Friday, December 31, 2010

High resolution…

My brother-in-law is a TV lover. The day after Thanksgiving 2009, he went to a Black Friday sale and purchased his Christmas present early- a wide-screen, high def TV. It’s quite impressive. More importantly, he got a great deal. The following July, however, on leave from his current tour of duty in Iraq (which, we just learned, will be ending in February, a month earlier than expected!), he was at Walmart. And an even bigger, higher resolution TV sat before him, priced 70% below normal. He couldn’t help himself; he brought it to the cashiers. They said, “Actually, that price is wrong.” He said, “But that’s the price on the TV, so you have to honor it.” They said, “Alright,” and the suddenly ‘old’ TV moved upstairs into the bedroom, so this new, extremely high resolution TV could take its place.

I know some of you have TVs like that. Though if you’ve never seen one, it’s quite incredible; almost eerie, even. We watched the movie Avatar on it, and the resolution was stunning. It seemed more real than real, and not just because much of the movie’s scenery and action are computer generated. Rather, it’s like the TV screen’s colors and shapes were amplified beyond normal human capacity. Blue was BLUE; details were more precise than a monk’s handwriting. After watching sports and movies on that TV, the everyday world around me looked…duller, less colorful, as if my life was unreal while the TV was normal. I thought, “High resolution, indeed!”

Around this time of year, of course, we speak of ‘resolution’ for other reasons than how nifty a television screen looks. A new year is coming, so people will begin making resolutions about what’s going to change in the coming months. I’ve never been a big New Year’s Resolution guy before. I’ve always thought them somewhat hokey. But this year, we got a puppy. Then, I canceled my gym membership. And once the weather turned colder, dog walks happened less frequently. Now my tummy is more insulated than it’s ever been. I think you get the story. So I’m pondering a resolution, for the first time, regarding my dormant workout routine. And checking Craigslist for inexpensive free weights, dumbbells and a bench. Let me know if you’ve any leads.

So, being new to this New Year’s Resolution phenomenon, I’ve given it some thought. And it seems comparable to the resolution of my brother-in-law’s TVs. Both have to do with heightened reality. Here’s my thinking: For the most part, I hope we’re pretty alright with our lots in life. We’re not famous inventors or CEOs, but our families, volunteer projects and simple pursuits feel meaningful enough, I pray. Still, maybe we’ve got into habits that aren’t as life-optimizing as we’d prefer. Poor sleep patterns, dinner routines, too much TV(!). Ours may not be dramatically detrimental like some habits- drug addiction, say- but we still don’t like them. They sit in the background of our consciousness, irritating like a low buzz. They make life seem duller, less colorful. So, if we do it right, we take advantage of New Year’s to sharpen the resolution a bit; eliminate a problem area, hoping that our sights and sounds will be crisper, more joyful and life-giving.

I imagine the problem comes when we expect too much of New Year’s Resolutions. When we imagine we’re ‘upgrading’ to my brother-in-law’s newest TV, not from a slightly less optimal high def set, but from my grandmother’s 1974 Panasonic. If your life truly feels unreal in comparison to where you’d like to be, seek long-term counseling or help. Not a simple set of resolutions. But if you’re like me and many others, and have identified a tweak you’d bet will brighten things up a bit, I guess a New Year’s Resolution isn’t so bad. Heck, let me know about yours, now that you know mine, and we can keep each other accountable! And if nothing like that stands out in your life, congratulations; keep on keeping on. Mostly, though, I pray that this New Year is better than the last, for you and all you encounter.

Grace and Peace,

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Whatever’s needed…

If I’d stayed on track (I tell myself), I might be managing my very own KFC by now. Oh, the places I could’ve gone. You may know I began working during high school, at a local Kentucky Fried Chicken. Nine months later, they promoted me to Assistant Manager! Why so soon? Perhaps I was that rare teenager at our store who showed up regularly on time, or who hadn’t quit within six months. Whatever the reason, they sent me for training, gave me a snazzy new shirt and raised my pay to $6.35/hour!

I don’t remember much from those classes, save two important lessons.

  1. Because chicken can cause salmonella, cook it to an internal temperature over 165 degrees. 
  2. Customer service must always be extra-ordinary. 
 Lesson #1 should be obvious. Lesson #2, let me explain. Being a manager now, they told me, meant more than huge wages and increased street cred. I was also responsible for thinking about the big picture, the store’s long-term success. And when it came to fast food, how we treated people really mattered. One study claimed that for each person who had a negative experience at our store, they’d tell, on average, ten others. So if I was rude, or messed up an order badly, or our bathrooms were gross, eleven people in my community thought less of us. That could compound quickly. The same study claimed it took an exceptional experience- astoundingly tasty food, a uniquely fantastic cashier- for someone to share it, and then they’d only tell three people. Interesting numbers- mess up, eleven people know; do alright, who cares; far exceed expectations, only four people hear the good news. In other words, for a business/entity that relies on customer service and good hospitality to survive, thrive and expand, getting by just won’t cut it. You must be committed to excellence.
This week, of course, Christmas arrives again, and a famous part of this beloved story has been on my mind. You know how it goes- Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem, give birth to Jesus, and lay “him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” That half-sentence has sparked many imaginations over the centuries. Some condemned the innkeeper for treating the Holy Family disrespectfully. Others chuckled at the irony. I, however, love that line because it establishes, from the outset, a (the?) core Christian value: hospitality.

The innkeeper, of course, had no idea who was on her doorstep. And while she couldn’t change the fact her inn was already full, she could’ve said, “Go somewhere else.” Yet she acknowledged a couple in need, and found room when there was none. She provided great hospitality. No, she didn’t give the best service imaginable. But faced with a choice, the innkeeper did what she could and creatively met this couple’s needs, giving Jesus at least some place to lay his head.

That’s a parable, I believe, for the goal of Christian faith- always, as best you’re able, provide the hospitality people need. Or to quote Jesus- Love your neighbor. I think about this now because, during Christmas, I meet many new people. Relatives of church members in town for the Holidays. New folk to the neighborhood dropping by to check out the church. Someone, who attends worship only for major holidays, blesses us with her/his presence. Whatever the reason, Christmas gives us more chances to provide hospitality than most any other time. Meaning we get to do more of what we (should) do best!

Of course, as the innkeeper showed, good Christian hospitality responds to what others want or need, as best we’re able, rather than assumes we already know what’s needed. And as my manager training years ago taught, memorable hospitality is one of two things- bad or exceptional.

Let’s commit to exceptional Christian hospitality this year, shall we?! And not just toward Christmas visitors, but to each other and people in need throughout the year. For Christmas is only the beginning of something remarkable, and not the culmination, amen? Besides, I think y’all, and our Lord, are too wonderful not to get people talking.

Grace and Peace,

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Friday, December 17, 2010

Light in the darkness…

When I announced I was moving to Minnesota, multiple people responded in shock, saying, “Whooooaa! That place is sooo cold!” I lived in Kentucky at the time, so take that reaction with a grain of salt. They cancel school there at the threat of snow; six inches might cause historic panic. Still, even outside the South, our state has a reputation for extreme winters. International Falls, along the Canadian Border, prides itself as the coldest town in the country, self-describing as “The Icebox of the Nation”. The population is an unsurprisingly low 1200, although I imagine they’ve more sweaters than the entire state of Kentucky. But even if our frigid reputation is deserved in some ways, that didn’t matter to me. I figured that very few cold weather conditions can’t be solved with the right, and enough, layers. So I packed my hats, dusted off extra sweaters, and excitedly moved north!

What I failed to expect, however, was another facet of Minnesota winter that all the down coats in the world are powerless to confront. The Darkness. Minnesota winter is a dark time, indeed. And sure, before I moved I’d heard about winter days being shorter and nights longer the farther north you lived. That doesn’t mean I anticipated my negative reaction to that fact. Or how pervasive the doldrums would spread across the city the longer our dark days lasted. So my first Minnesota January was a revelation. I moped about, wondering why I was so grumpy and why everyone else was too. Then, I turned on more lights in my home, and strangely felt the positive vibes picking up.

Recently, I learned that circumstance may have something to do with Christmas, especially why the early church chose to celebrate it on December 25. We don’t know, of course, the actual date of Jesus’ birth. The calendar then was different than ours, and besides, neither Mary nor Joseph were important enough (yet!) to merit written records of their daily actions. Luke includes a reference about Gabriel announcing Jesus’ conception on the ‘sixth month,’ but such suggestions are speculative at best, likely Luke’s symbolic additions to provide his story with greater texture and authority. So the early church, when they decided to make Jesus’ birth an annual festival, had to rely not on fact, but the needs of their community at the time. And so, one theory goes, they chose a day near the Winter Solstice, i.e. the longest night of the year. Many early religions honor that day, of course, a sign of order in a chaotic world, or of the ever-revolving nature of the seasons. So it was familiar to these Christians, and had an additional benefit besides.

Remember John 1? “In the beginning was the Word…and the Word was God…the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us…” In that Gospel, there’re no stories of Wise Men and Angels. All we hear of Jesus’ beginning is this poetic declaration that the Word (i.e. Jesus) helped create the world, and then came to live amongst us as “the light of all people.” John then claims that, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” In other words, an important early belief about Jesus was this claim about brightness and darkness- maybe as metaphors of holiness v. sin, justice v. oppression, peace v. violence. Or all of the above! Not surprising, then, that they’d choose the Winter Solstice to celebrate light coming into the world, overcoming darkness. Literally and spiritually, that’s exactly what’s happening.

So maybe, as you abide these darkest days of our year, you’ll remember that “the darkness does not overcome.” Spring will return, and bring a pervasive sense of fresh air and joy. And Jesus will be (re)born in our midst, overcoming fear, loneliness, anxiety, and sin with the Light of a new Creation. If we invite him to do so, that is. May that be so, in my life, and yours. The darkness may be natural, and helpful on days we want to catch up on sleep! But it needn’t weigh us down this Winter, for the light of our world has come.

Grace and Peace,
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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Fearfully and wonderfully made…

I feel older this week than I did last week, by more than seven days. And that seems like mostly a good thing, but surprising, and a bit sad. Not that getting older is cause for sorrow; I find our culture’s unhealthy obsession with youth annoying, in fact. In my opinion, aging is a blessing- that comes with challenges, sure- but the benefits should outweigh the troubles. Rather, my lingering melancholy at feeling suddenly more grown-up derives from the sad news I received last week. In case you didn’t hear- My good buddy, Mike, died unexpectedly last Tuesday, leaving behind a wife eight-months pregnant, and heartbroken parents, siblings and friends.

I had the privilege to officiate Mike’s wedding, though none of us would’ve guessed I’d do the same for his funeral. It felt both appropriate and ridiculous. That I could help his family this way, so they could just grieve and not worry whether Mike would receive a fitting, familiar tribute, was an honor. And I’m grateful for a church who affords me the flexibility to take those days off. Thank you! But suitable as it was that I, a friend, led the Memorial Service, it’s also a bit absurd. For one, I’m still a young minister, and certainly wondered at times whether I was up to the task. But more absurd, and more importantly, was Mike’s youth and abrupt death. Thirty year-old expectant fathers just aren’t supposed to die. It feels wrong, somehow, an affront to goodness. And I’d be angry, I think, if I wasn’t in shock.

Does that sound familiar? I suspect so. I think that many of us believe, perhaps unconsciously, there’s an order to life. Or there should be. And so think, when that order’s upended, it’s not just sad, but offensive. As if the universe messed up. Sure, if pushed, we’d acknowledge that life is fragile, that we’re never in control, that anything can happen. But that’s not how we live day-to-day, right? We make plans as if we are in control. We (mis)treat friends, neighbors, family, as if we know how long we’ve got left. Fragility, vulnerability are talked of not as facts of life, but symptoms of failure. It seems to me such patterns of behavior and speech are powerful, widely shared, and hey, sometimes even helpful. They may help us live more confidently, take more risks, weather hard times with optimism. Until times get too hard. And something exposes us as fragile, dependent creatures. To which, we might respond angrily, “That should not happen! At least, not to me…”

But Jesus once said, “Blessed are (the meek, poor…) those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” It’s like our Leader didn’t share our familiar way of thinking. He pronounced God’s favor- blessings- on the most (obviously) vulnerable and fragile amongst us. And I wonder if, among other reasons, that’s about peace of mind…

Of course, as fragile and angry as I’ve felt recently, peace of mind has been elusive. But after crying with friends, saying my goodbyes, I’m feeling older, and more accepting of my limitations. That I’m not invincible. That, truly, it can happen to me. And as I project those feelings into the future (assuming I maintain and integrate them!), it seems somehow…more peaceful. Like I’ll learn to better trust that which is beyond me more than myself. And while I’m sure God shares my grief at Mike’s death (or anytime our fragility leads to heartache), God probably thinks that perspective is good, that it builds humility and compassion.

Or maybe I’m just groping to cope with a tragic situation! Which is alright too... That many of us have the instinct to search dark clouds for silver linings, that’s probably also a sign of blessedness. Maybe even a sign of trust, that whatever happens, we’ll find ourselves, eventually, in the midst of love and brightness, which no darkness can overcome. I believe deeply that’s where my buddy Mike is now, and will welcome me when it’s my turn. Until then, rest in peace, dear friend.

And may we be more loving to our fragile neighbors- precious children of God, every one.

Grace and Peace,

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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Long-lasting gifts…

For all the outsized passion and anxious anticipation I invested in Christmas as a child, I don’t remember many of the presents I received. There was the basketball hoop above the garage- that was cool. One year, my present was ski bindings. The year after, I got skis. After major concussions two consecutive years while skiing, my Christmas present was a top-of-the-line helmet. My mother put it this way, “We’re paying too much in college tuition for you to worry about looking cool on the slopes. I don’t care how much it costs; get the best helmet there is.” I still use that helmet, by the way, and haven’t had another concussion, yet. As a bonus, ski helmets have since become ‘cool skiing attire.’

Still, most Christmas gifts I received over the years weren’t especially memorable. Some new video game, piece of clothing, popular toy, whatever. All deeply desired and loudly lobbied for ahead of time. Of course. But over time, basically undifferentiated.

I wonder if that has something to do with the longevity of those gifts? I remember the b-ball hoop and skiing stuff because, well, I used them for a loooooong time. But I don’t play video games anymore (I was never good anyway). I’ve outgrown my old clothes and styles. I ate all the food gifts I was given, often that very day! It seems most of our childhood Christmas gifts weren’t really designed for longevity, were they? They provided joy for a time, reinforced our parents’ love, but weren’t typically built to last the decades.

As an adult, however, I prefer gifts I’ll use for a long time, or something that fulfills a need. Especially both. I’m willing to pay more (or for my wife to pay more) for long-lasting gifts. And if the result is fewer gifts, that’s fine with me. Less junk to clean up later after all. Can I get an amen for that?!

This Christmas, you might know, Plymouth Creek is getting a new gift; one that I suspect we’ll remember well as time goes by. Well, it may not be exactly Christmas, but we’re hoping that’s the basic timing. In any event, we’ll soon receive money for a church bus and seven years of operating expenses (time enough to build gas, insurance and upkeep into our annual budget).

If all goes as hoped and planned, this will be a great, wonderful gift. It’ll fulfill a need and be long-lasting, as well as honor the long-lasting gifts of others. For one, it’s the result of many months of research and planning on the part of the Board, its leaders and Steve Weaver. But it’s especially the consequence of many decades of faithfulness from Christian sisters and brothers of another church. I’m speaking, of course, about Valley View Christian Church. For many years, they provided ministry in Audubon Park, and then Fridley, until unfortunately closing their doors in 2003. The sale of their building and assets established a fund that has since paid for our Sunday morning bus service. Some former VV folk are now current PCCCers, and needed extra assistance getting to church. But now, rather than continuing to hire others for that ministry, we’ve decided to take it on ourselves! So the VV fund is giving us a one-time grant to establish a bus ministry. Meaning soon our members will make that Sunday morning run. And we’ll also have bus transportation for other ministries.

Remember what my mother said about my ski helmet gift? Basically, “You need to be responsible.” I think that’s an enduring truth about most long-lasting gifts, however fun they might be. This bus is a big responsibility, though one I believe we’ll manage well. But think about other memorable, long-lasting gifts, and a pattern emerges. Remarkable talent, a new job, family and kids. Memorable, long-lasting gifts go hand-in-hand with responsibility. Maybe that’s why gifts get more memorable as we age; growth builds strength and capacity, and thus, greater responsibility. I pray this gift reflects the continued growth and development of our church, and we’ll be faithful stewards of our new responsibilities, and the gifts of our Valley View friends.

Grace and Peace,
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Friday, November 26, 2010

A fine balance…

My birthday gift this year was about as good as my wife could hope for. As you might know, I’ve decided to become a good cook, so I asked her to give me cooking classes. Her response- Of course! Since the only burden that gift put on her was to eat the ever-increasing quality of food I made. A sacrifice she agreed to make for my happiness.

Recently, however, the bargain didn’t work as well as either of us are hoping. I took a sushi-making class at Whole Foods near Lake Calhoun. We like sushi; I thought, therefore, it’d be fun to make at home eventually. And besides, how hard could it be?! Rice, seaweed, tuna, wasabi. All I needed were tips for cooking the rice and rolling the rolls, and I’d be an instant sushi chef. Right? Right…


The class was hands-on, and quite good. The instructor described the rice-making process and showed how to roll a sushi roll. She gave helpful recipes, and presented a vast array of ingredients she’d prepared for experimenting purposes. Then, it was time for us to make sushi ourselves! Fyi, I’d promised Tabitha I’d bring mine home as her dinner…

I won’t bore you with the details; suffice to say, I didn’t follow the recipes. Rather, I followed my instincts, created on the fly, hoping to discover an unexpectedly wonderful new combination. I didn’t. Instead, I produced a jumble of tastes that didn’t complement each other; an over-abundance of soft textures that felt like bad mash potatoes; a dinner only edible because I felt compelled. Fortunately, Whole Foods has a professional sushi counter, which I stopped by before leaving. Tabitha, after all, was expecting sushi she could eat.

I’m sure that meal failed for many reasons, but since it was my first time, I didn’t feel terrible. Call it an exercise in giving myself grace. Still, I do want to learn this skill, so I’ve been pondering. And it seems that my major mistake was miscalculating the balance. All chefs know, of course, that balance is essential for any good tasting meal (not just sushi). All sweet but no bitter may work for ice cream, but in most dishes, the goal is a fine balance between various tastes and textures. Alas, my sushi rolls were decidedly unbalanced. Too much rice, not enough crunchy counterweights, excess wasabi (which, at least, cleared my sinuses…). I now know one reason sushi chefs apprentice for 5+ years- achieving an appropriately fine balance takes time to learn.

But that lesson isn’t exclusive for sushi chefs, right? What’s true for sushi is true for life (at least in terms of balance). And that’s especially so when talking spiritually-engaged living. One of God’s greatest roles in our lives, in fact, is to help us discover strength and perspective to balance life’s many concerns. Spending lots of time and money on just yourself? Jesus said, “Whatsoever you do for the least of these, you do to me.” Time to level scales. Spending too much time pleasing others- kids, boss, friends- and not eating well, exercising, praying enough? Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Both sides are important. The goal isn’t complete self-denial or self-realization. It’s a fine balance.

I think that’s one among many reasons I don’t define faith by our “beliefs,” like those who say, “I’m Christian because I believe Jesus is God.” Beliefs are ideas you affirm are true. Faith is more active. It’s the trust you develop in God’s vision and voice over time, after trying to listen, sinning, helping others, receiving help, i.e. upsetting and retaining a fine balance between hope and sadness, peace and anxiety. And because life shifts constantly around us, active participation is required to stay balanced. It’s not enough to say, “I believe Jesus is Lord.” It’s much more helpful to ask, “God, where in my life am I not acknowledging your loving Lordship?” And then taking the risk of faith to rebalance. It may not work immediately; you may need to keep praying, trusting, doing. But again, what’s true for sushi is true for life: there’s always tomorrow’s dinner...

Grace and Peace,
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Friday, November 19, 2010

Simply Christmas…

Ever feel like Christmas is a heavy holiday? That the day doesn’t so much arrive as it falls on you like a stack of firewood? I do. Every year, I want to celebrate Christmas with abandon and joy and a deep sense of spiritual renewal. But when I think about it, the anxiety machine in my heart ramps up for heavy production. I worry about worship planning, shopping lists for meals and gifts, the budget, charitable giving, etc. And yet, a sneaking suspicion always lurks in my mind that the point of Christmas is getting drowned out. Retailers call the day after Thanksgiving (i.e. the Holiday Shopping Season’s ‘official’ start) “Black Friday,” a reference to their hope that high sales on that day will turn their ledgers from red to black. But for many, I feel that day marks a transition of their mood from joyful to dark and gloomy, because the Holiday Season is more complicated than it should be.

We talked about that at a recent Worship Team meeting, and decided to fight back! Rather than resign ourselves to another Christmas overly complicated by too much unneeded stuff, we Plymouth Creekers will refocus on the simple stories and meanings of this wonderful season. So the theme for this year’s Advent is “Simply Christmas,” and we’ll explore that theme in multiple ways. Our sanctuary will have fewer decorations than normal. Every week, we’ll sing simple Christmas and Holiday songs, and retell just the basic stories of Christmas through our scriptures and sermons. And to cut through the over-commercialization of Christmas (ponder- How did we let Jesus’ birth become The occasion for stores to pressure folk into irresponsible spending?!?), we’re asking that you plan to give more needed gifts with us every week.

#1- Chana W challenged us recently to bring simple toiletries for families in need, believing that a simple tube of toothpaste can be a great Christmas gift. And beyond that, every week of Advent we’ll have a new opportunity to give a simple needed gift, reflecting that day’s theme. You know how each candle on the Advent Wreath has a unique meaning? Advent 1 is Hope, 2 is Love, 3 Joy, 4 Peace... Well, every Sunday, as we light a new candle and tell another part of the story of Jesus’ birth, we’ll put a simple item in front of the Sanctuary. That item will symbolize the simple theme and story of the week, and will also serve as a chance for you to give to people in need.

Of course, I won’t ruin the surprise, and tell you now what those items will be! But I will tell you what the schedule will be for our various gifts, so you can bring those to church on the corresponding Sunday. Just imagine- as Christmas gets closer and closer, the front of our Sanctuary will fill with the generous gifts of our church for those who need these gifts this season more than we. Pretty cool idea, I think, so we’re trying it out to see how it works. Here’s the schedule:

On November 28, the first Sunday in Advent, please bring a foodshelf donation. Click here for a list of items that are especially helpful.

On December 5, the second Sunday in Advent, please bring a children’s book (or a couple!) that’s new or gently used, and especially, if you can, toddler board books.

On December 12, the third Sunday in Advent, please bring a baby blanket (or a couple!), that’s new or gently used, and/or any other cold weather clothing like hats, jackets, mittens.

On December 19, the fourth Sunday in Advent, please bring money for a special peace offering, which will be explained on that Sunday.

At its most basic, the simple point of Jesus’ birth- and life, death and resurrection- was to transport us beyond ourselves into God’s very presence, and so give us deeper compassion and love for all God’s Creation. Living for something beyond yourself; a simple idea, sure. But it’s a Christmas gift we all need again and again, and a better one than even my deeply coveted Amazon Kindle… 

Grace and Peace,
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Friday, November 12, 2010

Last Things…

       Prompted by a text message, I wrote a letter recently about the soul. And I so enjoyed writing that, I decided to wash/rinse/repeat. Except I didn’t get a text message this time; it was an email. And it wasn’t about the soul; this one pondered the End Times. I promise this won’t be too scary…

       First, a memory. In high school, my youth group once attended a weekend event called, “Choir of the Fire.” It offered loud music, ‘Christian Cool’ t-shirts for purchase and all the fun we could handle. But my strongest memory is of the keynote speaker and his theory about the End of the World, which according to (his interpretation of) Revelation would occur soon. So Revelation’s Ten-Horned Beast was the European Union (which had 10 member states then …coincidence?…he thought not). A resurrected Soviet Union would invade Israel. Armageddon would ensue, literally.  In retrospect, I find the idea rather disgusting; gathering hundreds of impressionable youth, exciting them with pleasing sights and sounds, and then, at just the right time, scaring Hell into them so they’d support your ideology.  I’m sure he’d describe it differently; that he was encouraging us, telling us important stuff others weren’t.  At the time, though, I was freaked out, and years later, I’m deeply skeptical of fear-based theology, and especially anyone claiming to know the future through Biblical Interpretation.

      And yet, one of my favorite seminary books was The Writings of Joachim di Fiore.  This 12th Century monk/mystic was all the rage in his day, although the Catholic Church hierarchy thought him quite insane.  He predicted that in 1260 CE, the Church would cease, because history-as-we-know-it would end.  All humans (not just clergy) would connect directly with God.  So-called heathens and Christians would reconcile.  He even drew sweeping, detailed (and yes, perhaps a bit insane) pictures of dragons and angels and the Trinity, all metaphorical depictions of his theories, based on- you guessed it- interpretations of Revelation.  I loved the book’s imagination, inclusive spirit and poetic boldness (not its End Times theology or Biblical interpretation)!

      Ever notice how some Christians dream up vast, detailed theories about the End of Days, Heaven and Hell, yet spend almost no energy dreaming about a better life in this life for more people?  I find that unfortunate, even contrary to the point of Revelation (and all Biblical Prophecy).  Revelation, after all, was written (late 1st/early 2nd Century CE) for small Christian Communities experiencing much pressure and oppression.  One of their leaders (the text’s author) was in exile; local authorities had changed from tolerating this weird obsession with a crucified carpenter, to actively targeting and hurting Jesus’ Disciples.  So John writes to his oppressed minority communities, imaginatively proclaiming that even if the violent, unjust Roman Empire (aka, the Beast) wants to do them harm, the One Who Really Matters- Christ Triumphant- is on their side.  And Jesus will reign at the End, he contends, but mostly he wants to help them live more courageously today.

      Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 25 about God’s question for us in the End?  It wasn’t, “Did you hold the ‘right’ beliefs- about Me or the End Times?"  But rather, "What have you done to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner?"  I.e. Love your neighbor?  Basically, I think Paul’s right that, "The Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night."  So we shouldn't waste time worrying about when it’ll end, in what ways, etc.  God's got that covered.  Rather, we all should live our lives now as if (another Jesus quote), "The Kingdom of God is at hand," is alive in our midst already!  So we treat neighbors with love and compassion like Jesus were standing next to us.  We act humbly, with respect and forgiveness, like the darkness that still permeates life isn't the most important thing.  Because it isn't!  God's loving presence is, and is always around us, prepared to connect directly with us, and so inspire us to be better and love more than we would otherwise.  I guess Joachim got that one right.

      Then again, we do live post-1260…eerie…

Grace and Peace,
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Friday, November 5, 2010

Movement for wholeness…

I write these letters weekly, and often deciding what to write is half the challenge. Some weeks, the subject is obvious- something happened, or will happen, that needs addressing. Other weeks, finding an appropriate topic is like pulling teeth. But this week’s subject is one I’ve been sitting on since September. In part, I wasn’t entirely sure what to write. Mostly, though, I didn’t want bad timing to get in the way. I began pondering it after receiving an email from our denomination’s “News Service.” It read, “For Immediate Release,” which sounded important and urgent, so I read on. It turns out that our denomination’s leader, Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins, had a request for Disciples churches- that we hold conversations, in our churches, about immigration, on or around Columbus Day.

This request surprised me, especially its For Immediate Release format. Last week, I got another such email, announcing major staff reductions at our denominational HQ. That issue seemed more obviously suited For Immediate Release. ‘Immigration Conversations,’ though certainly important for faithful people to undertake, felt to me somehow, well, less urgent…

I was also concerned about the news release’s timing. In case you didn’t notice (of course you did!), it’s an election year, and ‘immigration’ isn’t just a spiritual topic, but a political one. People in both major parties use it to build support, and lash out at opponents. Some attempts work, some don’t, and too many from all sides of this issue (I think) are demagogic and mean. But something that seems true is that, whatever one’s perspective, immigration can stir up deep, deep emotions.

Maybe that reason- its emotional power- is why our denominational leaders want us to broach the topic. Something our church does well (or should) is unite people with differing ideologies and beliefs. And not with the expectation that we’d eventually kowtow to one viewpoint, but that we’d respectfully, honestly listen and respond to each other, even if the topic is one- like immigration- our society has trouble talking about amicably. In that sense, we can be a witness to the broader public about Christ’s love; how it doesn’t demand conformity, but is inclusive of many differences. We are, “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.”

But the reason I didn’t mention this before Columbus Day, as requested, is, frankly, I didn’t want elections to get in the way of doing church. I firmly believe we can and should talk about political and social issues at church; exploring together God’s role in our civic participation, without defaming each other or acting partisan. And as a pastor ordained in a congregation full of first/second generation immigrant families, I have interest in this particular topic. Nevertheless, counting as a blessing that our church has folk from different political persuasions (not many places where that happens anymore!), I didn’t think the month leading up to a national election was the right time. Our denominational leaders did; they may know something I don’t. But I figured we’d do the issue better justice, if anyone wanted to discuss it all, once partisan attacks on our radios and TVs ceased, and the environment was better suited for respectful discourse.

And again, I don’t know if y’all even care about this?! We could discuss it in Sunday School, after church 2x a month, in a mid-week forum at a coffee shop/bar. Perhaps you’ll just email me your thoughts, and I’ll compile them in another pastoral letter. Or maybe, despite the invitation, we don’t consider this important. But I think one of my jobs is to help our church connect to the denomination’s wider life. So having received this request from our leaders, I felt I should pass it on.

So what do you think? Do you want to talk- formally or not- with PCCCers about immigration? If not, why not? If so, how, or what would you want to say? They’ve provided resources to get started, or we can go our own way (Us? Shocking!). But mostly, I hope you’ll think about God’s role in your civic participation, and perhaps thank God we can have strong political disagreements at all in this country.

Grace and Peace,
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Monday, November 1, 2010

Finding our voice… (November Creeksider)

It’s a mantra in certain educational circles, that the goal of teaching isn’t so much that youth and children memorize certain facts and information, but that they’d ‘find their voices.’ Yes, yes, times tables and basic grammar are crucial to achieving basic educational competency. But beyond that, say in history class, is it absolutely vital that a child remember all 10 amendments in the Bill of Rights? Or learn how to think critically about their understanding of, say, our First Amendment guarantees of free speech and assembly? Some would choose option a), others option b). I side with the latter, basically because information like “What’s in the Bill of Rights” is so easily accessible in this internet/iPhone age, that I’d prefer youth and children learn to think for themselves, rather than memorize a bunch of stuff. But again, I respect the many opinions in that debate.

I bring it up, though, to ask a simple question about our congregation- “Are we finding our voice, as a community of faith?”

Sure, we’re over three decades old, but like most churches, we’ve ebbed and flowed in terms of “Why do we do church,” and I think I was called, over two years ago, to help us rediscover an answer. In short, I think we are definitely ‘finding our voice,’ but I want to y’all to think again about why that even matters. And in order to make this discussion specific, let’s use an object lesson: IOCP.

You probably know that IOCP stands for Interfaith Outreach and Community Partners, and for most of the Northwestern suburbs (including most of Plymouth), they’re the foodshelf/social service agency we rely on to help our most desperate neighbors in need. They don’t meet all the housing/hunger needs of this community, alas, but they get close, and do amazing work. Well, every year, their major fundraiser is called the Sleep Out, and local businesses, churches, scout troops, etc., will sleep outside on various nights to raise funds and awareness for suburban homelessness and affordable housing. Our church will join in Saturday, November 20- sleeping on our lawn in boxes, tents, parked cars, and having a great time for a good cause. Please join us! Or if not, give to a sleeper.

But there’s another way we’re helping the 2010 Sleep Out. For the whole campaign (Nov. 12-Dec. 12), our church sign will track the growing amount of money raised, and what’s still needed to meet our community’s needs. This year, the goal is to help 900 families by raising $1.8 million dollars. And PCCC has committed to informing everyone who drives by our church how we all are doing.

“But couldn’t we use that sign for other things- advertising your sermons, our Thanksgiving service, making cutsy jokes?” Sure, but I think this is more important. After all, one of our church values is joyfully serving our neighbors in need. And if challenging our neighbors to give more for housing assistance will help (and I think it will), then, by golly, let’s do it! But beyond the Sleep Out campaign, I see a growing pattern. Reaching out to neighbors through the Sleep Out and the Blessing of the Animals; organizing groups to learn about the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Maple Grove Hindu Temple; the annual Women’s Tea and an upcoming Wine to Water fundraiser for international water security. Our church is slowly but surely reaching out in greater and louder ways to show people what a cool community this is. One that’s open to new ways of thinking and fresh ways of doing church. One that spends as much, if not more time worrying about helping others as helping ourselves. We can, and should, reach out more, and better, and I urge your help. But let’s be honest folks: We’re finding our voice- a proclamation of Christian faith that is open, service-oriented and ecstatic about serving God and others. Let’s keep it up! And serve more, and speak louder- on the church sign, through exciting new events, in stories we tell to people we meet, because we’re just that happy about what God’s doing with our intimate, wonderful church.

Grace and Peace,
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Friday, October 29, 2010

Reaching out…

Last Spring, I became an official Board member of the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches.  They needed a Disciples of Christ representative; I’m a DoC pastor; someone gave them my name; it worked out. And I’m constantly fighting the urge to find it rather ridiculous.

Not the organization! I mean, it’s the largest Council of Churches in the country (budget and programming-wise). It began and coordinates the MN FoodShare (the March fund and food raising drive that provides over half the resources for all of MN’s foodshelves). They facilitate more volunteers than any other organization in the state (some through direct programs, others indirectly through their many social service partners). And they have an unparalleled record with advocating and resourcing Native people (Minnesota’s most at-risk demographic, besides refugees),
overcoming racism (their recently opened
Center for Families provides creative and meaningful support to Minneapolis’ six major West African ethnic groups) and, as their slogan claims, “Uniting people of faith to serve people in need”. As you can tell, I’m impressed; they do what church should do, in the beyond-worship sense. And I’m a Board Member. That’s what seems ridiculous.

Usually, in my view, Board members of such organizations are either a) Influential professionals in the field- so there are bishops and other bigwig preachers on the Board, or b) Wealthy donors who want to get more involved with this non-profit they believe in. I’m 29, less than five years out of Divinity School, and as my wife and the IRS can tell you, nowhere close to ‘wealthy’. But since our denomination helped establish and fund GMCC over the decades, we have a place at the table.
And I was willing, so they brought me in. When talking with the Executive Director, Garry Reierson, about what I could bring to the Board, he quipped, “By your presence, you’ve reduced our average
age substantially.” I said, “Just trying to help!”

Anyway, I bring it up because I tried recently to put that unique quality- my age- to good use. I met with their marketing team about reaching out to Young Adults. GMCC, like many churches and church-related organizations, has an aging volunteer and donor base. Partly that’s natural, reflecting demographic shifts throughout society. But it’s also a function of what I described in the meeting as, “YA’s, broadly, don’t trust institutions, especially religious ones. They want to help their neighbors, do good, but without someone loading them down with ‘God junk’.” And that wasn’t anything this quality team didn’t know, but the point remains- My generation doesn’t trust church, or as is sometimes sneeringly stated, “organized religion.”

Why is that? I’d love to hear your thoughts. I think, in no particular order:

- The institutional church has done some real stupid things in the past- distant and recent- without adequately repenting, or celebrating and accentuating the good things.

- YA’s have grown up accustomed to and excited by pluralism and relativism, and many churches have trouble embracing that.

- When we walk into churches, we’re greeted with, “We really need you; help us out,” rather than, “Tell me about yourself; how we can help you?”

But most of all, I’m coming to wonder, is whether churches are offering what people my age need. Some churches do a good job of guessing what we like- Loud music, top-notch digital programming, services using U2 music. But Jesus wasn’t ever just about feeding peoples desires. He was also, and perhaps primarily, involved with feeding hungry mouths and souls, i.e. giving us what we need. And I doubt that’s changed much as generation has passed onto generation- we need sustenance, forgiveness, intimacy with God and others, a purpose in life. And that’s what church is supposed to deliver. So maybe churches should stop worrying about what YAs like and want, and start talking more honestly, non-judgmentally, compassionately about how Jesus and Church have given us what we, personally, have needed, throughout our lives. That would require serious vulnerability, I know, extra time, and a healthy dose of humble authenticity. But fortunately, that’s something Jesus thought highly of. And they’re values that resonate with my generation…

Grace and Peace,

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Will one will…

One of our youth texted me last week- “I got a deep question, when you have the chance.” So on Sunday we chatted, and the question was deep indeed! “Shane, in your opinion, what’s the soul?” This about five minutes before service started. Certainly time for an adequate answer, right?! Well, I tried, but wanted to say more. So I’m writing about it today; I’ll be curious for your responses.

Here’s my two cents: Like a good preacher, my first instinct is, “Let’s do a word study!” (Insert YAWN here- but please bear with me) The Greek word for ‘soul’ is yuch or psyche (pronounced p-sue-kay), which has a complicated history. Mostly, I think people regard it as an invisible, immortal spirit-person living “inside” the body, who goes onto some afterlife judgment or reward, depending on how good that body acted. Some even consider that spirit-person/soul the only important part about us.

But, the eternal question seems to be, how does the soul affect our lives/bodies? Well, if you believe Plato, it’s through our brains, or as he says, Reason. Always battling the emotions, appetites and will (which Plato doesn’t think highly of), in a perfect world Reason controls things, producing the cardinal virtues- wisdom, courage, temperance, justice. That’s the soul doing its job, for which it should receive eternal reward.

Sound fanciful? Maybe…but consider hymn #254 in our Hymnal, Verse 2- “Breathe on me, Breath of God, until my heart is pure, until with thee I will one will, to do and to endure.” There’s yearning here that our lives (souls?) align with God’s holiness and virtue, and it’s especially interesting that the hymn identifies “breath” as the way that occurs. In Hebrew (the other Biblical language), the word we translate soul, ruach, is also translated as wind and/or breath. So the Breath or Spirit of God is what moved over the waters “in the beginning” to form order and life; it guided the people to liberation and remains the very life-force of life itself.

Think about it- when living things have breath, we live. When breathing stops, life stops. So breath and spirit (or soul) are related, in this way of thinking, as if breath is the outward symbol of our inner life- our very own tidbit of eternity. How does the soul, then, affect our lives/bodies? Imagine a downed electric wire. When electricity moves through it, the wire jumps and sparks- it’s animated by electricity- but when the current’s turned off, the wire lays flat. Such is another idea about our soul; the animating life-force of life.

On one level, these two ideas aren’t very far apart. But I love the emphasis that the Hebrew vision puts on the body as the spirit’s rightful home, not some temporary holding place. There is no unavoidable war between soul and body; it’s all one. Plato, and the many Christians he influenced (especially St. Paul), were wrong, I think, about the emotions and appetites. Yes, they can be dangerous and manipulative. But so can Reason. Besides, as any lover or musician will attest, our emotional life has much greater opportunity for joy and excitement than our intellectual pursuits. If our soul operates primarily through Reason, Heaven will be a boring place! Even for a philosophy major like me…

Rather, think of our passions, desires, hopes and fears as part and parcel to the human adventure; intended by God to be embraced prudently, not treated as obstacles to overcome. Indeed, maybe it’s in suitably integrating our hearts and heads- not suppressing either one with the other- that the soul’s true affect is found. “Breathe on me, Breath of God, fill me with life anew, that I may love what Thou dost love, and do what Thou wouldst do.”

As for the soul and Heaven, well, here’s where I think Paul’s right on- as you can’t see the glory of a tree by looking at its seed, so we can’t see the wonder of paradise by looking at life now. We’re just convinced it’ll be glorious, because the Breath of life will surround us all from everlasting to everlasting. Glory be to God!

Grace and Peace,

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Friday, October 15, 2010

Effective idealism…

Last Saturday was my birthday, and I want to thank you for your birthday cards and well wishes! I received some at the church, others somehow made it to my home, despite the fact they were all addressed to the same wrong address. Which was rather humorous. To clarify, my address is 3711 Joppa Ave. S, not 3771. Unless you’re letter disagrees with my sermons, then send it to…well, I guess I’ll take those too. In any event, it was a fun birthday, especially because of the support of great people like you.

Being now almost 30 (insert disingenuous ‘old man’ joke here), I reflected this week on my current life situation, and how different it is from anything I imagined in my youth. I suspect I’m not the only one. My earliest memories of ‘projecting my ideal future’ involve me playing tight end for the Denver Broncos at age 29, or perhaps small forward for the Denver Nuggets. Alas, despite conventional wisdom to the contrary, those dreams were rather fanciful. But they changed at some point, and I then imagined I’d spend my twenties traveling the world, digging up dinosaur bones. Of course, that was before I knew that, if I’d gone that route, I would’ve likely still been in school at 30!

But again, my idealized future changed, and the older I got, the more realistic my dreams became. Or at least, I began to plan intermediate, measurable steps that would take me there, rather than just hopes and prayers. So I soon decided to become a brain surgeon, which, I admit, was still a reach. But I believed I could do it, and studied hard, and always took more science courses than required, sooner then required (ask me about the funny story of being the only freshman in biology class, when the teacher made a joke about genetics, my blue eyes and the mailman…). And when that ideal future changed, to the ministry path I’m currently on, I made the appropriate change in class schedules, college major and salary expectations. Still, even then, I couldn’t have imagined where I’d be now- married to a wonderful woman, serving a great church and living in Minnesota. Life takes you down unexpected paths, which sometimes exceed expectations.

Anyway, all that is prelude to the point of today’s letter, which is trying to convince you to take a survey for the Worship Team. As you might know, our Worship Team has spent the past year working very hard to help make our church’s fundamental activity as rich and moving as possible. Slowly but surely, we’re discerning an ideal future for our worship culture that is constantly creative, open, multicultural and familiar, all at the same time! That’s quite a task, and will take many months, even years. But we believe worship is so important, it’s worth the patience and devotion these wonderful people are giving it. Be sure to thank them, when you can, and especially our Leader, Martha Francis.

But as I discovered about effective dreaming, the older I became, it works best if you identify intermediate steps in the process, and then regularly assess your progress toward those goals. Which is just a wordy way of saying, “Make sure what you’re doing is worth it.” Hence our survey. We’ve tried some new things in recent months during worship, related to these goals for the future, and we’d like your feedback. After all, effective changes in our worship culture only matter if our fellow worshippers- members and guests- feel closer to God, each other and their neighbors as a result. So we’ll include some printed surveys in our bulletins over the next few Sundays, and have created an internet version which you can complete by clicking this link, if that’s easiest for you. All responses are confidential, so please be honest. And whatever your response, I hope you trust that Plymouth Creek’s worship leadership- the Team members, Jeremae and myself- consider serving you in this fashion, and exploring the power of God’s presence with you, among our greatest gifts. We’ve got a bright future together, I believe, wherever God feels fit to lead us!

Grace and Peace,
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Friday, October 8, 2010


Who isn’t always longing for another quote from St. Augustine? Well, here’s one- “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

I spent last week on retreat, again, this time in a Catholic Retreat Center just south of Boston. Along a bay, looking over the Atlantic, surrounded by the lush foliage of New England, hesitantly shedding its greens for yellows, and summer warmth with rain. Glorious. For those who don’t know, I take these retreats bi-annually, as part of a group in our denomination called The Bethany Fellows. The organization’s purpose is to nurture and support young adult Disciples clergy, so they bring us (about 40) to retreat centers around the country for a week every six months. There, we worship, laugh, share stories, learn and, my favorite, spend Wednesday in silence.  I believe Don’s (the Bethany leader) idea is that good ministers need deep spirits, and he wants to show us how to get there. As well he should, being one of the deepest souls I know. Ever heard someone quote Philippians 1 from memory- and not just as a rote repetition, but as if those words blaze in the oven of his soul? I have, because Don is that kind of Christian. And these regular weeks of tutelage from that wellspring renew me for ministry more than I can articulate.

This time, during silence, I began reading a book on contemporary spirituality by a thoughtful, open-minded, deep-spirited Catholic priest named Ronald Rolheiser. Its title is “The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality,” and if anyone’s interested in more active spirituality, pick it up. Fr. Rolheiser wrote for all Christians, not simply professional ministers. Heck, I’m enjoying it so much, I’d love to discuss it with you. Anyone up for a book group? Let me know the time and tavern (or coffee shop!), and I’ll be there.

Anyway, back to Augustine, because Rolheiser makes that quote central to his book. Simply put- he believes we’re all restless, so our great spiritual task is learning what to do with this restlessness.

For some, he suggests, we give too much into the restlessness, running all over- volunteer appointment to Board Meeting to Yoga class to Dog Park- trying to experience everything and never slowing down, hoping that somehow, at some point, we’ll end up feeling fulfilled. And we don’t. Because we don’t take time enough to rest in places that can truly “restoreth my soul.”

For others, he claims, the restless impulse isn’t embraced, but suppressed, medicated through foreign substances or mindless TV or late-night Sudoku marathons on the computer. At such times, we’re not sucking the marrow out of life, but are staring at life blankly, like a reluctant date at a community theatre production. But that doesn’t mean we’re rested or content. Often, far from it. We’ve traded the anxiety-ridden feeling of restlessness, for the numbing fog of avoidance or survival.

And at different points in life, either path may be fine. Doing lots of stuff can mean you’re growing and expanding your soul, while contributing to God’s good world. Detaching from the hustle and bustle, letting life continue without your active contribution after, say, finishing a huge project, or experiencing great loss, that can be just what the doctor ordered. But in neither case is life fully balanced. Over time, we want to channel our restlessness- our unrelenting passions- into healthy, creative, unselfish ventures, while seeking places to finally, truly rest.

“Our hearts are restless until they rest in you,” Augustine prayed. And I think he’s right. In God’s presence, we can experience solitude and relationship, active creativity and holy Sabbath. Restless passion can transform into loving ministry, restlessness into rest. Or at least, Rolheiser contends, that’s the promise of Christian spirituality. Not just thinking deep thoughts, or praying pretty prayers, but achieving self-sustaining, ever-renewing balance between rest and activity.

What would that look like in practice? Well, I’m still on chapter three! But it seems worth pondering. How do you find rest in God, and receive energy to live and love with abandon? Or perhaps, to use another term, Spiritual Balance?

Grace and Peace,
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Friday, October 1, 2010

…there is a season… (October Creeksider)

The third pastoral letter I wrote our church began with the above quote from Ecclesiastes (or, depending on your preference, the American folk-rock band, “The Byrds”). I spoke about transitions, and the seasons of ministry we go through- as individuals, as churches, as families- and how the ancient wisdom of Ecclesiastes should lead us to embrace such seasons of change as part of God’s design. Not rebel against change as unnatural. Nor assume that any one seasonal change will be the final word, forever. We may not always like what’s in season, of course. But things always ‘turn, turn, turn,” or as the words of Solomon’s Ring suggest, “This too shall pass.” Whatever “this” is.

Well, a change in our season of ministry as a church is near. Some of you know this already, but everyone should know, because it impacts us all. Thy Word Worship Center, the Apostolic faith church who began ministry in our building almost four years ago, will be leaving very soon. I can’t say exactly when that will occur, although it’s most likely that October 31 will be Thy Word’s final Sunday here.

As often happens with any significant change, my heart feels heavy and sad about this situation. Although Thy Word is certainly a dissimilar church than Plymouth Creek, who hold different expectations about worship, and teach some different ideas about Christian faith, they are our sisters and brothers in Jesus, and so they will be missed. Indeed, it’s never been us v. them. It’s all ‘Us.’ And when part of ‘us’ leaves, we should feel some loss and sadness. Yes, as a result, our church building will be more available for programming that can help Plymouth Creek move forward and realize God’s fullest vision for our church. I look forward to turning that opportunity into reality with you in many ways. But before we move on, it’s important, for ourselves and our building partners-in-ministry, to reflect on the good we did together, and why I’m sad to see this end.

Plymouth, Minnesota has not been an historical hotbed for multiculturalism, although that’s fast changing. Elementary school principals say that their classroom compositions in recent years have become much more diverse as more African-American and Latino families move into this area. Which means, as our neighbors claim a wider array of ethnic heritages, our suburb will have to adapt its understanding about how race dynamics matter in our lives. One such adaptation, of course, will be among churches. Do we continue to worship in styles that solely reflect white church culture, and thus reach out to a diminishing percentage of our neighbors? Or will we attempt to adapt, and make our church more open? No easy answer to that. But one solution we’ve helped implement over the past four years was to nurture and support an African-American new church start in Plymouth, when there was none before. It’s been trying at times, glorious at others, but in the end, that Thy Word maintains its viability and vibrancy as a church is something for all to be proud of, and to thank God for helping make happen.

But this very success is the reason for the change. Thy Word has grown to a point that the limitations we all have to accept as partners in this facility are no longer an asset, but a liability. Jesus’ Table has no limit for how many people can fit around it. Our church building, however, can only fit so many! So to ensure the continued growth of both communities, we made the decision to change our relationship, and worship in separate facilities. Where that will be for Thy Word? I can’t answer that yet, alas. But as their pastors told me, “Shane, God will make a way. God put us here in Plymouth. God needs us here in Plymouth. So we will continue to serve Plymouth and show the love of Jesus, wherever the final building ends up being.”

Amen. My translation- This change in season, despite the falling leaves around us, will usher in Spring for both our churches. A time for hope.

Grace and Peace,
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Friday, September 24, 2010

I Sing of Peace…

I’d imagine the central-eastern countryside of France, circa 1940, was a troubling home. I’m no expert, but what little I know doesn’t paint a pretty picture. Devastating signs of war littered the towns and hills. Enemy German troops controlled the country, plunging the people’s identity into conflict. For these rural folk, far outside the occupied Paris, perhaps there was some semblance of normalcy. But not much., I’d guess For it was there, in a desolate village named Taize (in the Bourgogne district, if you know French geography, aka three hours southeast of Paris), a Swiss monastic named Brother Roger bought a house, to shelter war refugees.

Bold move, if you ask me, especially since he also hid Jews. Which some nearby Nazis found out apparently, and Roger returned to Switzerland in late 1942 to save his skin. While there, he advertised his little house- said it wasn’t simply a refuge for the war-torn, but an emerging Christian community- and in 1944, after the Allied liberation, returned to his Taize home with some new residents and friends. Well, one thing followed another, and this quasi-monastic community kept growing. Soon there were Catholics, Anglicans, Protestants, and Orthodox, all committed to living simply, poorly, and with kindness and love as their rule. The goal- Show the world that reconciliation and peace are possible, and through their ‘parable of community’ teach that God is love, and love alone. Brother Roger, by the way, was 26 when he founded the Taize Community. And from those humble, youthful days (i.e. wide-eyed and optimistic, despite the world’s nastiness and horror), Taize has become an international pilgrimage site for young adult Christians, leading weeklong retreats of prayer and peace for over 100,000 people a year. In fact, they’ve gone international; set up houses in other countries to serve the poor and teach deep spirituality. I’m a fan. A big one. In case you haven’t noticed.

Alas, I haven’t been to Taize myself, yet. Although if anyone’s desperate to buy a plane ticket to France, I’ll give you my travel agent’s number. But I’ve experienced the depth and richness of their spirituality through the musical tradition they created. You may have too, by the way. PCCC currently sings three Taize-written songs regularly. I’ve also written about their musical style in this space. So you may be wondering, “Shane, why mention these guys…again?” Good question. Here’s my answer: Jeremae, our Music Minister, said so.

Context? Given my love for this music (meditative, repetitive songs, that are so simple to grasp and sing, your singing quickly transforms into prayerful listening to God…if you’re open to it…), I wanted our church to learn it better. So I’ve asked Jeremae and the choir to help us incorporate more Taize music into our worship life. Every week through Advent, we’ll sing at least one Taize song, so that by Christmas, we’ll have 10 in our regular singing rotation. When I asked Jeremae to help lead this, she, as usual, said, “Great! I’m flexible, and we can be really creative with this! But will you, Shane, tell our church the story of this music? It’s good to accompany change with a fuller explanation…”

And she’s right. Yes, we’ve sung Taize songs now for over a year. But did you know it’s multicultural music, written in many languages? Or from a monastery dedicated to reconciliation and peace? Or that it’s inspired millions of young adults, across six decades, to encounter God through mystery, simplicity and meditative prayer, and so serve the world’s needs more deeply? Again, I think that’s incredible, even inspiring. And if it’s worked such magic for others, why not us?

So that’s the story; what remains is implementation. And who knows? Maybe y’all won’t dig it like I do. But I hope that, after this three-month experiment, we’ll know better as a church what moves us deeply. Because in the end, Brother Roger’s legacy isn’t just a songbook of pretty music. It’s the conviction that Christians in community can serve, inspire and even change the world. And it’s always a good time we let that conviction work its way deeper into our souls, again.

Grace and Peace,
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Friday, September 17, 2010

The aftermath…

Mine was a generation supposed to have been defined by 9/11/2001. Or that’s how one theory went. They said all generations have a “You remember where you were when…” moment, and the Twin Towers’ destruction was apparently mine. My Dad remembers the days JKF and MLK were shot. My grandparents had Pearl Harbor seared in their memory. And those moments, some say, can define a generation, change our collective consciousness…

But there’re other theories, like that promulgated by Tom Brokaw’s famous book, The Greatest Generation (vignettes about those who lived through and fought the Second World War). In this theory, historic moments do help shape people, but more important is their response- the positive lessons learned and applied. So after WWII, our nation witnessed an economic and institutional boom. Churches expanded rapidly. Colleges too. People, full of optimism and entrepreneurial courage, thought, “By golly, we won overseas! So let’s make life better here too!” In other words, this theory goes, what ultimately shapes us are responses to shared events, not just events themselves.

And my generation, apparently, was supposed to respond to 9/11- to learn something valuable and apply it. What that is isn’t yet apparent to me. But given the date and recent events, I’ll tell you what I hope for:

I experienced 9/11/01 and now two wars in predominately-Muslim countries, while preparing to be a religious leader. It seemed reasonable to me, therefore, to study Islam as much as possible. I’m no scholar, certainly, since I focused mostly on Christianity (of course!). But I’m not ignorant of the religion, and have learned to love and respect it.

Islam means “submission,” deriving from the Prophet Mohammed’s central insight that our common goal- a lifelong struggle (aka jihad) of the soul- is submitting our whole self the will and mercy of God. That takes regular prayer, worship, almsgiving, and reverence for an authority (the Qur’an and the Prophet’s teachings) higher than yourself. Over the years, like Christianity, turning theory into practice produced mixed results. It’s been distorted by the violent, misappropriated by the greedy and powerful, and brutalized women in systemic ways. But also like Christianity, the application of Islam by everyday people has been overwhelmingly a source of strength in a difficult world, and an avenue to connect with God.

So it frustrates me when people say nasty things about Muslims, as if they’re all the same, and all terrorists. One critique goes, “Read the Qur’an. It’s horrific.” I have read the Qur’an, and like the Bible, it’s full of conflicting ideas, but an overarching message of goodness. And besides, it’s never enough to assume you understand another’s faith tradition by reading their holy book. In Christianity, we’ve inherited nineteen post-Biblical centuries of experiences, beliefs and ideas about God. Heck, it took us 300 years to formulate the Trinity! And once that happened, we disagreed again, sometimes violently. Of course, that violence was about much more- land, wealth, natural resources- like most religious conflict. But the main point is we don’t know ourselves as Christians by only reading the Bible. So we should apply the same standard to Islam and others.

Which returns me to the larger issue- How would I like my generation defined? We have fingertip access to more information now than ever before. We can connect with other cultures, people, religions and ideas with as little as a youtube video or twitter feed. My hope is we use that power for good, especially by taking time to learn from others before condemning them or burning their sacred texts. On that horrible 9/11/01 day, I learned, for the first time, the power of perverted faith. So as a person of deep faith, I vowed to be a beacon of something more loving, like my Savior instructed. I’ve befriended people of different faiths, learned their best ideas and hopes. I don’t let people demean others’ faith convictions in my presence. I could still do that better, as can many my age. But if we do, and so increase the world’s compassion and understanding, regardless our many differences, we may not be the ‘Greatest Generation,’ but I’d be proud to play a part.

Grace and Peace,
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Friday, September 10, 2010

Days of Awe…

First of all, let me say that last month’s letters about worship were fun for me. A good chance to explore different ideas about my favorite part of church. As I mentioned in the August 12 letter, I have a deep love for the Taize worship tradition. I believe its simple, beautiful melodies and repetitive words help us put aside the clutter we bring into worship, and arrive more fully into God’s presence. So this Fall, we’ll explore that tradition in greater depth, singing one Taize song per week. Meaning by Advent, hopefully, we’ll have added some new songs, and a new genre of contemporary, multi-cultural (Taize is a monastery in France) music to our worship life!

But this week, I want to bring your attention to the Days of Awe. That inspired phrase is the Jewish description of the ten days from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, i.e. the holiest days of the Jewish Year. For those who don’t know, Rosh Hashanah is actually two days, and celebrates the “Jewish New Year” (although, according to “This name is somewhat deceptive, because there is little similarity between Rosh Hashanah…and the American midnight drinking bash and daytime football game”!). Yom Kippur occurs a week and a half later, and is the “Day of Atonement.” Now if this sounds out of left field, let me remind you we’re in the midst of the Days of Awe. Rosh Hashanah began at sunset Wednesday, September 8, and Yom Kippur ends at sundown, on the 18th. Something felt somehow more…awe-some…didn’t it?

My Jewish buddy Andrew, who makes guest appearances in this space, has sometimes referred to himself as a “Three-day-a-year Jew.” This means his Temple attendance typically is restricted to these High Holy Days- Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In Christianland, we’ve sometimes paid joking tribute to our own attendance-limited sisters and brothers, calling them, “Chreasters,” i.e. Christmas and Easter Christians. I’d, of course, advocate more regular worship, from both Andrew and our Chreaster friends, but annual attendance is still something, and it highlights an important fact about Abrahamic religious traditions: We have a profound reverence for time.

Abraham Heschel, the great 20th Century Jewish Rabbi, wrote a beautiful book called The Sabbath, in which he contrasts sacred space with sacred time. Most people find certain places spiritually significant; a sanctuary, beautiful mountain, a certain room in childhood homes. But in the Creation story, God designates a day, a moment of time, holy and set apart. As the Sabbath approaches, therefore, we’re invited to enter through its door into a ‘room’ of 24 hours, when we can experience greater holiness than the other days of the week. But it’s more than that. Annually, we perceive more spiritual power in certain periods time than others. Our sisters and brothers of Islamic faith just completed an observance of the spiritual power of time. Their holy month of Ramadan ended Friday, so for the past month they’ve fasted, prayed and offered hospitality to neighbors in their annual search to live more submissively to their understanding of God’s desires.

Which makes me wonder- Why do certain times contain more ‘awe’ and sacred potential than others? My provisional answer for the space remaining- memory. Some memories just carry more spiritual freight- times we felt God more fully, or when we believe God did something profound. Through memory, in effect, time can stand still, and the blessed hopes or facts of what was can be again. At our core, we believe God doesn’t stand outside of time, but through the vast array of human history, of our time here on earth, God got involved. Which suggests that all the time ahead of us still isn’t just meaningless or dull, but always saturated with the possibility that God will do something awe-some again. So whenever we take time to revere the memories of holy days past, it’s not simply a celebration of what was, but a commitment to seek in the time ahead more awe and righteousness than we’ve seen yet. May your coming week, therefore, be seven days of awe. And the week after that. And after that. And, well, you know…

Grace and Peace,
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Friday, September 3, 2010

Cuando Fluyan a la Mar…

I was privileged to be ordained at Iglesia del Pueblo Christian Church in Hammond, IN. In fact, IDP was the first Disciples of Christ church I joined, so it’s quite important to me. Although, I almost never went in the first place. What happened was I, a relatively new DoC convert, was looking around the Chicago area for a DoC church to ordain me. I tried many places over multiple months, but nothing seemed ‘to fit.’ However, I needed to choose soon if I hoped to be ordained after graduation.

Then, an attractive woman at my seminary told me she’d been checking out IDP, this Disciples church just over the state line from south Chicago, and it was really cool. They spoke Spanish and English, she said, and worshiped with a praise/gospel/salsa band, and I should go with her sometime. I must say, that sounded intriguing, but very intimidating, and I agreed to go mainly because 45 minutes in the car each direction was a long time to convince her to date me.

It worked, by the way, she’s now my wife. And what’s certainly less important, but still crucial, is I loved the church, and they nurtured me down the final path to ordained ministry. But again, however neat the result in retrospect, I didn’t expect IDP ‘to fit.’ I figured I was a young, white kid who speaks minimal Spanish, so hoping a predominantly Latino congregation would partner with and love me enough to make me a reverend seemed farfetched. Until I walked in the door, and all assumptions I’d made about “Us v. Them” or “White v. Latino” disappeared, when John Cedeno vigorously greeted me, saying, “Thanks for coming! Tell me about yourself!” Great hospitality. I felt very welcome. And that helped me relax enough to learn that in the important things, IDP and I were one and the same. We both valued worship, passionate worship, above most everything else.

But similar though our values were, IDP worshiped differently than I’d experienced before. They were intentionally multicultural. This, as you might suspect, is very tricky. Across the country, only 7% of American churches are what sociologists dub “multicultural” (meaning no one ethnic group tops 80%). Indeed, White, Black, Latino or Asian Pacific-Islander, most American Christians attend church with folk who look similar, and share similar tastes in music and expectations about worship culture (expectations like service length, music volume, impromptu v. scripted prayer, vocal interaction during sermons, clapping). That’s not news, surely, but the stats highlight how strange IDP was by blending English and Spanish, Black Gospel, Salsa, White Evangelical Praise, and Old European Hymns. Or what to some seemed strange, I learned was “Glorious.”

In retrospect, I think one lesson from my IDP days sticks out most: Christians share vastly different cultures, languages, assumptions about ‘proper church behavior’ and even beliefs about Jesus, but all that’s less important than our shared desire to praise God. In whatever way we do best. My favorite IDP song remains a Spanish language Pentecostal tune called “Como Las Aguas del Rio.” Roughly translated, the words are- “Like the waters of the river when they flow to the sea/so arrives the glory of the Lord into my heart”. I think that’s possible whether you’re shouting and dancing, or silently meditating to a Celtic version of “Be Thou My Vision.”

But the point of multicultural worship isn’t simply to affirm ‘we have more in common than not.’ Nor is it, as some have suggested, rejecting your inherited culture as ‘boring’ or ‘dull’. I means using worship to affirm what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13:12- “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Experiencing worship from a variety of cultures, in multiple languages, is the same thing as seeing God through another’s eyes, and from vantages we’d never achieve on our own. Or, if you will, knowing God more fully now, in anticipation of that ‘Great Getting’ Up Morning’ when it’ll all be made plain.

Grace and Peace,

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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Look around you… (September Creeksider)

The other day, my wife and I were hiking on Barn Bluff, just outside Red Wing, in Southeastern Minnesota. At one point, as we snaked along the path, moving toward the bluff’s peak, I looked to my right and there it was: A series of cliff faces, just yards away, reaching high above our heads. That may not sound like much to you, but their size and shape nearly replicated other cliffs I’d spent hours staring at and thinking about as a kid. Those cliffs were in Winter Park, Colorado (the ski mountain where I learned the sport), viewable only from the bottom of a dangerous run dubbed “The Chutes.” But while out of the way, for those fortunate enough to survive The Chutes, and wise enough to stop and look around, these cliffs, steep and spectacular, towering over the trees, were postcard beautiful. As a kid, I imagined they weren’t just cliffs, but seats, where God would choose to sit and relax, if God needed rest. An odd fantasy, I realize, but for whatever reason, those cliffs deeply moved me. Still do. So when my wife and I hiked near something similar, I made her stop and listen as I breathlessly, rapturously sermonized about how awkwardly meaningful those other cliffs were to me. When I finally shut up, I asked, “Have I told you this before?” She said, “You have, many times, but it’s okay.” Wonderful wife.

Anyway, it’d been awhile since I’d pondered that favorite bit of scenery, so I’m glad I thought to look around on that hike, rather than focus only on the loose rocks beneath my feet, or where we were headed. Indeed, that’s much the joy of hiking, right? You might plan your destination and pay close attention to not losing your footing, but the point is to enjoy the walk, appreciate the journey, soak in the wonder of your surroundings.

In time-honored Shane fashion, I will now use that experience as an unfinished metaphor for church. Namely, I suspect what I just wrote about hiking applies to our Christian life together. Like hiking, where we’re going and whether we’re getting there as effectively as possible are very important, something to think about constantly. But if we don’t enjoy the process, frequently look around us, we miss the point of doing church. For instance, sometimes worship leaders and preachers get so focused on saying the right thing, picking the right song, performing it just right, that we don’t look around to assess whether the worship makes an impact. Maybe not, and we should change course. Maybe so, in some way, and we should build on that. But we won’t know if we don’t look around.

Ditto with something that’s been recently on my mind- If we don’t constantly look around to learn about and enjoy our community, we’ll miss opportunities God puts in our way. By community, I mean two things. 1) Church folk; if you don’t look around church consistently, you’ll miss who’s there, who isn’t, who’s new, or who you just haven’t said, “Hi” to enough recently. 2) Where we live; if we don’t look around, we’ll miss who needs help, who’s too lonely or scared to seek it, or who’s doing something wonderful we can partner with.

Sometimes Christians get so focused on doing their thing and going their own way, they don’t look around. But God brought us to our communities for a reason: to help create God’s Kingdom in this place with these wonderful people. Like a great hike, that can be tiring, but the journey’s worth it, as much for the people you hike with and the sites you see as you go, as the place you end up.

So if you haven’t looked around your community- either church or home- in awhile, stop and look. You might see something new and wonderful, or be reminded of something you’ve long loved. After all, wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, God is working to make goodness a reality in our midst. If we look around, we might find that happening. God might even use us to make that so for others.

Grace and Peace,
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Friday, August 27, 2010

Everybody throw your hands up…

Three weeks back, I said I’d write about worship for a month, exploring my conviction that it teaches us, by experience, to trust our entire life with God’s holy empowering presence. Then I wrote about the power of simple songs, simple melodies in the Taize (chant-like) style, followed by a celebration of silence, mantra and contemplative practices. You’ll be excused, therefore, if you’ve begun believing that I think worship should be…


So you know, I don’t, and consider those worship styles quite engaging. But let’s be honest: A LOT of people find worship boring. Very boring. Holy Jesus, don’t-make-me-do-it, my brain-is-exploding-I’m-so-uninterested boring. I can’t say with certainty, but I’d imagine that in the top five reasons why adults (especially my age) don’t attend church is, “My God, church is BORING!” Top 3?

And let’s be honest again- It is. For a large portion of the population. For many reasons, folk prefer using free time for stuff other than singing hymns, listening to speeches/sermons, prayer, searching ancient texts for guidance. And maybe they’d be open to that, one theory goes, if church were just less…YAWN…

So some churches have tested that theory by making their worship services a great spectacle, filled with the most hip and exciting sounds and sights. Which makes other churches- especially predominantly white churches used to pianos/organs/’classical’ instruments- nauseous, convinced as they are that such fashion-driven worship is shallow, artificially-spiritual or too loud. I’ve heard such comments from some of you. But here’s food for thought- worshippers have embraced ‘novelty’ and ‘spectacle’ for millennia. Consider Handel’s Messiah, Notre Dame Cathedral. Martin Luther wrote numerous hymns, some still sung, many of whose melodies and styles he borrowed from local taverns. That’s right, some sacred music began as drinking tunes. In any event, popular music, pizzazz and spectacle are very much part of the mainstream Christian worship tradition. Because it’s stuff worshippers enjoy.

Think about African-American spirituals. Many of these songs began as work tunes for slaves. In other words, beloved songs like “Were You There?” and “Wade in the Water” not only taught the faith while protesting slavery. They passed the time. They made hard life easier. They were fun to sing, and since the words evoked God’s grace and presence, perhaps that enjoyment had deeper roots. Or consider this well-known experience of hospital chaplains: They’ll meet a dying patient, who doesn’t remember her family or name, has difficulty forming sentences, but when she hears, “Amazing Grace,” or “Be Thou My Vision,” suddenly the patient’s eyes perk up, and she sings along. That’s not just because she knows the words. It’s because she loves God and the music.

So no, worship isn’t, or needn’t be, boring. But as we all know, what you consider boring, I might consider wonderful, and vice versa. And since our church values openness, always striving to include all God’s people at Christ’s Table, we’ll always have a worship problem. Always. Why? Well, how would you feel if tomorrow Jeremae and I decided to use only German-language polka music during service? Alienated from church? Uninvited? Now imagine yourself my age, new to church, and the only music you hear is from 2/3/6 centuries ago. Do you feel included? Or like you’re supposed change what you love in order to be accepted at the Table? In other words, how we worship says as much about what we believe as what we teach. And what we teach is that Jesus invites everyone to the Table.

It’s our job to set that Table, i.e. to create worship that’s as open as our hearts and minds, by making room for others. Which isn’t just about music. It’s prayers, hospitality practices, sanctuary design, the joy and energy we bring. This doesn’t mean we should build a rock band and burn the organ. Rather, it means accepting that our ‘worship problem’ is never solved, and so always searching to learn more about how others enjoy worship, while adapting as best we can.

So what do you think? How should today’s churches adapt worship (music, prayers, architecture, sermon style/length/content) to ensure there’s as much room at the Table as Jesus wants?

Grace and Peace,

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Friday, August 20, 2010

Cultivating Silence…

You ever get a song stuck in your head that, try as you might, won’t go away? Wait; let me rephrase that.

When was the last time a song got stuck in your head, and wouldn’t stop playing?! Because that’s happened to you- of that I’m certain. It could start innocently enough; you’re whistling while you work, enjoying the exercise. But eventually, the work’s done, and you move onto something else. The music, however, as if it has a mind of its own, isn’t ready to end. So regardless your next task, that song (and typically, it’s not even a song, but a short phrase of a chorus of a song, whose full lyrics you never bothered to remember) repeats itself over and over, an unwelcome soundtrack to your day, sonically pounding away at your sanity. Here’s a cure for that malady- scream the word, “AHHHHHH!”

Btw, that’s happening to you right now with, “Whistle While You Work,” isn’t it? You’re welcome.

Now while I might cause some eye raising with the forthcoming comparison, tell me if that experience doesn’t remind you of Buddhist and Hindu spiritual practice? No? Try this: I suspect you’ve heard of the classic Buddhist/Hindu meditation tool, ‘mantra’. If not, according to Wikipedia, mantra “is a sound, syllable, word, or group of words that are considered capable of ‘creating transformation’”. What happens is a meditation practitioner, perhaps under the guidance of a teacher/swami/guru, will chose (or have chosen for her) a short phrase (mantra), which is spoken aloud or internally and repeated slowly for a specified amount of time. Sometimes, mantras are phrases common to many. Sometimes a person’s mantra is secret, known only to the student and his guide. Maybe the most identifiable mantra to Americans is one word, and isn’t just spoken repeatedly; it’s sung. Or rather chanted. The word is “Ohm,” which means “Peace,” although you might know it better as “Oooooohhhhhmmmmmm.”

And again, the goal is to produce transformation in the life and mind of the meditator. Of course, that doesn’t happen immediately. A person might use mantra for years until a desired effect manifests. But the belief is (and contemporary Neuroscience has been investigating this, with promising results so far) that practicing meditation will train a person to be more mindful of the stressors and opportunities in her life, and of the lives of those around her. It builds our capacity for compassion, like weight training for biceps. Especially if the chosen mantra reflects core religious values.

Now, I realize, mantra exercises and annoying songs in the head are different. But they’re related. Something contemplatives of all religions recognize is that cultivating mindfulness, by entering intentional periods of personal silence, provides a strong counterbalance to a culture saturated with noise and distraction. After all, if it’s not a song lyric distracting you, it’s your to-do-list, or your I-feel-bad-about-this list, or your I’m-scared-of-this-future list. The world bombards us all, in unique ways perhaps, but it’s constant and anxiety producing, and can make us all too self-focused all too often.

Which is another way regular worship can help us live better. Think about it…For Christians, the meditative act isn’t simply focused on a word or phrase. It’s an intentional encounter with the Word (Jesus Christ), and an infilling of the Holy Spirit. In solitude, I’ve found that mantra helps me do this (I use 1 Cor. 13:13; or the beginning of Psalm 46:10). But it works best when I balance personal meditation with communal worship. There’s something reinvigorating and affirming about joining a group in prayer, song, sermon and communion, i.e. focusing together on the Word. It’s like we use the power of each other to help shut out the world’s distractions, and reconnect with what’s most important. On our best days, I take that power home with me, and use it throughout the week.

But for it to work that way, worship must create meditative space, which can be tricky. Have you ever thought that worship has too many words?! I have. Sometimes, I’d like more balance between talk, music, talk, sing, talk, and silence. I wonder the long-term impact that might have on a church?

Grace and Peace,

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Simple Songs, Simple Melodies…

Last week, I wrote about my beliefs regarding the point of worship. Is it to make the pastor feel better by boosting numbers? Sure, but only in part. Shortly put- I believe worship is training for living better, perhaps the best there is. When worship works, you should experience a ‘laying down’ of all your heart, soul, mind and strength before God’s loving presence, which according to Jesus, is the first and best commandment for living well. But how can worship teach that, practically speaking? Glad you asked! The Worship Team has given it some thought, and identified possible answers, which we wanted to pass along. And that’s what I’ll do for the next couple letters.

It begins with brains. And a conversation I had with an old organ player. I’ve mentioned this story before, but I beg your indulgence, because this man changed my thinking about worship. As a former big church Music Minister, he’d spent a career helping large groups get more out of worship. In retirement, though, he became a consultant and interim musician for small churches, places that often, he said, “Had difficulty mustering the energy for vibrant congregational singing.” This was a problem, he claimed, but also offered a solution. He made every church member memorize 25 hymns. He passed out tapes and lyrics, and literally gave worshippers homework, promising them that their worship would improve when they’d memorized this music.

Odd? Perhaps not… According to his research, one major problem many old-line churches like ours (still use hymnals, organs, etc.) experience is that we leave too much of ourselves out of worship. According to his theory, as we stare at the notes in our hymnals, straining to link five densely written verses with complex music, we rely too much on our ‘thinking brain.’ But this leaves the ‘emotional/creative brain’ on the sidelines. Until, that is, we sing songs we know and love, i.e. ones we don’t have to work hard to follow. Then, we experience our thinking and emotional brains integrating with our creative passions and memories, in effect bringing our entire ‘self’ together through worship.

You ever notice how most big evangelical churches use worship bands that play repetitive, simple songs? In part, they’re intentionally reaching out to young families via rock music, but it goes deeper. These worship bands specialize in simple songs with simple melodies- music that’s easy-to-sing and remember. Alas, the theology of their lyrics is often feather-light, sometimes even woefully misguided. But the experience of singing this music is more important than the content. It takes a worshiper out of her head, into her heart, and directs all that energy to the Lord through song. When the lyrics are good, the song combines the head with the heart, all to the glory of God. And notice the main point: The music facilitates that process; it doesn’t get in the way. So there’s a reason people keep worshiping in these churches more than just, “I like Christian Soft Rock.” They experience the fullness of God’s love through worship, even if taught to understand that love in overly restrictive ways.

But what about churches who don’t like that music, or think more inclusively about God’s love? My church musician friend tried the “memorize the music” approach, and claimed it worked. So at Plymouth Creek, we’ve tried limiting our music selections over the last year to increase our collective familiarity with certain songs. Let me know if it’s helped! We might also try using “contemporary music” sources that are more contemplative than Evangelical Soft Rock, but also utilize simple, easy-to-sing melodies. For instance, we now sing songs- Eat This Bread, Live In Charity, Jesus, Remember Me- from the Taize tradition. They’re easy to learn, very repetitive, tranquil, such that within two verses, we’ve stopped ‘learning the song,’ and have begun actually to sing it; contemplating all the vast meanings a lyric like, “Trust in me and you will not thirst,” could hold.

So, “How can worship train us for better living?” One answer- Integrate your whole self by experiencing God’s Love. And simple songs with simple melodies is one way to learn that. Others?

Grace and Peace,

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