Saturday, February 26, 2005

Random Musings On My 35th Birthday

I always get a little introspective around my birthday. I suppose that's one of the reasons I've been talking about defining success lately. I want to know if my life is a success, or -- if not -- am I at least on the right path?

I'm 35 today (you can find my Amazon wishlist directly to the right -- just in case you want to send me something). Did you know Jerry Maguire was 35 when he wrote that big manifesto that triggered his lifechange? Jerry Macguire is a fictional character for those of you who don't know (played by Tom Cruise in the movie). His statement was called The Things We Think and Do Not Say. I'm his age now, and I wonder about the things I think but do not say. Most of it, I'm sure should be kept to myself. But, still I wonder....

I'm not prepared to make any kind of officialy statement. Perhaps some time this year it'll come to me as I sit in some hotel in a major city. I do feel something percolating deep in my brain.

Until it erupts, I'll keep plugging along here on the blog. I've really been overwhelmed at how many people -- people I don't know -- people I've never heard of read this and send comments and email. Now if only you people would send money!

I have two things to ask you, one thing to share with you, and then my wife and I are going to dinner and a movie without the girls.

First, Conrad Gempf has written a marvelous, little book called Jesus Asked. It's really a great book, and Conrad is one of those rarest of birds. He's an academic with a sense of humor. Please go buy this book.

Okay, here's something for those of you with kids aged 5-10. I help produce a monthly CD for kids and their parents called FamilyTimes. It's fun to listen to and has some stuff that will educate parents. It has bedtime stories and a bunch of other helpful things. It costs $12.45 a month, and we'll mail it directly to your house. You can get more info by going to the FamilyWise website.

Finally, I try to periodically share with you things my kids say that are either fall-on-the-floor funny or rip-your-heart-out cute. My youngest daughter Amelia has had an allergic reaction to the medication they gave her for pneumonia. She's broken out in hives. Somehow Eliza thought that maybe this was "Chicken Pops". When asked how one gets "chicken pops", she said, "From eating too much chicken."

Thursday, February 24, 2005

The Myth of the Family-Friendly Church

Most churches claim to be pro-family. And yet we split families up into distinct age groups at every opportunity -- rarely (if ever) providing any kind of intergenerational environment. We over-program parents -- often giving them the impression that if they were serious about their faith they would be out of the home at least two or three nights a week doing "church" stuff. We discourage young people from acting like full members of the faith community -- often even fostering a rebellious attitude towards those who are older than they are. We hire children's ministers and student ministers but not parents' ministers. We minister to parents as adults, but rarely do we minister to adults as parents. We may give lip-service to "family ministry" and teach an annual series on the family (usually on the Sundays between Mother's Day and Fathers' Day) but -- on the whole -- fostering healthy families where parents take responsibility for raising their children is not something we seem to take very seriously.

I'm asking you: Is your church really pro-family?

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Defining Success (part 2)

Thanks for all the comments and email. This is certainly stimulating thought. Clark made an interesting statement in one of the comments:

"[S]uccess isn't how many students you have involved or at your devos, but how many students are living for Jesus 5 years, 10 years, 15 years after they have gone through that particular ministry."

The average Evangelical church in America has a drop-out rate of somewhere between 65-80%. In other words, the vast majority of the kids who grew up in Sunday school with me have ceased their involvement with a local church by the time they're in their mid-20s. When pressed, most say they haven't given up on their faith really -- just traditional faith structures.

And all the "emergents" in the room say...Amen!

However, most concede that they don't really live a very Jesus-like lifestyle. The plain truth is it's hard to live like Jesus and cut ties with the organization Jesus came to establish -- regardless of how bastardized it has become.

All the rest of the people in the room say...Amen!

By the way, people in the Church of Christ who read this whole thing may think that stat doesn't include us because we have a drop-out rate of about 35% -- until those people reach the age when their parents start to die. Then they start to drop like flies. It seems our system of faith development taught us to fear our parents' reactivity. In the long run, Churches of Christ lose just as many as everyone else.

So, what's to be done with all this? How can we stem the tide and keep folks from thinking that faith and involvement in church is just something for children? Could it be related to our definition of success?

Monday, February 21, 2005

Defining Success

I spent the weekend with 12,000 teenagers at a thing called Winterfest. Mostly, I spent it with the four people I traveled with, and we had some great conversations about the event itself. I mean...we had a good time together, ate pancakes at every possible opportunity and my ribs hurt from laughing so much. But we also had some great conversations about the nature of things like Winterfest -- a huge youth rally of sorts.

Here's the question I'd like to pose for you today. And, unlike so many of my other questions, I'd like to stay with this one for a few days. I'd appreciate feedback as this is part of a larger project I'm currently working on.

How do you define success in your ministry? There's an underlying assumption in that question that may cause some people to avoid answering. Namely, that assumption is that you have a "ministry." Whether you admit it or not, we're all working on something -- serving others in some capacity for some purpose -- with some aim in mind. Everyone has a ministry, so let's not quibble over whether it's a "church" thing or not. Just answer the question:

How do you define success in your ministry?

Friday, February 18, 2005

A Rare Sunrise

I'm not much of an early riser, but this morning I'm headed to the mountains for a youth conference called Winterfest. I'm still pretty bleary-eyed, and our coffee machine is broken. But the sun coming up right now is glorious. It makes me think that today is woven through with some extra measure of hope.

Is there a culture in the world that doesn't admire the simple beauty of a sunrise? Something about it speaks to the eternity hidden deep in my heart. It makes me optimistic and nostalgic at the same time.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Who Is YHWH?

There are a couple of ways we can look at the 10 Plagues in Exodus. If we think of God first and foremost as a God of wrath and jealous vengeance, we'll think the plagues are supposed to teach those wicked Egyptians a lesson. That lesson will be, "Respect me or I'll kill your children." I've actually read commentaries and listened to sermons that said this very thing.

If we think of God first and foremost as the author of a community through whom all nations of the world will be blessed, we'll think the plagues are supposed to teach the Israelites a lesson. That lesson will be, "Trust me and I'll be the only God you need." I rarely hear this message.

The whole episode kind of begins with Pharoah asking Moses a question: "Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice?" (Exodus 5:2). Before we start pointing our accusatory fingers at him, we should remember that this is a perfectly understandable question. Pharoah grew up believing in dozens of gods -- believing that he was, in fact, one of the gods incarnate. As far as he was concerned, YHWH was a peer -- one of his equals -- just another regional or topical god. Why obey his voice as opposed to, say, Apis (the bull-god who served as an intermediary between the human and divine worlds), Isis (the goddess of health and healing) or Osiris (the god of order)?

As God visits the Egyptians with plagues, he's not punishing them so much as he is preparing his people to trust him. Each of the plagues takes on a handful of gods or goddesses and trumps them -- in often humorous ways. Take the frogs, for example. Heqt was depicted as a frog and was seen to symbolize birth. But when the plague of the frogs ended, the frogs didn't disappear -- they died where they were. Big rotting piles of Heqt -- heaps of dead deity everywhere you turned. God has irony down pat.

Slavery doesn't breed people who are competent and ready to live on their own. We witnessed this in our own country after the Emancipation Proclamation. Many people who had only known life as a slave were simply unable to cope with a life of freedom. Unbelievably, thousands chose to continue living as slaves -- simply because they didn't know how to live otherwise.

God, in this section of Exodus, is preparing his people for the freedom they will enjoy. They need to know that everything will be okay without the "protection" of their owners. YHWH will be their God, and they will be his people. And YHWH is no regional, seasonal or tropical God. He is the God of everything.

What would life be like for people who really believed that? Would there be as much anxiety? Would there be this smug insistence that we're superior to others? How would you live if you really thought your God was more concerned with preparing you for freedom than with punishing others for not recognizing him? What if God wanted to use you to be a blessing to the people around you -- not to be a constant source of nagging and complaining?

Monday, February 14, 2005

Apparently, I'm Jim's Kind of Preacher

Normally, our Saturdays consist of sleeping in a little, having a big breakfast as a family and making assignments for what has come to be known as "chore day." All the things that get piled up get unpiled on Saturday. Laundry gets done. Closets get straightened out. Bathrooms get cleaned. You know the drill.

This Saturday, though, chore day was interrupted before it even began. We were still sitting at the breakfast table -- I hadn't even managed to get my second cup of coffee -- when my next-door-neighbor Jim rang the doorbell. In an incredibly calm and even voice he said, "John, I need you to run me to the hospital. I think I'm having a stroke."

It was like he said, "John, I need you to run me to the store. I think I need some milk."

I threw on a sweatshirt and a pair of jeans and spent the rest of the day in the emergency room. Oddly enough, 45 minutes after we got there he was fine. Something had certainly happened, but he was fine. Still, by then he'd already had blood taken and was hooked up to the machine that goes "Ping!" So, we had to stay for a while. He tried to run me off, but I stubbornly refused. After all, if I went home, I'd have to clean bathrooms.

I stayed, and we talked...about everything. We mostly talked politics and religion -- the two things you're not supposed to talk about in polite company. Jim's incredibly well-read and a deep thinker. He's given up on church and is pretty sure Jesus was not God (thank you to the Episcopalian Priest who told him this -- thanks for telling him that no one in your seminary believed this -- that your professors actually scoffed at the idea -- thank you for telling him the only reason you preach it from the pulpit is because that's what they pay you to say -- big jerk).

Still, Jim is a believer of sorts. He knows there's a God. He believes that God has written something of a moral code on his heart. He actually said, "I've never doubted what the right thing to do is. I just can't seem to do what I know is the right thing." He didn't even know that was in the Bible already (Romans 7 for those of you keeping score at home).

He's really concerned about the eternal destiny of his Muslim friend from work. He's still confused about why the Baptist church he grew up in fired the one pastor who connected with him. He doesn't know why religious people are so afraid of mystery. He's really angry at television preachers who stole money from his aging relatives.

More than anything, he worries that after 66 years of pondering he may not have made any progress at all in understanding this God who he is convinced exists. I suggested that God may, in fact, be infinite. How do you measure progress against infinity? He laughed and said, "You may be my kind of preacher."

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Nicene Creed: Sufficient or Not?

Here's the text from the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one God,
The Father, the Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth,
Of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
The only Son of God,
Eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, light from light,
True God from true God,
Begotten, not made,
Of one Being with the Father;
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
He came down from heaven,
Was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
And became truly human.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
He suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
In accordance with the Scriptures;
He ascended into heaven
And is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
And his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
Who proceeds from the Father [and the Son],
Who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified,
Who has spoken through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
And the life of the world to come. Amen.

Help me out, please. What's missing? What's overemphasized? If you could add two things, what would they be?

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Unknown Phone Callers in an Information Age

I got a phone call early this morning -- on my cell phone -- and I don't know who it's from. Now, you'd think this information age in which we're living would provide me the opportunity to look such information up. But no....

I have spent the better part of my morning trying to track this caller down -- without actually calling back, of course. Introverts prefer the long way around communication sometimes. Still, I have no idea who called me this morning.

Whoever you are in New Albany, Ohio, leave a message next time!

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

How Did I Get Here?

For some reason, more people now read this blog than I ever imagined. What's especially bizarre is the amount of people I don't know who stop by, leave comments and send email. Most of you are exceedingly kind.

It seems many of you have no idea what I do for a living. In fact, I'm not exactly sure how to explain it myself. I guess I'm a writer, church consultant and speaker. At least those seem to be the simplest words to describe the bulk of what I do.

As a writer I work a lot with Dr. Kenneth Boa and Reflections Ministries. We're currently working on three books -- and a study Bible is possibly in the works -- if the publisher would ever get back to us. I also write for a company called FamilyWise. We provide educational curriculum for more than 1,000 churches around the world. We also work with Chick-Fil-A to provide character-based educational programs to public elementary and middle schools around the USA. Oh, and we produce an educational cd that goes out to about 7,000 families a month.

As a consultant, I work a lot with churches especially in their family minsitry departments. I get the opportunity to travel around and help them figure out better ways to minister to families wholistically.

As a speaker, I do a fair amount of retreats and conferences. I also have a regular Wednesday evening class that I teach.

Okay, this is more than a commercial about me. This is a testimony to the mysterious ways in which God works. The one question that is harder to answer than "What exactly do you do?" is "How exactly did you get that job?"

A little more than two years ago, I decided to quit my job serving a church in the panhandle of Texas and move my family across the country to Atlanta. The one reason we moved here -- regardless of what I may have told anyone at the time -- was because we have friends here. I'm talking about the deep kind of friends who feel more like family than anything else. After several years in professional ministry, we were relationally starved and needed the support and community we knew we could experience here.

So, we packed up and moved. It took us all of six weeks to go through our meager savings account, and I spent February, March and April of 2003 building porches on new houses. I should say, I spent those months watching Bob Futral build porches. Mostly, I held things for him while he did the work. It was hard, and there were some really lean times.

But we knew we were supposed to be here. Hard times are easier to survive when you get to go through them in community with others. We still have lean times, but we have too many friends who stubbornly refuse to let us go hungry. There are too many to mention, but you know who you are. My daughters would not be as healthy as they are, and they certaintly wouldn't laugh as much as they do if you weren't in their lives. That's the best thing I can say to you.

As my schedule gets crazy over the next several months -- and it looks like it's going to be a crazy spring -- I may be tempted to wonder what in the world I'm doing and why. If I write something like that, feel free to remind me how I got here. I followed God's call to engage in real community -- to sacrifice everything to put my family in a place where they could know and be known, love and be loved, serve and be served, celebrate and be celebrated. I followed that star, and it led me here.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Anabel Explains Mysterious "Bubboon" Lyrics to Eliza

I have friends named Bill and Jennifer Winegardner who write and perform songs for children. They are really funny, and if you have kids you should buy their record here ( Go ahead; I'll wait....

(checking watch...tapping foot...whistling a tune...probably one of Bubboon's tunes).

Okay, one of his songs features these lyrics:

I know a man who has no teeth
Eating causes him much grief
But when he is not gumming on a piece of beef
He says, "Blather, blather, blather, blather, blather, blather, blather"
It gives him much relief

I didn't say he was a profound songwriter. Another verse goes like this:

I know a girl with lots of hair
It grows all the way to...there
One day while she was sitting it got caught up in a chair
(Spoken) She still drags that chair with her everywhere she goes
She's the only woman I know with six legs

And it just gets better from there. It's a great song and fun to sing -- especially with kids -- though I'm not above singing it when I'm by myself and feeling especially in need of cheering up.

Okay, all that is just backstory. Here's a recent conversation between Eliza (age 3) and Anabel (age 5).

Eliza: A man who has no teeth? How does he walk?

Anabel: He doesn't. He just chews on a piece of beef.

Eliza: What's beef?

Anabel: It's bark. And bark is the hard part of the outside of a tree.

Eliza: Six legs? She's the only one with six legs?

Anabel: He's talking about numbers. It's like uno, dos, clays. You know!

Eliza's questions satisfied, she begins to sing and dance around the living room.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Oh, Just Grow Up

You remember when Bill Bixby was on the 70s TV version of The Hulk -- at some point in every episode he would utter those words: "Please don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry." That low tone -- the pleading in his voice -- you just knew that before the end of the show he'd be throwing that guy through a plate glass window.

It's one thing for a fictional character who's been permanently damaged by radiation to say something like that. It's another thing to hear a real live grown-up say it.

I can't tell you how many times I've heard people repeating some variation of this. Grown men and women -- people who claim to be disciples of Jesus -- leaders in their church and community -- saying ridiculous things like, "If you make me mad, I'll let you know" or "I may not throw the first punch, but I guarantee you I'll throw the last one" or "I'm a nice person, until you rub me the wrong way -- then, the gloves come off."

I especially hear stuff like this from men...although there are a few women....

Are we still in Junior High? Grow up, folks.

What if God was like that? What if he gave full vent to his anger the way we often feel completely justified in doing?

In Exodus, God calls to Moses from the midst of a burning bush. Moses turns aside and has a conversation with God wherein he is called to return to Egypt and liberate his people from slavery. But Moses doesn't want to go. So, he offers God a list of excuses, and God patiently responds to each one. Did I mention that Moses is having this conversation with a burning bush?

God turns Moses' staff into a snake. God makes Moses' hand leprous. God reassures Moses at every opportunity that he will not be alone -- God will be with him, securing his success. But Moses still doesn't want to go.

Finally, out of flimsy excuses, Moses confesses: "I just don't want to go. Can't you send someone else?"

This -- understandably -- hacks God off. But notice how he responds. He tempers his anger with his mercy and offers yet another solution for Moses. "You don't have to do alone. Your brother Aaron is headed this way. He'll help you."

God's anger should never be considered outside of the context of his mercy and willingness to provide. It is his amazing patience -- not his awful wrath -- that we are called to imitate. God calls us to follow his example and relentlessly pursue community with others.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob

God wants Moses to do something, but Moses doesn't want to do it. So, Moses comes up with a list of excuses, the first of which is: I can't; I'm disqualified; I yam what I yam.

God responds, "Ultimately, it doesn't matter who you are. What really matters is that I will be with you."

So, Moses' next question is, "Well...who are you?"

Now, if I were God -- and that's a dangerous way to begin any sentence -- I would rattle off a list of things...mostly things I do. "I'm the one who created all this stuff. I'm the one who lit the sun and flung the stars around the universe and dug the grand canyon with the little finger of my left hand. I'm the one who made you, and I'm the one who could kill you right here and now. So, pay attention!"

But that's not what God does. First, he pronounces the unpronouncable name. Then -- and here's the really bizarre part -- he defines himself in relationship to humans. "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob."

First, and foremost, the Bible defines God -- not categorically -- but personally and relationally. Rather than running through a bullet-list of concepts and actions, rather than giving his resume and experience, God says I'm the one who was in relationship with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Now I want to be in a relationship with you and the rest of those folks in Egyptian slavery. I desire a relationship with people -- always have, always will.

This is so contrary to how we're often taught to think of God. Yes, he is self-sufficient. No, he doesn't need us in some kind of "I'm-incomplete-and-can't-live-without-you" sort of way. He is differentiated enough for his life to continue whether we choose to engage him or not.

And yet...he has no problem changing his name for our sake. That is part of who he is -- part of the I AM what I AM that he communicates here in Exodus 3. He is the ineffible God, the God who is self-sufficient and self-sustaining, the God of the burning bush who comes in search of men and women who will take him by the hand and walk in relationship with him.