Friday, September 26, 2008

Harsh lesson - stern warning

This last week has been murder for pastors everywhere. There are parallels to the fire service in that when a firefighter falls in the line of duty, firefighters everywhere feel it. They mourn the loss, but also feel as though the great beast they battle on every call has somehow dealt them a blow. They kick hard at the "dragon" at every structure fire. This time, the dragon struck back. Fierce hatred for the beast arises within the ranks. New resolve is conjured to defeat it. The brotherhood laments the tremendous hole it its ranks, but presses on in its mission sobered by the grave outcome that can result.

The difference is that it's not merely the "brotherhood" of ministers when a pastor falls apart in a moral tailspin, the cause of Christ suffers the blow at every level. The victims are too numerous to fully account for. A pastor found to be possessing and exchanging child porn violates first and foremost those children featured in the material he had. After that, his family suffers immeasurably. Rippling out, the moral violation flashes over his congregation. Disillusioned and hurt, those who do not abandon their faith are the miracles; the rest are tragically understandable. The shock of the pastor's fall then sweeps out across the community like a brush fire. The surrounding neighborhoods are blown back on their heels by the betrayal of a respected spiritual leader, whose visible ministry was a special source of hope for a city. The news travels fast via paper, TV and internet that a Christian minister has an evil alter ego. Anyone who can't process the reality of fallen humanity in the pulpit will simply think Christ implicitly to blame for allowing such a man to be in that role.

The Bride of Christ gets an undeserved black eye for a time until the wound heals (for some it never does).

The whole event serves as a harsh lesson to ministers everywhere. Though those in vocational ministry are as human as any other, the consequences of their failures are not like that of any other human's. The inter-connectivity of people is a bond ordained by God. We're called to belong as well as believe. With this single design "flaw," God leaves us vulnerable to untold harm at the hand of those who violate moral codes. We could be spared a variety of pain categories if only we didn't need one another so much.

What's worse? Our need for God's presence and our need for one another overlaps in the person of the minister. God's seems near because the "holy man" came to dinner. I'm often uncomfortable with this reality, but at every turn it seems unavoidable. My conduct, temperance, self-control, mercy, etc. all give people impressions regarding the Lord's love and care for them. I hate that God so often must overcome the baggage of my humanity to convince people of his love.

Nevertheless, this harsh lesson of a pastor's fall serves as a stern warning for the rest of us. How sobering to know that the visibility of my job also creates the same megaphone with which to broadcast my failures. Will I remain faithful, guarding over my integrity and Christian witness? Will my fallen humanity remain within acceptable parameters and spare those that I'm connected to the pain of betrayal? Why did God allow another pastor to implode in moral failure, yet has seemingly spared me from so many opportunities for personal destruction?

This harsh lesson is a tough pill to swallow. It's a stern warning to stay vigilant about my character, and thank God for directing me away from self-erosion. Such failures remain within the field of potentials as long as God continues to use humans to lead pockets of the community of faith.

God, protect me and my people from the depravity resident in me that required Christ's redemption from the beginning, and still needs redeeming until the glories of Heaven envelope me.

Stars Preseason

Sadly, the Stars lost last night to the Colorado Avalanche 4-2. However, it was a win the "fun" category. Another hockey season is now underway for the Ott family, and we couldn't be more pleased. The scoring, the hits, the blocks, the passes and checks all combined to form the only sport I've ever gotten into this much. It's fun to be a sports fan, particularly among many others riding the DART train to the American Airlines Center.

The Stars had a lot of new players on the ice last night, undoubtedly to give them the ice time while the final season roster is being decided. The two goals scored by the Stars were achieved by (of course) recognizable names such as Mike Ribeiro and Brenden Morrow. The sights and sounds really are a joy. When the actual season starts, it's our hope to attend more games this year than last year. As the slogan for the Stars this season:
Our Team - Our Time.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Reformation Day buzz

It's that time of the year again. We're gearing up for our annual Reformation Day celebration at Woodcreek Bible Church. This is always a really big task because you really don't get any help from the ambient culture to celebrate this. Halloween decorations already dominate Walmart's aisles. No pre-packaged crafts, inflatables or door hangings are for sale. This means that Christians who are going to celebrate this (and do it well) need to do their own homework and really employ their own creativity. Don't all really worthwhile things take more work to execute?

Even though it takes more work from our church and every participant, our church is abuzz with anticipation over how we get to celebrate this once again. There's something very thrilling about being proactive in celebrating the goodness of our God. It's liberating in that it requires no excuses. It's also exciting in how it brings out the best in those who are sold out for Jesus Christ. I can't wait. The buzz is that we're swinging for the benches with this one.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Smallest giant in the world.

"I am the smallest giant in the world." This line written in The Phantom Tollbooth stands out as communicating a wonderful paradox. By itself, it captures a thought that represents our church quite well. For this reason, I propose it become the church motto for the coming year.

Last Saturday our strategic planning team spent the morning envisioning what the coming year could look like if (1) we remain faithful to our mission, and (2) God blesses the work. Some of what was proposed were wild statements of faith that clearly were trusting God for more than we can do on our own. This was refreshing, exhilarating and motivating. The question then is, "How can you envision being used of God so powerfully when your church is still so small."

Answer: "Easy. I am the smallest giant in the world."

The use that God can make of a body of believers is not tied to their size, but his. God is big, with big plans for fulfilling his mission to the nations. Any followers of Christ that participate are made bigger by association. I may look quite small compared to the immense challenges ahead, but in Christ I am the smallest giant in the world.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Strategic Planning: "Second Wind"

Woodcreek Bible Church has undergone many changes in the past year. Far from implementing these merely for change's sake, we sought to be purposeful about whatever innovations are proposed and new initiatives carried out. This has all been part and parcel to a strategic plan to reach our local community (and beyond) with the life-assuring Gospel of Jesus Christ. To this end, we also want to grow followers of Christ into ever-maturing believers, so that they may be enlisted in the mission of God to the world.

We've reached a critic "crux move" (rock climbing lingo) in our strategic planning process though. We have faithfully examined what core values God brought us together as a church to champion. In addition, we also have identified the mission that God have called our church together to pursue. However, at a time when we wanted to focus on developing a God-given vision for our church, some unanticipated changes to our church body seemed to interrupt the momentum. This can take some of the wind out of the sails in the strategic planning process. Not only that, but a clear vision is necessary in order to develop a detailed strategic plan for accomplishing the vision. This placed us about half done with our church's strategic planning process, at a time when we need such clarity of planning the most.

To answer this need, we are doubling our efforts for the remaining months of this calendar year (Sept through Dec). Such is the importance of this leadership function of the church. There are all sorts of ways that a pastor can make mistakes in his job: poor sermon prep or delivery; miss a hospital appointment; a careless comment or ill-advised financial decision. But if the area of strategic planning is not undergone with sufficient care, attention to detail and energy for the process, the whole church labors along like a ship with no rudder. Such a blunder is frequently not fixable, but will run the entire ship aground.

For this reason, I'm very excited about the remaining sessions we have planned. May God bless our efforts to discover the plans he has for us, and grant the energy and focus to see them through to fulfillment.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Dallas Stars Icebreaker

We had so much fun last Saturday! As a family, we attended the Dallas Stars 2008 Icebreaker event at the Galleria. Not only are the Stars the first sports team that we've ever really gotten into as a family, but it's the only time I've ever heard of a professional sports team being so accessible. They really are very fan-friendly (as is apparent by the photo here Naomi had taken with her favorite player, Goalie Marty Turco).

The kids has fun ice skating as well. However, the main thrill was meeting players and having them sign our jerseys. We met Left Wing Steve Ott, who is essentially the reason why hockey first caught our interest. If you have an uncommon last name, seeing it on the back of a professional jersey can be intriguing. Anyway, all of the players were respectful, nice, good humored and very open to helping fans have a good experience. We met Ralph Strangis, who announces the games on the radio, who also gave us vouchers for free tickets to a pre-season game (we're going on Sept 25th).

In the end, I can't just be a typical sports fan who enjoys the athlete's efforts from afar. These men are not mere players; they're people. For this reason, I enjoy (and seek opportunities for this) interacting with such players personally. If I'm going to enjoy, and be inspired by, their exploits on the ice, it follows that I would also want to shake their hand and offer personal contact back to them. The 2008 Icebreaker was great because of the personal contact. It's great to be a hockey fan.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Remembering 9/11

On this 7th anniversary of 9/11/01, it is appropriate to reflect on the tragic events of the date and remember the lives lost in the attack. Like those who still remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard on the radio that Japanese planes had bombed Pearl Harbor two generations ago, I've taken some time today to allow a somber break here and there from my routine. This has been dubbed "Patriot Day" because of the groundswell of patriotism that emerged as a result of being attacked from outside forces like we were.

However, I'm alarmed at how this same "patriotism" has, in many cases, created an intolerance for any thoughtful critique some may offer of our nation. Love of country is one thing, but that same love should not translate into vehement shouting-down of differing opinions. I have seen this on television, heard it on radio and witnessed it among friends: patriotism that sometimes results in the stifling of opinions that accomplish any other objective than painting the US government in the best possible light. The political "right" claims not to be questioning the patriotism of the "left," yet implies exactly that with each snide wink or joke. I am politically very conservative, but am at times very displeased with those who hold similar views as me, shedding their civility whenever Lee Greenwood sings "God Bless the U.S.A."

I, myself, grow at times disillusioned with the longevity of the "War on Terror" (lasting nearly twice as long as World War II). Surely our military does things right, but it is because of the civilian leaders over them that we rightly ask if the military are being asked to do the right things. We are admonished to remain patient until victory is achieved, but victory has not been defined in a tangible manner. We are told to support the troops (according to talk radio), but are also told we cannot legitimately do so by desiring their recall. For how many years to come will 9/11 be the legitimate motivation for soldiers fighting in Iraq who were in middle school when 9/11 happened?

On Patriot Day, I reflect on my love of country, and thankfulness for the great priviledges and freedoms we enjoy here. However, on such a day I will not shed my thoughtful critiques of our beloved nation either; nor will I denegrate those who differ significantly in their opinions with me. Patriotism is lovely in how it produces neighborliness, service and a sense of national responsibility. Let us not allow patriotism to turn ugly, by shouting down those who's views differ with our own.

Careful with Words

Recently, Senator Barak Obama, in speaking to a crowd of political supporters, used the old adage, "You can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig." Now this has sparked controversy since Governor Sarah Palin has somewhat staked claim to "lipstick" references with her comment at the Republican National Convention: "Do you know the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick." Therefore, even though the "lipstick on a pig" adage is older than this present political year, thus leading Senator Obama to claim that he was suggesting that his opponent is offerning nothing new in terms of policy, the viewing public (and certainly the crowd present at his speech) understood him to be calling Governor Palin a "pig." Whether or not Senator Obama meant such an association cannot be definitively determined. In every way he claims to not have meant that. However, at the very least his words were ill-chosen in light of how they would be interpreted by the hearers. At worst, campaign frustrations got the better of him, and he blurted out (in a moment of spontaneous sincerity) his thoughts about Governor Palin. At best, he was careless with his words, not reflecting on how they would be taken in light of her previous "lipstick" reference.

We can benefit from Senator Obama's lesson. Words are powerful bullets that , once fired, cannot be recalled. How many times have we all said something that we wish we could have taken back? One of the reasons that email is such a primitive and crude means of communication (and lousy as a conversation tool) is because if words aren't carefully chosen with exact and gracious precision, once you click "send," it's gone...on it's way. One of the mottos I have for this season of life is "think more...speak less." I haven't adhered as strickly to this motto as I wish, but it helps to remember. I get embarressed when I think of how often I've let slip something and then later thought, "oo, that was bad."

I don't know if Senator Obama is thinking that today, or if he's mired in self-justification. In a politcal season, I don't expect that any politician (Republican or Democrat) would ever admit to having misspoken. This is pathetic, and renders all politcal figures somehow less deserving of respect. We, however, do not have to follow their example. We can be careful with words, knowing that if we slip and speak the wrong words, we had better be quick to admit it and apologize for them. This is how real people operate. But being careful with our words at the front end makes it less likely we'll hurt someone anyway, with whom we would need to reconcile later.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Hard to root for classless players

I know that football is the Texas state religion. And, yes, I know that the Dallas Cowboys are the local "priesthood" of that religion. It's basic the other worship service that happens on Sunday during the Fall in Texas. Therefore, I'd better make sure that church gets out on time so that people can make it to the "next service" on time. And I know that to relate to people I minister to I had better show my loyalty for the white, blue and silver.

But for crying out loud! Do I have to drink the cool-aid when Terrell Owens swaggers onto the field. Sure it's thrilling to watch him and Tony Romo execute superb plays like what we saw on Sunday, but the thrill of the play is totally dissipated by my disgust at T.O. when he "celebrates" his touchdown. Hey T.O., do your job! Enjoy little victories with your teammates. High five as you exit. But then sit your punk, arrogant, prima donna, "it's all about me," rockstar butt on the bench!

How I tire of the shanaogans in sports that players use to bring a spotlight on themselves. Do not whole teams win or lose games? Not that I would direct my children to sports to seek out role models, but T.O. definitely reminds me not to do so. Frankly, I find it hard to root for players that are going to so shed their last ounces of class when crossing the goal line. When Romo throws the pass, and the ball is spirelling 40 yards down the field, and a touchdown seems inevitable, I find myself hoping that anyone (ANYONE!) but T.O. is about to catch it.

Sure, I root for the Cowboys. But T.O. makes it difficult to enjoy their victories. Honestly, (and I know this will get me in hot water with people from my church) after T.O.'s little "celebration" yesterday, I wanted the Browns to come back and trounce them, humbling the punk. Alas, the Browns didn't have it in them to humble the punk. Wade Philips certainly isn't going to do it. So T.O. gets to remain the jerk as usual, with no consequences. What a great legacy for "America's team": classless displays that breed more of the same. When does hockey season start again?

Hockey talk and Politics

Hockey season is fast approaching. For this reason I just had to call Mark Davis, a local radio talk show host and bring up how hockey analogies are having a greater presence in American political discourse. Thanks go out to Governor Sarah Palin for this phenomenon. While it strikes some as strange that for former Washingtonians it took moving to Texas to become rabid hockey fans, more mysterious is that it took a Republican woman to introduce hockey terminology into the political rhetoric for this election year. A self-proclaimed "hockey mom," Sarah Palin has suggested to viewers that the difference between a hockey mom and a Pit bull is lipstick. If she does well in debates, Mark Davis pointed out that she will not be described has "having hit a home run," but having "scored a hat trick." This is fun to see as the hockey season approaches.

The Dallas Stars have caught our family's attention. We're crazy fans. We can only afford a few games a season, but our jerseys are pressed and ready. The face paint is prepared. The gloves are off and the ice is cool. Let's go Stars!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Truly Strong Women

I have often lamented our culture's discomforted with strong women. By "strong women" I mean truly strong women.

The difference is that those that are touted as "strong" by our culture actually are not. They develop a hard exterior, a tight jaw, slitted eyes and an insincere smile. Their "strength" comes not from confidence, but of desperation not to be burned again like they have been in the past. They are perpetually recovering from something. Be it an abusive father figure, boyfriend or husband, these women are internally sworn never to be victimized in that manner again. As a result femininity, grace, gentleness and quiet confidence have to be discarded, or at least subdued as possible weaknesses. This is tragic to watch. This type of "strength" is nothing more than perpetual compensation for previous pain. It's not the strength that produces leadership; it's recovery. For this reason my wife and I have often quipped that "strong women aren't" (strong). You've seen this type of "strong women" whenever you encounter one who views most men (if not all) as a threat, has seemingly suppressed maternal instincts and verbally discards traditional views of feminine fulfillment. Naomi and I have met many of these on the past, and have lamented the tragedy of it every time.

By contrast, there exists that blessed brand of truly strong women that are not seemingly recovering from some past pain. They have the quiet confidence that comes from wisdom and conviction. They embrace femininity as a laudable expression of womanhood. Poise and grace are not weakness, but virtues that reveal a solid core. They are not threatened by strong men either, but instead celebrate appropriate expressions of masculinity too. They do not bristle at having a door opened for them, but rejoice that chivalry is alive and well. These strong women know how the world works, and wisely apply themselves to the principles that God has woven into creation.

Truly strong women are both celebrated by men (real men), and are a blessing to fellow women. You've met them before when you observed a woman juggling diverse responsibilities without complaint, balancing feminine grace and convicted toughness, or passionately advancing a cause that's born of fundamental beliefs. Come to think of it, these traits are indicative of strong people of either sex, but are expressed in ways specific to healthy femininity or masculinity.

I've met them before too. I was raised by one in my mother, Carlene Ott. I also grew up with one in my sister, Gaylene R. Tupen. Coincidentally, Gaylene is the same age as the current Republican Vice-presidential candidate Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. I can easily support Sarah Palin's run for public office for similar reasons that I would support Gaylene to perform the same function. Though I don't know if Gaylene would ever want to serve in public office (nor do I know her politics enough to suggest that she too supports Sarah Palin), I do see similar qualities in Governor Palin (as much as I've learned of her from the news) that I celebrate in my sister. Gaylene is a truly strong women as I've defined it above. She is a mother of two awesome kids. She is a wildlife biologist. She contributes her time to her local public school, and she celebrates the success of her husband Jeff. Her brand of strength could easily be a conundrum to weaker people (male or female).

For the past fifteen years I've observed this type of strength up close at home in my wife Naomi. She posesses the traits I've outlined above, plus truckloads more. Her confidence is born of deeply held faith in Jesus Christ, wisdom regarding the world's workings and grace about her own life experiences. She is not perpetually recovering, but is poised and determined regarding what lies ahead. She is not threatened by my attempts to grow in strength and capability as a leader in our home, but rejoices over God's development of my character. Far from suppressing feminine instincts to appear stronger, she strives for a stereophonic beauty that emanates from inside and is expresses outside as well. She's an excellent role model for my daughter to follow. If Jessica grows up to be anything like her, I'll be a proud father indeed.

As for becoming a truly strong woman, my daughter has the advantage of many images to guide her. Her grandmother, her aunt, her mother and even an Alaska Governor can serve as her models. Truly strong women are such a blessing to encounter, their grace in action is a pleasure to watch and (*sexist comment alert) that poised beauty typically finds expression in their appearance also. Such women are found in the pages of Scripture, are celebrated in church history and will likely play a pivotal role in God's preservation of our culture. Would that more women exude such true strength, not merely the GOP Vice-presidential candidate.