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.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Get ready for fun!

Tuesday and Wednesday of this week I spent taking the Basic Rider Course at the Honda Rider Education Center in Irving, TX. The instructors for all such classes are certified by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, and use standardized curriculum to ensure that all student training conforms to the set standards whereby the successful completion will waive the riding portion of a motorcycle license examination. I enjoyed the class immensely, and was glad to hear that the particular facility I took the course from has standards that exceed many others as far as rider safety and competency is concerned.

I find that I'm willing to accept a certain degree of risk in the ways I enjoy my pursuits, but if unnecessary risk is not marginalized by safe practice then the enjoyment drops off sharply. Riding a motorcycle, for me anyway, will accomplish two purposes. It will obviously be a second means of transportation (our family only has one car), but it will also be fun. Not just "fun" though; it's a means of traveling that will challenge me to maintain a much more heightened sense of my surroundings. Every reflex is honed and all the senses brought to bear when riding. It demands of me a greater awareness, attention to detail, astuteness, tactical intuition and reaction timing than driving will ever require.

In this way it seems almost parabolic to the new pastoral responsibilities I carry. One does not "muscle" the bike into a turn, but instead gently presses the grip in the direction of the turn and then moves with the bike. In negotiating obstacles, swerving becomes almost a dance with the machine to which you are attached. Procedurally, one can drill safety practices over and over, but it needs to evolve into that intangible collection of sensory registers that can only be summarized as a "feel." There's a "feel" to riding that transcends mere steps in the book. That is why I'm so thankful that the course entailed so much riding time on the practice range. As students, we were given the opportunity to taste of the "feel" of the bike and riding it through the various exercises.

I believe institutions such as Dallas Theological Seminary could greatly benefit from having more motorcycle riders, and especially MSF certified instructors, among those who plan curriculum. Students preparing for ministry must be given more opportunities to experience the "feel" of moving with the Church and serving her as Christ would require. Students should "feel" the church like a dance partner negotiating obstacles and hazards, tasting of the joy that comes from the exhilaration of riding that cannot be duplicated in class. I'm experiencing some of those joys even now. How great might it have been to have spent more time in seminary getting ready for the fun of serving the Church in like manner that I got ready to ride in Irving.

Yesterday I went down to the Rockwall branch of the DMV and passed my written exam, receiving my motorcycle operator's license on the spot. I'm ready to ride! In seminary though, because I have not yet graduated, that "license" is still ahead. Nevertheless, I plan to enjoy the remainder of my DTS training knowing how it will help me "dance" with the church through our various twists and turns, realizing that we have somewhere to go and it's OK to have fun getting there.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Stars Hockey and Sabbath

Yesterday tickets became available for Naomi and I to attend the Dallas Stars' opening pre-season game. They defeated the St. Louis Blues 6 to 5. It wasn't pretty. Some of the goals that St. Louis scored appeared preventable, and we hope Goaltender Marty Turco finds his grove really soon. Steve Ott was up to his usual shenanigans, fighting with an opposing player early on; but the passion with which he plays is still inspiring. Turco was replaced in the second period by Goalkeeper Mike Smith, who who held the Blues to only one more goal the rest of the game as the Stars continued to score. It was a thrill!

The Stars also debuted their new jerseys last night (new design and all black for home games). I do not care for them as much. I liked that their previous jersey design was in the shape of a star all over the shirt. Their distinction is gone now, with the shirts more closely resembling the rest of the NHL teams' jersey design. I suppose it will grow on me over time.

Quite possibly one of the more refreshing aspects of attending the hockey game was that it is fun that has no immediate correlation to other aspects of life. Oh given time I suppose I'll find a deeper meaning behind much of what I saw and experienced. But for now, it was fun with friends cheering on my team, cheering with the crowd and refreshment away from more heavy responsibilities.

If I were to classify the refreshing aspect of it, I imagine it would fit into the category of "sabbath." The principle of Sabbath is not merely a day set aside for the Lord in the Old Testament; and it most certainly is not merely Sunday at church, though it can include it. Sabbath is the manner in which one sets aside normal work to enjoy the goodness and blessings of God. This could be demonstrated by special days in the OT, but also had "sabbath" feasts and "sabbath" years in the Old Testament as well. Those that are legalistic about keeping "the sabbath" would do well to testify about that last time they skipped work for an entire year, trusting God to provide for their needs in the meantime. No, Sabbath is much more. So much more in fact that the writer of Hebrews will eventually tell us that only Christ can provide true Sabbath rest.

In light of the above mentioned purpose of Sabbath (setting aside routine work to enjoy the goodness and blessings of God), Dallas Stars hockey is a means by which "sabbath" is entered into, at least for me. I enjoyed the fun of a competitive sport in which players exert the precision, pace and passion of an intense contest. I enjoyed fulfilling company with friends and allowed the daily guard to drop. I did indeed experience an aspect of "sabbath" at American Airlines Center, and ironically was blessed with greater peace while the fights broke out on the ice.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Hungry for the "Recall"

When the current War of Terror began in 2001, many who had previously served in the U.S. military anticipated being recalled into service. Some may have not wanted it, but almost all that I spoke to were anxious to be re-enlisted in the service of their country. They had tasted of the pride that is uniquely theirs for having served honorably for the protection of their nation. I remember listening as men who were passed the age in which the military would want them back argued passionately for the age requirements to be extended so that they could participate in the "call to arms," or "recall" to arms.

As a Christian, I've been there. I have been in that place wherein I've tasted of the joys of Christ's mission, hungry to be "recalled" back into action. Clearly God felt it necessary for me to go through a time in which I was able to sufficiently separate identity and activity so as not to confuse performance for God and acceptance by God. Many people struggle with this, men in particular, and God must take them through a period out of service to teach them this vital lesson. But once that period is done though, we are rightly hungry to be recalled back into service.

My "recall" came in Everett, WA when I was the director of an art gallery for Thomas Kinkade. The passion was welling up inside me, it was confirmed by my wife and attested by friends and Christian leaders I knew. As a result, I was motivated to pursue a job on the facilities staff at Overlake Christian Church where we attended. My thinking was born of an old proverb I learned in Temple Kung Fu:

"Better to find fulfillment sweeping the floors of the temple, than to seek gain and fame away from it."

It was during those days, weeks and months (eventually equaling two years) vacuuming carpets, cleaning bathrooms, wiping smudges off glass doors and setting up rooms that I completed my Bible college training. I also took general education course from the local community college. The point is that I had been "recalled" to the ministry, and the passion that was now being cultivated in me by God rendered any job, even janitorial work, the ministry of a lifetime. May you find your hunger for service renewed as God "recalls" you into service for his glory.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Looking for Hunting

For many years I was not a hunting enthusiast. Oh I enjoyed hunting with my father early in life, and looked forward to that season when we started getting ready for picking our zone, picking the camp ground, sighting in our rifles and getting our tags. The places in northern California we went were remote and exciting. Sometimes we went to campgrounds we could drive to, but my most fond memories were in the Trinity Wilderness area. We had to hike four miles into the wilderness area to set up camp at Lillypad Lake. Though we also did plenty of bow hunting, both bucks that I have gotten were with rifles near that lake in the Poison Canyon basin of the Trinity Alps.

I enjoyed hunting with my father, and later went along more for the fellowship than for my own enjoyment of hunting. However, that attitude toward hunting is starting to change in me. I can sense an internal migration toward a growing interest in hunting for its own sake. I can't pinpoint it very well. It's possible that at this period in my life I'm developing an appetite for what my father used to call "ecological participation." Or maybe I am seeking to carry on the legacy of woodsmanship and hunting that my father started.

It's possible, though, that an entirely different force is at work. It could be that I'm intuitively sensing such an integrated network of potential benefits from the hunting experience, that need not be directly related to killing the deer, that I'm attracted to the activity that uniquely bring those benefits to bear. The fellowship of those hunting is certainly a factor, but it's much more than that; for fellowship can be achieved in a variety of ways. Woodsmanship and connection to the Earth is certainly a benefit, but it's more than that too; for woodsmanship is achievable without necessarily carrying a weapon and using it to harvest the game animal. The concentration needed while in the hunt certainly can have a meditative effect, quieting the mind, ceasing one's striving and making way to know God better. The attention to care and safety can develop maturity. The rigors of being in the right place, at the right time, with the right skills to achieve the right harvest certainly can have myriad proverbial benefits. And we must not neglect the familial connections that are facilitated through such ventures. But none of these, by themselves, seem to capture an adequate reasoning for enthusiasm for hunting.

Perhaps... No; rather I suspect this is so. It's the manner in which hunting uniquely brings the above mentioned list of benefits together that justifies its pursuit. For this reason I'm increasingly developing an interest to exhume hunting from the its burial place in my mind, and examine it anew. In addition, I'm drawn to the gear that hunting requires: rifles, tents, maps, stoves, clothes, etc. Recently, while visiting Cabela's, I was looking for lots of hunting gear, with an eye for what my boys and I will need to participate in deer season in Texas in next year. Now that my own father is retired I hope he'll be able to join us. In any case though, we'll be ready to safely, responsibly and joyfully engage all of those benefits that result from participating in the ecology God has created and given for such blessings that we will receive through it.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Inspired by Sports

I have often wondered what role exactly does sports play in society. The closer it is to "bloodsport" the more I can dismiss it as reminiscent of the gladiatorial spectacles of the Roman area in which the worst of human nature was demonstrated by what passed as entertainment to the masses. "Bloodsport" is a technical term that historians have used to classify those sports that have "blood" as their goal. Ancient Olympic games would not fall into this category, but the gladiator games of ancient Rome would, along with similar expressions of it throughout antiquity.

Some have wondered whether there are present day expressions of this since the death of the opponent is technically not what the crowds cheer for in modern society. I disagree though, asserting that close cousins can be found in the boxing or UFC arenas. In these cases, though technically not "bloodsport," harm of the opponent is still the goal. The broken nose, the cut eyebrow or the cracked rib is a definite objective encouraged by coaches and cheered by audiences. This does not even address the harm inherent in seeking to knock out the opponent. The long term damage possible to the competitor through repeated cerebral bludgeoning was well demonstrated by the aging Muhammad Ali. While boxing may be excused somewhat for its stringent rules and regulations, UFC (The Ultimate Fighting Championship: or mixed martial-arts) can hardly be granted the same leeway. These are present day echoes of a gladiatorial past that pave a possible pathway back to that depraved tradition of ancient times. The spectacle of WWE heralds its coming.

Having stated the above, it must be acknowledged when sports, through physical in nature, do not demonstrate such close ties to "bloodsport." Football, baseball, hockey, basketball, soccer, rugby and many others can be physically challenging, even perilous (requiring protective gear), yet they do not have the harm of the opponent as the stated goal. The goal is instead the end-zone, home plate, the net, the hoop or the "goal." These sports still serve a function for society that cannot be dismissed as appealing to the depraved human nature calling for the killing blow in the ancient Colosseum. Nor can they be similarly dismissed as entertainment for the masses either, merely lacking a violent objective. They serve another function altogether that meets a genuine societal need, that being: inspiration.

It would appear that societies throughout time have required, and thus venerated, heroes that have performed such feats as to inspire the masses toward greater excellence in their respective fields. Note how the Hebrew women sang about the hero David after the slaying of the giant (1 Sam 18:7), or the Spartan remembrance of the brave "300" against the Persian invaders, the Greek tales of Ulysses or Rome veneration of battlefield heroes as well. All societies maintain an implicit need for heroes because the human condition is subject to inspiration by examples. But what of the society that does not value inspiring "warriors" as much because either the battlefields are too distant (geographically or historically), or they do not allow "bloodsport" as an entertainment source? How are they to have the inspiration need met that only heroes can meet?

It appears that the above mentioned non-bloody sports (though I am fully aware that blood is sometimes spilled on the field, the ice or the court) meet the societal need for heroic inspiration without the undesirable necessity of harm to the contestants. For this reason, these sports are to be celebrated and encouraged as a community pillar. In addition, those who compete must acknowledge the societal function they play and soberly consider the weight of that responsibility when seeking to play on a professional team. The above Nike commercial is an example of the kind of inspiration that sports rightly offer. Let young men and women, seeking to compete in such public games, thoughtfully enter into them with full knowledge that they bare the responsibility of inspiring the onlookers, leading them into their own excellence as did great heroes of history before them.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Pray from the "gut"

Recently in church we talked about prayer that comes from the "gut." This was a word-play reminding us of the prayer of Jonah when he was in the belly or "gut" of a great fish sent by God to save him from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. We discussed that kind of prayer that comes from deep within the soul and articulates the true and intimate cries of a person to the God they know still saves. For me, this was not merely life theory derived from exegesis of the biblical text. It was that plus life history born of my own "Jonah" experience in the U.S. Navy.

When at Naval Training Center, Orlando FL, I had passed Nuclear Field "A" School but was unable to succeed in Nuclear Power School. "Washing out" of such a goal was a heavy weight for a young 19 year old who lacked the maturity to maintain a healthy separation of activity from identity. As a result, I had a few days in the hospital, physically and emotionally depleted, to hopefully consider alternatives to suicide for making the pain go away. It was during that time of crisis that I prayed from the "gut," recalling my faith in God, rehearsing my history with him and committing myself to keep following him wherever he leads.

Many who suffer from depression as I did often do not recover in the same manner I did. I would, therefore, never want to create the expectation that they might or should. Nevertheless, the Lord seemed to cause me to be ejected from that situation in no less dramatic a manner than Jonah was vomited from the fish. Now, when I pray, I can include that episode when I rehearse my history with God. Above is a video that places that event in context. It was originally prepared for a Spiritual Formation group at Dallas Theological Seminary of which I was a part.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Debate and Self-control

I had to re-live an important lesson recently. It was necessary for me to re-learn how much I despise debating. It's not spirited conversation that I loathe per se, but the rhetorical enterprise wherein two parties seek to offer the more forceful and acceptable argument in such a manner that the other will yield the contest. In such cases, the victor is determined when the losing party either concedes defeat or wanders away having lost face due to their burdensomely slower wit and demonstrably limited intellect or knowledge.

These contests among people are reminiscent of stories I learned about elk behavior when I was young . I've not consulted a wildlife biologist to check these details. Nevertheless, when I was much younger my father and I went elk hunting in Colorado with his friends and their sons. During the trip, and around the campfires, they talked about possible elk behavior we might observe. One of the behaviors we were particularly counting on was how the "herd bull" will defend the herd from other would-be challengers, or defend his place in the herd from younger bulls testing their fighting skills. If we hid in a certain place in the forest during a certain time of the morning and duplicated the sound of a challenge call or "bugle," the herd bull could be called into a fight, responding to the apparent challenge to his supremacy.

I remember practicing for hours prior to the trip trying to bugle in just the right way to attract a bull to a contest (that was ultimately supposed to result in our having a clear shot when hunting him). The audio tape my father had purchased played the ideal sounds that I tried to copy with the bugle he had bought with it. Over and over I practiced the bugling, the grunting and the snorting so that a herd bull would eventually want to lock horns with my fathers broadhead-tipped arrows. I can still make some of those sames sounds to this day.

Debates, be they theological, philosophical or political remind me a great deal of the bouts between bull elk that I sought to facilitate in the Colorado wilderness so many years ago. One man esteems his wit, knowledge or savvy as greater than another, so he "bugles" accordingly to challenge the other "bull" in the open field. In this case, however, it's over a table, in a forum, a cafeteria or classroom. The horns are leveled forward. Supremacy the goal.

In my case, though, I often feel as though I should act as the elk should have acted had he known that the bugle, grunt or snort was actually coming from a hunter instead of another elk. You see, when I allow myself to be "called" into a debate, I feel as though I've discovered too late that it was actually Satan in the tree-stand producing the sounds of a challenge to my place in the herd that I had to answer. Too late I discover that it is not other elk horns awaiting me, but a broadhead-tipped arrow that slices through the insides of my conscience. I run away, leaving a trail of blood for him to follow as he tracks me all the way back to my place to bed down. As he knocks his killing arrow to the string of his bow, I look up at him helplessly, wishing I had ignored the challenge to a fight.

I recently entered into a debate with some people with whom I much rather desire fellowship. As stated above, spirited conversations that result in realizing common ground are not the problem. It's the rhetorical exercise of debate that leaves me feeling much less human, and more like the dumb bull elk who didn't have the sense not to respond to the challenge. After all, what danger really exists other that a perceived one to my ego? Is my ego so fragile as to maintain a need to demonstrate supremacy? If so, how demeaning to think I have so much in common with any other herd animal.

If those I desire fellowship with have an attraction to debate, then I hope I will have the self-control enough to give them the field, compliment them on the grandeur of their impressive "rack," and quietly walk away. I also hope I will have the constitution to recognize that no need exists to defend myself to them. They are either a sibling in Christ, or a potential one, and true relationship will not be facilitated by losing self-control and "locking horns" in an attempt to achieve some arbitrary rhetorical victory.