Archive for July, 2013

What, Me Worry?

July 31, 2013

What could possibly go wrong with this sort of technology?    

And what happens when the rats are able to reverse engineer this and force us to give them all our cheese?
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Reading Ramblings – August 4, 2013

July 31, 2013

Reading
Ramblings

Date: August 4th,
2013 – Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14,
2:18-26; Psalm 100; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21

Context: If the theme for the
last two weeks centered on relationship with God and prayer, this
week’s readings take us into the meaning of life. Why is it that we
do what we do? What wisdom is there in seeking wealth or power or
youth or beauty for their own sakes? Do any of these things last?
How we spend our lives as an expression of our relationship with our
God is what defines us. If we attempt to define ourselves by
anything else, we run the risk of great unhappiness or, worse yet,
severing our relationship with our Lord and Savior.

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-26:
If we think that the meaning of life is a question that has only
really been a source of angst in the last 100 years or so, we are
fooling ourselves. Even ancient people wondered what life was for.
Ecclesiastes is attributed to King Solomon (verse 1), though there is
serious doubt that he actually wrote the book. Regardless, the
content is still fitting for consideration today.

Verse 2 sets up the situation –
everything in our lives that we do is meaningless. Verses 12-14
select the specific aspect of life for today’s consideration – how
we live our lives in terms of our work. Work is not an effect of sin
and the Fall from Genesis 3 – it is part and parcel of our identity
as human beings, Genesis 1-2 stuff. We are made to work. Work is
not a punishment, but work can be skewed by the sin that Genesis 3
reveals. Our author indicates that he has the means with which to
investigate such weighty matters as the meaning of life, as he has
been king over Jerusalem. He has been gifted with great wisdom (1
Kings 3), so we are to assume that his investigations are adequate.

Verses 18-26 show the crux of the
problem. Hard work isn’t the problem, the problem is that we work
hard for the wrong reasons – often the accumulation of wealth. But
once acquired, we really have little control over that wealth,
particularly in the matter of how those after us will use it. If our
striving to accumulate leads us to sorrow and vexation (v.23), how
sad a situation we find ourselves in! The solution is provided in
verses 24-26. We should enjoy our lives, the simple pleasures of
eating and drinking and working as we have been given to. God gives
us these abilities, and given the uncertainties of life and those who
will inherit what we work so hard for, spending our efforts wisely is
what we are commended to.

Psalm 100: While not appearing
to deal with work at first, it does deal with our identity. Our
identity is not forged chiefly from our family name or our level of
wealth or our professional successes, but rather from the fact that
God created us. Bearing this in mind is what helps us to balance our
lives better, seeking out the joy of worshiping our creator, and
recognizing that in much or little, God is good because He is the
creator of all.

Colossians 3:1-11: During the
season of Ordinary Time the Epistle lesson isn’t chosen to link with
the Gospel and Old Testament. But today, it certainly does work with
them. Paul encourages the Colossians to remember whose they are.
They are not just themselves, not the ordinary people they think of
and their neighbors think of. They are somebody else – somebody
more, perhaps more accurately. They don’t even fully know this
identity – only when Christ returns will they see themselves as
they truly are.

As such, the list of behaviors that
Paul warns the Colossians against are not merely rules – they are
indicative of the person that the Colossians are in Christ. That
sort of person will not engage in these behaviors. As they seek to
prepare themselves for this new identity, setting aside these
incongruous behaviors is only natural. It is not a law, not a work,
it is simply embracing who they have been made in Christ and acting
accordingly. It may be uncomfortable at first, but one day it will
be completely natural.

Luke 12:13-21: The emphasis here
is not on action and reaction. The man is not dying because of his
greed. It is not fundamentally a story about judgment and punishment
but rather a reflection of reality. How many times a week do we see
another headline about a celebrity who has it all, yet their life is
a train wreck? How many times do we read about someone with a
promising career ahead of them who dies unexpectedly? We don’t know
the time of our death. But we do know that – barring Christ’s
return first – we will die. How are we then going to spend
the time we have? This day? This minute?

The world leads us to live our lives as
if we are the ones in control, as if we are the ones who deserve this
or that, who have earned this or that. Yet all we have is a gift.
Some have a lot. Some have barely any at all. None of which is a
problem that couldn’t be solved if we began to take seriously the
reality that we are creations of God, and our lives and our
belongings are not strictly ours for the keeping. We can’t keep
them. We know this. Someone once said that the first half of life
consists of acquiring things, and the second half of life consists of
giving them up (voluntarily or involuntarily).

Note the reason that Jesus tells this
parable. There is a dispute. A dispute between brothers. A dispute
between brothers over the material possessions of their father.
Having read Ecclesiastes we can imagine how disappointed that father
would be to know that his hard work has resulted not in joy and love
between his sons, but rather animosity and bitterness. Where are
there priorities?

Jesus’ response reminds us that the Son
of God is not here to force us to play fair. He is not here to
settle our squabbles over stuff. The kingdom that comes in Jesus is
not one where our fundamental concern should be our material
possessions, or whether what we have is the same or better than what
someone else has. In asking Jesus to settle their dispute, these
brothers miss what Jesus has come to offer them. Not the solution to
a short-term problem, but eternal life where such issues are not
issues any longer.

Finally, this is not a parable about
tithing. This is not an admonition to give more to the church.
Jesus’ final statement has to do with our relationship with God. We
can tithe 50% of our income and still have a lousy relationship with
our Lord. God does not need our money. He desires us. All
of us, not just ten or twenty or thirty percent of us. Giving to the
church is not being rich with God, it is being rich with his church.
Being rich with God recognizes our proper relationship as his
creature who should seek the will of our Creator. In doing so, our
priorities are reordered, and we should find it easier to be rich
with others because we are so thankful for the riches of forgiveness
(and perhaps material blessing!) that God has poured into our lives.

All together, the readings remind us to
keep perspective about our lives. Our lives are not our own. We
were created for them, and to our Creator we must answer. He
dictates the priorities, not the world around us or our parents our
spouse – not even ourselves. Remembering this prepares us to see
our blessings in this world not as something to be hoarded and fought
over, but rather as a means of demonstrating our love for God through
love for others.   

Play it, Sam…

July 30, 2013

I blogged the other day about a situation with someone who called and wanted to use our facility for a reception based on their status as a former member.  At the time I was writing about it, I half-considered not writing about it, since it involves specific people associated with the congregation, and it was possible that people would still know them.  

While most of my rationale remains intact as more information is slowly coming to light on this situation, I realize in hindsight that I could have responded differently.  Rather than just saying no, I could have asked for more information that might have helped me make a determination about whether or not we could be of assistance in the requested way.  I opted to simply say ‘no’ based on my lack of time (and resources, initially) to try and track down who this person was, what their relationship with the congregation had been, what the situation in their family is at this point in time, and whether or not we could even accommodate their request based on our facility usage for the week.  Knowing that I wouldn’t have time to figure all of that out in time to give them an answer that would allow them to plan, I just said no.
That short cut definitely left this person disappointed and irritated.  And to be fair, I can understand why she might assume that this is no big deal.  She’s a former member, right?  That gives her some leverage in asking for things from the congregation, right?  Yes, and yes.  But it’s never as simple as that.
People and things and circumstances change.  Without knowing not only the backstory but the current story of this woman and her family, the congregation can’t commit itself or its resources to a generic request for access to the facility.  If we knew the fuller story, and it didn’t happen to contradict the congregation’s purpose and belief system, then of course we’d try and be helpful.  Members of a congregation – past or present, in my opinion – do benefit additionally by that association, assuming nothing has happened to sour it.  Or to expose the congregation to either a legal and financial liability, or a contradiction in what the congregation proclaims.
For instance, a couple of years ago I received another phone call from a man who wanted to arrange a baptism for his son.  He had been raised in the church many many years ago, but was no longer attending church anywhere.  He had married a Buddhist woman, in fact, and he himself was willing to admit that he was pretty much a Buddhist.  He had no intention of raising the boy in the faith, but he wanted to get his grandmother – a strong Christian – off his back.  I talked with the guy several times, and each time it became clearer and clearer that this wasn’t a good fit.  In the end, I told him that I’d be happy to sit down with he and his wife to discuss it further and see if we could reach a place where baptism would be appropriate.  He never followed up.
What if the woman who called this week was in a similar situation?  I had no way of knowing that, and it’s not the sort of thing that most people would be forthcoming about.  What if, while she had been a member of the church 40+ years ago, her brother hadn’t been?  What if her brother and his wife weren’t even Christian?  I pray that’s not the case, but if I don’t have that sort of information, I can’t simply green light a request.  
I routinely field phone calls from people wanting to know if our sanctuary is available to rent for weddings.  We have a very beautiful sanctuary.  It would be a lovely setting for a wedding.  I have people who stop by and knock on the office door wanting to come in and see the sanctuary to see if it would be suitable for their wedding.  I tell them no.  The congregation and the facilities are not backdrop to random stories.  I don’t think it’s a faithful use of the facilities to pretend that nothing more important goes on here, that these facilities ultimately don’t serve any higher purpose than a photo op, and that the only connection they have to people’s lives is one of convenience.  And in this day and age, the legal risks of randomly agreeing to perform weddings or allow our facilities to be rented for such are just too great.  We don’t have to do these sorts of things, and it’s far safer if we don’t.  So I don’t. 
A congregation and its resources are at the disposal of the Gospel.  We can and do confuse that message very often because of our sinful human natures.  But we seek to be as consistent and persistent in the Gospel message as possible.  We seek not to confuse people who might otherwise assume that a congregation’s facilities are much the same as a YMCA – available for use at the right price, or if you can show a membership badge.  Unfortunately, many congregations muddy the waters on this by freely leasing and renting their facilities to anyone and everyone.  Money is a powerful motivator.  But it can be a confusing one as well.
All of which is NOT to say that this woman who called has left the faith or done anything wrong.  It simply means that I don’t know, and I need more to go on to be helpful.  
I haven’t learned anything new in the past several days that would make me change my mind about my decision.  What that means is that I still don’t know enough to make a wise decisions.  Both the facts at the time and now are insufficient.  But I could have asked for more information rather than simply saying no.  And by doing that, I might have learned enough to make me comfortable with assisting this woman and her family, or at least could have perhaps been better able to explain why we couldn’t – at least not in the way they wanted us to.  
Because my default mode is that of wanting to help others.  Finding ways to assist them.  It’s one of the best parts of my job, being able to be there with and for people during important moments of their lives.  But when I do so, or when I agree to allow the congregation’s facilities to do so, I’m very clear that I do so not just on my terms, but ultimately on the terms set out by my Lord.  I’m not free to simply set that aside for convenience, and that means that I have to navigate some treacherous rapids sometimes.  It means that often times, things are not as simple as we would like them to be.  
And that means that often times I find myself wishing I had an ‘Undo’ button that would allow me to go back and try to be wiser or more tactful.  Instead, all I can do is pray for forgiveness, and try to carry lessons forward.  Hopefully next time, that will prove to be more helpful to everyone involved.  

As Time Goes By

July 29, 2013

There are fundamental rules that apply as time goes by, in churches and other corporate or communal entities as well as in love.  And one of the rules is that if a long time has gone by since you’ve been around, it’s not very helpful to assume that everyone should immediately remember you when you pop up again randomly.

That’s putting the situation a bit flippantly.
I received a voice mail this past week from a “long-time former member” of our congregation.  She gave her name, indicating that her parents and grandparents had been members, she had helped the congregation move to its current location 40+ years ago and had taught Sunday school and was very active.  The family wanted to use our congregational hall for an after-funeral reception, as her brother’s wife had just died.  She had a specific time and date less than a week away in mind.
She didn’t ask if the pastor would be willing to conduct the funeral or the memorial.  No explanation was given of the death, circumstances, religious affiliations or other things that a church might reasonably be curious about before allowing a group to come in and use their facility.  She just stated that she wanted to use our parish hall for the reception.  
With a lot on my plate this week, I didn’t get back to her right away.  I didn’t have time to peer through the role books to try and determine if she was in there, since she had given no definitive time frame for any event (birth/baptism, confirmation, marriage, etc.) that might have caused her name to be noted specifically roughly 40-45 years ago.  She didn’t give me the names of her parents or grandparents so I couldn’t look them up, either.  I asked some long-time members if her name rang a bell and they said it didn’t.  That didn’t mean anything one way or another – a lot of people can come and go in a congregation over time, and if the congregation is big enough, even if they’re very involved they might not be well known by everyone.  
I called her back the other day and got her voice mail, and tried to leave a nice message declining her request.  After all, I have no idea who she is.  The most recent association with the congregation she mentioned was over 40 years ago.  Who knows what has happened in the last 40 years with her and her family?  They could have converted to Buddhism.  They could have been removed from church membership for some reason.  Or, like many other people, they simply could have quit coming one day.  Moved away.  Transferred to another congregation.  Over the ensuing 40 years, the people that might have known them very well might have moved away as well.  Or died.  Or – as unpleasant as it may sound – even have forgotten them.  At least forgotten to the extent that the name didn’t immediately elicit a recognition.   I had no idea what relation her brother or his deceased wife had with the congregation regardless of her connection or their parents connection.  
But it’s hard to leave a nice message.  I indicated that we don’t generally rent our facilities out to outsiders or non-members for a variety of reasons.  I offered my condolences to her family and indicated that if there was some other way I could be of assistance I would be happy to. I was as kind as I could be, but I still knew that it wasn’t a message that was likely to elicit warm fuzzies on the other end.  
Sure enough, it didn’t.  She left a voice mail back by the end of the day, indicating her acceptance of the fact that we “didn’t want to help” her family, and taking offense at the idea that they were non-members or outsiders.  After all, she repeated, she had taught Sunday School and been married there and her parents and grandparents had been members.  Again, no further identifying information that would help me figure out who she might be and whether we could actually be of help to her.  The assumption seemed to be that after 40 years, people – including the pastor – ought to know who she was and be ready to leap to her fulfill her request.  Anything less than immediate gratification of her request based on nothing more than her name was unsatisfactory and deeply hurtful. 
So some quick tips when contacting your old congregation/company/high school/whatever:
  1. Don’t assume that whomever is going to be answering the phone is someone that was there the last time you were.
  2. Don’t assume that the person responsible to respond to your request was there the last time you were.
  3. Don’t assume that if you haven’t been around for forty years, everyone (or even anyone) is going to remember you right away.  
  4. Don’t assume that whatever relationship you had to this institution forty years ago entitles you to special privileges today.
  5. Even if you have reasons for assuming that you should have special privileges today, don’t assume that those special privileges can be immediately verified and activated in order for you to arrange for things in less than a week’s time.
  6. Try to be understanding if your initial experience or contact isn’t everything you think it should be.  
I will call this lady back again, hopefully getting her instead of her machine, and attempt to explain things.  I don’t imagine, based on her initial request and response, that my explanations will be desired or even listened to.  But, hope springs eternal for an optimist like me, right?  Perhaps there will be a chance to have an actual conversation where she might understand why her initial request didn’t elicit the immediate response she had hoped for.  Maybe she will recognize that a lot changes in 40 years, and that a little bit of grace and/or patience can go a long way.  Maybe she’ll appreciate the irony in taking offense for me not recognizing her relationship to this place, when she has no interest (at least no expressed or implied interest) in any relationship beyond a free or cheap or convenient place to hold a reception.  
I don’t fault her for asking.  And given reasonable information I’m happy to try and be charitable and accommodating.  But it doesn’t always work out that way, and it may not be simply because I’m an awful person who cares nothing for her or her family.  
At least, I like to think that’s not the reason.  

VBS Ponderings

July 27, 2013

I survived VBS.

What an amazing crew of people that put this together both behind the scenes and on stage, so to speak.  It was amazing to get a glimpse of some of the work (and love) involved in providing 15 hours of VBS experience to over 70 kids.  
Because I don’t have many hobbies, I find myself wondering about VBS.  More specifically, I wonder about the purpose of the Church, and how VBS fits into this definition.  
I have no doubt that the kids had a fantastic time at VBS.  I have no doubt that the parents were very pleased with the event, and several of them were kind enough to take time to relay their satisfaction and appreciation to some of the VBS staff – what a nice blessing that was!  Most of the children seemed to be churched children at some level.  In other words, most of them knew at least of the Bible’s existence, and most of them were familiar with Jesus and God and the fact that Jesus died for us.  Some of the kids demonstrated an incredible knowledge of Biblical stories.  
I ponder VBS in relation to my own congregation.  My understanding is that VBS was set aside here several years back due to a lack of responsiveness among attendees.  A special opportunity for the kids to sing in worship and have a snack or lunch reception afterwards resulted in NONE of the 90-some kids showing up.  A lot of feelings were understandably hurt.  A lot of frustration and resentment was generated.  People were giving a lot of themselves to put on a first-class VBS experience, and the parents didn’t really seem to care.  If there is no response, what’s the point in doing VBS?
I suppose that depends on the purpose you envision for VBS.  One little boy told me this week that this was his fourth VBS this summer.  A member of the congregation shared how the local churches seemed to have learned how to schedule their VBS events so that they didn’t overlap.  This means that a family could move their child from one VBS at one church to another VBS at another church.  On the positive side, it means that families have multiple options to choose from for VBS.  On another positive note, it means that some kids have the opportunity to learn about Jesus over and over again during the course of a summer.  On a more cynical note, it means that parents have a stunning opportunity for free child-care for a few hours every day for weeks on end.  
So what’s the point?  
Hopefully most people would agree that it isn’t the purpose of the Church to provide free child care.  It may be a service a congregation offers for a particular reason, but it isn’t the reason a congregation exists.  If free child care is what is offered, there needs to be a trade-off, something received in return.  Generally, I imagine this is conceived of as building up community appreciation for a church, as well as the opportunity to meet and build relationships with particular families.  The ultimate trade-off would be that the Gospel could be shared with the children being cared for, and that Gospel in turn can infiltrate the larger family unit as kids talk about it with their parents.
Indeed, I know that last year the pastor of the congregation I was helping this year built a relationship and had a series of really exciting conversations with a father because the son had come to VBS and was totally jazzed and excited about Jesus.  That’s what every congregation dreams of, I think.  But I think that most congregations, if pushed to be honest, would say that their hope would not just be the sharing of the Gospel, but that some of those kids and families would return to the congregation on Sunday morning for worship.  VBS might be the launching point for a renewed or invigorated Sunday School program.  If those expectations are there at any level (and again, I think to be honest most congregations would say that they are), it then becomes a matter of numerics.  How many new families attending make VBS a worthwhile investment?  One family?  Two?  
I would love to do VBS, but I’m less jazzed about it being primarily full of Christian kids from families that go to other congregations.  Not so much because I hope that they’ll come to my church, but because I want to be sharing the Gospel with people who still need to hear it.  Yes, Christians need to constantly hear the Gospel over and over and over again – weekly, in fact.  Daily, in fact.  But VBS has become sort of a Christian cultural phenomenon.  
When I was a kid, VBS was for the kids at my church.  Sure, there were friends and others who might tag along, but it was full of kids that I knew.  Some older, some younger, but the ones I was concerned about were my age.  It was a community of faith already.  We were being trained and formed further in that faith.  
This past week’s VBS was graciously hosted by a congregation that has no VBS-aged kids of their own.  It was completely for others – for other kids in the community and their parents.  Is that an awesome thing to do?  Most certainly!  But I wonder about innovation as well.  If a congregation is going to be offering something specifically to others outside of their community of faith, many of whom will be Christian and regular attenders of other congregations, what else could a congregation offer?
My impulse is to come up with something that targets the unchurched – those who either have chosen not to be actively involved in a communal life of faith while still calling themselves Christian, or those who don’t consider themselves to be Christian.  The difficulty with this is that people in those two categories are very, very unlikely to randomly decide to come to a random church program.  In fact, I’d suspect they would be actively inclined to avoid any such thing.  Either they know what church is about and have no desire to be a part of it or anything it offers, or they don’t know what church is and have no reason to ever attend something a church offers.  
That makes coming up with programs aimed at reaching the unchurched or non-Christian very difficult.  More and more, I would describe it as almost impossible, based on increasing cultural hostility to the Church.  What to do, then?  
Ultimately it shifts the focus back to individual relationships.  People forming relationships with people who are non-Christian or not church-goers.  Not artificial relationships with the sole ulterior motive of getting these people to church, but actual relationships.  That requires a lot of effort, though.  It means that Christians have to be willing to intentionally engage themselves in places and activities where they can meet non-Christians and begin to build relationships.  
That’s hard work.  Every bit as hard as VBS.  Perhaps harder.  How does a congregation decide where to focus their energies?  How do we put our people’s gifts and abilities and energies best to use?  I imagine that answer will be different to some degree in every community and congregation.  For some it might mean continuing or restarting a VBS tradition.  For others it might mean trying something different.  
I don’t think I’ve reached any sort of conclusion or insight here.  Still pondering.  Still impressed by the love that was demonstrated this past week by all sorts of people.  Still wondering how that love might reach other people – people who would never think to bring their kids to VBS.  Maybe it becomes a matter of collaboration.  If people are going to
be cycling through a series of VBS’, what if congregations of various stripes worked together to provide a single, cohesive VBS experience?  What if VBS was a multi-congregational month-long opportunity not just for the kids but for the families?  What if moms and dads were invited to not just come and clap for their children (which is wonderful!), but also to engage themselves in learning more about the Bible, about the Christian life?  If VBS is primarily an offering to Christians of all stripes in a community, how could it be amplified to benefit those families the most?  
Interesting questions.  I wish that there were specific answers.  I enjoy ruminating, but I’d prefer to have some clarity at the end of it.  Not there yet.  But if I find that clarity, you’ll be one of the first to know.

Happy Happy

July 26, 2013

Some light morning reading for you.  Yet another scholar willing to point out the dramatic rise in the persecution of Christians worldwide – a rise that Western media has chosen to ignore.  

In this book review, I only really question two basic assumptions, both to do with American foreign and military policy in the Middle East.  My objection is no excuse for the widespread violence against Christians, but I believe it does help explain the violence in two specific areas – both recent or current locales of American military interventions.  
The author expresses disgust that two areas recently to benefit from American liberation are hotbeds of violence against Christians – Afghanistan and Iraq.  He also mentions Kuwait, but I believe that even by Kuwaiti standards, the American intervention there ought to be viewed positively.  Kuwait had been invaded by Iraq and American military power liberated that country.  Unfortunately, my awareness of what happened afterwards in Kuwait is not very good, so I don’t know off the top of my head if there are Kuwaiti grievances that might legitimately outweigh their gratitude at being liberated by America.
But both Afghanistan and Iraq are more problematic examples.  Both represent autonomous governments that were overthrown by American military force.  Did we have justification for overthrowing Afghanistan?  Sure – the 9/11 attacks were a very tangible reason for attempting to (naively) destroy the power of radical Islam in regards to terrorist training.  Iraq is a far more complicated situation.  While I privately assume that one day history will demonstrate that President Bush’s allegations of weapons of mass destruction were legitimate, that hasn’t happened yet (or if it has, it hasn’t been reported).  
But regardless of the reasonability of America’s military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan (from an American perspective, obviously), from an Iraqi or Afghani perspective, our actions look much different.  We can argue all day about how America provided these countries with opportunities for democratic self-governance and freedom from Taliban militia rule (in Afghanistan) or corrupt dictatorship (in Iraq).  Neither of those arguments are going to be very persuasive to the populations of these countries.  Either because they really believe it or because of fear of militant reprisals, large chunks of population in both these countries view America’s actions as unwarranted.  
To claim that this shouldn’t be the case makes sense from an American perspective, but is an outright refusal to understand how this might appear from an Afghani or Iraqi perspective.
Again, this doesn’t justify Muslim persecution of Chrisitans (as opposed to Americans).  The overall topic of the book being reviewed here ought to have civil rights groups up in arms.  One might wonder why this isn’t the case, but I suspect we know the answer to that.  Perhaps the answer is more similar to why Islam seeks to destroy Christianity than a “free press” considers healthy to report on.  It will be quite ironic to see (for those who manage to survive this wave of persecution) whether secularism flourishes with a dominant Islam the way it did with dominant Christianity.  As a Christian, I’m pretty positive it won’t.  But because I’m a Christian, my viewpoint must be wrong (by secular standards), and anything would be better – even a Muslim viewpoint that would prefer me dead.

Missing a Point

July 24, 2013

Having recently attended a fantastic theological forum on 1 Corinthians, this article got my attention.  The topic certainly isn’t new.  I have no doubt that regardless of the general cultural mores on fashion, there have always been those who either out of necessity, ignorance, or pride have caused stirs about their mode of dress in worship.

What I thought was fascinating (and frustrating) was the complete lack of any actual reference to the Bible in this article.  But that is only one issue.
Take the woman who leads off the article.  It isn’t so much what she’s wearing, as her recognition that what she’s wearing isn’t appropriate.  Yet, she’s wearing it.  She feels guilt, but rather than dealing with the actual cause for her guilt (she doesn’t feel she’s dressed appropriately for worship) she attempts to deflect the guilt, as though God is making her feel bad, or someone else is.  Aren’t there warm up pants that she could pull on over her shorts for the worship?  A more fitting t-shirt over her “skimpy” tank top?  
But the bigger issue is her placement of her own issues ahead of the issues of everyone else in the church.  And this is the big picture issue that gets ignored in this article.  What is the role of the Christian individual in relationship to others in the faith?  
The next issue of “modest is hottest” is one I need to read up on a little, but will probably be posting on next week.  All sorts of interesting ins and outs to this one, I suspect.  But at the end, once again the issue is personalized, focusing on the “orientation of the heart”.  Whatever that means.  What it means in shorthand is that nobody is allowed to say anything about what I wear (or eat, or do, conveniently).  It completely individualizes the entire issue and seeks to stop discussion immediately.  I also note that neither the woman being quoted or the author of the article bother to actually quote the verses in the Bible that they feel (rightly and wrongly) address modesty.   Convenient.  Let’s just assume that the Bible doesn’t have anything to say about how I dress in worship because I’m suggesting that it doesn’t.  ‘K?
Another example of a woman who knows full well what the expectations are in her community of faith yet feels offended somehow when she is called to task on it.  Yes, of course, dress code is not an issue regarding salvation, and yes we can focus on the wrong things in any number of ways.  None of which is the actual issue.
Finally, the article concludes with a pastor from Liberty University who spouts the time-worn mantra that Jesus doesn’t judge, implying that we shouldn’t either (presuming his premise is correct, which I don’t think it is), and then weakly following it up about how church is different than a club.
I spent nearly 20 years in a campus ministry setting.  I’ve seen all sorts of clothes in church.  Added to that, this church was in Arizona, so summers were darn hot.  As were major chunks of fall and spring.  I have no issue with tasteful and respectful modes of dress whether they be suits, full dresses with hats, shorts, or t-shirts.  
But it isn’t me who gets to make the call on what is appropriate.  
1 Corinthians has a lot to say about a lot of things.  Two sections come to mind on this topic – neither referenced in this article, of course.  1 Corinthians 8-9 deal with how we conduct ourselves in public spaces (not specifically worship).  At issue isn’t what is True (that there are no other gods, only God) or even what is permissible (eating food that might be from an idol cafeteria).  Rather, the issue boils down to the effect my actions might have on a brother or sister in the faith.  As such, how I conduct myself is not a personal decision.  Rather, my personal freedom in faith is limited soas to be of maximum benefit and minimal damage to brothers and sisters in the faith.  I may be able to do something personally in good faith because of my faith in Christ, but if that action might confuse or damage a brother or sister in the faith, I refrain to be protective of them.  
Secondly, 1 Corinthians 11 starts off with the often confusing issue of head coverings.  Paul is not laying down the law that women need to wear hats in worship.  But what he does paint is a picture where the cultural understandings are to be taken into account in worship.  What you’re wearing says a lot about you and what you think and do.  And like e-mail or texting, subtle nuances of irony or rebellion are often lost in translation.  So women (and by extension men, of course) need to consider the ramifications on others of what they choose to wear.  
One of the good things in the article was where a woman wondered whether the person complaining about her mode of dress was going to seek help for their attitudes and temptations – definitely a reasonable thing to wonder.  But it doesn’t exempt her from considering the effects of her mode of dress on others.  And I disagree with her assertion that a person (male or female, frankly) is necessarily completely innocent of the lust their appearance creates in another person.  I’m not at all advocating to hide all skin from men’s eyes because men are animals.  Men can and should control themselves and that control begins with the eyes and the mind before it ever reaches any other parts of their bodies.  But how women dress does matter.  
I wish these articles would actually refer to Scripture, rather than pointlessly wander around for a while lamenting an issue in general as though there was nothing concrete to drive conversation in a particular direction.  Read 1 Corinthians.  Read all of it.  And see in the context of a community split on a variety of levels Paul’s pastoral concern and frank dealings with members of that church.  Now imagine your own pastor being as blunt with your community.  Might not make any friends, but it could certainly remove a lot of simmering, festering stuff under the radar.  

VBS – Day 1

July 23, 2013

I survived my first day of vacation Bible school.

I consider that no small achievement, given the level of hormones and sugar-fueled youthfulness rampant in that beautiful little church campus by the ocean!  
This VBS is using curriculum by Group, a major provider of ministry resources and curriculum.  I know many churches in my denomination that rely on their VBS curriculum rather than in-house materials.  The theme for this summer is Kingdom Rock.  We are blessed to have a energetic youth group helping out with the event, in addition to more seasons folks behind the scenes organizing things, making snacks, and generally ensuring that mayhem doesn’t completely break loose.  
The day begins with a session where all the kids gather together in the sanctuary as they arrive.  Teens are leading dance moves to the ‘rock’ CD and videos that are playing on the screen in the sanctuary.  The kids get pretty revved up.  The teens try to clue the kids in to the information for the day, interspersing things with more dances and music to sing along to before the kids and their crew leaders head out to the various stations where they will do and learn different things.  
Midway through the morning the kids come together again for more singing and dancing to the same rock CD.  There is more teaching interspersed, but it’s hard to keep the kids’ attention as they’re jacked up on the music and dancing.  They they have a snack before gathering again for a few more songs to sing to and then split up for the ministry stations.  At the end of the morning, they spend another 30 minutes singing and dancing and trying to convey a few ministry points in between.  By this point the kids are tired or hyperactive.  Attention spans have shrunk to the nanosecond range.  Parents are hovering around waiting to take their children home.  
It struck me how the emphasis in all of the group times together was on high-energy sorts of singing and dancing.  Yes, the music all is Christian in nature, focused on depending on God.  Most of the singers in the videos are kids – though most appear to be junior or senior high aged – considerably older than the kindergarten through sixth grade students attending the VBS.  
Don’t get me wrong.  It’s great to sing some fun songs and bounce around and be silly and have a good time.  My kids *love* the VBS CDs, and continue to play the ones from the last two years.  They love to dance around to them and it’s fun to watch them.  Having a good time is cool.
But that seems to be the only focus in the group times together for the VBS.  Sing and dance and get crazy.  I could be cynical and decide that this is in order to ensure maximum sales of the CDs, but I really don’t think that’s what is going on.  I think that there is a deeper theological or psychological program at play.  And I’m kind of confused by it.  And that worries me.
What are we teaching kids about church?  Granted, this is no worship service – at least not in the historical sense of the term.   But VBS is happening in a church, and what is it teaching kids to think about church, and by extension worship?  What do we think kids are capable of doing and understanding in worship?  Are they capable of reverence?  Of silence?  Of thoughtfulness?  Sure, not for more than a few minutes at a time, maybe, but if there’s no time to practice these skills, how do those few minutes grow into a larger span of time?
Are we teaching the kids that we still have in church that church is essentially a concert?  That church should fill their attention in the way that a TV show does?  I’ve written on this topic before.  For churches that retain a historic orientation of the nature and purpose of worship, it might be beneficial to think about how they are training up the fewer and fewer children in their midst to conceive of worship.  That extends to vacation Bible school, or at least it could.  Or should it?  
I’m glad the kids are having fun.  I’m glad that kids are hearing that God loves them.  The folks who are putting this all together are wonderfully dedicated to these kids and to Jesus, and I’m glad to be part of it all in at least a small way.   I just wonder if the kids couldn’t be learning more along the way, if nearly an hour of their time each day was spent on more than rockin’ out.  And I can’t help but wonder if learning more and different things might help them stay in church as they get older.  
Or maybe I’m just getting old and boring!  

Jitters

July 21, 2013

I’m nervous.  Not terrified, but nervous.

Tomorrow I help out with Vacation Bible School.  I haven’t been in or near a VBS since I was probably 11 or 12 years old.  I’ve never worked one.  Never organized one.  I spent many years in a college campus ministry where small children were the exception, and my formal ministry years have been in older congregations where children were also the exception.  
But I’m blessed to be helping out our daughter congregation down the road with their VBS, since their pastor took a Call in December and they are working with an interim minister.  I’ll be telling stories to little kids for a few hours each morning.  I’ll be surrounded by slightly older kids who will be herding the smaller ones around and supplying the energy and craziness that makes VBS such an amazing thing for everyone.  
But I’m still nervous.  I figure it’s probably a good thing to be nervous once in a while, to be standing on the edge of (if not outside of) my comfort zone to do something for someone else.  And I know that regardless of my jitters, it will be a great experience for everyone involved, and I’m humbled again that I am paid to be nervous, paid to take chances and stretch myself, paid to share the love of God with so many different people in different ways.  

Reading Ramblings – July 28, 2013

July 21, 2013

Reading
Ramblings

Date: Tenth Sunday after
Pentecost – July 28, 2013

Texts: Genesis 1817-19)20-33;
Psalm 138; Colossians 2:6-15(16-19); Luke 11:1-13

Context: There are few areas of
the Christian life so widely acknowledged and yet so elusive and full
of guilt as the practice of prayer. While Scripture often invites us
to prayer, it barely defines it, opting more often to demonstrate
examples of it. So it is that men and women of faith have struggled
to figure out what prayer means, how it works, what to do or say. In
the end, prayer remains alive and indefinable as God himself. It is
not a mechanical process, neither exclusively rote memory or mandated
originality. It is the expression of ourselves to God, and of God to
us, from one moment to the next different and yet comforting and
familiar. Our Old Testament, Psalm, and Gospel readings for this
Sunday direct us to consider the nature of prayer.

Genesis 1817-19)20-33
Continuing on from the Gospel lesson last week, we realize that
Abraham’s messengers are no less than the Lord (we would say the Son
of God in a ‘sneak preview’ of his incarnate human nature) and two
angels. They are journeying to Sodom and Gomorrah to see firsthand
whether the reports of their terrible natures are accurate. The Lord
confides in Abraham what He intends to do, and this worries Abraham.

While we can commend Abraham for his
merciful spirit, he also has specific links to Sodom – his nephew
Lot lives in that city (Genesis 13:12-13). What ensues is an amazing
demonstration of the power and privilege of prayer. God invites
Abraham to push for grace, and Abraham responds. In part, Abraham’s
role here is what God has already promised him it would be in
Chapters 12 and 15 and 17 – Abraham is to be not merely a
receptacle for God’s blessings, but a conduit through which those
blessings flow out to the world. Prayer – in this case a
face-to-face bidding session of sorts – is one channel for such
blessing to be expressed.

Psalm 138 – This psalm of
praise is also a prayer of praise, and can serve as another model for
what prayer can look and sound like. Verses 1 and 2 indicate the
speaker’s intent – to praise God. Verses 2 and 3 begin to explain
why such praise is warranted – the law and Word of God is
unsurpassing in beauty and holiness. Furthermore, God has responded
to the speaker, and God’s responsiveness has been a source of
confidence.

Verses 4-5 envision a proper order –
where the rulers of earth are obedient to God and praise him,
following the Lord’s law and glorifying God for giving it. If this
were the way things worked, what an amazing world we would live in!
This is the proper role of a ruler – to be subject to God and to
model and guide such a role for all those who live within their
power.

Verse 6 changes the focus – God is
not merely the protector of the ruler, but of the weak and lowly.
God always keeps even the least of his creation in his vision. As
such, in verse 7 the speaker can assert that regardless of his
struggles, they are not the result of God’s slumber or preoccupation
elsewhere. God is present with him and his continued life is proof
of that. The verse transitions to a declaration that the Lord has
and will save him from his enemies, culminating in verse 8 and a
final plea for God’s mercy and rescue.

Colossians 2:6-15(16-19)
Paul exhorts the Colossians to remain steadfast in the true faith,
rather than becoming enamored or confused with alterations of the
Gospel that might make it easier to understand or believe by relying
on human reason or other explanations. The Gospel is that in Jesus
the fullness of divinity dwells. Jesus truly is the Son of God
incarnate. As crazy as that might sound, it is the Gospel, and this
Gospel is what builds up the Colossians to their full identity in
Christ. Moreover, the Colossians’ faith in Jesus has effected their
spiritual death and resurrection. They are new creations already,
and it is not their actions or efforts that will one day make them
new.

Luke 11:1-13 – Without a doubt
the most direct teaching on prayer in Scripture. It was the custom
for a rabbi or teacher to teach his students special things, and this
included insight on how to pray. John followed this custom
apparently, so Jesus’ disciples want him to give them insight as
well. What is recorded for us is the Lord’s Prayer (recorded
in more fullness in Matthew 6:9-13). The prayer clearly addresses
God as our Father, glorifying his name and seeking for his will
(kingdom) to be established fully. Daily needs are prayed for, as
well as forgiveness of sins and protection from temptation.

Beyond this, Jesus tries to illustrate
what approaching God in prayer is like. No metaphor or analogy is
perfect, but we are to understand that while we may fear to come to
God in prayer for any number of reasons, God does and will respond to
us. We should be diligent in what we ask for in prayer because God
is sometimes moved to respond because of our tenacity. God is not a
harsh god, waiting to trick us or to abuse us for his own amusement
(which was believed of gods in surrounding cultures). Rather we are
told that God the Father is truly like a good father, and a good
father always seeks the best for his children. If human fathers are
capable of responding to the needs and requests of their children,
how much more will God!

Prayer remains complicated to us, most
likely because we are fond of focusing on the outcome rather than the
process. We want to know if God will do what we ask. We assume that
prayer is something that, when done properly, will yield specific
results. We ought more to focus on prayer as a conversation, a
conversation with someone we love and value. What matters is not
necessarily an outcome, but rather the fact of communicating,
intentionally aware of one another. If there is a warning regarding
prayer, it is that we are practical people, and we easily view prayer
as a means to an end, rather than as part of a relationship.

What matters most is not whether God
does what we want, how we want, when we want. What matters is that
we are privileged to commune with the creator of the Universe! He
hears us, is concerned about us, and hasn’t simply promised us his
best, but has already given us his best in his Son Jesus the Christ.
What an amazing privilege! What an unearned merit – to be able to
engage God in prayer at any moment, expressing fear, joy, praise,
thanksgiving, or need – knowing that we will always be heard and
God will respond according to the parameters of his plan for creation
and for our own lives.

Yes, prayer often times involves
specific requests for healing or safety or any number of other very
real needs. But just being intentional about communicating with God
– both speaking and listening – begins to change and alter how we
respond to the events and people in our lives. It is not an
obligation, but a privilege. God is God, and if God wants our
attention He will get it!

In the meantime, spend some time
getting to know the Creator of the Universe.