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Bob’s Now in Facebook

OK, so I finally get this whole "social networking" thing and got a Facebook account. It's amazing who you come across and who finds you. I've made "friends" with some folks I went to seminary with, college, former churches, lots cool people from the past and present. Check out Facebook if you haven't already and, if you have, you can be my "friend?"

Isn't that special?

Restaurant Requiem

Today is Jennifer's birthday and our family tradition is to eat out at an establishment of the birthday boy/girl's choice. It's especially nice when it's Jennifer or me who have the birthday because it's the one time we can go to a restaurant that doesn't serve chicken nuggets or strips or pulverized pieces.

Jennifer chose a local pizza and deli establishment that shall remain nameless. We've eaten there before but it's been awhile and memories tend to fade. Then, suddenly, it all comes back to you in a rush when you remember that you said "Never again" the last time you were there. Our experience:

  • Temperatures this time of year in the evening in Park City are approaching autumn-like, yet the restaurant had it's retractable glass walls wide open, making it a bit chilly.
  • We found a back booth out of the wind, but the table had not been wiped off. We waited ten minutes for someone to come and take our order.
  • After sitting down, a live "folk singer" began whining her way through a set of folk and rock classics. I used to like Neil Young and Sheryl Crow, but not tossed in a yodel-y blender. She was earnest and probably a pretty good singer at some level, but all the songs sounded the same and were so loud we couldn't hear each other at the table.
  • We ordered food, which came in shifts (kids, then, 10 minutes later, us). We didn't get the appetizer we ordered. Jennifer's calzone had unbaked dough all through it and was mostly inedible, but since it took so long to get the first time we bagged it.
  • Our ears bleeding from the loud, overly indulged music we split as soon as we could. I had to go find the waiter to get the check.

We then went to an ice cream establishment and got some treats, but the staff is apparently instructed to sing at the top of their lungs every time they get a tip or someone has a birthday. We didn't mention the birthday. The extra money we spent was worth not hearing some disinterested teen workers quickly and dispassionately run their way through a canned song about getting a dollar tip.

Sometimes I wonder whether many restaurant folks really pay attention to what's happening in their place of business, much like people wonder about the same sorts of things when they come to our churches. Are people feeling welcome? Is everything clean and inviting? Are the staff paying attention? Is the music of the best quality and not too obnoxious? It's always good to go through an experience like tonight because it gets you thinking about how you conduct your own business.

I'll never be a restauranteur, but if I were here are some absolutes I'd establish for my business:

  • If the music volume requires me to lean over the table to be heard by my dinner companions, it's too loud.
  • If the singer doesn't use consonants and plays every song the same, get another one. Better yet, skip the live music altogether at dinner time and play music in the background. Live stuff is better later in evening.
  • Management should be walking around and observing, paying attention to detail all the time.
  • Under no circumstances will the staff be required to sing any kind of birthday song complete with clapping to any customer. If it's their birthday, just give them a free appetizer or dessert or something and be done with it. The staff doesn't want to sing it, and the rest of us don't want to hear it.
  • Cook the food. Seems elementary, but there it is…
  • Skip the cute names on the menu. Just tell us what it is.

Perhaps this is why I'm such a big fan of restaurants like Chipotle. They have a very focused menu, the food is fresh and hot, the staff efficient and quick, the decor spartan yet inviting, and the whole experience leaves you feeling full and satisfied.

It kind of goes back to what Jim Collins says in Good to Great–great companies focus on the one thing they do best. That's good advice for restaurants and churches.

Anyway, it was a good reminder. And tell Jennifer "Happy Birthday" when you see her!

Fourth and One – Sermon for August 31, 2008

Down marker
Note: This sermon is adapted from one I wrote for the July/August issue of Homiletics. Click here to learn more or to subscribe to Homiletics.


College football season started this weekend and the pros
kick off next week, so it’s that time of year when fans of all types begin to
wonder how their team is going to fare. Football is probably the most popular
sport in America and my theory is that it’s because games are only played once
a week and decisions made by coaches in a single game can affect a whole
season.

 Take, for example, this phrase: Fourth down and a yard to
go. That’s really all you have to say to make the average football fan foam at
the mouth just a little bit. Your team has the ball in its own territory, just
short of midfield. It’s late in the game and your team is up by three points.
Make that yard and your team keeps the ball, moves the chains and burns up some
clock. Make that yard and you have a chance to drive deeper into your
opponent’s territory and ice the game. Get stopped short of that yard, however,
and you give the other team the ball in your territory with time on the clock
and a shot to tie the score or, worse, go ahead. It’s the kind of decision that
forces coaches to burn a precious timeout to talk it over while fans are
screaming for him to go for it. What do you do?

 Conventional coaching wisdom says that you punt in that
situation, play the field position game, and put the outcome in the hands of
your defense. That’s the safe play, the conservative play, the one that usually
makes former coaches like John Madden happy up in the press box. Fans, on the
other hand, are usually adamant about going for it. An old coaching maxim says
that if you coach by listening to the fans, you’ll probably lose your job and
wind up being one of them. In the case of fourth and one, however, economist
David Romer of the University of California has put together some data that
says that the fans are usually right.

 Romer’s research concludes that, on average, teams that take
the risk of going for it on fourth down seem to win more often than they lose.
This should be good news for all those screaming fans, but Romer says that even
the fans might be too conservative. His calculations show that teams should be
going for it regularly on fourth down, even if it’s early in the game, if the
score is tied and even if the ball is on their side of the field. Backed by
independent analyses that support his findings, Romer notes that even football
coaches have not raised a serious challenge to the results of his research.
Yet, despite all of that data, coaches still call out the punt team in most
fourth-down situations. In fact, after Romer published his findings a couple of
years ago, coaches have seemed to become even more conservative in their
play-calling. “It used to be that going for it on fourth down was the macho
thing to do,” says Romer. “Now going for it is the egghead thing to do. Would
you rather be macho or an egghead?”

 Truth is that coaches now seem to be neither and the reason
may have something to do with human behavior in general. Even though people say
they have a certain goal and say that they will do anything to achieve it,
their actual behavior regularly departs from the optimal path to reach that
goal. Whether it’s a football coach, a military general or the CEO of a
corporation, leaders are reluctant to take risks. Romer’s theory is that it’s
because leaders have different goals from the people who work for them or the
fans who are watching. Everyone wants to win, but leaders are held to a
different standard from followers — especially when they lose, and even more
especially when they lose by doing something that few others are doing.

 The point here may be a version of something that color
analysts up in the press box often say as a team is holding on to a lead late
in the game — there’s a big difference in playing to win vs. playing not to
lose. Wayne Stewart, who teaches management at Clemson University, backs
Romer’s conclusions when applied to business. While owners and fans are usually
focused on outcomes, managers and coaches are more often focused on not
screwing up. According to Stewart, successful managers understand that fear of
failure is often the primary cause of failure itself. More often than not, it
is risk that is the path to reward, whether you’re talking about football,
finance or faith.

 And maybe it’s especially applicable to faith. This classic
story of Jacob wrestling with God at the ford of the Jabbok River almost reads
like one of those old NFL film narrations, with John Facenda calling the action
in that deep tone of voice while martial music plays in the background. “Here is
one man — alone — Jacob on the Jabbok — facing insurmountable odds — in a
life-and-death struggle — with the game on the line.”

 Up to this point in his life, you could argue that Jacob was
more prone to punt. He had tricked his older twin brother Esau into selling his
birthright in a moment of weakness (Genesis 25:29-34), then worked an end run
around Esau with his mother Rebekah to force a turnover of the family blessing
from Esau to himself (Genesis 27). Jacob’s response to his brother’s defensive
anger was to “flee” out of the country (Genesis 27:43). After arriving in Haran
(note his return to his ancestral home), Jacob gets faked out by his uncle
Laban when he weds and beds Leah instead of Rachel — a sort of just recompense
for his behavior with his brother (the older daughter got her due, even as
Jacob had conned from Esau what was rightfully due the oldest son) — and winds
up staying there longer than expected until he again decides, at God’s
direction, to “flee” from his uncle’s effectual slavery (Genesis 29-31). Like a
coach who acts conservatively in the face of adversity, Jacob seems to have
always been quick to take the safe way out.

 But now Jacob was stuck with a decision. He couldn’t go back
to Haran and he couldn’t move forward without risking the possibility of death
at the hands of his brother. Even as he approaches the confrontation with Esau,
Jacob sends his family and flocks across the river ahead of him, hoping that
giving away all his possessions will preserve his own life (Genesis 32:3-21).

 For Jacob, it’s fourth and one. What do you do?

 It’s a bit jarring at this point in the story when Genesis
tells us, kind of matter-of-factly, that “Jacob was left alone; and a man
wrestled with him until daybreak” (Genesis 32:24). Somehow Jacob knows who has
lined up across from him there on the desert playing field — that it’s God in a
human form who has come to force the issue. That’s the traditional
interpretation, although the text simply says “a man.” Will Jacob punt again or
will he grunt his way through this challenge, risking getting pummeled by this
“man” in order to win a greater blessing?

 There are a lot of ways to exegete this passage, but the key
point here is the risk that Jacob takes in staying engaged in the wrestling
match. Jacob wrestles hard all night until just before daybreak when the “man”
wants to be let go. Why does he demand a release? Well, one way of looking at
it is that God’s trying to protect Jacob. In ancient Israel, to see God’s face
meant death (Exodus 33:20). The daylight would reveal God’s face, so God was
trying to call a timeout to save Jacob’s life. Jacob, however, is going to keep
playing until the whistle. “I will not let you go, unless you bless me,” says
Jacob, choosing to risk even death itself in order to get a blessing from God
(Genesis 32:26). While it would have been easy to punt in the face of such an
imposing defense, Jacob audibles against his tendencies and decides to go for
it.

 What “blessing” was Jacob after? Well, to push the metaphor
here a bit further, Jacob seems to realize that a blessing for him would result
in a fresh set of downs, a new start, a renewed confidence that despite all
that had happened in his life, God’s covenant promises were going to be
realized through this new man with a new name, “Israel” (Genesis 32:28). If he
can just make that last yard, Jacob knows that meeting his brother would not
result in defeat, but reconciliation. When they finally meet and Esau responds
with love instead of hatred, it’s no coincidence that Jacob says to his
brother, “to see your face is like seeing the face of God” (Genesis 33:10).

 Are you a Fourth-and-One Person?

 Some of you here today may feel that you’re fourth and one
right now in your life. You may be faced with a challenge, a decision. You’ve
been wrestling with God. The path ahead is fraught with risk and the temptation
is to play it safe. This story asks, like we used to say on the playground,
“Are you gonna punt…or grunt?”

 During my doctoral studies this past month I had the chance
to hear a variety of different speakers and read several books on the topic of
spiritual leadership. We went to a conference at Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago, which is one of the largest churches
in the country—21,000 in attendance each weekend. It’s a church with three
decks and seating is done in numbered sections. It reminded me of going to
Energy Solutions Arena or, as someone put it, “Six Flags Over Christianity.”

 Anyway, Willow does some great things like put on this
leadership conference and they were able to bring in some fascinating speakers.
Three stood out to me.

 One
was a man named Gary Haugen, a gifted attorney who was working in a lucrative
position for the Justice Department in the early 90s until he was loaned to the
UN to be one of the lead investigators into the Rwandan genocide. Struck by the
scenes of injustice he saw there, Haugen left the Justice Department and
started the International Justice Mission, an organization that works around
the world to expose injustices like slavery, child prostitution and
exploitation of workers. Haugen and his team work in some of the toughest and
most hopeless places in the world, bringing a measure of compassion and justice
where there seems to be none. Haugen’s faith in Christ drives him. He said, “If
my life in following Jesus doesn’t seem dangerous, I might have to check
whether it’s Jesus that I’m following… God
offers us a simple proposition – Follow me beyond your control, beyond where
your skills and abilities can take you and you’ll experience God’s true nature
and love.” Haugen saw a deep need in the world and refused to play it safe. He
and members of his team have faced death threats and beatings at the hands of
people who profit from injustice. Haugen, however, did not punt.

 We
also heard the story of Wendy Kopp, founder of “Teach for America”—an
organization that recruits some of the best and brightest college graduates in
the nation to spend two years teaching in some of America’s toughest inner city
and rural schools.  She was graduate
student at Princeton and developed the idea for her thesis, but then moved the
idea to reality. She also left behind a more lucrative career to found this
non-profit that has been instrumental in making a difference in the lives of
children.

 Most
intriguing to me, though, was a young woman named Catherine Rohr. She was
enjoying a lucrative career as a Wall Street Investor until she was invited to
tour a Texas prison in May of 2004 where she noticed that executives and
inmates had more in common than most would think. They know how to manage
others to get things done. Even the most unsophisticated drug dealers
inherently understand business concepts such as competition, profitability,
risk management and proprietary sales channels. For both executives and
inmates, passion is instinctive.

 Catherine
wondered what would happen if inmates who were committed to their own
transformation were equipped to start and run legitimate companies. Following
an unusual calling, Catherine left behind her New York career and financial
stability, moved to Texas with her husband and started a one-of-a-kind “behind
bars” business plan competition. Her efforts were geared toward channeling the
entrepreneurial passions and influential personalities of the
inmates—intentionally recruiting former gang leaders, drug dealers and
hustlers.

 The
overwhelming response of 55 inmates and 15 world-class executives to judge the
business plans and presentations was the catalyst to launch the Prison
Entrepreneurship Program. Since inception, PEP has produced staggering results.
Since the inception of the program, 370 inmates have graduated, 97% of whom
were employed within four weeks after their release from prison. 43 new
businesses have been started by former inmates. Rohr’s training and care for
these forgotten people makes a difference and gives them an opportunity for a
new life.

 I
was intrigued by how she characterized her calling. She said, “I prayed to God
and said, ‘Bring it on.’” She knew that faith, in order to be real, had to involve
risk. She risked everything (ironically, when she moved to Texas with
everything packed in her car, all her belongings were stolen by the very kinds
of people she was being called to serve). But she would be the first to tell
you that while risk involves sacrifice, even pain at times, the reward is worth
it. When we risk things for God in order to serve others, God responds
faithfully. The wrestling is worth it.

 Genesis tells us that Jacob left his drive up the middle
against the “man” with a limp, but like a running back who gets dinged up while
pushing the pile forward, that injury was no sign of weakness — it was a badge
of honor. It was a constant reminder that when we’re willing to struggle, to
risk, to wrestle with God through adversity we find God’s glory shining on us
on the other side. Maybe that’s what Paul meant when he told the Philippians to
“work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). God’s
gift of grace is free, but it doesn’t come cheap. The more we risk in following
God through the difficult times in our lives and in the face of a difficult
world, the more we begin to see the promises of God at work in our lives.

 We may come away limping, but we also come away with
victory.

 Over the course of the last month I’ve had a lot of time to
wrestle with God about my own life and ministry. The more I studied and prayed,
the more I realize that following Christ is really an all or nothing
proposition. To follow Christ means to risk—risk leaving behind safety and security,
to risk questioning and ridicule by others…it might even mean risking one’s
very life. We don’t ever think of going to church as a risky activity, but
maybe that’s because we don’t do it right.

 I believe that God is calling us to a more muscular faith—a
faith that does not seek the easy way out. Some of you here today are facing
decisions in your life—maybe about employment or finances or a family issue.
Are you willing to say to God, “Bring it on!” and see how God might use you in
new ways? As a church, God is calling us to be more daring, more risky in
bringing the grace, love, and justice of Christ into our neighborhoods. Are we
willing to risk being seen as a little weird in order to bring our neighbors to
Christ? Are you willing to risk talking with that new family that just moved in
on your street and invite them to church? Are you willing to go outside your
comfort zone to befriend that single mom or that person struggling with an
illness in your neighborhood and sacrifice some of your time to make a
difference in their life? Are you willing to let go of financial security in
order to give sacrificially to missional causes that change lives for the
Kingdom?

 Jacob wrestled with God, got a new name and a blessing, but
also a limp. Being “all in” with God costs us something, but the payoff is
ultimate victory through his power and love.

 It’s fourth and one. Are we gonna punt, or are we gonna
grunt?

Wrapping it Up in Wilmore

Beeson Break
Looks like fun, eh? That's Chris and me "mugging" for the camera during an official photo shoot that the Seminary is going to use to promote the Beeson program. We're thinking this particular one (shot and copyrighted by Gabriel Tate) won't make it in Christianity Today…but one never knows.

Well, it has been fun and an incredible learning experience…and its only the beginning. We just finished up our "Theology of Ministry" course this morning, had our closing lunch at the old Shaker Village just south of here and are now cleaning up a few loose ends before departing campus. Tomorrow I'll be meeting with my dissertation advisor to narrow down some research targets as well as finishing my last paper for the first course. It'll be good to leave Asbury with most of my fall work done, save for the 25 page paper that will be the first chapter of my dissertation. That will be due in December, but will require some "hunker down" days in my home office to get it done. I hope to have it completed by Thanksgiving so that I'm not trying to do Christmas prep and write a paper at the same time.

 I leave early Thursday morning and, Lord willing, should be home in time to greet my kids when they get home from school. It'll be good to be home…to give everyone hugs, eat dinner with my loved ones, and not have to slap a single mosquito!

This first session of my doctoral program, however, has been enormously helpful in setting some goals for both the program itself and, more importantly, for my personal and professional life. Number one on that list is the care and nurture of my own relationship with God, out of which will flow the necessary strength for leading our congregation into the future. I've been very grateful for our prayer team: Milla Bilbrey, Anita Ball, Jennifer Kaylor, and Kathleen Fisher, who have been gathering every Wednesday morning for prayer. I have felt the results of their engagement with God on my behalf and their prayers for the church. I know that many others have been praying on their own, too. I come away from this experience more convinced that we often "have not because we ask not." When we are deepening our relationship with God, God's work and will becomes more evident to us.

We also talked a lot about self-care–setting appropriate boundaries, effective time management, taking Sabbath rest, and being "in God for the world" instead of simply working "in the world for God." To be in ministry for the long haul involves crafting a proper balance of work and rest, relationship and solitude, prayer and practice. We have been developing a personal Rule of Life to guide us as we go forward. That was an extremely helpful exercise.

We also revisited the theological basis for ministry and many of us realize that often we buy into the culture's idea of leadership instead of a biblical paradigm. We looked hard at Paul's theology of ministry, which was all aimed at "reconciling people to God." We spent a lot of time examining a trinitarian view of ministry–that we follow Jesus in his ministry to the Father through the Holy Spirit. It's so easy for us to try and operate the chuch as any other organization and fail to lead out of a spiritual center. A trinitarian view recognizes that ministry is God's activity that is Christ-embodied and Spirit-empowered. We're not asking God to join our mission in the world…rather, we're to be looking to join God where God is already at work. This is the "missional" paradigm for ministry and you'll be hearing me talk a lot about that in the coming months.

I'm looking forward to getting back into the pulpit, though I must avoid the temptation of trying to tell the congregation everything I studied this month in one sermon. In some ways, I feel like I've been drinking from a fire hose…but in another, I feel more like I've been refreshed by the gently flowing Living Water of Christ.

Thanks again for all your prayers during this time. I hope you'll continue to pray as I continue this journey!

Introducing Beeson Pastor Class #17

Beeson Class
Spent today getting ahead on some of my writing, so I've got a little time to introduce you to the rest of the class. Clockwise to my right are:

Steve Dunmire – Wesleyan pastor from near Buffalo, New York. We share an interest in hockey and he was impressed that I knew the proper way to pronounce "Gilbert Perreault."

Jane Riecke – A friend and colleague from the Rocky Mountain Conference, serving in Loveland, CO.

Sabrina Tu – Sabrina serves two churches in the Florida Conference and is a fantastic cook, specializing in her native Vietnamese.

Antoni Sinkfield – Antoni is one of my roommates and my workout partner every morning at 6:30. He pastors St. John's African Methodist Episcopal Church in inner city Nashville. He was a football star at Tenessee Tech and his son is Barack Obama's religious affairs advisor.

John Whitsett – A Nazarene pastor serving in Oklahoma and a Mac expert.

Chris Howlett – my other roomie who lives just ten miles up the road in Lexington where he pastors Christ Church (United Methodist). We discovered that we were both student pastors here at Asbury in the early 90s.

Alice Wolfe – serves a United Methodist church just north of Dayton, OH. She was an agronomist before entering the ministry (that has to do with soils, in case you didn't know…which I didn't!)

Diane Bell – Diane is a fellow Utahn who serves Community UMC in Ogden.

(Photo copyright by Gabriel Tate, 2008)

That's our team! It's quiet here this weekend as there are no classes, the library's closed, and Wilmore is still just awaking as Asbury College students trickle back into town. Enjoy your Sunday!