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.