Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Poetry, Young Love and New Year’s Eve

One of the odd applications I often find from studying the Scriptures is a desire to write in the manner that the biblical authors did. For example, when I first began reading and analyzing closely Paul’s epistles to the Mediterranean churches, I developed the habit and skills of writing meaningful letters. Though correspondence is often considered a weak spot among men, I was inspired by Paul to also write “epistles” in addition to imbibing the content of his writings. In addition, upon closer examination of Psalms this last year, I was driven to attempt writing “psalms” (i.e. Psalm 23 - Firefighter version and Psalm “343”). Though I would never suppose to write Scripture, it is symptomatic of my high bibliology that I want to write as eloquently as the inspired authors did.

Having said that, I am now completing a course of close study and analysis of the biblical Song of Songs. As a collection of love poetry, the Song of Songs constitutes an anthology of poems compiled by Solomon to express young love. Each of the poetic sections appears to celebrate a young couple in love, whose longing affection for each other culminates in a wedding night. While the song does not express the totality of love that a married couple will experience over the course of their lifetime together, it certainly does showcase the young love shared by the lovesick couple in the “spring” of life.

Because of the literary beauty of the Song of Songs, and because of its inspired place in the biblical canon, I am likewise moved to write in that fashion too. Only yesterday I wrote a love poem for my wife that was guided in form and function by the Song of Songs. Its content was for her eyes only, so I’ll not reveal it here. Nevertheless, it was difficult to compose not because I find expressing love to Naomi cumbersome, but because the Song of Songs expresses young love. However, we have been married for fifteen years now. The love expressed by young people infatuated with each other has distinct limits that the mature couple has grown beyond. Not that the middle-aged couple neglects the category of physical attraction that leads to sexual fulfillment, but the Song of Songs traffics exclusively in this limited arena. Therefore, to write a love poem in the genre of the Song, but also to express the love of fifteen years, requires extra skill and attention.

The extra attention was necessary because the love of fifteen years is deeper and more mature than that expressed in the Song. If I had simply written my poem to Naomi in a manner that sounded just like the Song, she would have found that flighty and devoid of the deeper love we have developed over the years. Good love poetry should be idealic to a degree, but also it requires a degree of believability. This is a delicate balance to be sure, but the tension between idealic love and mature love is an absolute necessity for a vibrant marriage of any age.

For new year’s eve, the whole genre of young love finds appropriate expression. The focus is on new life stages and benchmarks. New years are timely reminders to renew life trends that might have grown stale. Not that mature love is by nature stale, but it must be vigilantly guarded against growing tepid and boring. As a result, it is fitting that the Song of Songs motivated my poetry to Naomi near the New Year’s celebration. The reminder to conjure aspects of idealic love as part of a maturing love was a welcome application of God’s Word. I’m sure Solomon would consider it an apt lesson from his collection of love poetry as well.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Last Service

This morning Woodcreek Bible Church held its last service. For a church to close, and hold its final service is a heavy moment. By "heavy" I imply it is not to be taken lightly in any way. Across America churches close all the time, but seldomly do they do so on purpose and with purpose. We had the privilege of knowing what our purpose was, the mission we're called to and the time frame we had to pursue it as a church body. As a result, we were able to conduct our final service with that purpose and mission in mind.

A church service though, conducted with the end in mind, is quite different from a regular one you might encounter on any given Sunday. It's one in which the worship reflects on what God has done in and through the church body over the course of its life. It's one where the communion table takes on a far more meaningful significance than it usually ever can. The sermon has a distinct commissioning flavor to it. While some aspects seem like finishing the course and completing the race, other parts point toward launching into new life.

I am particularly thankful though, that God enabled us to end well, and conduct ourselves with missional purpose. While such a service is heavy, it's not sad. Some may be saddened by the finality of it upon further reflection later on, the same sense of triumph should be shared by all. Many churches throughout America close all the time, but few close like this. It was glorious to behold.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Dallas MEPS Ministry

"Hurry up and wait." That is just one of the mantras I learned in the Navy 20 years ago.

Spending nine hours in the Dallas Military Entrance Processing Station may not seem like fun to most, but they don't have my perspective. Truth be told, I might not describe it as "fun" either, but it certainly wasn't a royal waste of time. Braving the battery of tests conducted at this facility gives one a sense of being well looked after. In every corner of the facility, a different room held new medical testing to undergo. In such an environment, one can feel quite alone and shuffled around. I saw it on the faces of many new inductees to military service who were there to have their own testing done. Most were in their early twenties. Some were nineteen or eighteen. A few were even seventeen who were there by written permission of their parents. Their youthful countenances were pulled tight in valiant attempts to mask any feelings of uncertainty and fear.

When my recruiter was describing what I could expect at MEPS, he suggested that sometimes officer candidates or chaplain candidates might receive the "red carpet treatment." This meant that my process might be expedited more quickly than most. I did not expect this, but instead was prepared to simply go down and submit to the process that I encountered. What I found was that my case was no more briskly moved along than any other. This might have been a point of disappointment, but instead I discovered that the wait opened up opportunities.

When I sat among new recruits, I observed on the expressions of young faces to my right and my left that this new environment was unsettling for them. Even though this was MEPS, and not Basic or Boot, the commands to follow instructions, strip down to underwear and obey the rules had them back on their heels. Just this little taste of military life was enough to have them feeling off balance. In addition, some that I spoke with (or waited with outside yet another office) had families who they worried might not adapt to this new arena.

It seems that waiting longer than expected at MEPS (9 hours) was necessary to execute a ministry that was not expected either. In those moments when I was next to the new inductees needing assurance, comfort or courage, I was moved by the Spirit to converse with them in a manner they needed. I was there to be a chaplain for them. Little did I know that while undergoing medical exams for chaplain candidacy, I would have moments of chaplaincy even then.

This is an important lesson. When God is planning to assign you a new area of ministry, he likely will begin having you perform it right away. I have found this to be true on many occasions of my life, but I still get surprised when he pulls stuff like this. For me it was a improvised chaplain ministry among new recruits. For you, who knows?

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Return of Star Wars Christmas

Back, by popular demand, or simply by virtue of having "Mary Did You Know?" sung way too much in evangelical church services, I present to you the following:

Last year a friend of Tiffany Grant's, Naomi's sister in Houston, masterfully composed this Star Wars Christmas classic. Since she knew I was a Star Wars fan, she forwarded it to me.

Merry Christmas to all...
...and to all, may the force be with you.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Rig for Church!

Approximately one month ago, when it appeared increasingly inevitable that Woodcreek Bible Church was going to close, I asked two questions of God:

1. What will you do with Fate?

In other words, how will you see that our community is ministered to with a missional church presence? Our church has prepared much of the ministry "soil" with outreach efforts and visible presence. My concern was that our closing would leave a ministry vacuum in the community.

2. What will you do with us?

In other words, since I thought being a pastor might very well have been the career I was looking for, what could be my rightful role now? I've volunteered in many ministry settings, performing many different tasks for churches I have served, but having a family means that I'll have to eventually get paid for the ministry I perform (1 Cor 7:33). What ministry career could be both a good fit for me and a good means of supporting my family?

God answered the first question by providing a friendship with Pastor Trent Brown of Gateway Fellowship in nearby Royse City. Because of the common vision for the community, our common ministry philosophy and personality compatibility, I was very comforted that God had supplied Gateway not only for Fate, Texas, but also for any of Woodcreek's people who desired to remain and have an impact in this area.

Simultaneous to that though was God's answer to the second question. This he did by inspiring me to reflect on this year, and what I have learned about myself and how God has designed me. Though pastoring did not yield "successful" results (I covered this in "Defining Success"), serving as a fire chaplain concurrent with that was an extremely good fit. Not only did the fire department receive me warmly after earning their trust, but the Federation of Fire Chaplains felt like "home" as well. What this told me was that a career as a chaplain would be a wise pursuit, given what I've learned through all of this.

However, paid fire chaplain positions are extremely rare. Therefore, if one wished a career as a chaplain, the military was then most logical place to look. The problem was, I had served in the United States Navy in my late teens, having been honorably discharged after ten months of service for medical reasons. The medical reason was a psych eval following my stress-related breakdown. I was in way over my head in the nuclear power program. Nevertheless, the psych/medical reasons for the honorable discharge in 1988 resulted in an RE-4 reenlistment code, which are very difficult to reverse. This code typically prevents anyone from ever re-entering the military.

Following my service in 1988 though, I had another psych eval performed by a psychologist in Gig Harbor, WA who determined I was mentally fine. To remotely consider waiving the RE-4 code, the Navy would need a more current eval also declaring me fit. Just before thanksgiving I found a local Dallas psychologist to perform an evaluation. I turns out that he, too, was a former Navy psych and new just what to test for. He declared me not only fit, but well suited for the Navy chaplain calling. However, even though my pastoral, chaplaincy and military experience all combined to make my resume' more attractive, it was the medical waiver that would be the greatest initial hurdle. Would a medical review board waive my previous medically produced RE-4 code, or would it stand, keeping the Navy door closed?

On Friday, I received the call from my recruiter informing me that I had been cleared by medical to proceed with my application. This was monumental news coming on the 20th anniversary (this week) of my discharge from the Navy in 1988 (Dec 15th to be exact). There are still more requirements that must be met (not the least of which is graduating from DTS in May), but this was a large hurdle the outcome of which was totally out of my control. It was very encouraging, and redeeming news. 20 years after I was medically released from the Navy (with the expectation never to return), I have been medically cleared to apply to return for the purpose of ministering to those under the same pressures I once succumbed to. God is fun.

At this point I don't want to presume to declare with certainty this to be "God's will." Many evangelicals throw around such phrases rather irresponsibly. However, because of the seemingly Providential nature of these events, I'm confident I should boldly proceed. I have preached that God will find the right place for all of the people of our church, and it would seem this applies to our family as well.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Triumph of Cooperation over Competition

One of the greatest aspects of this time of transition that anesthetizes the pain of closing Woodcreek Bible Church is the triumph of the missio Dei through cooperation with Gateway Fellowship of Royse City. Without this level of kindred mission, the process of closing a church would "feel" like failure. As it happens, analogies of transformation (i.e. caterpillars and butterflies) apply to an encouraging degree. This pleasing outcome is due in large part to a spirit of cooperation between Pastor Trent Brown and myself. Trent's cooperative attitude may be born of a passion for the effectiveness of the kingdom of God in this area. He could answer that question better concerning his motivation. Mine, however, was cultivated through previous exposure to the military and years spent teaching martial arts.

In the northwest, I worked for a martial arts school that had several locations at the time (3 in Seattle plus Spokane and Portland). The Calgary based company had most of their studios in Canadian cities. Working as an instructor for Temple Kung Fu Studios, I was often called upon to travel from one studio to another to fill a staffing gap or strengthen the teaching of a particular studio. Not only was this normal for me, but all studios were receptive to visiting instructors as well. Cooperation among studios was standard because of having a common master. The entire organization was under the leadership of Grand Master Olaf Simon. Because of the common master, all instructors in the Temple Kung Fu system saw each other as teammates. Even the three studios in Seattle knew they collectively were in competition with other schools, but not with each other. What made cooperation eclipse any thoughts of competition was the common master.

Those exposed to martial arts understand submission to the head master. However, Christians have a Master who alone can legitimately hold that title in every arena, not merely martial arts. As a result, believers should seek cooperative avenues out of a sense of submission to the Master. To compete with any of his other instructors is to run contrary to his mission of training as many people as possible for relating to him. Having now been the chief instructor for the "Fate studio," it is well within the Master's purgative to close the Fate studio and move many of those students to the Royse City studio. There they can continue their training uninterrupted, plus enjoy exposure to that chief instructor. What's more, I may have an opportunity to serve with the instructors as the Royse City studio as well. One Master - many studios. This is a standard strategy for the martial arts temple. It's also how I think of the Church.

For those that view the Church this way, the resulting effect is a triumph of cooperation over competition. We don't mourn the loss of a job as much because we trust that the Master will reassign us to a new studio. Nor do we mourn the closing of a studio as much because we know that a nearby studio will continue the training for our students. The cooperation between Trent and I has been pleasingly reminiscent of my days with Temple Kung Fu. Therefore, my main concern over Woodcreek Bible Church has been, "Did I train them well prior to us all being reassigned." It would seem that, through my reassignment to a new studio, the "Master" was not disappointed with the training his disciples received. Otherwise, it hardly seems likely that Jesus would burden Trent's studio with my presence as well. Cooperation has advanced the training for all, and it's a joy to watch unfold.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Finishing Well

Yesterday, December 14th 2008, the members of Woodcreek Bible Church unanimously voted to dissolve as an independent church body effective December 31st. In addition, the sentiment among all present was to finish well, in as Christ honoring a fashion as possible. For this reason, there is no sense "winding down." If anything, there's a sense of sprinting to the finish line. All are in agreement that the property must be sold in a timely manner, that funding for the mortgage payments must continue until it sells and that everyone is being led of the Spirit to remain purposeful into their next ministry. In other words, unity prevails even in moments such as this. What an awesome thing to behold.

Some declared that they will continue to worship and serve in this community by attending Gateway Fellowship nearby. Some declared an intent to serve Christ at a church closer to their home. Others honestly declared a need for more time to perceive the Lord's leading for them. Nevertheless, it seemed all were led of the Spirit to close out WBC as a church body, finishing well in this season of their service to Christ.

Many that I have encountered have lamented the closing on my behalf. However, once I explain the nature of the training that all have undergone here, they rejoice along with me that such a transformational time could occur in the midst of disappointment. Even then, the "disappointment" is tempered by the triumph of the training. The strategic planning we, as a church, performed (far from being wasted) produced more strategic believers. In this way, our mission ("to reach, train and send out the most loving and contagious followers of Christ in the world") still is being achieved. I am thrilled to have been with these people for this amount of time. It has been an awesome period of training for us all, and this is evidenced by how driven we all are to finish well.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Sense of Adventure

As a Christian, I'm supposed to live a life that is God's to do with as he pleases. The range of roles he could have me play is as wide as the human needs in ministry. The selection of locations in which I might serve him are as diverse as the continents and peoples of the world. I've been recruited into the mission of God, and equipped for service that requires my unique obedience. It's a cutting edge, mysterious and exciting existence. The humdrum ruts that most believers fall into hits well far from the mark. As an agent of Christ, its better than any action flick.

Consider the following quotes from fictional action characters:

"I work for the British government." - James Bond

"I'm an analyst for the CIA." - Jack Ryan

"I'm a professor of archaeology." - Dr. Henry Jones Jr.

"I just swing around hitting the Gotham nightlife." - Bruce Wayne

"I'm a mild-mannered reporter." - Clark Kent

These job descriptions have rather exciting characters attached to them. Take the top three for example. If I took a job that had any of those institutions on the business card (MI6, CIA or Marshall College Department of Archaeology), you might react with, "Wow! How exciting. It makes you sound like James Bond (or Jack Ryan or Indiana Jones respectively)." Where's that sense of adventure when we say that we're a Christian?

I proposed a different attitude toward our job description. Instead of just, "I am Christian," we might consider, "I'm a follower of Jesus Christ, and the ruler of the universe has sent me into this culture to infiltrate your customs and craftily persuade as many as possible to submit to his rule before either he comes here or you go to him." Actually, that might freak people out. Perhaps you don't need to say all of that after all. Instead, just keep all of that in your head when you declare, "I'm a Christian."

What's lacking from most believers' minds (in convinced of it) is a sense of adventure. It's a feel that you've been enlisted in a epic narrative that requires grand twists and turns to do justice for the story. For the Ott clan, this sense of adventure has been well established for sometime now; that's why we approach some of the mammoth changes in ministry and life the way we do. It's a little thing to imagine total new ministry directions and strategies if Dr. Jones or 007 has to go through what they do.

Take for example all the hoops I had to jump through today to arrange my course schedule at DTS. The customization that was necessary for my requirements to be met in time for a May graduation seemed improbable. Nevertheless, events transpired that appeared Providential before my eyes. The miracles afoot were exciting to behold. Such it is with my church; such it is with my school; such it is with my life. How adventurous it is to serve the Lord. He never, ever gets boring.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Strategic Planning - Strategic Life

The most sobering part of facing strategic moments such as this in the life of a church is knowing that you've been built for exactly this purpose. All of my life, skills, experiences, knowledge, instincts, drives and passions have come together to train this church body for whatever comes next. Whether they execute my preferred outcome and humbly accept assimilation into the Gateway Fellowship ministry, or if they collectively disperse into their remote communities (knowing what they all now know regarding the missio Dei and their place in it), that will be the reason for which I was brought to this place. I have exactly the right team of people, at precisely the right time, with just the right mindset, who have undergone just the right training to execute the Spirit-let strategy for them. A striking sense of destiny floats into all of this.

The strategic planning that Woodcreek Bible Church has performed has accomplished so much more than merely planning for church growth. All who participated witnessed how the Holy Spirit leads believers in making plans for effective service. The gravity of that is astounding. Rather than blindly assuming that the Christian life is to be approached haphazardly, they saw how deliberately we must plan for serving Christ and pursing the Great Commission. This knowledge of the strategic process is not restricted merely to how churches run. It applies to all of life. The totality of the believers existence is to be strategically led of the Spirit into whatever they are to do next. Viewing themselves as the tip of an arrow, the Christian knows that God will use them strategically to accomplish outlandish results for the kingdom of God with pinpoint accuracy.

This is how I approach the closing of Woodcreek Bible Church. I see my calling to the church, and subsequent ministry here as very strategic. If the adoption into Gateway proceeds, then I was used of God to facilitate this expansion of his mission strategy in my community. If the members elect to disperse instead, then I was used strategically to advance his mission wherever they go, for they would appear not to be leaving just as they were when I came. In any case, the strategic life will seek to advance the missio Dei regardless of personal results. God has strategically designed me as a trainer of people to develop in their devotion to and service of Christ. That's his strategic use of me. It has been that wherever I've gone.

I see the adoption plan before our church members as the logical trajectory of our strategic planning, but any decision is possible if they all have elected to live a strategic life. Whatever they decide, through the leading of the Spirit, to do next, my great hope is that I have trained them well to pursue it.

Intensity and Blessing

I am so wiped out. As with any great high, there's the potential to crash hard. I'm there this morning. Which begs the question, "What was the high?" Certainly all pastors experience this to one extent or another. That's why Mondays have classically been the day many pastor take as their day off. However, this is different. Yesterday's "high" was born of several uncommon factors inserted into my pastoral Sunday/workday.

The backdrop to these elements is the pending closure of Woodcreek Bible Church. This is not a sudden thing, as though we were surprised by its approach; nor did the leadership wake up one morning and decide that they were tired of leading. On the contrary, staff and elders alike have poured our hearts into pursuing God's mission for this church. Nevertheless, the fruit of that labor has been a continued trajectory of decline in attendance and collective member energy. That's the bad news.

The good news is that God has provided an opportunity to for the healthiest developing instincts of the church to be realized. There isn't space here to cover all the details, but having a neighboring church (Gateway Fellowship of Royse City, TX) adopt us all at once will be a fitting completion of our church's strategic planning this year. Because of the fit it represents and the timing that appears providential, all of my work with Woodcreek Bible Church seems to have built up to this point. In other words - and this is quite significant for one who sees myself as more of a "trainer" than a pastor - it would seem that God called me to this church for the purpose of training it for this moment and this opportunity. This is not "spin." This is interpreting design and Providence in the manner that every believer must.

The illusive struggle to discover "God's will" for one's life is always fruitless - at least in the manner commonly pursued. Most often what Christians call "finding God's will for my life" bears a striking resemblance to fortune-telling and horoscopes. The Christian labels change, but the paganism is still detectable in how the pastor/counselor is treated like an old gypsy woman hovering over a crystal ball. "God wants you to go to college; major in aquatic archaeology and discover Atlantis," is the pronouncement sought from the counselee in the pastor's office. Solomon says that this is "meaningless" and chasing the wind. Nevertheless, people of genuine faith want to know that the wisdom they employ in making life decisions is both supplied by God and sensitive to his leading. Even if they are not paganly pursuing Christian fortune-telling, but instead are legitimately wanting to be led of God, we want evidence that we're being faithful to God's preferred design for us. We want to detect God's voice in the present saying, "Doing well, good and faithful servant." Therefore, the Christian is left with the same thing Israel had to go on: (1) this is what God pronounced should be our character, ethics, behavior, etc. and (2) this is what our experiences have been executing it.

All we can go on (far from fortune-telling) is to know the Word of God concerning our composition and character as a believer, and then examine how God has, in his Providence, cause obedience to his Word to play out in my experiences. In other words: (1) what does God require of me? and (2) what has happened when I've pursued those known requirements? This is what I call "interpreting design and Providence." It's a simpler way of expressing what is often stated as SHAPE:

What is SHAPE?

S - Spiritual Gifts - What are you uniquely gifted to do?
H - Heart - What do you love to do?
A - Abilities - What natural talents and skills do you have?
P - Personal Style - Where do your personal traits best suit you to serve?
E - Experiences - What has your past situations prepared you for?

Your SHAPE can determine your ministry focus.

"SHAPE" is a legitimate means of Christians evaluating their sensitivity to God's leading in their life, without degenerating into fortune-telling. It's interpreting design and Providence.

All that to say this - this strategic adoption opportunity for our church appears to fulfill my "SHAPE" as it relates to the church I was called to in 2007. Therefore, I'm very personally vested in it. For me, this produced a high intensity level for me all Saturday and Sunday. Saturday was preparation. Sunday was execution. The sermon was eerily pertinent to the strategy plans facing us, and after lunch the business meeting was the completely revealed fruit of all my labor. To describe the whole morning and afternoon as "intense" is to discover new levels of understatement. After a brief "veg" period at home in front of the TV, I went back to the church to give the same presentation again to all the Gateway leadership, plus give any background on myself and discuss "adoption" plans with them from 7 to midnight. The whole day was an intense high.

It also was a great blessing too. This blessing started early as well, when Sunday school was well attended, experiencing good discussion on the study topic. It continued through the main service as we took of the communion Table together, expressing meaningful worship. I enjoyed delivering the sermon, and people seemed receptive. After lunch, the business meeting (which could have been quite scary) was conducted with grace, understanding and sincerity from everyone. Later that evening, 5 hours of planning and discussion ensued with Christian brothers that feel like colleagues already. It was as pleasing as it was exhausting.
*There's an analogy I could use here referencing other exhausting pleasures, but I've decided not to.

God provided both intensity and blessing to coexist. Just because one comes down hard from a "high" does not mean that the "high" was somehow unhealthy. Would that all believers experience the Spirit's leading and powerful filling in such a draining manner.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Maintaining class off the ice

One of the reasons I prefer to watch hockey to other sports is because of how much easier it seems to be to like the players. They keep their nose pretty clean, and stay out of "tabloid" publicity. NFL and NBA are notorious for employing foul-mouthed hoodlums who know they will not suffer any substantial punishment for antics while outside the playing arena. I specify "outside" because its a better gauge of the players personality than during the "thick of battle." In Dallas, owners Jerry Jones and Mark Cuban disgrace their respective sports for how quickly they turn a blind eye to their players' public and blatant flaws.

By way of contrast, Sean Avery of the Dallas Stars is now suspended indefinitely. After making some off color remarks regarding his ex-girlfriend now dating a Calgary Flame on Tuesday, the NHL suspended Avery pending further inquiry. Stars owner Tom Hicks stated afterward that had the NHL not suspended him, the team would have. Now Stars coach Dave Tippett suggests that a good team cannot be built with Sean Avery in the mix. In this way, the league, the owner and the coach all seem interested in maintaining the dignity of the game. This value is certainly in short supply in professional sports, and I applaud them for upholding it.

Friday, November 28, 2008

233 Years of Pastors on the Sea

On November 28th, 1775 the Continental Congress adopted regulations that mirrored those previously specified for the Royal Navy regarding chaplains assigned to the sea services. This, in effect, marked the birth of the Chaplain Corp for the United States Navy. As a result, today is the 233rd anniversary of that great tradition. Few professions in America can boast such a heritage.

Therefore, it is fitting that I celebrate with those who remember today's anniversary. As a pastor, and a chaplain (albeit for the fire service), I think of those that we, the "brotherhood" of ministers are called to serve, love, guide and lead. My circles of ministry have entailed my church, my department and my community. These are the groups of people that occupy my daily concern and my time in prayer.

However, as a former sailor, and a continuing navy enthusiast, I also think of the ministry that must be performed for those in the military now. These thoughts are heightened by the fact that our nation remains at war at this very moment. Extended deployments and perilous theaters of operation reek havoc on service personnel and their families alike. The stresses of combat ops, distance from home and strange environments need to be mitigated by spiritual nurturing. It's pleasing to know that this country still values the spiritual needs of its sailors, marines, soldiers and airmen enough to send out chaplains to live amongst them, serving them in the manner that is needed.

In many respects, the progressive secularizing of our society is legitimately lamentable. However, as long as our nation still welcomes chaplains to extend the love of Christ in the military, those lamentations also will have a legitimate limit. God's grace is evident in how He pastor's those who serve in such extreme settings. War is hell, but heaven has the power to invade it.

I celebrate today's anniversary of the United States Navy Chaplain Corp because of how it's a picture of redemption. Sending a minister of Christ into the environment where God might seem far away reinforces to those who serve there that God is near. In fact, it's parallel to being a cross-cultural missionary, taking Christ to those whose environment doesn't expect Him. Chaplains reinforce to those who feel far away that God is near. Christ would say to those with such a job, "welcome to the club."

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Church mergers

Church mergers are a delicate business. It holds similarities with the blended families we find dotting the American landscape. Two "families" comprised of families must come together and live in harmony, becoming one "family." Eventually the "step" must be dropped so that the teen girl speaks of her "Dad" or "Mom" without the prefix. Brothers and sisters learn to share toys, rooms and TV watching. The two become one.

However, the analogy breaks down in that the blended family often followed the divorce of one or both spouses. For churches, no such negative catalyst is necessary. On the contrary, merging two like "families" can be quite strategically positive. If the cultures are similar enough, and the missions of both sufficiently agree, partnering for the success of the Great Commission can bring surprising glory to God.

One of the key sticking points can come down to a question of identity. Seldom can two "families" combine to create a third identity. In truth, it is far less problematic for one entity to take on the identity of the other, enhancing its culture and effectiveness. We also see this in marriage. Two adults do not both change their name following the wedding ceremony. Instead a name is taken by both that was previous owned by only one of them. I will use the analogy of my own marriage.

Prior to August 7th, 1993 Aaron Ott and Naomi Helm had dated off and on before finally becoming engaged to be married in October of 1992 (please don't think that speaking of myself in the third person is creepy). Between October and August they spent that time making preparations to "merge" their lives. Aaron was preparing to not only commemorate this "merger" with a ceremony, but was also preparing to integrate Naomi into every aspect of his life. Naomi was making similar preparations, but the difference was that she was losing something. Her previous identity as a "Helm" would be left behind by means of her adopting the new identity of an "Ott." Was she completely abandoning her character as a "Helm" when becoming an "Ott?" Not at all. On the contrary, she brought along her "Helm-ness" to enhance what it means to be an "Ott." While Naomi would indeed become an "Ott," Aaron would never again be an "Ott" as he once was due to how his "Ott-ness" would be enhanced by Naomi's integration into his life.

While Naomi took on Aaron's name, and followed his leadership, she nonetheless changed Aaron's life experience as well. It truly was a "merger" in that two became one, and it has worked well. This is my preferred analogy for churches that have a right view of merging. One may dissolve and be assimilated into the experience of the other, but the incoming one will doubtless affect the receiving one in many significant ways. Anymore than Naomi could expect to be a passive addition to my world, so also should a merging church expect to enhance the one receiving it. They both choose the name of one, but each is affected by the other.

This would seem the right mindset regarding church mergers. Marriage and churches have different motives though. The couple is motivated by covenantal love, while the church is motivated by the Great Commission. Nevertheless, both are sufficiently motivated to make it work no matter what. For the couple, the covenant is THAT important. For the church, the mission is THAT important. But both are beautiful to watch succeed.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Attracted to the Bad Boy

Today, in theaters around the country, the motion picture adaptation of the popular novel "Twilight" opens. The story, written by Stephenie Meyer, has enjoyed such success as to be considered the logical successor of J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" phenomenon. The throngs of women (young and old) who will converge upon movie houses tonight begs a question: What's the attraction? Or to paraphrase in my best Seinfeld voice, "What is it with chicks and vampires?"

The answer, I will posit here, is the confluence of several aspects. These factors will be listed below:

1. The fantasy romance industry has enjoyed unchecked success for millennia. To an extent, it holds a legitimate place in literature. Young romance is celebrated even in the biblical anthology of love poems entitled "The Song of Songs." The ideals of romance and mysterious loving discovery know no generational or cultural bounds. For this reason, there have always been those stories that appealed more to female audiences. To the extent that men paid attention to them, they became schooled in the romantic arts necessary to attract the desire maiden. As a result, Shakespeare must hold a prominent place in every young man's library.
There is another manner in which the female fantasy has been satiated though: the romance novel genre. Within any bookstore (or book section of a local Walmart) one will find a vast array of romance novels inviting feminine readers to enter into the pretend world on the cover. In this way, the emotional fantasy is addressed. A romance plays out in a manner that real life does not seem to facilitate. For this reason, the fantasy romance genre of literature will likely never dip in popularity.

2. The forbidden attraction is also a timeless genre in literature. "Romeo and Juliet," as a plot line, has seen innumerable expressions in literature, film and television. Many films and programs have rehashed the story in which the lonely girl, looking for meaning in some formative time of life, having many seemingly normal guys to chose from, instead jumps on the back of the "bad boy's" motorcycle and rides off. It's almost a cliche' to see the teen girl, with a troubled home, wearing her boyfriend's leather jacket. He's from the wrong side of the tracks, the other clan, the warring tribe or the lower-class family. She has plenty of men within reach who represent "normalcy," but she needs the one that doesn't fit with her family or cultural settings. We want what we shouldn't; plain and simple. The forbidden attraction satisfies our longing for the edgy, the dangerous or out of the ordinary.

3. The growing cultural trend of dark tastes is observable in several media forms. Not only do vampire stories abound, but even the "Harry Potter" juggernaut was a storyline coached in a mythical world of witches and warlocks. Fixations with the dead, with ghosts or with horrific gore are seen in the unparalleled success of such films in recent years. These elements are reliably bank-able in the minds of movie producers. In literature, J.K. Rowling rode on this trend, but Anne Rice surfed this wave before her. The former trappings of "Pleasantville" no longer hold their old appeal. It's as if a collective rejection of the previous generations' perfect world is driving this generation to a cold, sinister, contrary one. One of the hallmarks of postmodernity is the fascination with whatever is not what used to be. If the old world was bright, the new one must be dark. If the old world had hope, the new one must not have it. If the old paradigm was that Cinderella was found and rescued by Prince Charming, the new damsel must be found and rescued by a blood-sucking bad boy. Our dark tastes are growing fascinated with not just what's edgy, but evil.
This was the issue I raised with many Christian parents who found nothing objectionable with the "Harry Potter" series. Sure, it's good literature. Yes, it's well written. Certainly, it is good that your children are reading more as a result. But why that context? Are well written stories so scarce that my children's reading prowess must be nourished through a fantasy set in a world of witchcraft? Had the options dried up that much, that my only avenue for encouraging their literary appetite was a young wizard's tale? Why must I jump on the bandwagon of dark tastes, that does not evaluate the value of such tastes before been satisfied by it?

In sum, the romance genre of literature has been referred to as pornography for the female heart. It presents a reader with the opportunity to entertain an unrealistic fantasy that males in the real world can seldom live up to. The plot line "air brushes" the bad boys traits so that his rough edges never seem truly dangerous to the heroine. The forbidden attraction is heightened if the heroine has some hope of saving the "bad boy." Stories such as "Beauty and the Beast" will always have an enthusiastic audience of sighing women. However, it is the added element of our culture's taste for the dark side that explains the success of "Twilight." It's not enough for the bad boy to be a rebellious greaser on a Harley anymore; he must be an attractive specimen of the undead. It's not enough for the couple to get married and live happily ever after; he has to draw blood. Hopefully some women will actually stop and evaluate these tastes, instead of just blindly following the attraction. The heart may want what the heart wants, but does the heart always want good things? Quite often not.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Prayer in the Public Square

The issue of prayer in publicly sanctioned venues has been a sticky wicket for decades now. What subject can make veins bulge on evangelical foreheads more than the notion of prayer in school? "They took God out of school," goes the battle cry. Similarly ridiculous sound bites could often be heard from the fundamentalist pulpits I grew up under. The long shadow of the imposing lectern stretched across our pew, with the resounding words impregnating fear into the gasping audience. Secular humanism has had its victories to be sure, but none so great as have been handed to it by whiny moral-majority churchy soft-jihadists who decided to "take up their marbles and go home" if they couldn't play the way they wanted to. Having attended "Baptist Fundamentalist '84" when I was in ninth grade, I know what I speak about. Good times, my friend. Good times.

But I digress...

The fundamentalists' demand for prayer in school, displaying the Ten Commandments on courthouses or nativity scenes on government lawns are all symptoms of the Constantinian fallacy, namely Christendom. Ever since Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in A.D. 313, Christians in the west have assumed that society owes them a hearing in the public arena. A bygone mystery are the heady days of apostolic wondering through marketplaces, perilously delivering the good news to anyone who would listen. Now we just assume that since the country was started by largely church-going gentlemen, it follows that we have a right to a public forum embedded in the societal DNA. However, missiologists will assert that Christendom has been among the more damaging distractions away from the advancement of Christianity ever to impede the Church. Expecting a venue for declaring Christ has limited our instinct to earn one.

A manner in which this can apply to prayer in the public square is in how one approaches public prayer for governmental occasions. This is a delicate situation to approach. If the believer invited to pray for those gathered asserts his orthodoxy too strongly, he may forfeit future opportunities to minister in a greatly needed fashion. On the other hand, if he asserts no personal orthodoxy at all, he will have neutered his credibility to offer spiritual guidance at crucial moments. The dance steps necessary for this scenario would challenge Danny Kay.

Such nuancing may seem a lightening of my former position: namely, that prayer "in Jesus' name" is the mandated norm regardless of venue. However, I have come to discover that many might legitimately find "in Jesus' name" rather bludgeoning considering the bullying works of those pursuing Christendom. In light of this, it is understandable that some would want to see Jesus in your life before they hear him from your lips. Am I "selling out"? Perhaps. My time spent with a fire department has taught me to "feel out" the situation better before charging in with righteous crusade-ism. The opportunity to minister in certain situations (especially government functions) is a privilege that can be revoked without notice. Play it poorly, and the chance to "show" people Jesus will dissipate because I was too busy beating them with his name. Fire chaplains have discovered this. Navy chaplains have as well. It's not about what you want to say so much as its about what will show them the love of Christ, make him attractive and mediate his grace to a people as undeserving of it as you were.

This principle also has woven into my regular privilege of offering the invocation for the city council meetings for the City of Fate. This rare opportunity is not my chance to advance my agenda or make sure my voice is heard. This is not the moment to make certain my theology gets a hearing, or to reinforce that God is victorious over contrary forces by placing me in such a position. It's unlikely Daniel survived several ancient Near East regimes through such practices. While it has been quite satisfying to pray for the city and the community publicly in these moments in a manner that reflects my specific orthodoxy ('in Jesus' name"), it does not follow that this privileged opportunity exists to ensure that my voice is heard in the community. On the contrary, I've had to assume that this opportunity to minister to the city in this fashion will be short lived. Indeed, if objections arise regarding how specific to my faith my public prayers may be I'll then have to wrestle with whether to continue in that vein or not. It is certain though that the invocation does not exist to offer me a platform for public attention.

This is the primary reason I have difficulty with those that see prayer in the public square as a moment to showcase the pray-er. The attention must go to the One prayed to. This is not a universal view though. Some see such occasions as a chance for various faith groups to "share the spotlight." The emphasis is more on the pray-er than on the how the prayer ministers to the community they serve, or on the One prayed to on behalf of the audience. Even my regular invocations at the Fate city council meetings has drawn an objection because (it is posed) more diverse faith groups should be represented. The objection is therefore built on the premise that the pray-er is the more important factor. Unwittingly, the objector is making Constantine proud.

Moreover, I was tasked to find a substitute minister to offer the invocation for the city business meeting whenever I would be absent. This I quickly set about to do through a network of pastors I had formed. The pastors I considered for substituting clearly understood the nature of the invocation, and would not use it to advance their agenda or "make their voices heard." They understood the nature of ministering to the city in this manner, and could be trusted to faithfully execute the invocation free of personal baggage. With this in mind, I would not have approached a minister to perform this service for the city who was seeking it. It's about service, not the spotlight. If more objections arise, I will more willingly discontinue this service to the city rather than assert my "rights" or "position." There is no "right" to pray in the city council meeting, nor is offering the invocation a "position" of any sort. Christendom can go by the board, but I will gladly serve the community in this fashion for as long as God allows this unlikely opportunity.

Monday, November 17, 2008


My kids weren't the only ones that enjoyed the film "Transformers" when it hit theaters last year. I enjoyed it too. Admittedly, I enjoyed it for different reasons than my boys did. They liked the special effects and the hot gadgets. Though I also thought those were cool too, I appreciated the whole premise that heroes effectively pursued their mission by "transforming" into something else, and I don't just mean the robots. The key characters also underwent a transformation of sorts, with the robots being the mythologically obvious living analogy. Plus, it didn't hurt that the plot line was exciting with eye-pleasing special effects.

The story also held meaningful parallels for the Christian's life of faith. Depending on what aspect of the story you use, applications to the Christian experience can be found everywhere. Many good stories are like that. Given their mythological nature, they lend themselves well to applicability to the viewers personal context. J.R.R. Tolkien loathed allegory for how often the story was laden with laborious agendas. However, he supported what he called "applicability" in stories to the audience's life setting, for it allowed the story to retain its artistic integrity. It spoke to the hearers' situation without preaching a limited agenda. In this way, most stories open themselves up to mythological applicability in this way.

The aspect of "Transformers" that I focus on now is the necessity of the heroic robots to take on an entirely different form in order to accomplish their mission. Depending on the situation, Optimus Prime may take the form of a Mac truck or a humanoid shaped robot to achieve the desired result. This can easily apply to believers in how they take on characteristics necessary to accomplish the role God has for them. Paul so de-culturated from Palestinian Judaism in his travels through Greece and Asia Minor that he would later have to re-culturate into Judaism in order to return to Jerusalem and minister there. This is radical transformation for an evangelist, but he was willing to transform to whatever degree it took to accomplish the mission.

However, people and organizations differ in how easily they can "transform." A person might change more readily than a group of them will. The larger the organization, the more difficult it is to pull this off. It's simply how people are. Nevertheless, often for organizations the transformation is no less essential to accomplish its mission than Paul's was. The question is: what degree of transformation can reasonably be proposed? What is the groups breaking point? When will the leader have pushed too far? How much can people really change and still stay on task?

Our church is wrestling with such questions. In order to accomplish its mission, can it successfully "transform" into something that looks quite different than how it looks now? No less than a radical transformation will be necessary to effectively pursue the mission God has given. Are we willing to be a team of "transformers?" The possibilities are limitless if the answer is "yes." However, people are not robots. They are living, breathing (even sometimes bleeding) creatures made in God's image being "transformed" into the likeness of Christ. Let us pray that the "spark" in us is sufficient to accomplish this transformation.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Unique Contribution

In a recent class, the professor suggested that one of the marks of a healthy church is, "if the church closed, would it be felt by the community around it? Would they notice at all? Would it leave a hole in the surrounding community's cultural fabric, or would it barely appear on the collective radar?" This was sobering to ponder. In defining success for a ministry, one aspect to consider is how much its presence is felt in the world. However, I was wary of the professor's tendency to slant this observation in terms of the church's size. There are many ways a church's presence in a community can be felt other than how eye-catching the building might be, how many cars park out front, or how many in the community confess to be attending it.

It would seem that a church's presence in the community can also be felt by how unique a contribution it makes to the life of the community it's in. Does it do, or is it known for, some ministry for the surrounding city or region that no one else does? It does not take a large church to make a significant impact in a community; one that is memorable, felt and appreciated. Hence the slogan, "I am the smallest giant in the world."

When I think about the contributory ministries that our church has engage in during the last year (Adopt-a-Highway, fire chaplaincy, Reformation Day, city "chaplain"), plus the various opportunities for being "present" with the community (Christmas and July 4th parades, Easter carnival, Chamber of Commerce. etc), I am encouraged that Woodcreek Bible Church has indeed made a unique contribution. Its absence would be felt. It is indeed a healthy church in many respects.

Paul hints at this with his "body" metaphors in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4. In any given local church, the "body" is strengthened and its mission fulfilled better when each member makes their unique contribution. This is a micro-application of Paul's metaphor. However, a valid macro-application is to see each church as a member of The Body (The Church universal and transcendent). In this way, a local church has as an aspect of its mission to accomplish that which surrounding churches will not. It falls to the respective leaders of those churches to do this with a cooperative spirit, not a competitive one.

For this reason, a church must strive to make its unique contribution to the overall missio Dei. What does this church body do that others were not staffed, equipped and empowered by the Spirit to do? That question cannot easily be answered with an attendance number. On the other hand, any group of believers, led by the Spirit of God, can leave a lasting impact on a community.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Defining Success

One of the issues that many pastors struggle with is an appropriate definition of success with which to gauge their effectiveness as a minister. All professions wrestle with this to one degree or another, but ministers must wrestle with it according to different rules. The rules differ in how they must be biblically derived, account for the complexities of the human condition and keep in mind the sovereignty of God who still is in charge of the whole enterprise. For this reason, the appropriate definition of success for Christian ministry can be illusive, and difficult to nail down.

A easy way this is often achieved is to simply count heads. If there are more people attending the church, faithfully contributing to its mission this year than there were last year, then you're succeeding. If, however, there aren't, then you're not. This method may solve some problems of gauging "success," but it fails to account for other important factors though. How do the growing numbers represent the spiritual maturing of people? Is the work divided well among those that are maturing? There is definitely more to consider. Nevertheless, though many more factors must go into gauging the "success" of a Christian ministry, numbers always play a role of one type or another.

What, then, of the ministry that is shrinking in numbers? Can the non-numerical factors be given such importance as to still claim success without corresponding numerical growth? This is difficult, yet necessary for the minister of a shrinking ministry in order to stave off feelings of failure. This is not to encourage such a minister to so "spin" the intangible factors as to make numbers irrelevant.

Executive Officer: "Captain, the ship has struck an iceberg and is sinking!"

Captain: "Don't be negative X.O. The brass is all shined. The crews' uniforms look sharp. I've never been prouder."

We chuckle at such comical denial on the part of command, but then how do we account for the intangible factors without sounding like "spin?" In ministerial settings, it's necessary to remember that the mission of the Church is to make disciples. It does not necessarily follow then that the mission of any given church is to make a certain number of them. In truth, The Church may very well be growing even if a specific local church is not. A pastor may lament a seeming lack of success, but must maintain an awareness that the One in Command ultimately assures Himself success.

So then, how does a minister assure himself that he is contributing to the success of the One in Command (God)? The primary way this would seem possible is to perceive what is the mission that Command gave to you. If indeed a minister can evaluate his efforts as being faithful to the mission, then he can be confident that he has contributed to the success of The Church.

All sorts of World War II films come to mind at this moment; the ones wherein the mission was accomplish though the players did not return from it. "The Bridge on the River Kwai" or "The Great Escape" are good examples. However, few captured this better than "Saving Private Ryan." This story begins with an Army company participating in the invasion of Omaha Beach at Normandy. Their mission is to contribute to the winning of the war. Shortly after taking the beach though, they receive a strange and different mission from Command ("this one comes all the way from the top"). Several in the company object to this "side mission," not seeing how it contributes to their desired misison of winning the war. As the story unfolds though, staying faithful to the mission given them from Command, though they are stripped of all outward symptoms of success, ultimately makes a major contribution to the first mission: winning the war. The Grand mission succeeds because the various and sundry parts of the Army stay faithful to the sub-missions assigned to them.

For a minister then, if he and his church stay faithful to the sub-mission given them, he must think himself successful out of faith that it contributes to the success of the Grand mission. By faith he must retain confidence in Command, knowing that the orders must make sense when "this one comes all the way rom the top." This definition of success does not ignore the tangible factors, nor does it look merely at numbers. It defines success in a way that those with vast or limits resources available to them may both have a reasonable claim to success.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Day

Today is the day we go vote at our local polling precinct. Although early voting is available as an option, Naomi and I have preferred to vote on election day as a sort of nostalgic solidarity with other voters around the country. Some may consider this sentimentality to be misplaced, but the right to vote for local and national leaders is a right deserving of an inconvenient ritual. This in not to say that those who voted early value it any less. It's just that we express its value to us in this manner.

According to television and radio news sources, voters appear to be turning out in record numbers. This is good. However, it is hoped that these voters are all conscientiously voting from knowledge and understanding, not by emotion and whim. It would be regrettable for people to vote for their favored candidate(s) because of something as superfluous as skin color or mere oratory ability. Yesterday, as I substituted in at local Christian high school, I broached the subject of politics and the pending presidential election. The symphony of ignorant responses left me alarmed for the countries future. The fact that the not-well-thought-through political opinions came from Christian teens and skewed to the right was hardly any condolence.

"Obama's a Muslim," came from many. "He's the anti-Christ," asserted others. "We should elect a Christian," came out here and there. How frightening to think that if these teens did not come up with this tripe on their own, they must have heard it at home. There is little mystery among those who know me how politically to the right I lean. Nevertheless, I find it frustrating to hear that the next generation of voters are likely non-thinking ones (whether liberal or conservative). For this reason I don't find political conversations as satidfying as I used to. When the person I'm speaking with degenerates into an emotional string of partisan sound bites, I know that the mind is no longer engaged to the mouth. This is can be as true with Republicans as it often is with Democrats, and I find it wearisome.

Having said that though, it must be acknowledged that this election appears among the more important of any in recent times. The candidates espouse drastically differing visions of the country's future. Regrettably, one vision or another will be empowered by voters who are acting more by passion than by wisdom. I have a desired outcome for today's election, but I also desire civility and reflection among those who participate in electing leaders. In this regard, I wish the future seemed brighter.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Protest Door

Each piece of church furniture has, or at least should have, significance in the process of worship, disciple development and pursuit of the Great Commission. The chairs seat the congregation in the manner needed for the desired communal effect. The pulpit represents the unique function of preaching in the ministry of the Word for the body of Christ. The Table conveys the communal worship of Christ in remembering his sacrifice and rekindling hope for the future. Even the copier carries the theological weight of being used of God for informing the people of God through bulletins, teaching them in handouts and worship with music lyric copies. Every utensil, in some way, deserves contemplative reflection on how it is used in the missio Dei. Indeed each instrument and tool in the church deserves a thoughtful blog entry on its use for God's glory.

Of particular importance is that means by which God corrects his people when they err. Because of the "prophetic" function of preaching, the pulpit has been a classical symbol of correctional proclamation. However, in the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther gave us another symbol for God's correcting voice: the Door. By nailing his "95 Theses" to the front door of the cathedral in Wittenberg, Luther brought to light a means of calling for reform that occurs outside the pulpit. Certainly the door did not replace the pulpit, but instead the door came to supplement the pulpit in informing the community of faith where reform is needed.

The Door informs.
The Door fosters healthy debate.
The Door brings needed controversy.
The Door gets people thinking.
The Door holds up a mirror to the church, so that the Bride of Christ can examine how appealing to Christ she may appear.

In the present day, we most often do not use a "door" for our announcements, our news bulletins or theological theses. Other means are use for these. Nevertheless, these functions are fulfilled all the time in the present day because their importance has never diminished. For the church today, the Pulpit is supplemented by internet sites, books and magazine articles. The "Door" is still being used of God to educate, stimulate and challenge the Church to reform where necessary. For this reason, many pastors and preachers in the present day rightly maintain writing ministries concurrent with their preaching ministry.

The spoken word and the written word have different natures, requiring different skills and different content. Influential theologians such as Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards and even the popular Charles Swindoll are examples of having both of these skills together. The preacher/writer uses both mediums for their respective functions, mining the value of each. The Pulpit and the Door are both effective tools in training the community of faith to mature as followers of Christ. For this reason, the pastor hopes that people will read his writings with similar interest that they heard his sermons. However, the genre of preaching often does not lend itself to the same nuances and arguments that writing can accommodate. Therefore, the Door may not be as popular or as public as the Pulpit. All the same, the preacher must find his "door." My "door" has taken the form of this blog site or the newspaper articles.

For the Christian who desires to have an impact in their community and world, the avenues are just as numerous. To encourage this, we place a "door" next to our front door for the Reformation Day celebration that people can nail their own "thesis" to. Both at our home and at the church, we lay out sample "theses" that people can nail to the "protest door," or they can write their own. Whatever form it takes, the protest "door" is an important piece of furniture in the Church. With all the of the forms that modern technology has enabled "the door" to take, believers can make their contribution easily. Hopefully, or Reformation Day celebration will find people celebrating the "door" through nailing plenty of "theses" as well. These "theses" are short, pithy phrases that capture what the writer believes should improve or reform about the church. Review Luther's 95 Theses for examples. In any event, the door is important. May we all approach it, hammer and parchment in hand, ready for God to reform us.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Costco Culture and the Religion of Consumption

Today as we were touring the metropolis of Sam's Club, purchasing supplies for our upcoming Reformation Day celebration, I was struck by the massive quantities of all the various goods on the shelves. The sheer size of the inventory was a visually assaulting reminder of an article I read years ago. It lamented the growing integration of our faith in a personal God with our assumed right to a life of plenty. In a culture where food, electricity, heat, shelter, computing and fashion are so abundant, the availability of such resources has gotten confused with the blessing of God.

Why is this a problem? It separates modern believers from experiencing a continuity of faith with those believers that have suffered throughout history, or in developing countries in the present day. Psalm 37:25 is over-quoted ("I was once young, now I am old. I have never seen a godly man abandoned, or his children forced to search for food."), assuming that those beloved of God will not go without. Indeed I have been hungry before, and so have my children. The emotional-spiritual pain of lacking such provisions is immeasurably heightened by a well-meaning health-and-wealth gospel koolaid drinker (make that a two-fisted drinker) insinuating that God will provide such necessities if I only believe more. Or sometimes it's surely because of an unconfessed sin that I must embark on an internal excavation to unearth in some emotional manner to finally receive the redemption of Christ in that area. Among the worst ones, for which all readers of this would have my permission to punch the misguided advisor in the face, is the suggestion that I've wandered far from God and therefore his blessing. This supposes that some fasting, prayer, Bible study and confession (maybe throw in a little holy water for good measure) will make it all better. Instead of two aspirin, we're prescribed, "have two charismatic experiences and call me in the morning." I can only imagine how insulted our Savior must be my such petty attempts to unlock his favor.

This is not to say that the mountainous cache of energy drinks, breakfast cereals, candy bars or gallon cans of chili are evil in and of themselves. They are just raw materials that people will use either responsibly or gluttonously. The evil represented by the Sam's Club stacks is the unreasonable expectation developed by people that such indulgence is a right, a given, a guaranteed life of "as much as I want." This may be labeled as an American phenomenon, but certainly this unlovely set of assumptions are given fangs and claws by the added suit of Christian pious triumphalism. Many of those biblical promises concerning the coming kingdom of God (instituted when Christ returns) get over-realized for the present. The land of abundance and the material blessings of God, not to mention the unprecedented time of peace, start to get assumed as imminent. The treasures of Costco, Sam's Club, Walmart (insert any other favorite department store here) or the local mall, supposedly, belong to those who God favors. As a result, religion becomes a means not so much for training the human condition for devotion to God as it is a means for using God to improve the human condition.

The Costco culture is the not the cause of the religion of consumption, but it is related. Not unlike how the fever is related to the flu, so also is the assumption of plenty related to the god of our stomach. We sit in plush chairs in darkly lit rooms and tap our fingers on a table while a college sophomore or single mom retrieves our food for us from the back kitchen. We've erected temples to our appetites and claim that the God of the Bible is on the hook to put out for this strange deity of our invention. Far from setting aside the best for the worship of God (as the Old Testament prescribes), we demand the best be set aside for us (this is self-worship). May God deliver us from the religion of consumption, whose services are held daily at Sam's Club, Walmart and Costco. May he forgive us our attempts to garner his favor with Christianese platitudes, and for our instincts to fill ourselves anyway when he's slow on the draw.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Addiction and Gravity on the soul

It is a particularly heinous affliction in the human soul, that aspect of fallen depravity that makes destructive behavior much easier than its productive counterpart. From our earliest years we are not only able to make poor choices, but follow them up with selfish instinct as well. Children in a preschool do not need to be taught to take toys away from classmates; it’s intuitive. Nevertheless, depravity makes sin our instinct; self-destruction our outcome. Few categories bear this out better than in the various forms of substance or behavioral addiction manifested across the societal spectrum. The essential characteristics of these myriad addictions are:

1. tolerance (the need for more)
2. withdrawal (reaction and rebound)
3. self deception (denial)
4. loss of willpower & control
5. distortion of attention (preoccupation)

Within the context of a conference for fire chaplains, this subject is broached because of the frequency with which addictive behavior is found among firefighters attempted to cope with occupational stresses alone. This is meant to better equip the chaplain for ministering the to firefighter, who needs better coping skills than an addictive behavior that will ultimately prove self-destructive. However, it is not to the chaplain to become the “behavior police.” It is the responsibility of the firefighter to approach the chaplain. Therefore, the applicability of the lecture on addiction and grace is found when the chaplain has been approached by the addicted emergency responder. Also, my own life bears out that this information is applicable to the chaplain as well. We are just as capable of engaging destructive addictions to cope with various pressures as any firefighter.

Nevertheless, it falls to the chaplain to remain at the ready to assist the one approaching them with the ministry skills necessary for healing. Grace is the essential framework in which for this ministry to occur. The appropriateness of grace is made evident by the minister’s own struggles with the spiritual sense of “gravity” on the soul. It is a great deal easier to fall, than it is to jump or climb. It is a whole lot simpler to become addicted, than to be liberated. It is easier to be enslaved, than to be freed. This sense of “gravity” on the human soul is called depravity or sin nature by theologians. Derek Webb sings that “we’re crooked deep down.”

The gravitational pull, that human effort cannot break free from, is what necessitates grace. Grace, by its nature, cannot be deserved, grasped, demanded or expected. It’s unmerited. Perhaps the addict is more aware of this than any other figure, since her cannot break free of that which enslaves him. They are more aware of their need for grace than most. Therefore, if one approaches the chaplain (or pastor) for help with their addiction, they are among the more prime targets of grace one can find.

Mediating Common Grace

In theological circles, discussions about God’s grace often identify two categories: “special” grace and “common” grace. These are separate, but linked. Special grace is often spoken of that application of God’s grace that results in acceptance of the Gospel and eternal salvation. This is a work of the Spirit that tends to follow the overt proclamation of Christ and an orthodox sharing of the Gospel. It is a very particular work of the Spirit to regenerate the person. This “special” grace is necessary for someone to be illuminated to the beauty of the Savior, such that they would respond to his offer of dying in their place. Though the Church of Jesus Christ has manifold duties, this is its chief purpose. When Christ commands the first apostles to “Go and make disciples of all nations,” this “special” grace is in view, making the spread of this special grace the primary purpose of the Church.

However, theologians also find biblical support for another type of application for God’s grace altogether. This grace is applied very broadly to humanity and the world in such a way that it does not necessarily result in salvation. The question “Why do bad things happen to good people?” has been a quandary for many. On the other hand, the question “Why do good things happen among fallen people?” can be much more troubling. The believer might expect trouble or persecution from a fallen world, but what about when their atheist neighbor treats them better than people do at church? It can be reliably suggested that God is to be thanked for all goodness (wherever it is found). What this means is that God’s grace was at work in a way that did not result in the neighbors salvation, though it moved them to neighborliness.

This latter view is often called “common” grace. It’s a much more subtle symptom of Christ’s reign in the kingdom of God. It spreads well outside the community of faith. It’s a very broad work of the Spirit (rather than his particular work on the newly-regenerated) that suppresses human depravity, social and natural chaos. For the human race, this results in both individual and communal adherence to natural law, moral order and “common sense.”

For his part, God is complete control of how, and of “type” of grace he extends toward people. Nevertheless, though he is always the ultimate source of grace, he has historically used “mediators” to participate in the work of the One Mediator between God and man - the man Christ Jesus. These little “mediators” have taken the form of prophets and priests in the Old Testament, later chiefly expressed in the person of Jesus Christ, but also played out in the apostles of the New Testament. These “little mediators” are not the source of God’s grace, but for reasons which seem good to him, God has chosen to extend his grace to people through contact with these “little m’s.” God saves, but he indeed uses preachers and evangelists to deliver the Gospel that the newly saved person responded to.

Many may be uncomfortable with the use of this "mediatorial" language, fearing that it appears to place into human hands what is the sole prerogative of Christ. Far from being feared, this understanding should be embraced with the "little m" knowing that they are being the "hands and feet" of Christ in how they bring grace to others. For this reason, believers must consciously own their priestly responsibility to mediate grace to people, whatever type of grace God may will. At times, it has been my pleasure and privilege to "mediate" special grace by proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Romans 10:14-17 tells me that I have a role in the mediating process Christ employs. In addition though, I must also fully accept my responsibility in how Christ mediates common grace as well.

It is this role in mediating common grace where chaplaincy truly is best understood. Here at the annual conference for the Federation of Fire Chaplains, I'm receiving training on how to better "mediate" that common grace in crisis and traumatic situations for victims, and especially to maintain a "mediatorial" presence among the firefighters the rest of the time. Actually, my primary role is to minister to the firefighters in this manner, reminding them by my presence and practices that God is with them in all their functions. This is "mediating" common grace, and all Christians should feel a responsibility to step in and take such a mantle. However, the role of a fire chaplain is a role set apart and distinct to perform this service to those who serve others. It's a heavy duty, as being an extension of how the Church mediates grace outward to the community, but I love it.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Music and Miracles

"Music is the voice of miracles."

That's what I had etched onto the back of my iPod shuffle. How amazing that God has created our world such that some emotions, sentiments, memories or longings simply cannot be captured with words. The notes, the melodies, the tones, chords and tunes can, at times, convey meaning that was never going to enjoy the match of a well-turned phrase. The arts hold such an important place in the human experience. Poetry, canvas, sculpture and music carry meaning, but much more. Rather than simply conveying the content of a message, they convey the experience of it. The "feel" of a particular truth is delivered by the arts that propositional prose will struggle with. No wonder that the song book of the Scriptures is found in the middle of the Bible.

A broad spectrum of human emotions can be communicated, and experienced by music. I am particularly fond of, and reliant upon, music for fully exploring the depths of my emotional caverns. Mourning, celebration, love, hate, sadness and joy are represented in my music collection. I gravitate mainly to classical music (which includes modern film scores), but also include some country and rock as well.

Take the category of joy, for example. How could one remain in the doldrums following the musical set below? View it, and then honestly evaluate if you were not uplifted.

See. You likely could not help but tap your foot, bob your head or smile at least a little. I will go so far as to suggest that one's music collection is second only to their Bible for shaping their worldview, attitude and emotional ebbs and flows. For this reason, families used to keep their personal hymnal next to their Bible on the table. What you sing to, tap your foot to or in any way allow access to the deeper recesses of the soul that only music can invade determines a great deal about your character and spiritual well being.

Really, music's work is often measured in those layers of the human condition that typically only God can miraculously transform. For me, such a miracle occurred in Georgia when I was given a gift token to Turtle Records. I used it to buy two classical music tapes (Mozart and Beethoven). That change of music marked a significant change in my spiritual evolution. Before that I couldn't care less about spiritual matters or growing in Christ. After that, the music seemed to open up my heart to truth like it had never been open before.

I encourage people to pay close attention to the music they imbibe. It's likely having a much greater influence on you than you realize. Not that you evaluate the music so much that it can never have its effect; but some evaluation is necessary because of the powerful (and yes, miraculous) effect that the music will have on you. It does for me, and I suspect I'm not alone in this.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Reformation Reflections

As Reformation Day for 2008 fast approaches (Oct 31st), the confessed "pillars" of the Protestant Reformation require new emphasis for the Christian church in America. Those pillars being as follows: sola Scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus and sola Deo gloria. Their applicability remains as steadfast in the 21st century as they were in the 16th.

Sola Scriptura - "Scripture alone" remains the final authority of faith and practice for the Christian. Though the ancient creeds offer helpful guides of orthodoxy, and personal experience customizes the walk of faith for many, only Scripture can offer the normative templates for belief and behavior that are to be taught in the assembly. Formulations, creeds, confessional statements and doctrinal lists are fine, but they must pass the scrutiny of Holy Scripture to fall in the category of authoritative instruction. This is as necessary now as it has ever been. When we consider the great and powerful temptation for teachers and preachers to admonish audiences using pop-psychology, seminar bullet points and bestseller book titles, the Scriptures often take a back seat.

Sola gratia - "Grace alone" is the reason that God offers the redeeming work of Christ to us. No merit of our own incited God to extend salvation to us. The nature of grace is that it is undeserved. We were not pleasing to God to the point that he would feel obligated to save us. On the contrary, while we were still his enemies by means of our sinful alliances and impulses, Christ died for us. One of the worst effects of 9/11 is that Al Qaeda assisted many Americans in believing that evil is "out there" or "over there;" it looks like him or sounds like her. "Evil" is manifested in a wide variety of fashions, but is no less resident in me than in someone flying a plane into the South Tower. How do I know this? It took the death of God's only Son to redeem me. Only grace can account for why God would offer us a means of escaping our self-imposed destruction.

Sola fide - "Faith alone" is the means by which we receive the redemption offered by Jesus Christ. Salvation from God's just punishment for our rebellion is not acquired by means of adherence to religious ritual, executing a list of productive behaviors, good citizenship or a positive mental attitude. Beneficial as those things may be, the saving relationship to God in Christ is secured only by faith. This is alarming to many who would rather offer practices to God, but keep their hearts to themselves. It also can trip up those patriotic individuals in wartime who think (since evil is "them, they or those") that God already has saved them by means of living in a country where they see so many churches everywhere. The problem is that salvation does not occur by osmosis. Every individual who desires a right relation to Christ must submit to, relate to and receive him by faith alone.

Solus Christus - "Christ alone" is the object of our thanks for redemption. Though clergy, friends, family, authors and speakers are helpful means by which the good news of redemption ("the gospel") is delivered, they are not the one's redeeming. Bishops, cardinals, popes might even serve helpful means of organizing church polity (a debate for another day), but they are not responsible for the salvation offered. Only Christ is to be thanked, and given all of one's allegiance in response to his redeeming work on our behalf by dying on the Roman cross, fully receiving the penalty due us, and rising from the grave on the 3rd day of that earth-shaking event. This tenant of the Reformation could not be more applicable today in light of ministries built on personality, popularity or broadcasting power. Only Christ deserves credit for our redemption (in every way we experience it).

Sola Deo gloria - "The glory of God alone" is the grand effect that redemption is to have in us. People are not redeemed from sin and death so that they may start a political movement, have their own country or create enclaves of separate communities wherein the comfortable few can affirm each others' adherence to a few arbitrary rules. The image of God (imago Dei) is placed on mankind, along with the command to "multiply and fill the Earth," so that wherever God glances around the world he sees himself represented. For his own glory alone, God graciously (yet inexplicably) redeems people so as to reclaim his glorious representation in us. His global mission (missio Dei) is to see his grace, his character, his love and his loyalty to himself represented by all people, languages, cultures and regions. This is the pursuit of his glory on Earth, and his glory alone remains the grand goal of our salvation.

Churches in American (I speak mainly of evangelicals because that is my sub-group), need their own "reformation." October 31st is not merely a significant date in 1517. It's a day to remember our own need to constantly reform. May God invade our time in a similar manner that he worked in Martin Luther's, and reform us into what we ought to be.

Monday, October 6, 2008

"Unprayed Desires" revisted

In August of 2007, when I wrote on the subject of "unprayed desires," I was speaking of the fulfilled dreams of seminary and pastoring. Now, I have an entirely different reason to revisit the subject. Again, a deep seated, secret desire is being fulfilled by the Lord. One so personal, so valuable and so intimate that once again God shows how well He knows me. As a result, I am left in awe of his loyal love.

It's not easy to explain, but ever since I was discharged from the U.S. Navy back in December of 1988, I've regretted it. I tried to re-enlist back in the early 90's during Operation Desert Storm, but because of the nature of my discharge (medical, though honorable) the Navy did not want me back. I've continued to read about U.S. naval developments along the way, and maintained a membership with the U.S. Naval Institute. Since having followed a "call" to Christian ministry, I've entertained the possibility of a Navy Chaplaincy career. That inclination moved in and out of fancy for me over the years, always tickling the "desire bone," but not enough to commit to following it. Two things then seemed to place that desire well out of reach.

1. The Navy prefers that the new chaplain be between the ages of 21 and 38 at the time of appointment. This seemed to count me out since I was likely going to be 40 years old (or order) when graduating from seminary.

2. My appointment to pastor a church appears to have made that choice for me was well. Pastoring a church is NOT something that one does while they're waiting to do something else. It is NOT an entry level position. The Church of Jesus Christ is the pinnacle of Christian ministry. All other possibilities support its mission in one manner of another.

For the above two reasons, I thought military chaplaincy (specifically the U.S. Navy) was quickly turning into one of those unfulfilled dreams that's just a part of life. As one gets older, there is much that goes unfulfilled; many goals that go unmet; many dreams that go unrealized. That's not cynicism; that's life. By God's grace though, many desires ARE fulfilled; many goals ARE met, and many dreams ARE realized. Not all are, but many are. For this reason, we must remain thankful for those dreams that are reached that God was under no obligation to grant. The reality is that some dreams go unreached, and question is whether one will be content about that, or will they obsess over "the one that got away." I had grown content that the dream of naval chaplaincy might never be realized; my military appetite left unappeased.

Then, at the National Night Out for the city of Fate last year, Fire Department Chief Sean Fay approached me about the possibility of serving as the chaplain for the Fate Fire & Rescue. I agreed, though not fully understanding what I was entering into. Having now served the department for nearly a year, I see now that God was mindful of my previous desires stated above. With those longings in mind, He arranged for me to serve in a capacity that not only closely parallels that experience I was seeking in Navy, but also accommodates the present appointment to Woodcreek Bible Church as well.

What's more? Chaplaincy for Fate Fire & Rescue fulfills several desires at once: (1) my military "itch" is scratched, (2) it opens doors for community ministry, and (3) it involves formal training and connection to a broader guild (echoed in the military as well). Later this month, the city of Fate is sending me to attend the Federation of Fire Chaplains Annual Conference. This formalized training offers not only the basic training for the chaplaincy certificate, but also the added benefit of being interconnected with the wider "brotherhood" of fire chaplains. The conference program even entails a tour of the U.S. Naval Chaplains' School (amazing!).

God was clearly aware of this desire all along, and like a loving father keeping some Christmas presents concealed until the right time, waited patiently to spring this blessing on me. I'm humbled by how wisely, and completely He knew to fulfill my "unprayed desires." May I wear the uniform with pride, serve my department and city with humble passion, and remain thankful for God's loving care each time I put on the chaplain's uniform (right after I pinch myself again).

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Win the Crowd!

Last Sunday I attended my first professional football game. Technically, I could count my attendance of a Seattle Seahawks game in 9th grade (when they played in the Kingdome), but I'd rather not since the game, the venues and the frills have changed so much since then. Nevertheless, it was the first visit to a NFL game in my adult life. Texas Stadium was surrounded by a swarm of people celebrating the event well in advance. The tailgate parties were plentiful, jerseys were worn with pride and the cheers rose in unified chorus. The sea of humanity we waded through to approach the stadium was impressive. The Dallas Cowboys certainly have a great and loyal following. Fan enthusiasm and expectation is understandable, and it's not only easy to get wrapped up in it, but pleasuring as well. There's a very appropriate emotion of celebration that is conjured by company that is difficult to achieve alone. Recluses are pitiable for at least this reason.

However, after entering the stadium, I was struck by the grandeur of the facility. The migration proceeded inward from the parking lot (immersed with the smells of BBQ and the sounds of Rap music), with several pedestrian streams confluencing at security points. In finding our seats, we finally entered the stadium interior, at which I was struck by the grand scale of the massive structure. This is sobering considering that Texas Stadium is relatively humble compared to its NFL counterparts throughout the country. The structure itself, though, is not the dominant cause of concern. In fact, no element of the presentation alone could account for my unease with the event. (At this point it's important insert how grateful I am for having been invited to the game by my friend, and how thankful I was for not only the fun of it, by the time spent with fine company as well).

Many aspects of the event seemed to cater to my more base instincts. The stadium, though older and in disrepair, was designed to be awe inspiring. The immense crowd, the loud music, fireworks, flames and excitement came together to create a "feel" of the event. This "feel" was both easy to get wrapped up into, yet disconcerting at the same time. What seemed to make the "catering" more obvious was the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. More than merely "cheerleading" in the classic high school or college sense, they were clothed-exotic dancers meant to distract me during the time gaps in the game's action. In the ancient Near East, kings and dignitaries were entertained with such distractions to arouse fond feelings for the host or to make them "feel" royal. Since in America the dollar is king, customers get the "royal" treatment. This includes women as distracting objects for consumers' pleasure.

To avoid hypocrisy, I must admit that the Dallas Stars also have the Ice Girls. I am a great fan of the Stars. However, because of the ice rink the Ice Girls are much more relegated to the side (more out of view). They are not made as central to the spectacle before me. If that should ever change, I will be quite disappointed with the NHL. Nevertheless, the Cowboys cheerleaders' component in the presentation was much more pronounced, leaving me feeling more "catered" to by their show.

The sights, smells and sounds of the stadium experienced with the Dallas Cowboys transported me back to my last viewing of "Gladiator." The film was an insightful social commentary on cultures driven by entertainment (particularly contest-entertainment), and where it can lead to. Roman society degenerated into one in which bloodsport was necessary to adequately distract people from governmental erosion. "Win the crowd," was Proximo's admonition to Maximus. This advice was born of his understanding that in such cultures, entertainment is power. "I am a slave," laments Maximus at one point, "with the power only to amuse a mob." The reply is given matter-of-fact like, "that is power." Another conversation, earlier in the story summarizes well the interplay of entertainment and power in Rome:

Gracchus: Fear and wonder, a powerful combination.

Falco: You really think people are going to be seduced by that?

Gracchus: I think he knows what Rome is. Rome is the mob. Conjure magic for them and they'll be distracted. Take away their freedom and still they'll roar. The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the senate, it's the sand of the coliseum. He'll bring them death - and they will love him for it.

Though I enjoyed the Cowboys experience, I couldn't help but feel part of the "mob" that Gracchus spoke of. Someone may counter, "How is it that you 'felt' this at the stadium and not at a hockey game?" The point is well taken. I'm not sure they differ in substance so much as in degree. The size, the crowd, the sexy women and the grand spectacle all "felt" more like the Colosseum that I had ever experienced before. Competitive sports serve a productive purpose in society that can be examined at a later time, but to the degree that they conjure the human impulses of ancient Rome they sail on dangerous waters. "Win the crowd" may be the driving market force, but that doesn't mean that it wins me.