Sunday, September 30, 2007

Q Did This To Me!

I used to be a casual gamer. I would get a role-playing or adventure game and spend a few months just playing around with it. It was a fun existence, and it was made more fun when I picked up my DS. Then my good friend Q asked me, "Did you pre-order Pearl or Diamond yet?" That is the day my career as a casual gamer ended. Why? Because on that day I decided to get a pokemon game for my son and his DS. A week after that I got the other game so I could catch pokemon and send them over to his game so we could share the experience. Ever since then my casual gaming DS has basically become a dedicated Pokemon machine.

The compulsion is there, I may not have a catch 'em all, but dang it I want a full pokedex! How strong is this compulsion? Oh let me tell you. Yesterday, on one of the most beautiful days of the year, I ended up working on filling my pokedex. I went to Toys R Us with my son, the infamous Q and his youngest minor prophet to download a pokemon we'd never be able to get anywhere else. There we were - a pastor, a college professor, and two of our kids together to download an imaginary animal.

Thanks Q!

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

God's Name Isn't a Swear Word

All right, here's the third sermon in my series "The Decalogue." Here's my disclaimers
  • It's topical, so so expect detailed exegesis on one particular passage, I can't do that with the Decalogue, the material is too broad and deep.
  • There's typos, this is a working draft, not a school paper.
  • Pay attention to anything square brackets, you can see how I visually illustrate the sermon in those brackets.
Click here to read the manuscript, if you are adventurous you can now listen in to my sermons by subscribing to the Central Baptist Podcast here.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Pura Vida

I think I let it be known on this blog that, currently, my favorite coffee is Trader Joe's Organic, Fair Trade, Sumatra. It's yummy (and they are currently out of it in my area so I'm currently drinking the Organic, Fair Trade, Ethiopian). I really enjoy coffee, and I do go out of my way to make sure that I purchase coffee that I know is providing a living wage for the people who are growing it - that's important to me. It's actually the very least I can do.

If I could easily get Pura Vida Coffee in my area (I hate paying shipping) I'd do that in a heart beat. These folks have the right idea - a for-profit company controlled by a non-profit organization that does ministry in some of the worlds coffee growing regions. You can watch the image below - but they leave out the story that lead to the company's founding, which you can read here (free registration required, sorry). Needless to say, I like these guys.

After you read the story of the company's founding - go ahead and watch the video below that talks about the work they do (sadly, it's leaves out Pura Vida's Christian impulse for the work). I'd love to start serving this coffee at Central.




Thursday, September 20, 2007

Topical Storms

Well, I'm in the midst of a series entitled "The Decalogue," and it's shaping up to be a bit different than I'm used to preaching - it's topical.

Now, I should have realized that this was going to be a topical series when I set it up. After all, the Decalogue isn't exactly what we'd call "detailed." The Decalogue has prohibitions against idolatry and using the Lord's name in vain, bearing false witness and murder, coveting and stealing - but what are these things? How did they play out in the life of God's people in the Tanakh and the New Testament? As a Christian, how did Jesus interact with the covenant expectations laid out in the Decalogue and what does that mean for his disciples? This is what I'm dealing with.

So, to preach a sermon I need to start by interacting with the particular word of the Decalogue the sermon is dealing with. After all, folks nowadays don't understand what an idol is, or why a name was so important in the Ancient Near East, or how to keep a Sabbath rest. Without examining the various ideas that make up the Decalogue then the congregation won't be able to see the Decalogue working out in the story of the Bible or why it's important to their own lives.

Then I need to show how the particular words of the Decalogue work out in the story of the Bible, particularly in the Tanakh. This part is actually fun, and I've had a great time reading this book that deals with the way the story of the "Primary History" of Israel reveals how they broke each of the words of the Decalogue on the way to exile - it's really cool.

Finally I have to go and take a look at how Jesus (and Jesus' earliest disciples) interacted with the words of the Decalogue. Why do I want to do this? Well, largely because that's the thread which directly tracks to the people sitting in the pews (whether they actively know that or not is another question). If the sermons are going call people to be faithful disciples of Jesus (as sermons should) then I need to take folks back into the text along that thread.

After doing all that, I might have something to say. The worst part of this whole process is that I could easily add another twenty minutes to the sermon (at least) by exploring the Church's use (and mis-use) of the Decalogue throughout history - which is almost a necessity because that story is how we got our ideas of what the Decalogue means (apparently it means we set up idols to it in Federal Courthouses). Yet, I've done two sermons in this series so far and I'm already averaging six minutes longer than than my typical sermon. So, unless I have something I really need to throw out for the sermon, I just can't go there and hope to keep people's attention. Bummer.

Anyway, if you're interested in how all this works out click this link to subscribe to the podcast of this series.

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1. David Noel Freedman, The Nine Commandments: Uncovering a Hidden Pattern of Crime and Punishment in the Hebrew Bible (New York: Doubleday, 2000).

Monday, September 17, 2007

You Can't Serve Two Masters

OK, so here's the link to the sermon outline for this week's sermon on the second word of the Decalogue. Here's some interesting tidbits to look for in the outline.
  • There's typos, it's a working copy and I know what I meant to say. The one's I saw, I fixed, the others - ya gotta deal.
  • You'll get to see where I click to advance the projection for the sermon. Anything in square-brackets triggers that in the outline. You might find it interesting.
  • I'm not putting this up because its an awesome sermon, I don't think it is. I thought you all might seeing how I build ideas to shape a sermon. This sermon needs to introduce too many concepts to be a favorite of mine - we just don't have enough of a concept of what a "idol" is or how it functions (which is why we're so prone to accidentally making them, I might add) to get the weight of the second word of the Decalogue (Jewish numbering).
Anyway, hope you find it interesting. Click this link for the outline - comment back here. I'll have the audio up for the first two sermons in the series soon.

What Next?

Last week I got together for lunch with a mentor of mine. During the conversation we were talking about the Jersey Shore and lamenting over the uncontrolled inflation that the bubble real-estate market has created down there. Avalon in particular, a town we both love, it just off-limits to anyone who isn't insanely wealthy any-more - and the building of various "McMansions" in that town have made the place feel claustrophobic and artificial (Dune Drive isn't what it used to be). As we discussed the rising shore prices my mentor mentioned that he and his wife would love to retire back down at the shore somewhere because that was "home" to them - but right now there was simply no way that they'd be able to afford it. It's a great shame for him, as he's got some great connections down there.

His mentioning of retirement led me to ask, "Well, how many more years do you think you can do what you're doing until you retire?" I won't give the answer - except to say it's neither immediate nor far-off.

Now, my mentor has been blessed in his time of full-time pastoral ministry to serve only two churches and do some fantastic work with them. When he dives in, he dives in for the long-haul and really only feel comfortable contemplating when he feels he can trust the leaders of the church enough for permission to leave (submission, folks, isn't a one-way street). That's not to say he's never been tempted to move on without asking - he actually has a name for the days where he wants to run from pastoral ministry screaming at the top of his lungs, "Target Days." Why that? Because those are the days when he wants to go and work at Target! He's never given in to a "Target Day," and the trust he works so hard to develop does some great things (and his current church was much farther gone than Central was when I got here).

His dedication inspires me, and his humility challenges me - but as I look at how both he (after decades of this ministry) and I (after four years of this ministry) have pastored the same number of Churches I wonder if I've really got what it takes to go and start all over again if/when I finally leave Central. Would I really have the energy, drive, and dedication to do that all over again? I honestly don't know.

Now, for readers who are from Central - please understand, I'm not planning on going anywhere for a while. Heck we're doing some wonderful things right now and you all just helped me map out several years worth of sermon-series that you feel Central needs to hear (and maybe a couple of devotional studies to go with them along the way). If I can finally get some breathing room to write my books I'll be a happy camper indeed!

No, I'm talking five or ten years down the line. My kids will be teen-agers (or about to be), I'll have been here almost (or over) a decade, and by that time we'll have developed some decent roots in the community. It would be hard to leave that and start over - particularly given the way that my previous pastorate began ended, and my current one began (though this one will have a much happier ending, I'm sure). Why would I want to go through that struggle again? And could I, knowing the ugliness kids see congregations inflict on pastors as they try to "whip them into shape?" I honestly don't know.

I look beyond my pastorate here at Central and see.......I have no idea what I see. I guess on one level that's a good thing. After all if I can't see where I'm supposed to be going from here my time's obviously isn't finished here yet (which I am currently happy with, who knows what tomorrow will bring). I've also always said that I won't pursue ministry as a "stepping stone." I'm not a career-minded leech, and the fact that I'm not looking to "move up" in ministry is something I'm glad for. I've seen "career-builder" pastors, they annoy me.

So, what next? I have no idea - maybe I've got too much to do right now that envisioning that is beyond my scope at the moment. For that small mercy, I suppose I'll just have to give thanks. After all, I've got to start ordering the books so I can prepare for all these sermon-series you all told me to preach.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Hmmm....Wisdom

Last night I caught a History Channel special on how US and Canadian Air-Space was shut down on 9/11. Nothing like it had ever been done before and, frankly, no one was even sure that it was possible. Amazingly, all the planes in the air (which were not already hijacked) at the time of the attacks got down safely. There were some close calls, and some planes were on the verge of getting shot down due to mis-communications, but everyone got down safely.

I'd never caught the end of this special before, so the last several minutes actually surprised me. After 9/11 people decided that they need to have a plan in place in case anything like 9/11 ever called for the shutting down of US Air-Space again. A commission was set up to put together the plan that would guide air-traffic controllers in grounding all the planes in the air which were under their control. If I heard right, over a year was spent researching the idea and formulating the basis of the plan - but in the end the commission declined to put one together. Were they lazy? Were they incompetent? Was the job just too big for them? Nope. As it turned out, the more they studied the issue the more they realized that a written-down plan would only get in the way. Air-traffic controllers have a "hands-on" grasp for the situation in the air under their control, and their training and experience has created instincts in their actions to account for the insane amount of variables they have to deal with in any given day - training and instincts which had already shown were flexible enough to deal with the "nightmare" scenario of grounding every plane in the sky at once. The commission concluded that if the controllers had to consult a book to make all their decisions for them - then things would not have gone as well when the people asked to do the impossible actually pulled it off. In the end, the commission told those who appointed them to actually trust the people who had been trained to do the job - with full confidence that only those people "at the trigger" could make the snap decisions needed to carry out their jobs.

Think about that. These people were commissioned to come up with a plan, and rather than put one together out of fear that they would would be attacked for failing to accomplish their task - the people on that commission had the courage, and humility, to say, "This cannot be done, we will only get in the way. We have to trust the people we put in charge to do what we've called them to do." How often do you see people in a bureaucracy not try to justify their own existence by putting something together?

Churches need more humility, and more courage, of the type that commission showed. Humility to recognize that they'd end up doing more harm than good by presenting the very rules they were told to create, and courage to stand up to potential detractors and abusive critics. We need more people who will submit to the Church in order to develop disciplines, knowledge, and instincts that will be able to shepherd congregations through the various tumults in life - and more people to trust the people whom they called to ministry (Pastors and Lay-leaders alike) to faithfully do what they've been called to do. Yes, we need to make sure people are staying within the clearly-marked boundaries which the Church has laid-down - but the level of mis-trust (not to mention the lack of clear boundaries) that Churches have in their leaders is killing churches - I hope we all learn to develop the same wisdom that the air-traffic commission displayed - 'cause it puts many churches to shame.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Sigh....

Meetings on Monday night were not fun. I don't know when that last time I came home from meetings absolutely discouraged - but it's not fun. That's not to say that nothing good happened though, so I'll start with that.

Our treasurer said that giving has been down since we sold off our old Office Building. I pretty much expected this - but the drop-off was significant. Basically people think that we have "all this money" now and have lowered their giving thinking we can live off it. That sounds like bad news, right? It's actually not. Like I said, I expected the drop-off in giving and we'll deal with that - but the way that our treasurer responded to this drop-off is wonderful. He gave us his report, said we'd hit a low in giving since he'd started the position and summed it up by saying, "So, what I think we need to do is spend money - we've got it, we've said we had ideas for it, let's let people know that this money isn't there to live off of, it's there to be used." Amen! He didn't want to hoard it for a rainy day, or cut-corners on giving the money designated as mission-giving or on projects we envision doing, he wants to use the money the best ways that we can for the Church. And folks nodded in agreement. That made me happy.

The other good thing was that my computer upgrade plan was accepted without any negative reactions. Folks liked how upgrade costs were staggered over several budget years, and people seemed to think that having me provide my own computer was a pretty silly idea. I hope I can get that macbook soon. We'll know for sure how that goes after the budget meetings.

Now for the stuff that was discouraging - without going into specifics (as I need to personally deal with this). To sum it up, what I thought was five or six "sideline-complainers" is actually four (which is encouraging). The bad news is that they've found another mouth-piece in a leadership position and it's stirring up all the old passive-aggressive 3rd and 4th party complaining because "well, people have a right to be heard." One was at least missionally-driven (even if I think it's conclusion misguided there's room for discussion and movement on the part of the ministry of the Church - that's a good thing), I don't think that missional point was handled well - but people have to be trained in that. At worst the other complaint can be labeled "petty," at best it can be labeled, "subjective what I want-ism." Again, no specifics - but it seems that the old systems are trying to exert control again, and as long as we are allowing people who are standing in the shadows work through a 3rd party we're not going to be free to move forward. I knew this would happen eventually - but I was hoping to get through Designed In Mission (was, "Structure through Mission") before that struggle really started. Oh well, deep breath - and move on.

I think what keeps this congregation tied to this system is the notion that we're somehow a democracy. In a democracy (at least, in theory) everyone's opinion is given equal footing, and a vote is taken to see what the will of the people is. Churches, on the other hand, aren't supposed to give equal weight to every opinion (some, like open hostility to evangelism or not caring if Jesus is fully-human/fully-divine are just wrong for a church to communicate). When congregations take a vote they are not checking to see the "will of the people," they are trying to discern the will of God. It's a huge difference - and one that's not understood.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

John 8:12-59 "I Am"

I think I'm going to try putting some of my sermon manuscripts on-line this fall. I'd just post them to my blog directly, but they'd be insanely long and I don't want to fry anyone's eyes. Instead, I'll be publishing them to Google Docs and putting the link here (and you can all comment if you want).

This is my first sermon in our "Decalogue" series, John 8:12 - 59, dealing with the "first word" (Jewish numbering). Click Here to read it.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Annoying Fund-Raiser Form Letters...

I just got a letter in the mail from one of our denominations offices that began:
Dear Rev. Wesley Allen
I've got to say, when I get a letter in which the salutation has my title (which I don't use) and both my first and last names in conjunction with "Dear" I'm not struck with a whole lot of confidence. It's obviously a "kitchen sink" approach to a mail merge, which is bad enough, but then they compounded the error of adding an attempt at a personal tug in an obvious mail-merged form letter:
When I heard of [name's] story I thought of your congregation's generosity...
Oh really? You thought of [insert name here]'s congregation? That's astounding. I read that line and wanted to scream. We wonder why folks consider religious folk inauthentic, and why local churches look at denominational structures like they have less of a clue than they do (which is often difficult to do)? It's like we're not used to anyone actually hearing us so we feel free to pile on the exaggerations and out-right lies in an attempt to make people feel as though we, the [insert name here]'s of the world, get remembered.

I know a lot of people will say, "It's just a fund-raising letter, they all say that - it's just what they do." I know I'm supposed to say that. I know I'm supposed to say that it's just the way the "game" is played and swallow the lie without raising an eye-brow. The problem is, I just won't do that. See, if we're "playing the game" of fund-raising, I think there's a huge price to pay - and by the way our national offices are have almost no trust from our local churches I think we're paying it. If you want my money to do your mission, tell me what you do and what you need - don't spoil it with a faux-familiarity that we both know is a load of crap, OK? Please?

Now, Central Baptist does give to this particular offering - and the ministry that the form-letter gets to eventually is one that is close to the heart of both my wife and I - but I'm not going to give directly to the mission described in the letter because, frankly, they keep blowing smoke up my nose and it's getting annoying. Instead we give to the same work, elsewhere. Why? Because the ministries we give to for that work are a heck of a lot more above-board in their dealings with us. I wonder if our denominational offices are going to learn that lesson before they end up closing shop.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Going Back To College

Good news! I'm heading back to college! Not, sadly, as a student - but (coolness) as a guest-lecturer for the Student Chaplain class. Q is an academic so he gets a job and a cool faculty ID card, I'm a pastor so I guest lecture in practical ministry courses. Not that this isn't a correct delineation, but I'd love an eCard that said, "Faculty." It would be fun.

Anyway, I'll be heading to Eastern on November 5th to do a session with the current crop of student-chaplains (you might have remembered that last year's crop was here for a retreat in January). The topic that Joe has seen fit to give me is, "Keeping 'Grow Groups' Fresh." A "Grow Group" is Eastern's small-group ministry for Students and can be a helpful experience. Try as chaplains might, however, very few groups last into the second semester (I never had one last that long in the three years I was a chaplain). So, this'll be a good topic - of course the irony is that it's a class so it'll at least have a bit of a lecture format - ironic because my first point is probably going to be that if a "Grow Group" is to breathe the one thing it can't afford to be is an "unscheduled class." So, I'll be putting together my materials and sharing them with all 6 of you who read this blog. Suggestions for the presentation would be nice. I'd love to set up a prayer station or two, but I don't think fire is allowed in the lecture hall so candles would be right out.

What ways can this be a communal learning-experience, without me speaking for 50 minutes and saying, "OK, any questions?" I'm actually thinking of starting-out with some contemplative prayer.