Monday, December 31, 2007

New Years's resolutions

Although some consider New Year's resolutions to be unproductive, considering how often they are broken creating a sense of self-imposed exaggerated defeat, I find them helpful in that the coming of a new year is as good a time as any to set new goals. Oh sure, there have been numerous "New Year's resolutions" in the past that I've made, and kept for approximately 3.2 weeks. The act of goal setting though, even if many goals are not reached, is a positive enterprise that places one more in motion toward achieving those goals than one who does not set them at all.

My resolutions for this coming year include, but are not limited to:
  1. More "manly" stuff (like hunting, using power tools to construct things, collect hockey memorabilia, etc.).
  2. More romantic stuff (like taking Naomi out to nice places, writing her sappy cards, buying her gifts for no particular reason).
  3. More Dad stuff (like taking the kids to special events, camping with them, and getting consistent again with family worship).
These in addition to the academic and professional goals I have set make for a full year of living. But really, what I attempt through "New Year's resolutions" is to behold the goodness of God through a more in-depth living experience. At the heart of these "resolutions" is a desire to perceive God's grace and blessing more this year than I ever have before. I imagine that to be a goal he would like me to both set and achieve.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Christmas Day hockey

On Christmas Day we started a new tradition, though I'm uncertain how many years in a row an activity must occur to be validly considered a "family tradition." Nevertheless, we started this event with the intent to keep it going. The activity? Christmas Day hockey!

We gathered up our street hockey gear (skates, sticks, goal and puck) and headed over to the church to use its parking lot as our rink. What a blast! Naomi and I took turns as goal-keeper. It was a real kick. I suspect we'll do it more often that merely on Christmas, but the point was to have a fun family activity on Christmas - not just to save hockey for Christmas.

The resulting effect was that I realized we have done too little of this lately. Family activities such as this have been too sparse over this past year. Be it street hockey, walking the dogs, camping or any other activity, I have not sought such times like that to the extent would be healthier for such a busy family as ours. As we raced around the parking lot, chasing the red ball, trying to score, I resolved to make sure this coming year saw a greater frequency of family fun. We've had seasons of greater family attention before, but sometimes we get a little distracted. Christmas Day hockey awakened me to the fact that we had gotten distracted a little, and need to have a new season of a closer home.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve

The day before Christmas is always special. It's the time when the last bits of anticipation can be developed into a full blown frenzy. The Christmas music is playing in the background, the decorations seem more colorful, the weather seems cozier and the cocoa tastes sweeter. It's the build up to that magical day when Christmas happens. But what are you anticipating? How are you getting in the mood for Christmas?

Is it the excitement about presents alone that fuel you? The presents will be torn into and over by 10am if the parents really drag it out; 7am if the kids have their way. How is your anticipation on Christmas Eve helping to make Christmas Day more meaningful?

May I submit a suggestion? Wait for a calm moment this evening, put on some Jewish sounding music (like John Williams composed for the film "Schindler's List"), sit at a table or in front of a warm fireplace and read the following:

A Christmas Thought

Imagine with me for a moment living in a different time and different place.

Imagine that the army isn’t in a far country fighting to keep you free. The army is instead in your town, in your neighborhood, on your street corner and in your marketplace. The army is not even yours. It belongs to a foreign power who has conquered your land and intends to maintain its grip. Because your region is considered unstable, the local garrison is frequently monitoring your places of worship or searching your homes in an ongoing attempt to quell resistance before it can grow into social unrest. The land your family has dwelt in; that you have grown up in, that you hope to grow your own family in, is not Iraq... It’s Judea.

Because of the census that has been imposed on your people, so that Rome can collect even more taxes, you’ve had to take a long and dusty journey back to the hometown of your ancestors – a sleepy hamlet just a few miles southwest of Jerusalem. The inconvenience of it all makes the oppression just sting that much more. Rome seems to control everything. When you go to register in Bethlehem, you don’t complain because you don’t want any trouble...
But all you can think about is:
• When will Messiah come?
• When will Yahweh send His Chosen One to make right so much that is so wrong?
Evidence of the world’s brokenness is seen everywhere. You just witnessed a young man and his pregnant wife get turned away form the Inn. The words “No vacancy” were spoken so coldly to that poor young girl who looks like she’s about to deliver. You don’t step in to help but you do wonder to yourself,
If Messiah were here would he permit such an injustice?
You feel lucky though. At least you have a place to stay in town where you can get the latest news. It could be worse. You could be up in the hills with the shepherds where you’d never here what was going on.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

St. Nicholas of Myra

I recently have been mulling over how Santa Claus fits into Christmas. In every way the American version of Santa seems like a competing mythology with the birth of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, after a little bit of research I discovered that Saint Nicholas of the early church is a good character to learn about, and one that "Santa Claus" can point to. He appeared as passionate about sharing the benevolence of Christ as he was about defending the truth of Christ.

This passion was expressed in how he saw that the needy in his community were cared for; however, it was also expressed in how he passionately contended for the truth. One legend holds that when Saint Nicholas was present at the council of Nicaea in in A.D. 325, he was so angered by the heresies of Arius that he dropped him with one punch in the council chambers. I picture this being not greatly dissimilar from the following video:

I'm not sure about "Santa Claus" as yet, but if Saint Nicholas had some "hockey" in him, I think I'm going to like him a lot. In fact, this linked site (www.stnicholascenter.org) is appearing very helpful in discovering this historical saint of the ancient church whereby some Christian substance can be reclaimed for the holiday, overcoming the blight of the present American icon of commercialism in the red suit. For now, it is enough that Santa Claus images can serve as a teaching tool for me to share about the real St. Nicholas - a life sold out to Christ whose legacy lives on.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Star Wars Christmas


Many of my friends and relatives know that I am a fan of the Star Wars mythology. Mostly I've enjoyed the novels that have been produced that advance the story. Nevertheless, the movies have been entertaining and enjoyable too. Knowing this, Naomi's sister, Tiffany Grant, thought of me and forwarded the above video produced by a friend of hers. Some may think it takes fandome a little far, but I got a kick out of it. Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 21, 2007

A video Christmas Card

video
I have not been very good at sending out Christmas cards in time for people to get them before Christmas. Naomi and I are working on getting better at it, but thus another year has come without us reaching out to friends and relatives in a timely manner. The remedy is often a Christmas themed email to people, but that can be quite impersonal. So our answer to that was a photo video for Christmas.

Please enjoy the above video as our Christmas greeting to you. It contains pictures taken of family activities throughout 2007, from our visit to Sacramento for my father's retirement party, to our day at Lake Tawakoni here in Texas; from Elijah's climbing to our activities with Genesis Community Church. We hope you have a very Merry Christmas!

Commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ in your hearts, celebrate his coming with friends and beloved relatives and anticipate his coming anew. God bless you.

By God's grace,

The Ott's

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Time with my Sister

The last time I saw Gaylene was last May, and the time before that was my graduation from Shasta Bible College in 2004. I hate that this general principle is often true: that when siblings grow up together in the same house each other's presence is unwanted, but when they are grown up and desirous of each others' company the distance and busy lifestyle barriers are difficult to overcome. Gaylene is five years older than me, so our younger years at home were not spent contemplating the joys of familial connection. I spent most of those early years attempting to annoy her, and she was indeed was annoyed.

Gaylene has a sense of humor that I truly enjoy. Ours is an "Ott" humor cultivated in a home that seldom took itself seriously. With the help of her husband, Jeff, my niece and nephew (Haley and William) will likely develop that sense of humor too. They live fairly close to my parents, so that portion of the family is able to gather regularly. For all the blessings I have encountered in Texas, I often regret not living closer to my family, whose company is always an uplifting joy.

I think specifically of Gaylene though since this is yet another Christmas that I will not see her for. I can't recall the last one we shared. My parents visited for Thanksgiving, which was a wonderful time. However, Christmas will come and go again without the company of my one and only sibling just at a time when family relationships is becoming more important to me than ever. I miss you Gaylene. Hope you guys have a Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Across the street to the fire

Today around 2:45 a local neighbors knocked on my front door while I was studying in my office to ask if I had already called 911. "What for?" I asked. "That!" he exclaimed pointing to the curtain of black smoke rising from the house across the street from me. He was already on the phone with emergency services so I didn't make a redundant call. Within moments of his phone call my pager went off alerting me that the Fate Fire Dept was being summoned to the scene. I donned my Fate Fire uniform and came out into the street to assist the Rockwall County Sherrif''s officer on scene however I could.

At first I felt helpless. I wanted to run immediately through the front door (the officer had broken it in to make sure no one was home) and rescue whatever I might find that needed to escape the heat and flames (people, pets, family heirlooms, prize possessions, etc), but at the same moment new that I had as yet received no training for such actions, and that any rash impulse at this time could very well complicate the process for my colleagues who were enroute. Having no authority, training or equipment to perform what your instincts call out to do is a frustration remedied only by performing all that you can do.

For this reason, I was pleased to be useful in helping children remain safely away from the fire-ground (sending kids coming home from school at that time, who live in the house to the right and the left of the involved home, to my house), comfort and counsel the home owner on his next steps for getting assistance, and help with stowing away hose on the apparatus when it was no longer needed. It was my first fire event wherein my role as a chaplain was executable. I'm so sorry for the family who lost their home just a week before Christmas. I hope the assistance of family and insurance services is helpful and soothing at this time. But having said that, I would be dishonest were I not to admit the euphoria that accompanies service of this type. It is a mystery, but in a strange way this destructive incident creates opportunities for the joys of service.

It's a shame that service opportunities are born of tragedy, but such is the nature of our world. Consider the beauty of redemption bought for us through the death of Christ. How horrible that his sacrifice was necessary, yet how wonderful is the redemption that followed. There's a distinct kind of beauty that is only extractable from the ugly. The beauty of a neighborhood gathering to help a family that most of them didn't know was born of the ugliness of a house fire. Could it be that this is a major glimpse of God's grace evident in life? When he is able to draw the beauty of community out of the ugliness of tragedy?

In this way it would seem quite legitimate to find blessing in this event. The blessing of observing a community's character, of experiencing the joys of service, and even in seeing all the family's beloved pets spared. The family who lost their house today faces many challenges ahead, needing the grace of God evident in very tangible ways over the coming days, weeks and months. In the meantime, I will suggest that the grace of God is already evident in how the firefighters served their community, in how the neighborhood responded and in how delighted I was to be a part of it all. Service brings joys that are uniquely acquired only in such intense times, and I thought I should be honest about it.

Action preceds emotion

I've expressed to some people lately that I was having a tough time getting into the Christmas mood. Circumstances around me were not as conducive to developing "holiday cheer" as they had been in previous years. It seemed that a little "humbug" might creep into the Christmas season. However, a principle was driven home for in this time that I've known for quite a while. That is, that action precedes emotion. Frequently, emotions are triggered through actions that are predetermined by the will. This is why when a son says to a father, "I don't feel like doing my chores," the father can insightfully respond, "I can change the way you feel." In the Bible, obedience is prized over feeling.

For this reason, it occurred to me to engage in some festive practices anyway, regardless of the feeling preceding it. In the NOCS code, we summarize this with the reminder "There is no feeling...There is truth." Practicing what is true cannot be subject to feelings. It's not that feelings are not acknowledged. It's that they are not recognized as the driving factor...truth is. As a result, I look to those practices that reflect the celebration and following of truth, believing that feeling will follow.

Therefore, instead of trusting in my feelings to conjure up the "Christmas spirit" all on their own, I dove into practices that exuded it anyway, such as a Christmas party, celebrating with people and reflecting on the coming commemoration of the birth of Christ. If the feelings are slow coming, practice something that may very well cause them to follow along.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

"Humbug" creeps in

Recently I heard a sermon in which it was asked which was my favorite holiday. I raised my hand when Christmas was mentioned partly because I knew where the sermon was going and didn't want to be the odd one out. In doing so I wasn't entirely honest. The truth is that I like Christmas very much, and the birth of Christ is certainly the most important event in history (along with Easter) that a Christian can celebrate. However, I think that Thanksgiving is actually my favorite holiday because it actually winds up being the time of rest and enjoyment that holidays should be.

Christmas, on the other hand, is not a time of rest, there does not appear to be much "peace on earth" (Lk 2:14), and its a lot of work to celebrate the birth of the Savior. Don't get me wrong. I'm not seeking to diminish the importance of the birth of Christ. If shepherds outside of Bethlehem can walk all the way into town to celebrate him stable-side, then the least I can do is hang a few strips of garland. But when you contrast the headache of preparation time with that of Thanksgiving, the turkey wins hands down. On Thanksgiving a meal is prepared (which my wifes masterfully performs) and guests are entertained; but then that's pretty much it. The rest of the time is spent relaxing and relating. Football may be on television and some wrestling may ensue between fathers and sons, but really it's a time of rest. This captures much more the biblical concept of "sabbath" (the idea that one sets aside their labor to enjoy the goodness, provision and person of God). I love Thanksgiving.

Why do I sound like a little "humbug" is creeping into my Christmas season? I'll tell you why! Christmas lights, clearly an invention of the devil, are both temperamental and unreliable. All of mine shorted out the other night, leaving the front of my house dark, covered in a web of non-illuminated wires. Who in history decided that celebrating Christmas required a degree in electrical engineering? In the future I'm taking a different approach to celebrating Christmas because this is ridiculous. As a celebration, Christmas is definitely worthy of our best festive efforts, but an approach must be possible that actually leaves some joy in the whole season instead of sucking it out through faulty electrical wires.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Joy of Work

As stress mounts near the end of another semester at DTS, I'm finding it all the more important to remain physically active. This can be accomplished through training kung fu, generic workouts, walking the dogs or hockey with the kids (rug hockey, street hockey, kitchen hockey, etc.). But one activity that remains faithful in keeping my head straight is working with my hands on a project requiring tools and precision. The project can be anything from making another set of shelves (we always need more shelving), to constructing benches for outside use, or my newest one: a new dog house that will house our "sled team" (four large dogs).

This morning, before I sequestered myself in my office again for hours of more typing and study, I went to the church and retrieved some of the boards left in its junk pile awaiting burning. Confirming beforehand that these boards had no other intended use, I pulled out the rusty nails and cut them to sizes that could fit into our Dodge Neon. What once had been discarded as junk wood now lies neatly stacked on the lumber pile in my garage awaiting use in my project. Some may say that these boards do not look as nice or as clean as the boards I bought from Lowe's. Yet, a little sanding here or trimming there and they will be perfectly suited for the project I will use them in.

I suspect our lives are not greatly dissimilar from the lumber. Some may feel discarded into a junk pile, awaiting destruction. However, when the Master "Craftsman" spots them in the heap, He envisions the usefulness they represent for His next project. As a result, He redeems them, takes them home, then sands and trims where necessary in order for them to be what He first saw while they were back in the pile. The "sanding and trimming" I undergo from the Spirit is not always pleasant. In fact, it's frequently unpleasant. Nevertheless, I would much rather that my Father the Craftsman do what is necessary to make me useful to him and his project on Earth, than the alternative of having been left in the "burn" pile.

These are the truths that manual labor gives me the opportunity to meditate on. During work that is physical, I am free to focus on Jesus the Craftsman, whose general contractor work in Galilee must have been important preparation for his earthly ministry. All that time spent working with his hands up until the time when they would touch people to heal them; all the nails he must have held up to the day when the nails would hold him to the cross. I find work of this kind to be a great joy wherein God reminds of many things about himself.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Christmas Parade

Our church has now participated in two local Christmas parades. What a blessing both of them were. The floats, the decorations, the bands, the lights (at night) and the people all contributed to a great experience. I can't be certain if it was more because of the Christmas season, or just the euphoria of being among all of those people. The events were a great opportunity for our church to be out in the community, shaking hands, passing out candy and wishing people "Merry Christmas."

These are the first parades that I can remember walking in. Over the past couple of years, when our family would attend the local Christmas and Independence Day parades, I often noticed the local businesses and church that participated and wondered if we might have a similar opportunity. Now, it's my responsibility at Genesis Community Church to make sure we participate. Funny how things that I've envisioned for the last few years would finally have a chance for expression.

I imagine this often occurs for the Christian. Flashes enter into the mind of service moments that be yet be future without any knowledge as to how they will come to fruition. Then, without any manipulation of your own, God brings about that which you saw long before. It's as though the moment you're experiencing has a deja vu' component to it. Such was the Rockwall and Royse City parades for me. I've seen myself, my family and my church already in such community events in my mind. Executing it didn't seem all that strange as a result.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Our Town



Last Thursday Naomi and I took a 24 hour vacation to Hot Springs National Park. Our motel was near Lake Hamilton, so the drive into downtown was beautiful. It's a pretty area, offering a fix for those of us from the northwest who go through occasional mountain withdrawals. What was really a blessing though was time spent walking along Central ave along bathhouse row. We wandered into various shops and talked with shop owners. We browsed the knickknacks that celebrated local culture, and even enjoyed ice cream in a small candy store. The highlight was setting inside a warm locally owned coffee shop, sipping our mochas, watching the Christmas parade go by. The bands were from local schools, the floats were decorated with Christmas lights and the whole community was out to enjoy it. It was refreshing. I was truly able to relax.

Nevertheless, there was a tragic component to it as well. I noticed that the economy down there was definitely not what it once was. Back in the first half of the twentieth century, the wealthy were attracted to this place for the luxurious spas wherein one was pampered with opulent service. Surrounding that attraction where nightclubs, theaters and fine dining that all benefited together. Now it struggles to draw tourist dollars. The small town remains, but the celebration of it appears relegated to those hardy souls that already live there. The Arlington Hotel still operates, but several other hotels along the main strip have closed down. It's still quaint and pleasing to walk around, but nothing compared to what it must have been in its heyday. Oh I realize that the attraction to the bath houses is not now what it used to be, but people still visit luxurious resorts. It's a shame that Hot Springs was not able to adapt well to the changing times. I can't help but wonder if the fact that Interstate 30 is 20+ miles away contributed at all. Certainly Hot Springs still gets recreational and tourist revenue, but something was lost whereby it's not the exciting place that its many remaining buildings make it seem like it ought to be. You walk around celebrating was remains, realizing what was lost.

My own hometown of Redding, CA experienced something of this. When I was very little I remember going to the with downtown Redding mall my mother for her shopping. I can still hear the Christmas music and decorations that filled it in times of crowded commerce. The stores surrounding the Downtown Mall were frequented as well, cashing in on its draw. The Cascade theater was where I first saw "The Jungle Book." It was a symbol of downtown activity. Long ago, the main highway running north and south through Redding ran also through downtown, drawing attention to its businesses and shops. After I-5 went in it probably was inevitable that the Mt. Shasta Mall would be built (which is much closer to I-5 and on the other side of it), nailing the lid on downtown's coffin. As time went on I observed my mother's shopping habits change from browsing through Dicker's in the downtown mall to JC Penney's in the Mt. Shasta mall. Downtown wasn't a place to go. It was a place to go through on the way to someplace else.

This appears to have happened hear in Rockwall as well. The old downtown Rockwall plaza appears to have been a neat place to walk around and shop, seeing local people at one point. Now, however, I-30 has created a string of chain store commercial centers that all but supplies the tumbleweeds that blow through old downtown Rockwall. It's a tragedy that is captured well in the above segment from "Cars." When and where I can, I'll try to celebrate the old downtown places. I hope they don't become completely extinct. We sure were blessed by Hot Springs. I hope Fate can keep the old alive as new attractions inevitably grow up.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Climbing and ministry

When I lived on the west coast my passion was mountaineering. I enjoyed all aspects of climbing, from rock gyms to local crags to summiting Mt. Shasta in the summer of 1997. One thing that climbing taught me (that I need to apply to ministry) is that it's not a sprint. I remember during the Shasta climb my partner and I reached the 10,000 foot point pretty quickly. The parking lot was around an elevation of 7,000. Anyway, we had considered going higher, but by the time we reached Helen Lake (which was at 10,000) I was feeling some altitude discomfort. My head was aching and my stomach was uneasy. We decided to pitch the tent and spend the night acclimating. I'm glad we did that because the following morning I woke up feeling much better, ready to attack the rest of the mountain above.

I've recently have had ministry experiences in which a spiritual "altitude sickness" seemed to arise. The body is aching, the head is hurting and the screaming need is to stop and rest a bit. Such occasions remind me of climbing Mt. Shasta, where rest points are necessary to acclimate to the new altitude. Try climbing too fast, and the body will react negatively.

Another thing I learned in climbing Mt. Shasta was that the destination (the summit) was made significant by the journey. Had a helicopter simply dropped me off at 14,179 ft (the summit pictured above) the view would not have held the same beauty. There's something about using the ice ax, the crampons, the ropes and the warm layers to ascend the mountain that make the view more picturesque. Were it not for those moments when each step took 5 seconds, the air felt thin and the wind was too loud to think, the goal would not have been so special. Ministry has incredible parallels to climbing. I have to remember them, meditating on what God has already taught me.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Praxi Fide

Several discussions I've had recently regarding "Lex orandi, lex credendi" (Latin loosely translatable as "the law of prayer is the law of belief") have revealed that a faith community's practice is not separate-able from that community's faith. On the contrary, the practice is an outgrowth of the faith maintained in that community's tradition. Take for example church music, the church does not maintain one belief about the work of the Spirit in their midst and another belief about the music's work within people. Instead, it is more accurate to say that the belief that the church holds about music's work within people is an outgrowth of their belief about the Spirit's work among people.

This is going to be true in any number of church practices. That is particularly true in various rites and rituals associated with a tradition's faith confession. For example, I recently sought to imagine separating the form of one's baptism from the faith one has in baptism. It was my attempt to suggest that the faith associated with baptism superseded or made less relevant the manner in which one was baptized. However, this failed to take into account the manner in which one's faith is manifested in practice. Praxi fide (or "faith practice") acknowledges that one's practice grows out of not only the faith they have in Christ, but also the faith they hold in common with the believers they join. When one takes communion with a body of believers, or engages in worship practice with them, the practice itself is a confession of solidarity with the faith community they're in.

For this reason, imagine that one comes to a new church which has practices that differ from those that they have known. The Praxi fide of the new church is not separable into the faith the community holds to and the practice is represents. They are linked in such a way that the newcomer now has the opportunity to confess their common faith with the new church through undergoing a common practice. It would be evidence of the human tendency to slip toward a gnostic separation of matter and spirit (to which we all are susceptible) to attempt confessing common faith without embracing common practice. As Praxi fide is played out in each church tradition's unique context, believers do well (myself included) to remember that faith is not merely assented to in the mind, but it is practiced in the flesh, with the people of God around close by to express "Amen."

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Spiritual Disciplines: Meditation

Because my spiritual life needs a shot in the arm, I'm starting to read through Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. I've completed his description of the first of the "inward" disciplines: meditation. Amazing that he would appear to begin with the most difficult one first considering the pace of our society and culture. The lost art of meditation has become so foreign to our understanding and instinct that the dominant view toward meditation tends to gravitate to a fascination with the eastern mysterious practices. Meditation that is prescribed in the Holy Scriptures, and thus Christian meditation, is quite different from the "new age" pursuits. On the contrary, instead of trying to empty one's mind and being, the goal is to full up with the truth and wisdom of God. Determined contemplation is required for this.

This takes me back somewhat to my days at Temple Kung Fu studios in Seattle, WA. In those days I was surrounded by instructors and students that followed Grand Master Simon's brand of "Neo Ch'an Buddhism." GMS taught his meditation in the form of three progressive modes or "sittings." The 1st sitting was when the practitioner would sit on the floor with correct posture and, with the use of their breathing, empty the mind. In the 2nd sitting one would remain seated in the same manner as with the 1st, but in this case use proper breathing to focus their mind on a specific point. Along with this focusing technique, the goal is to also become more aware of the "energy" (or chi) that flows through the body during times of this focusing. This is where the chi training has its beginning: focused awareness of chi energy flowing through the body and eventual interacting with its flow, potency and direction. The 3rd sitting differed in that one did not have to remain seated, but instead could lay on the floor as well. The goal was to be in as relaxed a state as possible. By means of proper breathing and concentration, you would enter an inward journey called "walking to the river." It was taught that you should imagine walking down a country pathway to the a river's edge whereby you would cast into the river those flaws about yourself you wanted to discard, or extract from the river those traits you wished to add. In this way, you take control and responsibility for the development of the soul.

At the time, I couldn't quite put my finger on what bothered me about such practices, but made the determination not to participate anyway. This conviction was challenged more than once as fellow instructors showed disapproval for my choosing Scripture as my meditation source instead of Simon's method. Nevertheless, I remained persuaded that Simon's method was to be avoided, and a biblical approach should be sought. Over the years my understanding of what a biblical/Christian approach to meditation might look like has increased, but this has not made developing the discipline any easier. I'm as addicted to busy schedules and constant motion as the next American. My hope is to take a fresh crack at the historic spiritual disciplines celebrated in the Church, and experience something of the depth of intimacy with God that saints of the past have enjoyed. If I can just carve out the time, meditation with my God calls out, and I plan to answer.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Completing a course

Last Monday was the final evening of class for the course (EO18 - Introduction to Archaeology) that I taught with Sherry Klein at Dallas Theological Seminary's Center for Biblical Studies. What a pleasure that was! For a young instructor in training, a better group of students could not have been assembled. They were enthusiastic, curious, hard working, inquisitive and encouraging. Previously I had taught Bible Study Methods, which was also a real joy. This course was a great nourishment to the soul, knowing that God teaches people with such tender care and somehow sees fit to allow my participation in his training of them. What an awesome responsibility, and a sobering ecstasy that is.

However, there's also nothing like completing a thing either. Having felt recently like too many irons were in the fire, I was also looking forward to the conclusion of the course. Frankly, the roles of husband-father-student-pastor-chaplain have been time consuming enough. To have the additional role of CBS teacher on top of those was quite out of balance. Fortunately, it was just for a 10 week season, but it should be admitted that I would not have sought to teach such a course had I known last spring that I would be a pastor in the fall. Nevertheless, it is now completed, bringing the satisfaction that only the reality of "completion" can bring.

Have you ever noticed the secret pleasure that one takes in yanking the bookmark out of a novel or non-fiction tome that you just finished? Consider the sense of well-being taken from beholding a structure that you have labored over that now stands before you fully assembled. The feeling of completion is a fulfilling one, driving us to labor beyond our comfort toward the prize of satisfied finality. Consider the college student who remains diligent throughout the last year with one eye in the books and the other eye on the graduation date on the calendar. Think of the runner who receives the extra energy from deep within once the finish line is in sight. The thrill of completion is a powerful motivator. Once completion is achieved, the inner peace of another task seen to the end is worthy of meditation.

I have other currently running tasks calling for completion though: the present course being taken from DTS, as well as the overall degree program of the Th.M. Completion calls out from the task and bids be to labor beyond comfort, to keep the goal in sight and remain balanced through the journey. She charges me to read my required texts, attack the courses for the Winter and Spring semesters, and write with excellence on those subjects I'm learning. Completing a course, whether teaching it or taking it, brings the quiet confidence that God has brought me up to a point of persevering in study and labor to a measurable result. That is very satisfying, and is the reason why my commitment to persevere in seminary work remains unshaken.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Leaving time to date

I'm still struggling defining what exactly does "a day off" look like to a pastor. It certainly is not Sunday, for that is the most intense work day. It's also not Saturday, for many ministry activities and appointments occur of that day because it is a day off for so many others in the church. Typically I have heard of pastors taking Mondays off. This has not been so for me yet because I taught at Dallas Theological Seminary's Center for Biblical Studies on Monday nights. The resulting effect has been that I feel as though I've not taken a day off in two months. Oh yes, the canoe trip last weekend was relaxing, but it was still something of a pastoral function. In the coming weeks and months, I intended to sort out this problem.

With regards to leisure time, not only has my own time off fallen by the wayside, but also my time away with Naomi as well. This is most certainly not a acceptable practice. This is all the more made evident by how much I enjoyed this morning.

Naomi and I decided last night to designate weekly times that are spent alone with one another. We allowed for some flexibility for now whether they would be mornings or evenings (since she works until 6:30pm most nights and my meetings occur mostly in the evenings as well), but we did indeed follow up on the the decision by going out to Starbucks this morning. Over our chosen drinks, and the comfortable atmosphere we talked about all the significant happenings in our life right now. It was nice just to take the time to connect meaningfully about the issues that move us in this season of life. After that we went over to the new Dick's Sporting Goods store in Rockwall to imagine new recreation activities for our family. It was a great time.

All in all, it helped me remember that the schedule simply must not become too full to squeeze in time alone with my wife. Leaving time to date is essential to our relationship, and also serves as a time of refreshing relaxation for me too.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Around a fire

This last weekend I joined several men from my church on a canoe trip down the Brazos River west of Fort Worth, TX. We traveled 10 miles down the meandering stream that was fairly low due to the upstream dam's need to store water in its reservoir (recent rains were welcome relief from a drought). Periods of lake-like slow currents were interrupted by stretches of shallow rapids requiring pushing the canoe at moments. These were not enjoyment dampers in the least. On the contrary, the relaxed pace of the current helped the world slow down. It was refreshing.

Friday afternoon, after a suitable campsite had been scouted and selected, we unloaded the canoes and set up home for a night. The tent places were chosen and debris cleared away, but the vital component that really gives a campsite its magic was missing: a campfire. So I began gathering stones and placed them in a circle in the sandy depression of ground that the tents had been placed around. Not long afterward, others got the hint and began gathering wood from around the area. It was not long before the fire was lit and the dancing flames were beginning to have their entrancing effect.

What is it about fire that attracts the eye, slows the mind and brings normally high-intensity people to a slow crawl? Be it a fireplace in a home, a campfire in the county or even a simple candle on the desk, fire can mesmerize, clear the mind and facilitate rest. Native Americans used to gather the tribe around the fire for a myriad of reasons. The stories of the old ones, the dance of the warriors, the victory of the hunters or the commemoration of significant events all happened around the camps' fire.

Shakespeare wrote, "Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings." If such a line can be applied to the the King of the Christian (Jesus Christ), then the "sad" story is one of redemption; for the death of our King resulted in our salvation. If one takes it further, then the "sad" story each one could tell would be about their redemption. Applied to the genre of Christian fellowship the line could very well be adapted to read, "let us sit upon the ground and tell glorious stories of how our King who died, but then rose again, redeemed us." Or even such a line could be adapted to reminisce about the Christian's necessary death-to-self with, "let us sit upon the ground and tell our stories about the death of my sinful flesh in favor of my submission to the Lord Jesus Christ." In any case "let us sit upon the ground and tell...stories" is fellowship building in any culture; how much more so in a Christian one.

The campfire can facilitate such telling of stories. The old fellows can tell of the story of the faithfulness of God throughout their lives. The young ones can tell of the struggles of growing up in such times as we have now. The middle-aged warriors can tell of the victories of the King in conforming them to His image. The campfire encourages us; no, it calls us to sit upon the ground and tell our stories, to tell THE story of how our king's death gave us life.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Church Music: part 2 - music and personal responsibility

Because art can be such a subjective enterprise, responsibility falls on the receiver of said art to accept its expression in the spirit with which it was offered. I remember being the Director for a Thomas Kinkade signature gallery in Redmond, WA. Many would enter the gallery and get pretty much out of the painting what Thomas Kinkade would have wanted them to. I can be confident of this because of having read Kinkade's book Lightposts for Living. In that book Thomas offers a philosophy of life that he hopes will be reinforced by his artwork. For this reason, those who found in his art warm feelings of hearth and home brought on by the shades of light embedded into Kinkade's scenes were pretty much receiving from the artwork what he would have intended. On the other hand, every now and then, someone would enter the gallery and critique a piece for not having achieved what they wanted in a painting for their living room or entry way. I would smile and simply suggest that perhaps their tastes demands something other than what the artist feels is his place to convey. For those people, another gallery was most likely more appropriate.

In a church, music is performed and lead by artists who have a specific goal with the music they perform. They have an instinct for worshiping the God they know and love which they seek to incite others to develop. Those goals of their artwork must be clearly describable. For this reason, church leaders who interview potential music leaders must read the artist's "book" so to speak. The candidate's philosophy of church music, their thoughts on the integration of doctrine and art, as well as their personal worship of God are all written in their own "lightposts for living" beliefs. Once leaders have established that this is congruent with the church's doctrinal, traditional and cultural makeup, then the last consideration is musical style. Not that this is insignificant, but it takes a backseat to the weightier matters described above.

I say "weightier" because the doctrinal and philosophical matters are actually those that will affect a church the most for good or ill, and are the most difficult to change once a selection is made. Any musician can improve in skills and challenge themselves toward new varieties of expression. However, deeply embedded beliefs about doctrine or music's place in the worshiping culture of a church are seldom changeable once a position has been secured. Their is no doubt that the artist can improve in skills; but how likely is it that an artist will change his or her philosophy of art midstream? Thomas Kinkade's earlier works reveal the skills of someone young in his career, clearly showing improved skills over time. However, both the earlier and the later works all show the same philosophy of art expressed in Lightposts for Living.

For this reason, great responsibility falls on the individual worshiper in a church to listen carefully for an artist's philosophy of music and worship when they speak of it, or to talk to them directly about it on the side. In any case, church leaders rightly place greater weight on the thoughts given in the artist's "book" rather than critiques of an given piece, knowing that with patience the beauty in the artwork (music or canvas) will increasingly be perceived by the beholder.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The virtue of work

This last weekend men of our church assembled together to build a new storage shed next to our main building. The components for the shed had been purchased some time ago, but time for erecting the shed could not be secured until now. The crew started early and worked through the day pausing only briefly for lunch. It was, at times, entertaining inasmuch as men have varying approaches to construction and place different value levels on written instructions. Nevertheless, the project marched on with the parts coming together to progressively resemble the building it is supposed to become.

Since the work that occurred on Saturday and Sunday afternoon I've had moments to reflect on why it was that I took such great pleasure in the work-day. This is no exaggeration. I truly took pleasure in the work I participated in with the other men of the church. I now believe the reason I derived such fulfillment from the occasion has something to do with the virtue of physical labor as a spiritual discipline. In his book The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives, Dallas Willard describes some "non-standard" spiritual disciplines that help the believer become conditioned to the divine just like standard disciplines such as fasting, study or silence. He suggests that physical labor is a spiritual discipline that also can assist the people of faith "work out" their soul to develop spiritual fitness for encountering God's work through them.

In this regard, the physical labor of erecting a storage shed can serve as a spiritual discipline for being conditioned better for divine influence. In can also fit the category of Willard's "engaging" disciplines of service and fellowship. After all, fellowship occurs in those environments when you can know someone better than routine habits allow. I've often said if you really want to know a man, find out what annoys him, see how he reacts after hitting his thumb with a hammer or when wall joints don't line up. Also, you know a man by watching what makes him happy. Observe what jokes he tells or laughs at. Does he laugh at himself? Is he patient with others not as skilled as he is?

It is the nature of men to reveal a great deal about their personality and character when performing physical work. For this reason, laborious activities have a virtuous component to them in how they unearth a man's soul. Anything from digging ditches, to carpentry to piling rocks to assembling storage sheds contain the virtuous exercise of bringing out the hidden makeup of a man. As a result, physical labor can produce more meaningful fellowship than other forms of attempting it. It is a shame that in our present culture, when the collective instinct is so much stronger to be served rather than to serve, that many other forms for facilitating "fellowship" are pursued among men (such as BBQ, football, entertainment, etc.) to the seeming exclusion of work. There is nothing wrong with those things, but physical labor often seems at the bottom of the list. How tragic this is, when it produces such fulfilling moments of brotherhood. I look forward to the next opportunity I have to work and labor next to my Christian brothers, get to know them in a manner that only hammer, the drill and the screwdriver can produce.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Reformation Day: solus Christus

On this Reformation Day, I cannot help but reflect on all of the various avenues of personal salvation being advanced around the world and even in the U.S. In our multicultural context, it is often suggested that there are many paths to God. I typically answer with, "You're right. There are many paths to God, but only One of them gets a favorable response when you arrive." The Muslim, the Hindu, the Buddhist or the animist all claim to know how one gets to God. Even apart from these other major religious of the world countless others have arisen to claim an understanding of salvation. When one of these options do not fit one's personal tastes, western individualism kicks in and a new private salvation idea is invented that supposedly "works for me."

There are even supposed Christian teachers today who will not put there foot down and assert the Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life and no one gets to the Father except through him. That type of exclusivism is rather unpopular in our present times. Many choose not to remain so exclusive regarding salvation because either they do not want to risk the negative backlash in the form of an accusation of intolerance, or they do not want to field the question of "what about the people who die without hearing about Christ and thus were never given the chance to choose him?" The bottom line is that ours is a culture that cannot handle the concept of "need to know." We distrust government and therefore require that it remain accountable to us, having to no secrets that are withheld as "need to know." By extension, we then can't imagine that God may have a way of handling the "what of those who have never heard?" issue in a manner that is none of our business. Will we place our trust in the One who saves even if we don't know every detail about how he saves?

Another trend has been universalism: the belief that because Christ died for everyone, everyone will be saved regardless of how much of Christ they learned about in this life. This view tries to answer the above question about those who haven't heard by suggesting that God will forgive people their ignorance if they are responsive to some form of intuitive God-sense. This also must be rejected because it makes salvation possible through any message that one can craft, making the message of Christ of no effect. Salvation is possible in Christ alone. All other attempted avenues to heaven are damnable error.

The Reformation message of solus Christus ("Christ alone") is more pertinent now than ever. In Reformation times at least the debate was over whether salvation is in Christ alone or in Christ plus the church by means of the sacraments. Now the issue is whether salvation is in Christ alone, or if its in Christ or some other pathway that makes me a generally good person. People must be taught that "there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among people by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).

Monday, October 29, 2007

Reformation Day: soli Deo Gloria

This morning I had coffee at Kim's Donut Shop in Fate with a reporter from the Royce City Herald-Banner. During our conversation I made a comment that I had not made before so I spent and little more time this morning thinking about. My comment reflected accurately what I've thought for a while; I had just had never worded that way. I said to Leslie, "God is justifiably self-serving. When he pleases himself, everyone benefits." I had known for some time that God's redemptive action through the work of Jesus Christ brought him glory, but I had never articulated the way I suspected that we are beneficiaries of Christ's agenda to bring glory to the Father. I had developed an unease over the years with apparently "man-centered" approaches to the Gospel, but it took describing my view to a reporter for my true thoughts to come out: that we are beneficiaries of God's agenda to glorify himself. For this reason, my salvation (and yours) is not accomplished by Christ because of any need of God to feel appreciated by redeemed people. Instead the work of Christ is accomplished to glorify the Father by revealing the mission of God to see himself represented in all the world.

The Reformation message of soli Deo gloria ("for the glory of God alone") reminds us that God is not in need of us. Instead we are in need of him. He does not save us to so that we can gain power, position of prestige. We are not saved to become successful and popular. We are not saved to grow pompous with delusions of grandeur in thinking that God picks the best and brightest for his team like some sort of playground ballgame. On the contrary, his glory is reflected most in how he redeems and uses the un-pick-able people for this mission. It is for God's glory alone that I'm am redeemed by Christ's sacrifice, brought into his family and inhabited by his Spirit and progressively conformed to his image.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Reformation Day: sola fide

Imagine getting married, and during the wedding a pivotal moment in the ceremony came when your spouse-to-be placed an ankle bracelet on you with a GPS tracker so as to make sure you would remain faithful to them in the coming weeks and months. Because they could not bring themselves to extend any trust to you, they wanted proof, right from the beginning, that you'd follow through on your vows. Such a scenario seems outrageous to us because we cannot imagine entering into a relationship with someone who will not extend any trust on the front end that can be built over time.

...Yet this is precisely what we expect God to do with us. Although we are made in his "image," and therefore derive aspects of relatability from him, we still expect him to enter into a relationship with us though we'll extend no trust to him. We would find this totally unreasonable, and yet we expect that he's cool with it because he's God and should be above such petty relational dynamics like trust, confidence and faith. On the contrary, our intuitive requirement of trust to enter a relationship is a reflection of his requirement. Without trust in his saving work and benevolent care we cannot expect God's relatability.

For this reason trust and proof can run contrary to one another. Proof can be offered from the one who is trusted (out of love for the one who is trusting), but proof that is demanded evidences an absence of trust. I can tell my wife where I've been most of the night (if pastoral or chaplaincy duties called me away) as an expression of love, rewarding her trust in me. However, if she demands to know where I've been, she's evidencing a mistrust of my behavior during the time I was away. Out of love for her, I'll also avoid behaviors that erode her trust. This is a subtle dance of proof and trust, but it makes sense in relational terms.

Another term for trust, but conveys the same meaning is faith. When a relationship begins, faith in the other person's trustworthiness must be assumed, otherwise the relationship has not begun well. Faith grows in the relationship as those in the relationship prove faithful through new and diverse experiences. Though faith grows with time, it must have been present in the beginning. It is the same with God. Our first response to his invitation to relate to him through Jesus Christ must be faith. While some evidences are graciously offered by God that can point toward the reasonability of faith, reason and evidence can never substitute for faith. What one trusts God for is salvation from spiritual death and judgment in Hell; realities that can never be proved, only believed in.

Faith is scary though. It is the acceptance of truths about reality that cannot be proved regardless of how much "proof" is ever surfaced. Faith cannot be substituted by good deeds, as though God needs to be convinced of our faithfulness. The contrary is true - we must be convinced of his faithfulness. Faith cannot be circumvented by good deeds, good upbringing or good company. Faith cannot be made unnecessary by being a church member, a good neighbor or a Republican. Faith cannot be usurped by giving to the church, receiving the sacraments or even singing with enthusiasm. Faith alone is the basis of our response to the work of Jesus Christ.

Faith alone acknowledges the relational requirements of God on us; that our only correct response is to trust him for all that we cannot see, especially since he has shown himself so faithful with all that we can see. Nevertheless, faith alone is each person's proper response to God's revelation. This cannot be replaced with sacraments, good deeds, good behaviors or positive thinking. Faith alone assures us that the relationship with God through Christ is secure. Sola fide ("only faith") is a necessary cry in a world where people still think that God is impressed with "good" people. On the contrary, he's drawn to people who trust him, approaching him only with their faith in his promises...nothing more.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Reformation Day: sola gratia

Imagine how you would feel if someone kept trying to earn a gift you had given them for free. As an expression of your love for them you gave them a gift that was all they wanted and more, yet as time went on they kept trying to do good things for you or pay you for the gift. They in essence were failing to recognize the love you were showing and the extent to which you showed it by giving them a free gift.

Or imagine that you have an insecure spouse who has a history of being abandoned by parents or loved ones. Your commitment to them is free, unconditional and bound by covenant. However, you find that they keep trying to please you so that you won't leave them. Would you feel hurt that they weren't trusting you to love them freely? Would you find it annoying that they couldn't trust you to offer your devotion to them without requirements on their performance? In high school I dated someone like that. She had been abandoned or abused by men in her past to the point that she was not prepared to accept that a man might be loyal to her simply because he had determined to be loyal. She tried everything to make sure I wouldn't break up with her, even though I wasn't going to anyway. The relationship eventually fell apart because she could not bring herself to accept loyal love and unconditional acceptance from a man.

Many of us are like this all the time. For everything else in life we work and strive to earn something. We have a tough time imagining God offering his loyal love as a free gift because nothing else is free. The saying goes "There ain't no free lunch." We find this to be true in much of life so we think it applies to God. The gospel winds up being a terrible conundrum for us because in it God is operating opposite from how we would expect. We would expect all sorts of conditions to be given up front: "clean up your act, watch your language, quit smoking, drinking (or any other drug for that matter) and then we'll talk about how deserving you might be of salvation from judgment in Hell." People think like this all the time. You hear it when they say, "I think I'll go to Heaven someday because I'm a good person." That's conditional salvation and is completely opposite from the free gift of grace that God has offer through the completed work of Jesus Christ.

I'm even susceptible to this tendency. At times when I've been a "good boy," I think God is closer to me. At times when I've been bad, I think he's distant. When I think that, I'm basically making the efficacy of Christ's work on the cross in bridging the gap between God and me conditional upon my behavior. This is not the essence of God's grace. Instead it is by grace alone that my relationship with God is both offered and maintained. Sola gratia was a pillar of the Protestant Reformation because the roman church had slowly began to teach that it is by our cooperation with God in taking the sacraments and holy living that we earn merit applied to us from the "treasure chest" of righteousness stored in heaven. Rome even went so far as offer these payments of "merit" applied to one's account in heaven in exchange for supporting the church financially. Indulgences were sold as a means of supporting the church's building program and (it was taught) a means of applying merit to one's account. This "merit" (or credit earned by the good deeds of Christ or other saints) could counteract one's bad deeds in the final accounting. If someone bought an indulgence, it could be applied to your heavenly account or a loved one's account now languishing in purgatory being cleansed of their impurities before entering heaven. Salvation was not a free gift then; it was for sale at closeout prices.

Sola gratia must return as a battle cry of future reformers. We so easily and quickly forget it. Consider how tempting it is for us motivate people to give for our building program by suggesting God will be more pleased with them if they give. Heresy! A portable building used for an exciting new children's ministry would be a great blessing, but IT SHALL NOT BECOME SAINT PETER'S BASILICA. People should give because it is good that people give. The Scriptures teach that the people of God are to be a generous people. But people are NEVER to be taught that the pleasure of God is for sale.

Sola gratia also reminds us that behavior follows belief, not vice a versa. While the discussion in some circles continues as to how much behavioral change should follow initial belief and how quickly it should be evident, the order of belief preceding behavioral change is NOT open for discussion. God graciously initiates the relationship with us through the illuminating work of the Spirit and then goes to work on us as disciples of Jesus Christ. God's loyal love is offered freely by grace alone. There's nothing we can do to make him more gracious to us. This remains a comfort that my relationship with him now, and my place in heaven someday is as secure as his gracious character. There is no greater comfort.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Reformation Day: sola scriptura

Several years ago I spent some time attending a church in which people were very experiential in their faith. It was refreshing to me to see how vibrantly they worshiped and how actively they sought the mind of God for every aspect of life. It was a welcome break from some of the stoic routines I had witnessed growing up. This was not true of my parents, of course, but my church tradition didn't welcome a lot of free expression in one's intimacy with the Lord. I liked it.

As time went on though, I started to become concerned about what some people were suggesting was the "will of God" for them. I wondered how they could be so confident that God had spoken so specifically to them regarding issues I had been taught that the Bible addresses. Sure they knew that God had already spoken on their issue, and that he would never contradict his written Word later on. When I brought this up, some reacted negatively, suggesting that I was restricting the "leading of the Spirit" with the "letter of the Law." That certainly wasn't my intention, but I was concerned that they were somehow failing to recognize how much we can all be deceived by our own feelings.

Without a standardized revelation as our authority, we all are susceptible to following our own private revelation. Our own frailties and fallen natures make private revelation more susceptible to influence from our own personal agendas. When left unchecked, we can easily fall into bondage to our own fleeting emotions that we instead call "prophecies from God." How does God, in his benevolent grace, rescue us from such personally imposed dangers? Standardize revelation...The Bible.

When we fail to test what we think God is telling us against what he has already said in the Bible we can slowly develop ideas that are actually contrary to what the Bible teaches. The problem is that by that time we've convinced ourselves that God directly told us something that in actuality he has not said at all. God would not contradict his own Holy Scriptures. People can fall into this trap all the time; so can institutions.

By the end of the medieval period the church of Rome had slowly developed doctrines and traditions that actually contradicted key teachings of the Bible. To settle the conflict it was necessary to determine by what authority a conclusion would be reached to the problem. Would the Scriptures be the final authority for determining how correct or erroneous our ideas were? Or would the Pope and recent church tradition hold sway?

The conclusion reached by Martin Luther and other reformers was that the nature of man made it possible for people to migrate away from God's Word in their thinking, so tradition (though it is helpful and instructive in some cases) should not be the final authority. In addition, because human weakness is still present, the Pope should not be the final authority for determining what we must believe either. Scripture alone can hold that place. God has gracious provided us with standardized revelation that, though interpreted in community, is not subject to the community. We instead are subject to it. Sola Scriptura remains as one of the great pillars of the Protestant Reformation because we recognize God's gracious care of us in providing it as our authority for faith and life.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Reformation Day: a philosophy of celebration

October 31st is quickly approaching and we have labored to make it a significant celebration. Its outcome is up to God, but for our part it is an important event to us. Why is this date so anticipated? No; not because we are Halloween enthusiasts. It is instead because our family has realized that God has graciously provided an entirely different reason for partying hard on this date that has absolutely nothing to do with Halloween.

This all started a few years ago as we were examining what traits would be true of our home culture. Naomi and I began having an intuitive unease with Halloween as a reason for celebration, but had not yet fully articulated our reasoning for backing out. Some of it was an objection to the historical origins of Halloween that left the wrong taste in our mouth when considering dressing up our children to take them out trick-or-treating. There's much latitude one might grant one's self when engaging in an activity on their own, but that same person had better be much more certain of the "rightness" of a thing before pulling their children into it. Our unease has been dismissed as puritanical zeal over the years by those who argued that none in our present culture are seeking to celebrate historical meaning during Halloween. Such a point, though concedeable, did not alleviate our remaining concerns. Over the years we grew tired of trying to defend our abstinence of Halloween to those who were quick to accuse us of legalism. We found that a Christian liberty version of McCarthyism exists in many churches that will set upon (rather quickly and rabidly) any believer that hints at self restraint as a responsible component to Christian liberty. We got tired of arguing the Halloween issue every year to our peers.

Enter the Dallas Theological Seminary bookstore and "Reformation Week"...

My first year at DTS was thrilling. I was quite excited about all that I was learning for the first time. In fall of 2004 I took my first church history class with Dr. John Hannah. His lectures about the ancient church opened my eyes to what a rich and wonderful heritage Christians have dating back to the Apostolic era. In addition, I noticed that the DTS bookcenter was advertising special activities during the week prior to Oct 31st as "Reformation Week." Keep in mind that I was raised in a Baptist tradition that doesn't like to acknowledge ties to the rest of Christendom and pretty much acts as though the Christian church took a break after the Apostles until Roger Williams began preaching in Rhode Island in the 1630's. For this reason I was very intrigued by the bookstore's Reformation Week celebration. After some further investigation, Naomi and I saw the Reformation Day idea as an answer to our dilemma.

In addition, we began to articulate our "philosophy of celebration." In the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, we find repeated commands from the Lord for the Israelites to "remember." This appears to be the function of the various feasts that God prescribes earlier in the Pentateuch. To go even further, the purpose of these feasts appear to function in a past-present-future capacity: (1) The feasts are to remind the Israelites of the great historical acts of God on their behalf, (2) this act of remembering through celebration grows their devotion to him now and (3) renews their hope in his provision for the future. This appeared then, to our mind, a God-prescribed reasoning for celebrating - a "philosophy of celebration."

Bearing this in mind, holidays such as Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving and even birthdays make better sense. Such a philosophy of celebration not only explains such festivities, but invites (even requires) a deeper experience of them. St. Patrick's Day, New Years and even Independence Day also fit this template. Halloween stood out as the one cultural party that does not fit this mold, and therefore was quite discardable. However, Reformation Day fit it extremely well. Thanks to the DTS bookstore, God appeared to have graciously provided a reason to celebrate that allow for consistency in our festivities. For this reason, we're not merely abstaining from Halloween. We're instead bypassing it altogether by diving fully into a celebration that fits with a philosophy that we think is biblically derived.

October 31st, 1517 is the traditional date given for when Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 theses to the door of his church in Wittenburg. Though the great Protestant Reformation had many players, factors and catalysts, this act of Luther remains a symbolic focal point for celebrating the God who reforms us as needed, and will continue to do so out of his great love for us. Reformation Day is coming up. Let's party like its 1517!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Softball and the competitive spirit


On Sunday nights our church plays softball in the Rowlett city softball league. It is hoped that in the future we'll pick a league closer to the community we intend to reach as a church - but I digress. When we come together as a church team, we seek to play our best. So far this season, all of the other teams we have played appear more proficient at the game than we are (we've lost every game).

However, this record requires some context. At the beginning of the season it was expected that our team would be placed in the "D" league where it was last season. However, due to the number of teams that occupied that league this season someone had to be bumped up for space considerations. That unfortunate team was Genesis Community Church. I say "unfortunate" because the goal of the church team does not ever appear to have been to seriously compete, but instead to have fun playing against comparably skilled teams. Because we had played at "D" league competency, we expected to play against other "D" level teams. Instead, this season we find ourselves playing against "C" league teams who are far more competitive that what we had been used to.

The resulting effect has been a temptation to become discouraged at the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of each opponent's skills each Sunday night. We say that the goal was never to be intensely competitive, but the scored spread is not ignorable either. What is the proper attitude one should have when seemingly unfairly placed in a situation both beyond your control and beyond your skill level?

It seems that given the above mentioned conditions, the normal standards of measuring progress are no longer valid (i.e. the other team's score compared to yours). Because the conditions have changed, so must the measurement of one's own success. Instead of counting by what number of runs the other team won, it is actually more accurate to measure progress of one's own performance against one's own record given the new conditions. How many more runs the opposing team got is of less concern that how many more runs we got than our last game given a similarly skilled opponent. Do not speak so much of how many more runs the opposing team got tonight. Instead speak of how many more runs we got tonight than we last did when getting them was just as difficult.

I suspect that our improvements over this season, playing in a higher league than we're supposed to, will be too gradual to detect from one game to the next. The end result will most likely be that by the end of the season we will have risen to a level that makes continuation in the "C" league more appropriate than returning to the "D" league. If we do register for the Royce City adult softball league in the Spring, then we still might sign up for the "D" league. I would not be surprised though to discover that opponents at that time complain that we were placed in too low a league, just as we initially complained for being placed in too high a league. The competitive spirit will arise again as our team glories in the victories, forgetting about the whining and pitiful lamentations that accompanied the learning of our new found skills this season in the first place.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Church music: Part 1 - Music leaders and the sacred event

I say "part 1" because I imagine that I'll have a lot more to say about this in the future. For now I'll simply suggest that the Church seems ill-served when less attention is given to selecting music leaders than teaching pastors. The music in a church is so reflective of that particular community's faith confession, so symptomatic of its desire for excellence in offering praises to their God and so influential in their development of genuine devotion that the music leader's influence with the congregation is often rightly second only to the senior pastor. Some would disagree with this assessment, but I am persuaded that these two positions (senior pastor and music leader) are the dominant catalysts to peoples' faith response to the Sunday morning service.

It is out of an understanding of sacred space, sacred days and sacred times that we rightly acknowledge the importance of Sunday morning to people's religious experience. Perhaps in other cultures the standard meeting day and time differs significantly. However, in the U.S. Sunday morning is the received practice. In addition, the sense of sacred space drives people to expect an experience with God at church that differs from that which is enjoyed during the rest of the week and everywhere else. This notion of the sacred can be overblown of course, resulting in the worst expressions of legalism in practice during the Roman Catholic era of the Church. On the other hand, to deny the human attraction for the sacred is to deny the human's need met by Old Testament prescriptions for worship and sacrifice to Yahweh in the Tabernacle or the Temple.

As a result of understanding and appreciating the sacred, we can see that those that lead a band and congregation in the singing of praises on Sunday morning are "instrumental" in helping the sacred event have the proper religious effect for the participant. In other words, he does with art and music what the pastor hopes to do through preaching of the Word and the administering of the sacraments. They have different methods, but parallel goals. For this reason churches rightly undertake to examine potential music leaders with a scrutiny only slightly less rigorous that they would another pastor. What is their theology? What is their doctrinal makeup? What do they believe is the role of music in the Church? Do they have a well developed philosophy of church music? How do they believe that doctrine and art must coincide? How is the transcendent church celebrated through music? How can multiple generations be kept together in one service through musical diversity? How does their knowledge of the sacred effect their playing?

These and many more reasons combine to suggest that music must be pursued as a priority of the Church's faith expression second only to the exposition of the Word of God. In addition, church leaders had better approach the selection of music leaders with sober reflection that takes into account music's timeless importance to the community of faith. Once having made such a choice, satisfied that the above mentioned concerns are well addressed, the leadership of said musician must carry the weight of the process that the church's leaders went through to appoint him. This weight is appropriate because the issue of whether of not he could play an instrument well was the last concern to be addressed. The foremost concerns that the leadership had better have addressed was whether the music leader can well assist in the leaders' vision of what manner of sacred event that particular church must pursue. If the selection is a fit, then the music leader leads with the credential of having been selected by the church's leaders, and by extension, having been appointed by God for that task. Such is the importance of music for expression of the sacred in community.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Scary Movies

Our family isn't into Halloween. We find that we have no space left for it in our lives with Reformation Day becoming such a large and meaningful celebration. I'll post on that later. For now suffice it to say that Halloween, as a celebration, doesn't fit with our family's philosophy of celebration; therefore, we don't celebrate it. For us October 31st is Reformation Day. Nothing else fits.

Having said that, we, as a family, are still attracted to many of the elements that often are combined in the Halloween time. We simply break them up and enjoy them at other times. Take candy for instance. I have such a sweet tooth it's a miracle I have any teeth left. Dressing up? Forget it! We'll costume up for almost any excuse. The boys are frequently Spiderman, Rambo or Knights of the Round Table. Earlier this year I helped deliver Pastor Jeff Garrett's message on Sunday morning at The Table dressed as Batman. Oh, and around Halloween you can get some great deals on costumes that you might use some other times.

But one thing that has been a family tradition is watching scary movies. I grew up with my parents watching scary movies at night while I hid behind the couch. Eventually, when I got older, I graduated up to actually sitting on the couch next to them, covering my eyes either with a blanket or my fingers. Into my teens I grew into a full blown thrill junkie. Now mind you, I have absolutely NO appetite for the slasher movie genre, or films that use the horror genre to feed my eyes grotesque gore or nudity and sex. But there's a select group of terrifying movies still around, or even produced now and then, that can spin such a spooky yarn as to really give you the heebeegeebees. Case in point? John Carpenter's "The Fog." I still get the willies over that puppy.

Well, early on in our marriage I thought Naomi would be my "scary movie girl." You know, the kind that hold tight to your arm and then jumps in your lap when the killer emerges suddenly from the closet. I was in for a surprise. She doesn't get scared by that stuff. Was I ever disappointed. Who would enjoy scary movies with me?... Answer? My Daughter!

Jessica is now my scary movie partner. We get on the couch, pull the blankets up under our chins and start shaking in our boots before the opening credits even appear. The popcorn is nervously consumed, the lights are dim, the music foreboding and the anticipation nerve wrenching. Although we don't celebrate Halloween, those that do accommodate us with scary movies that have been edited for television with increasing frequency as October 31st draws near. We have our own agenda with Reformation Day, but in the meantime we still get a thrill with "scary movie night" as a father/daughter exercise.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Pulpit and Spade

Archaeology is the study of the material remains left behind by cultures of the past. For this reason it is, and should be, pursued with as much scientific discipline as can be mustered in order to "unearth" the most reliable data. However, when it comes to archaeological finds that relate to the biblical world, and particularly events and places mentioned in the text, the science of it can become quite obscured, leaving a pseudo-science resembling a slightly more intellectual yet very religious exercise. This is further complicated when determining what use is the data to the pastoral function of preaching. Can the pulpit and the spade become friends, or are they uncomfortable acquaintances that are not sure what to do with one another?

I believe the answer begins with determining what one thinks archaeology related to the biblical world ought to be used for. Among the various schools of thought there are two which receive the most press due to remaining the most vocal: (1) Prove the Bible is true by setting out to find ancient sights, artifacts and inscriptions that validate its historical claims, and (2) assume the Bible is not true until archaeological finds support its claims.

Both approaches have considerable problems. The 1st approach assumes that the Bible is always conducting straight historical reporting (often in violation of their own hermeneutic principles of accounting for literary genre, idiom, parable, figures of speech, etc.), and therefore will force the scientific data to fit their presupposed interpretation of the Bible by any means possible. In addition, in their zeal to "prove the Bible," the 1st approach will often bypass much of the scientific process and declare an interpretation proved with sketchy or incomplete data that is later disproved. This gives ammunition to those who desire to disprove the Bible.

The problem with the 2nd approach is that it begins from a perspective of disbelief. It is expected that only provable claims must be believed. This is not only in contradiction to the principle of faith preceding understanding, it also denies the reality of the great limits on archaeology's ability to prove anything. So little of what can be discovered, identified, excavated and analyzed has actually been done as to leave those supposedly objectively disbelieving to appear zealously so. One could just as well assert that, upon discovering a toe nail in a graveyard, a full human body never existed here because we have not found the rest of it. Rubbish!

What does this say for the Bible expositor? I for one seek a third approach. This approach is shared among critical evangelical scholars, committed to asserting the inerrancy of Scripture in all that it affirms. This approach suggests that the Scriptures are inerrant, but my interpretation may very need amendment as data illuminates my understanding of it. I do not expect that archaeology will "prove the Bible" because I am becoming increasingly more aware of the limits of archaeology. However, I do understand that archaeology (when itself is interpreted well) can aid in my interpretation of the Scriptures. I in turn seek to interpret the Scriptures so as to discover the transcendent truth expressed in its life-giving pages. That same truth is what must come from the pulpit.

I am persuaded that archaeology is a tool that is vital to the expositor's task of helping his people enter the biblical world. In this way they can better relate to the people to whom the truth expressed in the text first came. In addition, the truth from the text is better illuminated for purposes of application in the present time. The pastor ought to strive to connect the people of those times with those in his congregation now. In addition to the commentaries on the text, let him also read published (and scholarly credible) works on the lifestyle, culture and practices of the times that his passage is set in. Let him know something of Egypt when he speaks of Moses. Let him know something of Ugarit when he speaks of Baal. Let him know something of Babylon when he preaches from Daniel; Palestine and the Gospels; Anatolia and Ephesus; Greece and Corinthians; Rome and Revelation. Indeed the pulpit and the spade are great companions, and pastors must strive to be comfortable with both.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Monk on Fire

It is a pleasure for me to share that in addition to serving as Senior Pastor for Genesis Community Church, I also now serve as the Chaplain for the Fate Volunteer Fire Dept. This additional role does not conflict with or impinge upon my duties as a pastor. On the contrary, it falls well in line with my philosophy of being a blessing to those both inside and outside the church body. I'm in general agreement with the notion I heard articulated years ago that asserted the church is a unique organization, being brought into existence primarily for the benefit of its non-members.

In accordance with this philosophy, I hope to be a blessing to the community through serving as Chaplain. These duties include assisting those who have been victims of a disaster find resources to keep life going, to offer comfort to those who have experienced a loss and to offer compassion and, if needed, counseling for those who serve the community with firefighting practices. In a sense, it can be said that I have two congregations to consider: Genesis Community Church and the Fate Volunteer Fire Dept.

These do not compete for time though. On the contrary, they represent both sides of the same coin. Heads=internal ministry. Tails=external ministry. My primary responsibility is to my church, but in a sense I fulfill some of that responsibility by offering an example of external ministry. This is not a pragmatic and covert means of evangelism though. I look forward to serving the fire dept. in the manner that they need, knowing that they are an example of God's blessing to the community in his providing of emergency response people. It is my hope that this is a small symptom of how Genesis Community Church will develop a symbiotic relationship with the surrounding community, seizing opportunities to become a blessing as an appropriate response to how much we have already been blessed by Christ.