This blog is meant to be an encouragement to you as you journey through your day. If you have a question about the life of faith, please feel free to email me. I certainly don't have all the answers, but I welcome the conversation.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Man with the Sign - and the Osteens

We see them regularly, and every time they make us uncomfortable.

They stand there on the street corner or in the intersection with a sign. Sometimes the sign says "Homeless," other times it says, "Lost my job."

They make me uncomfortable. They make everyone in the car uncomfortable. I don't want to see them. I wish I didn't see them. They remind me of a reality I would like not to think about.

Sometimes the conversation in the car is explicit. Someone says -"Let's do something," or "Does anyone have any cash?" And sometimes we stop.

Other times we can't stop. The traffic makes it impossible or at least dangerous, or no one in the car has any money.

Other times no one says anything. But we all sense it. We are uncomfortable.

I think we are supposed to be. Uncomfortable.

If we are not uncomfortable, then we are missing the point. We are supposed to struggle, when other people are struggling. You don't have to be a follower of Jesus to feel compassion, but if you are a follower of Jesus, and you don't hurt when you see others hurting, then you've missed the point - in a big way.

Now, I know we should have an important conversation about the best way to help folks. And that conversation is necessary. But that conversation depends upon all of us being uncomfortable regarding the situation faced by other human beings.

All that to say - I get why so many American Christians are so attracted to the message proclaimed by Victoria and Joel Osteen. I really do. The Prosperity Gospel is attractive.

All the same, their message is wrong. It's more than wrong. It's dangerous.

It's dangerous because it is all about us, and our happiness;  that we are supposed to be comfortable, and happy, and that is God's chief concern.

And that's really dangerous.

Because there are times when we are supposed to be uncomfortable, really uncomfortable - and sad, and angry, and righteously indignant.

Because it's not all about us. Certainly not about my happiness, and not yours either. If it's all about my happiness, then I've got a real problem with that man with the sign. He's is getting in the way of my happiness. And any conversation about how to help him, and the systemic reasons why he is there, will be replaced by a simple remark blaming him for his situation - without ever getting to know his name and his story. Because to find out his story, to connect with him person to person - well, that will just make me uncomfortable, and it may even mess with my nice, comfortable bubble of believing that everyone gets exactly what they deserve.

And maybe, just maybe, I will begin to understand a bit better what "take up your cross" and "love your neighbor" really means. And I just might find myself feeling a lot of feelings that are not all that, you know... comfortable.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

For My Preaching Colleagues

For many years I have practiced a discipline that seems strange to some of my pastoral colleagues. Most Monday mornings I walk into the sanctuary, sit down, and listen to the sermon from the previous Sunday. I’m not really sure why I do it, although it does have some benefits: hearing the message from the perspective of those who sat in the pew or listened on the podcast, rather than what I heard in my head, and being reminded that with a little more work that sloppy transition or fumbled point can be done better next time, are two of the obvious benefits. However, I think the best reason for this sometimes painful exercise is the reminder that no sermon stands alone. I am building something. And while it is quite possible that many of the folks who will be present next Sunday were not present last Sunday, and that some of those who heard the sermon did not remember a single moment of it by the time Sunday lunch was served, I cannot treat it that way. Every sermon is part of the larger web of conversations and interactions that make up the spoken practical theology of our faith community. And it is my task to purposefully frame that conversation. Thus, my sermon for next Sunday must build upon all those that have come before, reinforcing and reiterating that which is most important.

One reason this perspective is essential – that we are building something of significance through our preaching ministry – is because our theology matters. And while we as pastors often decry the weakening of the church’s influence in the life of those we serve, we still have an influence – and we cannot afford to waste any of it. Everything we say, at every occasion, must be purposeful. We must be like the parent of the teen who recognizes they cannot control everything their child eats when out of the house, thus increasing the importance of maximizing the nutritional value of the food consumed at home.

A few years ago I wrote a brief article for a denominational magazine and received some response from other pastors. The topic was the role of pastor as theologian-in-residence. One colleague was quite succinct in his critique: “I don’t have time for obsessing over every little word spoken about God in my church. I don’t have time to police every Sunday school conversation or youth group talk.” Well, I don’t think I was suggesting that – and “obsessing” and “police” do sound a bit over the top.  But I do think we need to take those conversations seriously, challenge folks to think well, and communicate our theology with clarity. And we begin from the pulpit.

Of course, it doesn’t end there.

While it is easy for us to maintain our Wesleyan theological perspective when the words are coming out of our mouth, we have no way of knowing if folks really get it – nor do we have a way of listening in on the various conversations that contribute to our faith life together – except we do, at least more than we think. For example, our use of social media  - making sure that what we post, and what comes out under the banner of our church, must reflect our best thoughts about God, grace and peace, and the role of our church in the community and world. People are making judgments about our ministry based upon what we post on Facebook and Twitter. I have had families come to our church based upon my posts. I have also had families leave. I'm glad I took the time to make sure what was posted there was not sloppy or inconsequential, but legitimately reflected our theology and mission. 

We should take the time to consider the importance of curriculum in framing the congregational conversation. The books our adult classes read, the studies in youth group, even our children’s curriculum, are worthy of our theological reflection. Pastoral staffs must take into consideration the theological perspective and biases of the authors and publishers, be conversant in our doctrines, and be willing to reject or edit if necessary. Even VBS curriculum deserves this attention. 

You may be thinking, “Mike, I don’t have time for this. That’s why we only use our denominational materials.” I’m glad you do, and we support our publishing house whenever we can. But even then, I have on one occasion made significant changes to a denominationally-supplied VBS curriculum because of too positive a glow on our consumer culture. (Admittedly, I was in the minority, based on what I heard from others who used the curriculum. I guess presenting it as appropriate to lust after expensive sports cars pushed a button with me it didn’t push for others.)  

On another occasion, based upon the recommendation of several colleagues, we decided to use an entire-church curriculum for a major emphasis that would take most of the year. It was well written and produced, and the material was of a high quality. However, once we got into it I found myself rewriting major portions of the Bible studies and group discussions. I went back to my colleagues and asked them how they did it. For the most part, they thought it was fine, and used it as written. Some even preached the weekly sermons provided by the celebrity pastor, even though there were statements each week that were at odds with Wesleyan theology. They were willing to live with it. I wasn’t, because theology matters.

When we stand in the pulpit each Sunday, we look out on those who are hearing the words of the church for the first time. They may hear little of what we say, and less of what we really mean. It will take time for the truth to take hold. For others, they have heard hundreds of sermons, over decades. Some of what they heard may include gems of  the faith – the heart of the Christian message. But they also may have heard quite a bit of spiritual junk food. And everyone who walks into our worship service are also hearing many of the other voices of our culture, telling them many things. Do they have the filters, the discernment to know the good from the bad from the ugly – the true from the convenient or comfortable or the downright purposeful lies. Every survey says most Christians do not. They know a lot more about how to think like a consumer, how to think like an American, how to think like a nice person, than how to think like a follower of Jesus.

When we stand in the pulpit, we must communicate the truth clearly, and place it on a shelf where those in the room can reach it. There is no room for sloppiness, no room for theological junk food.

And that’s why, every Monday morning, I listen to the previous week’s message, and try to do better next time.

Monday, July 7, 2014


This entry is from odistabettormusic.blogspot.com and written by my son Luke. Republished with permission.

The stories that have meant the most to me growing up were usually tales of ordinary folks facing extraordinary circumstances. They faced their fears when what was frightful was fantastically frightful.

Now I face ordinary circumstances with extraordinary fears. Ordinary life is strenuous and anxiety-producing and difficult in ways that feel like fighting giants and dragons and climbing mountains but look like going to the store or making a phone call.

Still, the heroism in those stories helps me believe that maybe just maybe I can face the everyday monstrosities with the courage of an adventurer.

Real adult life is turning out very differently than I thought it would when I was a kid, but that doesn't mean I am any less equipped by the morality, ingenuity, and bravery of those fictional heroes to face my real challenges and trials.

Friday, May 9, 2014

"I'm Still Here"

Last Thursday night I sat in my favorite coffee shop listening to music. It's open mic night, and the room is filled with musicians, friends of musicians, and folks like me who just like to listen to music.

Across the room there is a painting on the wall that keeps drawing my attention, of a woman sitting alone on a chair. It's called "I'm still here." 

Greeting everyone as they come in to the coffee shop is Frank. Frank is a large man, over 6' tall and several hundred pounds, and he has what is often called "special needs." He walks around, talking to everyone. He comes right up to you, gets in your face, and asks, "What's your name?" or "What are you playing tonight?" If you've been there before, Frank remembers, and will let you know he is glad to see you. To the regulars at open mic night, Frank is an important part of the vibe. Kyle, the MC, verbalizes this, and schedules Frank - who plays keyboard and sings - as the first act every Thursday night. He's always there, and communicates - by his actions, and by his very presence - that everyone is welcome. 

However, newcomers often react with discomfort because of Frank. Most folks, in walking into a coffee shop, do not expect to be confronted in the way Frank does. He is physically imposing, and often not socially appropriate. He elicits nervous laughter from many first timers, and I have seen some people just turn around and walk out. But Frank is appreciated by the musicians. This coffee shop is a place, maybe for some the only place, where they feel accepted and affirmed. Most young musicians know what it feels like to be an outsider and not fit in. Like Frank, they also may have been labeled socially inappropriate. The same environment that accepts Frank accepts them.

Of course, that got me thinking about church.

We all know there is a temptation to clean up the idiosyncrasies of our church family, in order not to embarrass our guests. After all, we don't want to make anyone uncomfortable, do we? 

But maybe we shouldn't try to clean it up too much.  Do we really want folks to walk into our church thinking we have it all together, that our bright shining faces and sunny dispositions are illustrative of the way we are all the time? At my church, that would be false advertising that a new person would discover - if not during their first visit, then surely by the second. Maybe they need to see that we are a little messy, and that the people who populate our pews - and our pulpit - are just normal folks, who occasionally are just a little bit socially inappropriate. 

They might just fit in.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Not Really Embracing the Cross

As we come down to the last few days before Palm/Passion Sunday, I come to my annual struggle with the violence of the cross. 

I embrace what Christ did for all of us. 
I embrace the empty tomb.
I embrace the victory over sin and death.

I struggle with the cross.

I know the cross really happened. I know that it mattered. 

I still struggle with the cross.

To me, the cross represents all that sin does. Sin dehumanizes. Sin injures. Sin kills. Sin destroys. Sin silences. And I do not celebrate that. I cry out in agony over that. 

I struggle with the cross.

Throughout human history, people have treated one another exactly the same way people treated Jesus on the cross. People who claim to be followers of Jesus do that - in the name of God. In the name of Jesus.

I truly believe the cross was never meant to be celebrated. It was meant to be a reminder - this is how bad we can treat one another when we forget the love of God. A horrible reminder.

On Palm/Passion Sunday, in our little church, we will take a wooden cross and place it front and center in the sanctuary. In front of the pulpit. It will be the center of attention. It will be a reminder of how bad sin can be, and how much we need Jesus. Because if we don't allow the holiness of God to transform us into people of love and grace, we will treat one another exactly the same way Jesus was treated on the cross.

These words from Bo Sanders help me to think about all this:

"When Jesus takes the bread and cup and forever changes their meaning he is saying 'what they will do to me – don’t you, as my followers, do to anyone else'. When Jesus says 'forgive them, they know not what they do', he is saying that they think they know what (and why) they are doing, but they are wrong. When Jesus says 'it is finished', he is proclaiming the end of this type of scapegoating and violence by those who think they are doing it on God’s behalf."

I recognize that my words here might make you a bit uncomfortable. I'm sorry about that. I just know that the cross is supposed to do just that - make us very, very uncomfortable.

Monday, January 20, 2014

When Despair Turns to Rage

A few days ago we heard news of yet another senseless shooting. 

But this one was different. 

It wasn't a kid, tormented to irrational action by bullying. It wasn't street violence. It wasn't drug or gang-related. It was a man in his 70s, who freaked out in a movie theater because another man was texting during the trailers. And as my wife and I listened to the description, we both thought to ourselves, "We know this man."

No, we don't know this particular individual. But we know people just like him. 

Average people. Normal people. Good neighbors, good citizens. People who have always played by the rules and seemed to have their life under control. But then they reach a certain stage of life and they begin to realize they are losing control. Losing control of their career, their children, their health. Even the culture. Where once it all made sense to them, now it feels like it is all slipping away. More than that, it feels like it is being taken away. 

And this leads to a sense of despair. And every issue, every event, every incident, is one more drop in the bucket of this feeling of losing control of life. Perceived slights, folks not following the accepted rules of polite society - real or imaginary - become symbols of the loss of control. And this can be fueled by the constant narrative presented by certain elements within the media who feed the despair by presenting every issue as "us" vs. "them" in an all-encompassing culture war, and the resulting war will bring the end of life as we know it. The future is dark and full of suffering, and there is nothing we can do to stop it.

And as the bucket gets full, for certain people, people who are not used to the passivity despair entails - that despair can give way to anger. And anger turns to rage, and rage responds not in proportion to the situation.  When someone doesn't follow the rules: not using their turn signal, not yielding, jumping in line, texting in the theater - rage responds all at once, to every drop in the bucket. After all, this is war.

Since my wife and I know people like this, we have been paying attention to the research concerning how people can guard against this overwhelming sense of despair as they (okay, we) get older. 

And two things we have learned:

1. The need for connection 
As folks get older, there is the need for more purposeful relational connection with others. Where once our jobs and our families provided this connection, retirement and other life circumstances may remove these daily interactions. Health issues may make it more difficult to stay connected. And the most direct antidote to a sense of despair concerning the future is healthy, mutually encouraging relationships across generations. This requires effort, but it is worth it. And the church can play a significant role in providing an environment for these healthy relationships. Unfortunately, sometimes the church purposely disconnects generations from one another, as well as sending the message that those of a certain age are no longer valued.

2. The need for disconnection
Just as there is the need for connection with others, there is the need to disconnect from the constant barrage of news and commentary that fuels the negative perspective on life and the future. When 24-hour news and commentary is allowed to be the soundtrack for life, constantly in the background via TV and radio, we may begin to believe the partisan hype and hyperbole.

Often, we see senior adults do exactly the opposite of what is healthy. Rather than investing time and energy into connecting in healthy, intergenerational relationships and disconnecting from a constant diet of negative news and commentary by turning off the TV, they drift away from relationships and eat an unhealthy diet of media. It is understandable how this happens, and it is not always the result of purposeful decisions on their part. But they can do something about it - with the help of their family and their church. 

Does this resonate with what you observe? Do you have any recommendations based upon your experience. Let's talk.