Monday, March 31, 2008

Growth

Since moving into a house, I have discovered that I like to see things grow. Planting stuff here and feeding stuff there really pays off this time of year when plants and trees start to bloom. It's very pleasing to see the new buds coming out, the green leaves and signs of new life. However, I also have discovered that I can't just sit back and watch it grow. Work is involved.

Take, for example, the practice of pruning. It's so painful at first because you lop off limbs that had beautiful flowers and leaves on them last season, but this season those same limbs are in the way of other limbs you'd rather have grow. 3 principles of pruning that I've learned through reading and asking the garden dept. people at Lowe's and Home Depot are:

1. Cut off dead wood. Limbs that are no longer blooming or show no sings of life strain the structure of the tree and invite disease for the whole trunk. Cut it off as close to the junction with live wood as possible. Getting rid of the dead limbs can save the rest of the tree.

2. Cut off limbs that conflict with the main branches. Limbs often grow randomly and can crowd the growth from the main branches. Also, limbs can press tightly up against a primary branch causing it structural stress. Though it looks healthy now, it can stress and damage the tree if left alone. It needs to go.

3. Cut off limbs to shape the tree for the desired result. When one looks at their foliage, the garden manager should determine what the aesthetic or organic goal was in growing these plants or tress in the first place. Then, cut off branches (without irreparably harming the main tree) that to not conform with the vision for how the tree of plant should be shaped. This is not only done with Hedge rows and Junipers, but also with Crape Myrtles, Live Oaks, etc.

These three principles have proven to help in growing living things around my house. I didn't understand this one summer when my mother came to visit for a week and pulled a "Freddy Kruger" on my front holly tree. I freaked. "Why did you do that?" I demanded. "To keep it healthy, growing and beautiful," she replied. I've sense learned she was right.

*Some reading this may have guessed by now that I'm really speaking of the Church.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Pets


We have two dogs (Nyute and Madison) and a cat (Bagheera). Although Naomi counts the fish as pets, and has even named them all, I don't count them as pets, per se, because you can't interact with them. The other animals, however, are very interactive; especially the dogs. Nyute's pretty big (pictures at left) and Madison is medium sized. Still, they're both rather large to be sleeping up under our chins every night (which they do). They are spoiled rotten. Nevertheless, they're a real pleasure to have in the home and interact with. It becomes easy to forget that they are possessions; that we're their "owners." It would seem more accurate to suggest that we're living in a Star Wars reality where these "other life forms" cohabit with us. Sure, they obey the humans, particularly the large male one among the human pack, but they're not "possessions" in the manner that we "own" a table, a computer or a bed.

The cat on the other hand (Bagheera), is living proof of the old adage that "dogs have masters, but cats have staff." He likes to be around family members, but only when he's ready. He'll let you pet him if he's in the mood. He glares at you in a manner that seems to size you up, determining whether you're worthy of his time. He's neat to have because he keeps a sense of mystery in the house. Some cats may be "lap cats" in that they snuggle at any opportunity and let you pick them up all the time. Not Bagheera. He's got his own rules, and only those who follow them are graced with his company. Nyute and Madison both seem to respect him and keep their distance.

How interesting that God makes creatures such that will add this dimension to the human experience; that he made a whole realm of the animal kingdom that is domesticable. Some aspects of the animal kingdom have assisted in human work (horses, sled dogs, falcons, etc). Some have assisted in human sustenance (farms animals, cattle, deer, fish, etc.). Some serve neither of those, but just seem to keep the created order in balance (spiders, snakes, sharks, vultures, etc.). Some, however, seem to have been created to enhance the human experience; to be objects of human care, kindness and responsibility, while also being sources of human pleasure, joy and company. My pets remind me of God's grace woven into creation...yes, that means Bagheera too.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Stormy prayer

Yesterday we had stormy weather here in Rockwall County. The National Weather Service issued flash flood warnings for much of the area, including our county too. I enjoy big storms. Even though they can be destructive for some, which is regrettable, they also demonstrate the power of God woven into his creation much like volcanoes or tsunamis. It's awesome to witness, and being in the middle of it seems to almost "feel" closer to God.

That is why I chose yesterday to spend time in prayer at my church. It has a small drainage ditch running through the middle of it. It doesn't even warrant a creek name since it's so seasonal. Nevertheless, being out in the storm seemed like good devotional time to me - and it was. Intense prayer, I find, is more easily achieved in intense settings. When the ran is pelting you in the face while you're standing knee deep in creek trying to cut away the fence that is clogging up debris, God just seems closer. Normal difficulties I might have in achieving transparency before God in prayer are stripped away by the adventure of removing the water's obstruction without being swept down the river. It was intense. It was spiritual. It was intensely spiritual.

In the process I couldn't help but reflect on the river as an analogy of a church (or even our church). When heavy rains comes, the flow increases. But even though there's much more water, still obstructions can remain, restricting the best flow. Removing the obstructing fence was hard work, but worth it. What obstructions remain in our church that might hinder how the Holy Spirit desires to flow through us? What obstructions remain in me?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Results-oriented ministry

In the business community (the marketplace), results are the "bottom line." This is appropriate if the business knows what results it should be striving for. The "results" it aims to achieve are not simply to have a full schedule, or frequent meetings, or develop consumer awareness of their product through advertising. These are means to achieving the results, but are not the results themselves. Therefore it behooves that business to know exactly what results it wants.

Church has both similarities to and differences from the marketplace that make it a unique animal. Being results oriented can be positive, but striving for the wrong results can be quite negative. It's a precarious dance you step to be ambitious with the Gospel, pursuing the kingdom of God with reckless abandon. You have ideas in your head that suggest God wants his mission to the world chased after in full throttle. You envision a ministry that celebrates the glory of God with orthodox, yet culturally relevant worship; that sends out teams of people every week to evangelize the community and follow up with church visitors; that trains new leaders to carry the work of the Church vocationally and otherwise; that plants new churches regularly to ensure the duplicating expansion of the Church; that develops people into fully mature disciples of Jesus Christ.

You envision all these things, but to put a numeric figure on it seems too sold out to American ambition. I don't know. It doesn't "feel" right. I read the vision statements of some highly "successful" churches recently. Their pastors gave sermons that included the envisioning of 10,000 members, or 20,000 attendees to weekend services. I'm uncomfortable setting a figure for two reasons:

1. Setting a number goal smacks of ambition that seems to migrate subtly from healthy zeal for the Gospel to unhealthy "success-ism." Where is the line where one crosses from one realm into the other? I'm not sure. At this point I just know that I've witnessed extreme examples on both ends of the spectrum. I've witnessed those churches that have no zeal for the expansion of the Church at all. They are absent any ambition. The missio Dei seems quite foreign. The "holy huddle" is entrenched, and will never think outside that box for the sake of the Great Commission. On the other hand, I've also witnessed those churches that seemed to so fully indulge their ambitions that governing values, dignity of the Church or operational convictions seem completely negotiable. Great size had been achieved, but at too high a price.

2. Setting a large number goal contradicts both the advantages I've seen in moderate sized congregations and the critiques I've offered of mega-churches. At some point, when the church gets too large, it ever more easily looses any personal feel. Business oriented operations become more standard, and rhetoric describing the church as a "family" sounds ever more empty. This perhaps is simply my projecting of my own comfort zone onto the church. Therefore, if God wanted to grow a church where I serve as the pastor to a size of 10,000, a great deal of change would have had to occur in me. At the present time, I can envision large church, but not as easily envision myself as the senior pastor of one.

These are relevant because our church just held an outreach event to the community, welcoming much of the community to our doorstep through an event partnering with the local Fire department's ladies auxiliary. Already I'm being asked if we've seen "results" from the event. What "results" would that be? 10 new people? 20 new people? How quick we are to assume that "results" means numbers. Could not "results" also mean a good witness with the Fate Fire Ladies Auxiliary? Or increased awareness of our church's existence in the community? Or the cooperative working with the FFLA that might spawn greater good will between our church and local municipalities? Or simply the sharing of God's grace with Fire Dept and residential visitors alike to our church's property?

"Results" is such a loaded term. It must be defined before that question "Are we seeing results?" can be safely asked. If a ministry is results-oriented (and I'm not saying it shouldn't be), then we had better be careful about what are the "results" we're looking for. I've already seen many wonderful "results" come out of our most recent event, but I may be looking at different things that those merely checking attendance on Sunday morning.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Quiet Times

When I was growing up in church, the youth group I attended for junior high and high school had a peculiar practice. They sought to encourage regular Bible reading and prayer for the teens who attended (also called "having your 'quiet time'"). "Quiet times" were a staple of youth group in those days. It was perceived that a lot could be fixed about the teen years if we could only get them having regular "quiet times." To this end, the youth leaders awarded prizes for those teen who had "quiet times" on the most regular basis. Teens who had done theirs for 30 straight days were awarded a hat. Those who had done it for 6 straight months got a jacket. The hat and the jacket had the youth group's logo on it (the youth ministry was called "The Flock"; exceedingly unoriginal for a baptist church).

One of the unintended consequences (perhaps "intended" would be accurate but I'm not yet cynical enough to assume so) was that those teens who earned a hat, or especially a jacket, wore them to youth events. This created a sense of status. The more "spiritual" teens were easy to spot in the crowd due to their apparel. You really could judge a book by its cover. A sense of counter-coolness had developed specifically for church. "The Flock" jacket became the church equivalent of a letterman's jacket in a high school. If a guy was so spiritual as to earn a jacket, his girlfriend might be found wearing it sometimes in the cold. Good Christian boys and girls had "flock" apparel. Marginal ones did not.

What was then the motivation for doing your "quiet time?" A hat? A jacket? Status? Coolness? Peer pressure from friends who had theirs? To have matching apparel with a girlfriend? A boyfriend?

Oh how seductive and enticing legalism is. Watch in awe how it slithers its way into every aspect of Christian practice. Observe with horror as the beautiful acts of reading God's Word and communing with him in prayer are morphed into acts of status. Cringe with disgust was Christian leaders seek to use peer pressure in a "positive" way, ignorant of the fact that they've accomplished little more than to make teens simply more susceptible to peer pressure.

How is our Lord made to feel by such motives? When he asks for the reason why you read his Word and pray simple "now I lay me down to sleep" prayers, is he honored by your reply "to look more cool at church?" Do you suppose the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ died on the cross for your sin, providing substitutionary atonement for you so that you can be popular in Christian crowd? Is our devotion of Christ so simplify-able as to be reduced to answering the youth leader in the affirmative when asked if "you had your 'quiet time' this week?"

My daughter and I recently had this discussion because she gets asked this question in her youth group at church. "Did you have your quiet time this week?" My first instinct was to tell her to tell them, "that's none of your d*** business!" But she's more respectful than I am, and would not likely say that. She elected instead to tell the truth, whether she had or not, and be content that God is working with her in a pace that seems good to him. But she will not succumb to peer pressure to have "quiet times" just to say she did, or lie and say she did when she had not. I'd rather she tell the people in youth group, "that's a private matter." But I respect her decision.

Nevertheless, she and I talked a lot about motives and why we do the things we do as Christians. Bible reading is not the goal. Knowing God and following closely to him is the goal, and the Bible is the chief means of knowing him. Why do we pray? Not to check that task off on the score card that I'll show to the youth group gestapo. We pray to commune with and relate to our great and gracious God. Motives are so vitally important to Christian disciplines.

I'd much rather my children learn right motive before right practice, for it is right motive that makes right practice right. To hell with "quiet times" if they are ever to be used for that particularly effective practice by the Evil One in stunting the growth of believers into legalistic dwarfs. Give me a youth who reads the Scriptures less frequently, but then truly meditates on what they read (Psalm 119:15,27,48,97,99, 148). Give me a youth who prays less frequently, but truly bares their soul to the Lord in passionate pleas for mercy on them, a sinner (Luke 18:13). Give me a youth who tells me it's none of my business how often they had their "quiet times," but then secretly goes into their private room and prays to their Father in secret (Matt 6:5-6). I have little doubt that The Father will make sure they are rewarded.

Even the language of "quiet times" gives me chills up my spine. It's reminiscent of legalistic days that I'm still recovering from. How might an 90 year old polish Jew still wince at hearing a German accent say "I was merely following orders?" Such is my continued reaction to hearing the language of "quiet times" used in church. I hope we can get away from such language, and figure out a new way to encourage Christian disciplines and depth for our youth. Just like certain words and phrases have come to have such historical baggage that they are no longer welcome in society (I'll not supply them here, but instead trust in your cultural awareness to conjure them yourself), so also should "quiet time" become banned from Christian circles in which grace is a driving mandate. Let us discover other terms and means of encouraging Christian reflection, study and discipline; but "quiet time," as a phrase, has got to go.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Voting pleasure

Today Naomi and I headed down to our local polling place and voted in the Texas presidential primary. There were other issues and offices on the ballot with which we were both admittedly less familiar, but the presidential primary was the main issue for which we were eager to cast our votes.

Which presidential candidate did we vote for? I'll not name names, but I will explain that our home's politics can lean pretty conservative. You can probably guess the party from that description. In both Republican and Democratic parties there are two candidates remaining. I disagree with the often championed strategy of voting for the "most electable" candidate. I instead choose to vote for the candidate, or measure, or issue that most closely approximates my ideals. A vote is one's declaration of how they believe power should be used in our society. If, by my vote, I "declare" an endorsement of a specific candidate, and then lose, I then am in an "honest minority." I declared my preference and that preference did not prevail. That is honest. I would much rather be part of an honest minority than a dishonest majority.

As a result, Naomi and I voted for a candidate that more closely approximated our political leanings than any of the others. We did so regardless of the probability of that candidate's success. Our declaration was honest. It may be in the minority, but it was honest.

We drove away from the precinct reflecting on the pleasure of voting. It's a pleasure not just because it's a relatively recent right in human history (for which we are grateful), but also because of the sense of satisfaction derived from performing one's duties as a citizen. Citizenship carries with it a certain list of responsibilities; among which are obeying laws, jury duty and voting. Military service can be included, but presently is not mandatory in the United States. Nevertheless, there is a healthy pride that comes with performing one's duties as a citizen than links the listed items. In like manner that military veterans have a healthy pride in service to country that is distinctly their's, so also should voters have a pride in their particular service. Such pride is deserved and distinct to the voter. For this reason, we also prefer to vote on the voting "day," as opposed to early voting or absentee voting. The voting day is when this aspect of citizenship is celebrated, and it's a pleasure to know we participated.