying.

Unfortunately, church services often fail to satisfy. The unmarked sermon notes and empty sign-up sheets scattered about the building serve as a metaphor. We deliver content without an opportunity to practice. We collect tithes without catalyzing mission. We pay lip service, but our hearts and hands are far from the God who ransomed us.

This is the story of Israel repeated in the modern day church. This is fallacy that worship is for me and my needs, not God and His mission. This is church as a recharging station.

To expect the majority of Christ-follower to study Scripture, consume podcast, highlight books, and converse with others about their faith is far-reaching. However, as a pastor I must call others to practical application (i.e., maturity) and collective action (i.e., mission).

This is the story of the Pentecost repeated in the modern church. This is the truth that love is not merely word and tongue, but deed and truth. This is church as a rallying point.

Below are a few idea to make Sunday morning a platform for mission and maturity.

  • Dedicate several Sunday mornings a year to service projects.
  • Send out random groups to prayer-walk around the community during the sermon.
  • Go two hours past the regular "closing time" to interact with questions, prayer requests, or impromptu singing. (Don't ask for permission from the nursery workers, but beg their forgiveness afterwards!)
  • Move singing and preaching to a public location and invited people to join us.
  • Send out a group of people to pursue a prodigal from the church.

NOTE: In the past year, I've seen a few of these things happen at our church. Sunday became a rallying point. It was beautiful.