Loose Items from a Tight-Leaf Notebook

Things observed:

1. So, spinach now has E. Coli in it. I tried to tell my mom that spinach was bad when I was a kid, but some parents never listen. Of course, I said the same thing about beans, squash, and cucumbers, so…

2. The pope got into trouble making statements about radical Islam and, in a historic move, has had to apologize. Here’s another sign of the global culture–anybody, anywhere, can tick anyone off anytime. We live in a world where the extremists get the most press–be it in religion, politics, or any other public sphere. Offer a critique and you’ll be branded an enemy, and this goes to all sides of any ideological conflict. Our world takes itself too seriously and religion has become more about being powerful than being human. Whatever happened to grace?

3. A parishioner gave me an article cut from the Wall Street Journal back in February that talked about the state of Army basic training. In an effort to make the transition easier for people to join a recruit-starved military, trainees are no longer subject to profanity-laced tirades from drill sergeants, are given 8 hours of sleep a night, are allowed more "personal time" and can even have seconds on dessert. The goal, according to the article, was to allow the recruits more time to train on their jobs and basic combat skills.

Okay, as one who went through basic training in 1982, I have to admit that this sounds like a military gone soft. The real value of basic training, for me at least, was the realization that when I was pushed to the limits in terms of physical and emotional stress, I learned that there was always a little bit more that I could take. Just when I was on the verge of quitting, I found out that I could take just a bit more…until I found that any limits I had were largely self-imposed. I left feeling more confident and realized that quitting was never an option.

There are few consequences for quitting in our culture. People quit school, quit church, quit commitments at the drop of a hat when things get uncomfortable. They self-impose limits and, when they meet them, that’s the end of it. It’s a shame to see that that attitude has, in effect, come into the military–which is one place where you really can’t quit or the consequences for everyone around you are serious. Rather than simply lower stress, you have to learn to deal with it.

If we never push our limits, we’ll never grow. It’s true in the Army and it’s true in the church as well. I’m sure there’s a larger sermon in all that somewhere…

4. Today is "Talk Like a Pirate Day." Bet ye didn’t know that, ye scurvy dog! It was started by a couple of guys who were goofing off on a racquetball court one day (go figure) and then became a national phenomenon when Dave Barry picked it up in his column. Now if I could just find a plank…

A Special Privilege

My family and I just returned from a weekend in Ouray, Colorado, where I officiated at a wedding for a young woman who was in our youth group in Colorado Springs. It’s an amazing experience to be involved in people’s lives in this way. I watched her grow up from a giggly freshman to a mature senior and now a wonderful young woman who is marrying a great guy. They both love Christ, are involved in growing in their faith, have strong Christian families, and a great support network of friends and relatives. If you were to paint the perfect scenario you’d like to see for a marriage, this comes pretty close.

So many times I do weddings where the couple is focused on everything but the marriage. It was so nice to be part of a special weekend where the focus was on Jesus and the love that two people have for each other.

We also had a great time together as a family on the long drive. The key? Books on tape!

New Coke and the Church

This morning’s Salt Lake Tribune had a front page story about a recent survey concerning religion in America, which says that we are a more religious nation than previously thought. But as far as where people are practicing their religion, particularly in the realm of Christendom, the survey basically said nothing that we haven’t known for the last three or four decades: Mainline Protestant churches are declining while independent evangelical churches are growing.

I’m not sure why the mainliners (of which I am one by denominational affiliation) don’t get this. The answer for the disparity is quite simple: it has to do with New Coke.

Work with me here…

Back in 1985, the Coca Cola Company decided to unveil a "new and improved" formula for Coke. It was supposed to be sweeter, better tasting, more palatable to the masses. They dubbed it "New Coke" and it was designed and heralded as a replacement for the old, outdated, pedestrian formula of the early 20th century.

Well, as many of you will remember, it bombed…almost put the company under. In less than two months, people had rejected this new attempt at sweetness–designed to please them, mind you–ad were clamoring for the old formula.  Classic Coke was reintroduced and has stayed the same ever since. The Coca Cola web site has an honest self-appraisal of the whole fiasco, if you’re interested.

So many of my mainline clergy peers like to call themselves "progressive" Christians and openly opt for whatever new theology has just come down the pike. Why bother with the old stories of atonement, resurrection, the cross and all that? Why have these debates about Jesus’ divinity, what constitutes sin, that whole doctrine thing? Believe whatever you want, they seem to want to say, because it’ll be sweeter for the masses. This is "new" stuff, new theology for progressive people.

Well, it’s New Coke all over again. People have left this mainline progressive liberalism to go back to what they consider to be classic Christianity, where belief matters, Jesus is Lord and not a first century Dr. Phil, and an empty tomb is still the bedrock of faith. Christianity grew and thrived in the midst of an empire out to kill it because its people largely stayed on a classic message of hope and grace. If the recent survey is any indication, they’re finding it (or at least a semblance of it) by switching brands altogether.

Now understand this…I’m not saying that the churches receiving mainline refugees are all biblically sound either. There’s a lot of stuff in some forms of evangelicalism that is a New Coke of a different kind (like faith is a self help movement, that belief is more important than action, and God wants you to be rich, that sort of thing).

What I’m saying is that unless the United Methodist Church and its mainline counterparts figure out that they need to recapture the classic formula and stop peddling the New Coke of "progressive" Christianity, they may find themselves out of business within a generation or two. Maybe that’s not a bad thing and it certainly would fit historically with the patterns of the past.

I do think, however, that there can be hope if more of our clergy and churches reflect on, preach, and call people to a classic faith where head and heart come together and "practical divinity" and "scriptural Christianity" are once again the focus. We can do that locally in our churches while at the same time telling our denominational executives that we like the classic stuff much better, thank you very much.

The United Methodist Church has just come out with an opportunity for clergy and laity to fill out an online "state of the church" survey. The link is here and I hope you’ll take a few minutes to participate. Even if you disagree with my assessments (and they are, admittedly, pretty biased), your input is helpful, even if only for the reflection it sparks in you. I’ll pass along the survey results when they finally get it all put together.

Think I’ll go crack open a Coke…classic, that is…

The Oprah Factor (Sermon – 9/10/06)

The Oprah Factor

I Corinthians 12:1-11

We begin this morning with an informal poll: How many of you have ever watched an entire episode of “Oprah?” OK, how many of you know who Oprah is? That’s nearly every hand.

Oprah is everywhere these days…so much so that she doesn’t even need to use her last name. She’s got the highest rated daytime show, a magazine, a book club, a cable channel, and a bazillion other things out there. In fact, every time I go online or open a newspaper it seems that she’s there. It’s easy to believe what I heard one commentator say: “It’s Oprah’s world and we just get to live in it.”

I bring this up because as I was preparing this week’s sermon on spiritual gifts I came across a series of articles about something that Oprah did on her show two years ago this week. On September 13, 2004, during the show’s season premiere, Oprah gave all 276 members of her studio audience that day a brand new car – a Pontiac G6. Not only that, the cars were all sitting out in the parking lot with big red bows on them waiting to be driven away. Free!

Now Oprah is a generous person for sure, giving away things like baby showers for young moms at Ft. Campbell, KY who were struggling as their soldier husbands were away fighting in Iraq. She’s got the means to do that and it’s good to see that she is a giver. I do have a lot of respect for her in trying to make the world a better place.

But this car thing really went over the top. I mean imagine showing up in an audience somewhere like, say, church for example and being handed a box that contained the keys to a new car. I’m guessing our attendance would go up subsequently if that were to happen. You can bet that Oprah’s popularity soared after this and, I’m just speculating here, that people began lining up even earlier to get into the studio every day! After all, if someone is giving out free gifts, we’re all over it. Give something away once and people will expect you to do it again and again. You can bet that the people sitting in Oprah’s audience tomorrow are hoping that they’ll walk away with something cool. (By the way, the cars were donated by Pontiac in return for the exponentially greater worth of the free advertising they received!)

Having traveled in England recently, I became aware that the rest of the world is not as expectant of “free” stuff and “gifts” as we are here in the U.S. You don’t see the word “free” much in Europe—not many 2-for-1s or “gift with purchase” stuff. There, gifts seem to be something unique and special…not a rite of shopping or the result of just showing up.

So, for lack of a better term, I have named this phenomenon the “Oprah Factor”—this expectation that we’ll get some kind of gift or freebie for our own benefit. Kids go to parades expecting candy to be thrown to them, celebrities show up at Sundance to get their free swag bags full of jeans, cell phones, and mink underwear (no, I did not just make that up), people buy cars just to get the free IPod that comes with it. Christmas has become simply a list of gifts and expectations of gifts as do birthdays—congratulations, you survived another year – here’s some free stuff.

Biblically speaking, however, the word “gift” has a completely different meaning, particularly here in the New Testament where it appears most often in the letters of Paul.  In I Corinthians 12, he writes to this fledgling church about the gifts that God has already given them—and there’s not a car or an IPod among them.

Last week we talked about vocation—that our primary purpose as human beings created by God is to glorify God and increase the abundance of life in this world. We carry out that vocation through the community of faith called the church, a body of many parts that functions as one whole. It is within that body, that large group, that God’s Spirit—like a spiritual Oprah—distributes gifts to individuals…but not gifts for their own benefit. These gifts are uniquely designed and custom crafted for each member of the body so that in using them the individual can build up the whole body.

Paul says in verse 4-6 that there are different gifts, different kinds of service, and different kinds of work, but they are all distributed by the same God for (verse 7) “the common good.” In other words, the gifts of the Spirit are not bestowed on people so that they can hoard them or show them off—they are given by God so that God might work through us and our gifts to benefit others. We receive these gifts so that we might fulfill our vocation individually and collectively.

When we talk about “spiritual” gifts that can sometimes be confusing and maybe even a little strange. Reading Paul’s list here in I Corinthians 12 can be a bit daunting—after all, having “miraculous powers” and “speaking in tongues” are things that are usually foreign to our experience and reserved for someone else more “spiritual.” The fact is, however, that spiritual gifts are not just confined to the realm of the Spirit. These are practical gifts as well.

Look at verse 28: And God has placed in the church first of all apostles (which are witnesses for Christ), prophets (those who speak the truth to power), teachers (those who expound on God’s Word), miracles (those who see possibilities beyond circumstances), healing (physical and spiritual), helping, guidance, and different kinds of tongues (speaking in other languages). The list of gifts here is not meant to be exhaustive—just an example. Paul is trying to get his readers to understand that God has already equipped everyone in the church body with unique gifts, talents, and abilities that are to be used in concert with one another to carry out the church’s vocation.

Go back to verses 12-26 and you’ll see that there is no such thing as an insignificant gift. Paul’s metaphor of the body includes every part. Look at verse 22: “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable and the parts we think are less honorable we treat with special honor.” Every part is important, useful, valued. It takes all the parts working together to have a healthy body.

I had an interesting conversation with someone recently who said they were “church shopping.” What an interesting and uniquely American way of putting the desire to unite with a faith community. I’m sure they weren’t aware of what they were implying by using that phrase, but it is the Oprah Factor at work—coming to a place expecting to get something. The church has become less of a body and more of a distributor of religious goods and services. Sing three hymns and get a sermon free! Many people, well-meaning though they are, have been trained by the culture to look at churches like we look at stores—which one will give me the best value, perks, services, free stuff. The idea then morphs to the fact that many people come to churches behaving like a studio audience—spectating, waiting for something to happen that will be exciting and possibly beneficial to them.

In Paul’s view, however, people in the church are not to be sitting around waiting for gifts, but show up with theirs already in hand and ready to share! Being part of the body involves using our God-given gifts to build up the whole—giving more than receiving.

The flip side of this, however, is that the church has not always talked about spiritual gifting and has instead talked about “volunteering.” I don’t know about you, but the first thing I learned in the Army was, “Never volunteer for anything!” Volunteerism is helpful, but it’s not connected. It fills holes, but it doesn’t tap into the natural gifts and passions of people. We’ve often even said around here, “Gosh, we could use more volunteers.” We have the “volunteer opportunities” sheet in the bulletin and hope that people will sign up for stuff. What we should be saying is, “We need to tap into people’s gifts and connect them with a ministry that stirs their passion.” A volunteer-based church will function, but a gifts-based church will be passionate!

So, using this biblical model we’ve decided to significantly change the way we do things around here. Our new vision statement is to “invite, inspire, and involve people” in carrying out God’s purpose for the world. It’s not “to hope that somehow we’ll get enough volunteers, money, and resources to keep things running smoothly.” So, to unveil this new approach, I’d like to announce that we’ve got a gift for you this morning! Just like Oprah!

Go ahead and reach under your pew (under the pew in front you at 10:30). Feel around there and you’ll find a slip of paper. Go ahead and find it.

Congratulations! This is your new church job assignment for the coming year! Yeah! Woo hoo! Wasn’t that easy? Who got the Middle High Sunday School Teacher one? Good for you, there’s a special place in heaven reserved for you!

OK, seriously…these cards are all representative of opportunities for ministry. As you look at yours you may be saying, “There’s no way that I can do this” or “It’s not my gift or interest.” Or, maybe, you just happen to be sitting in place where you pulled a card where the job is right up your alley. Maybe God is trying to tell you something today!

Here’s what I want you to do…take a minute to compare your cards with the people around you. Maybe they have one that stirs your passion or maybe you have theirs. Take a look at all the different ministry opportunities and see how many ways this church body is engaged in carrying out its vision. (take a few minutes)

Now, granted, this is not the best way to match people with ministries! But I hope you get the point: every one of us is gifted to serve in some way. Some of those ways are represented by these cards, some are still buried deep in the hearts of people sitting here today. The key for us is to match people up with opportunities that tap into their passion, their talent, their abilities and gifts.

Technology is enabling us to do that better. In your bulletin this morning is a spiritual gifts assessment. Notice that it doesn’t just list specific jobs but also asks about things like your areas of interest, your passions, your time availability, even your spiritual gifts. The list here reflects the list in I Corinthians 12. If you’re not sure about those and have never considered them, I’d invite you to go to our website and take an online assessment that can give you an idea of how you can open and use the gifts God has given you. I’d invite you now to take just a few moments to begin filling out this (yellow) sheet, checking the appropriate boxes. If you’re already serving in some areas, mark those down but also think about your passion and what other possibilities there might be.

If you’re visiting with us this morning, I’d encourage you to fill one out as well and then take it home with you. Make an appointment with your pastor and tell him or her that you want to use your gifts and not just volunteer. If you’re not currently connected to a church, maybe this will give you the chance to find a place to use your gifts for a greater purpose.

At the close of the service we will collect these forms in big boxes in the Narthex (just outside the sanctuary). We will then take them and code them into our database so that we will be better able to match people’s gifts and passions with the work of the church as we develop leaders and do the wide variety of ministries that we are called to do.

Now, we had talked about giving away free candy or something when you turn in your assessment…but I realized that would be a form of Oprah-fication. Consider this your gift to God in thanks for God gifting you!

Let us pray…


Stepping Up

My beloved Steelers took the field tonight for Opening Night of the NFL season this evening. The Terrible Towels were waving, the Primanti sandwiches were sizzling on the grill and the Iron (pronounced "Arn") City Beer was flowing there at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers into the Ohio. I always get a little homesick when I see the ‘Burgh on TV…but then I look up at the mountains and the blue skies and remember that I can watch the Steelers from my couch and not have to put up with the perpetual cloud of doom-type weather that settles into western PA from November to April.

Tonight’s game was a big question mark because Big Ben, the Steeler quarterback, was out of the opener recovering from an emergency appendectomy. All the pre-game hype (which sometimes seems like it’s longer than the game) was about the need for the players to "step up" in the absence of their leader.

That’s a phrase that has always interested me. Is it that the other players don’t really do anything until there’s some adversity requiring extra effort, or is it the idea that adversity brings out the better nature of some people? Surely it’s the latter.

I’ve been working on some biblical commentary for The United Methodist Publishing House’s Daily Bible Study Series for the fall of 2007 and my assignment is focused on the story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50. Here’s a guy whose whole life could have been destroyed by sibling rivalry, being sold into slavery, being falsely accused of adultery, languishing in prison, and more kinds of adversity. Having finished an installment of that today, I realized that it is those who "step up" and forge ahead despite the adversity that become successful. It’s not even about talent–it’s about faithfulness and confidence in God.

I don’t know if Charlie Batch, Big Ben’s replacement, was thinking about Joseph tonight. But he did step up. It wasn’t perfect, but he got the job done after being thrust into the spotlight. In coach-speak, "Big players make big plays in big games." That’s true in football and in our spiritual lives.

Oh, by the way…Steelers 28, Dolphins 17.