Monday, March 31, 2014

The Corpse-Frog Pastor

I died on stage two weeks ago. The occasion was the annual Pastor's Appreciate Banquet. The setting was the Oakwood Inn (Syracuse, IN). The cast was a professional Murder Mystery Group and yours truly. I earned the spot by winning a contest.

I have my friend Scott to blame for my death. He told one of the actresses that I had a background in theater. (My wife and I met in a production of Twelfth Night.) The woman interrupted my final bites of Parmesean chicken to ask me to die. "It won't last more than ten minutes," she assured me.

My death was not guaranteed. I was in competition with three other people. We would each sing Happy Birthday. We would do so impersonating a famous character.

"Can you do any impressions?" she asked.

"I can do a mean Kermit the Frog," I said.

"I've never had anyone do Kermit the Frog before. This should be good. I'll get you in a few minutes."

The troupe commenced with their show. They mentioned one of their cast failed to arrive on the scene. They would need a volunteer from the audience to play his part. All four members stepped off the stage. They were looking for victims. The actress I had spoken with grabbed a hold of me and led me like a sheep before the slaughter.

The troupe leader explained that competition: Each of us would sing Happy Birthday mimicking a famous person. The most impressive impression would be cast as a corpse.

Displaying 20140321_203558.jpgThe first contestant did a believable Marilyn Monroe. The second stumbled through as John Wayne. The third wailed like Elvis. And I summoned my inner Kermit the Frog to the roaring approval of my colleagues. I won the competition, and took my seat among the dead.

As I sat there, eyes closed, motionless, and feigning death, I couldn't help but feel a bit of pride. In a room full of religious performers, I alone earned the spotlight. My Kermit the Frog impression placed me front and center. Seven minutes into the script, as promised, they moved my body off the stage. They allowed me to return to my seat, where my wife beamed at me and several folks nodded. I inhaled my dessert, basking in fame.

Later that night, my euphoria dissolved. Instead of pride, suspicion took residence. I began to worry that my fifteen minutes of fame would lead to a lifetime of Kermit the Frog references. I was, in fact, among pastors, who are notorious for depersonalizing people. By trade, we turn people into gifts and resources. Sadly, all humans are guilty of this tendency.

Sure enough, the next morning when my wife and I entered the breakfast room, I was a marked man. The first person to greet me clasped my shoulder and said, "It's Kermit the Frog!" The next person pointed a fork at me and said, "It's the dead body!"

Pride came before my fall. Among my fellow clergymen, I will henceforth be known as the Kermit the Corpse Pastor.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Wedding Planning and Gospel Witness

I won't marry just anyone. When couples call the church and ask about using our building and employing our pastor (moi), I require at least one meeting. As much as I want to hear their plans and purpose for marriage, my greater interest is to tell them about God's plan and purpose for holy matrimony. Weddings are a gospel witness.

People marry for a variety of reasons. Love, validation, security, financial stability, raising a family, tradition, and societal pressure top the list. God's rational for marriage is more pure: "to encourage holiness, not happiness" (Gary Thomas, Sacred Marriage). The Apostle Paul made a similar claim in Ephesians. He calls women to submit to/respect their husbands, and husband to love/sacrifice for their wives. The aim of a biblically-conditioned marriage is to move flawed individuals into flourishing a pair of Christ-followers.

The initial meeting with an engaged couple allows me to relay God's story of marriage. Before launching into the narrative, I try and gauge the couple's spiritual sensitivity with questions.
  • If they've been co-habiting, why marriage? 
  • If they've been married before, why do it again? 
  • If there are kids in the equation, how does this change things? 
  • If they don't attend church, why get married in a church by a pastor?
After hearing their responses, I introduce God's story. "The Bible is God's Word to the world. It tells about God's Son Jesus who died for our sins (do you know what sin is?) rose from the dead, and will return someday. The Bible teaches us about church life and spiritual matters. It also reveals God's heart on matters that seem ordinary: money, honesty, parenting, and marriage. I think it happens to tell the better story on marriage."

At this point, I let them know I'm going to take them to two different places in the Bible. If I have matching copies of the Bible available, I give them each one to read. We turn to Genesis Chapter Two, which I identify by a page number (since we're reading the same copy). I explain Genesis as a anthology of beginnings. Just as the world has a story of beginnings (slow and gradual, random and violent selection), God's story has a beginning. I happen to find the story of an all-knowing, loving Creator who made us to reflect Him in ruling and relating (Genesis 1:26-28; 2:14) far more compelling than Naturalism.

We read the Genesis 2:18-24 account of Lonesome Adam and Lovely Eve. I describe marriage as a gift from God. I stress Adam's awe over Eve. I stress Eve's role as a helpful partner. I tell of their need for independence. I explain their opportunity to birth, raise, and prepare their children as image bearers. I usually throw in a comment about how they stood naked together without shame, and how we've come a long way from that first scene.

Next I introduce Ephesians. I tell them the Bible came in two parts: Old Testament and New Testament. The NT recounts the life of Jesus and the begins of the church. Much of the teaching came in the form of letters, helping churches think through how to follow Jesus in their day. Ephesians was one of these letters. Then I lead the couple through Ephesians 5:21-33.

I watch the woman's face cringe when we read the wife is to "submit to" her husband. I watch the man gloat when I read the husband must "love his wife." When we move to the subordinating clauses about sacrificing himself and presenting his wife spotless before God (who? her?), a look of worry crosses his face. So I give them an opportunity to interact with these words "submit to/respect" and "love/sacrifice." They tell me the idea seems antiquated.

"The Leave It to Beaver days have passed. Women burn bras and work outside the home now. Men watch Downton Abbey and wash their own pants in our age."

But I assure them some things have not changed. A man's need for respect is no less important today as the Bible days. Every husband wants a pat on the back, a warm fuzzy, merit badge, and sign that his lady honors him. Every wife craves love, sacrifice, affection, and pursuit, if her man gives without agenda. (Wives can tell when their husbands are trying to warm up the marriage bed.)

The man's call to "love/sacrifice" moves him from passivity to passionate pursuit. The woman's call to "submit/respect" moves her from fearful control to faithful compassion. When these qualities permeate marriage, we truly become the gift God intended us to be for one another.

If the couple has engaged with me to this point, I can typically see some change of expression. They recognize holiness is better than happiness. And passionate pursuit and faithful compassion trump personal comfort any day of the week.

The session may not lead to conversion or subsequent premarital sessions, but at least they've heard God's heart. If the would-be husband and wife entertain my marriage-as-gospel-witness speech, I am happy to officiate their ceremony. But I won't marry just anyone.

Monday, February 24, 2014

How iMovie Will Improve Our Church

I've been making bad videos for years. Until recently, I've settled with Windows Live Movie Maker. The faulty program crashed constantly. Previous stabs at movie production with Wondershare, Video Studio, and Flip Movie Maker likewise proved fruitless.

Everything changed in December. I bought an iPad for the church and fell in love with iMovie. While it certainly has limitations, the program edits with ease, creates a crisp picture, and allows for enough diversity in transition, titles, image overlay, and audio control to keep me happy.

I've wanted to integrate more video into my ministry. Whether I'm marketing an event with a digital mashup, celebrating a person with a video montage, or expanding my teaching with a Vimeo stream, I plan to leverage video.

If anything else, making movies enlivens my creative hemisphere, which can get buried in sermon notes, grocery lists (yes, I sometimes shop for the church), and organizational responsibilities. When I lose my margin for creativity, I will quit my job and collect tolls on the expressway.

Things you should know - toilet paper from Leesburg Grace on Vimeo.

The current series of videos is called "Things You Should Know..." I highlight various aspects of our church facilities. It's a primer on Leesburg Grace Brethren Church...building. Theologically, I know the church is people, not a physical location. But people hide from the camera. I've found it's less invasive to take footage of toilet bowls on Tuesday than people singing Chris Tomlin songs on Sunday. 

Most importantly, I'm convinced people feel a greater sense of ownership in their church, if they know their way around the building.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Peril of Windows

I should be at home right now. It's snowing hard, and my windshield wipers do not work. For nearly two years I've driven without them functioning. When it rains, I spray a fresh lather of RainX on the glass and stay off the road at night. When it snows, I abandon ship and cry out to my wife for an emergency evacuation.

Today I don't want to call my wife. I am the little engine that can. I am self-sufficient husband. I am the crazy driver in the blizzard without working wiper blades. I am stupid.

The worst part: I have a standing offer from a guy in my church to fix them. "Just bring the car over some night, and we can work on them." He told me this more than a year ago. The offer is still on the table.

Surely, some great moral lesson underlies this situation. "Don't leave a helping hand extended." Or, "Don't be a danger to yourself and others." Or, "Call your wife, Stupid." (But, don't call your wife "Stupid.")

Nonetheless, I'm not in the mood for moral lessons. I want adventure. Moral lessons choke us. Adventures free us to roam. The brazen male in me bellows for a challenge.

Driving in the snow. Running without shoes. Skiing black diamonds. Eating Mexican with GERD.

I continue to do these things to stay alive. Some of them could lead to my death. This, of course, is our last, great adventure. C.S. Lewis describes the journey from earthly life to eternal life beautifully in The Last Battle.

"And for us this the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” 

I'm headed home, now. If I don't make it... I actually did.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Toasted Ham on Nye OR Adding Noise to the Origins Debate

I issued a soft invitation to members from my church to congregate in my home for the live debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye. Only one person accepted. I should have offered snacks (Toasted Ham on Nye would've been apropos), but I only promised food for thought.
The debate went better than I suspected. I feared the medium would overtake the message. I had reason to be anxious: Two times during my college career, I heard Ken Ham lay out his case for creation. The fast talking Aussie did not take a breath, turning over twenty-six transparencies a minute. His words-per-second produced a dizzying effect, as if I were part of a rapidly expanding universe. Ham's sprint from Slide 1 to Slide 2 to Slide 68 never gave the critical, evangelical mind a chance to digest.

Last night, his speech marched onward. But Ken Ham has evolved since my college years. The mouthpiece of Young Earth Creationism (YEC) had abandoned the outdated medium of overhead projectors, adopting instead the sleek presentation powered by Apple. (Even he could not deny this forbidden fruit.) The constant glow of the Macbook's icon made a case for progress.
My second fear regarding the debate was that Christians would mindlessly cheer their representative (mind you, I know the YEC view is the minority among Christians, I just happen to come from one of those that "reads the Bible literally"), without giving consideration to the reasons the Reasonable Bill Nye objected to creation's viability. As a pastor trained in the ways of the Jedi, I subscribe to the theory that you should listen to opposing points of view, so as to fine-tune your own convictions. Timothy Keller encourages readers of The Reason for God to take a "leap of doubt," since exploring doubts can develop a powerful antidote to atheism.

While I doubt the debate saved many souls or swayed many opinions, it certainly created some virtual noise. Given enough time and chance, the online dialogue may evolve into something more complex. More likely it will die. Snow will fall. March madness will begin. Gas prices will rise. Justin Bieber will debut another video. We, the most intelligent creatures on the planet, will digress.

Until then, I thought I'd add to the virtual noise. Now, to the finer points:
  • I applaud Ken Ham for initiating this debate.
  • I applaud Bill Nye for accepting the invitation.
  • Bill Nye should know that my daughter, who has been exposed to him at her secular, public school did not find him to be near as winsome in the debate as on his television show. She is 8.
  • I give the rhetoric edge to Ken Ham. He boasted the superior accent (and was not afraid to admit it) and avoided extreme language, as compared to Bill Nye whose overuse of the words incredible, troublesome, remarkable, and, especially, change the world, made him appear grasping.
  • I will, however, give a rhetoric point to Bill Nye for consistently calling the YEC view, "Ken Ham's Creationism." That clever devil. Unfortunately, I have to subtract the point for calling the Flood "Ken Ham's Flood." Genesis 6-9 attributes the flood to God (cause) and Noah (conqueror).
  • Of the two opening arguments, Bill Nye's was more amicable. He told an effective parable about the bow tie, implying YEC is an uncertain story.
  • Bill Nye should not have cocked his head sideways and looked nefarious when Ken Ham spoke. (Proponents of the YEC movement can thank the camera men for that angle, as shown above.) 
  • Ken Ham should not have sat down when Bill Nye gave his second rebuttal. He looked uncaring.
  • I think the men should have hugged at the end. Ken Ham, reach out!

Now to the lingering questions:
  • Did these guys listen to each other? It appeared to me that they were speaking past one another.
  • Has Bill Nye read the Bible? He seemed to confuse the Fall (a word not used in Genesis 3, but implied by later authors like Paul) with the Flood.
  • Is Ken Ham's distinction of Historical and Observational Science tenable? I'd be curious how more scientists respond to his categories. Ham bases YEC viability on this distinction.
  • Was Genesis written to be an Answer Book? I've always felt a bit uneasy about the namesake of this organization. I appreciate their mission, but it does create a canon within a canon. Moreover, it does not answer the question: If all the answers are in Genesis, why the rest of the Bible? More importantly, what does the science say about the irruption of a New Creation, of which Jesus is the first fruits (1 Corinthians 15:20ff)?
  • How trustworthy is modern science, if it continues to evolve? Both speakers recognized natural law, but theories of origin and destiny continue to change. I appreciated Ken Ham's statement that the fact of the flood does not change over time, but theories of how the flood (its effects, how it worked) continue to incorporate new information. I would have liked examples of how theories have developed there, but I'm sure there's a paper on their website somewhere.
  • This Flood was pretty important, huh? According to Genesis 6-9, the flood destroyed everything. God then re-created the earth. YEC suggest a 4000 year span, based upon genealogies (Gen. 10 and 11). Was this enough time for peoples, plants, and animals to spread across the globe? Certainly the account at Babel explains the advent of nations and the dispersion of people (Gen 11). What about the proliferation of animal species? And could the plants buried beneath the deluge have resurrected, their seed maintaining its potency? If we understand the genealogies in Genesis to be partial, does this somehow prove God errant?
  • Does evolution explain the evidence? Evolution makes a compelling case for disorder, death, and abuse in the world. Progress for one species comes at the cost of another. Moreover, one who does not believe in God, but ascribes her origin to natural causes is not necessarily relegated to a life of meaningless despair. Rather, she may feel triumphant. While other species have died off, she has survived. She may view herself as tough, strong, and determined. What evolutionary theory does not explain well is the advent of softer virtues: kindness, love, laughter, generosity, temperance, and love. Our lure for beauty, want for justice, and pleasure of community easily fit into the picture of a human made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-28). Christians, nonetheless, should be careful of assuming all naturalists are all secretly mired in depression or incapable of compassion. Common grace and the imago Dei touch everyone.
  • What is the Gospel? Jesus' earliest witnesses affirmed God as creator. In fact, they included the Holy Spirit and Jesus in the act of creation (e.g., Colossians 1:15-20). The author of Hebrews lists God's fiat creation as a test of orthodoxy (Hebrews 11:3). But the foundation of the gospel is not Creation; it is Jesus' work of redemption -- life, death, resurrection, return (1 Cor. 15). Even a casual reading of the sermons in Acts (2:14-36; 3:11-26; 7:1-53; 13:16-41; 14:15-18; 17:22-31) shows the apostles ignore the creation account. In fact, the first five sermons begin with Abraham (Gen. 12-25), not Adam (Gen. 1-5). Perhaps this was an example of knowing your Jewish audience and their assumption of fiat creationism, because to the pagans Paul paints God as creator (Acts 17). Nevertheless, the good news about Jesus transcends dates for creation. Re-creation is the focus. And as much as I appreciate Ken Ham's commitment to Scripture and clear presentation of the need for salvation, I think he failed to answer Bill Nye's greatest question: What can you predict?
  • What can we predict? Jesus is coming (Rev. 22:20) and people will scoff at this claim (2 Pet. 3). God will restore the world to Himself. The greatest era of discovery has not yet dawned! If finding new things drives scientists more than any other aim, they should look to the one who promised "Behold, I will make all things new" (Rev. 21:5).

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Now You've Done It, Winter

Jack Frost and his nefarious offspring have terrorized the Midwest long enough. We celebrate a few days off of school. We accept a cancelled worship service. We bundle up and brave icy roads and wind chills to get to work or purchase groceries. We fight cabin fever and the common cold, staying tucked indoors most days. But we can handle only so much.

The kids have missed a week of school, and their lack of schedule has pushed them to the edge of boredom. My new sermon series has failed to gain traction with two Sunday cancellations, and our midweek ministries have lagged behind, too. My family demolished two boxes of tissues while our noses ran marathons. Our television has played more Barbie movies in the past two weeks than should be legal.

My sanity was already tottering. This morning it fell over the edge.

In an effort to infuse yet another snow day with renewed excitement, I took the family out for breakfast. We drove to Martin's SuperMarket, which boasts a Starbucks franchise and the best donuts in town. Their apple fritter could start a revival.

We raced from the parking lot to the revolving door. My daughters made several extra revolutions. We passed the muffin cart and moved to the donuts display.

The temperature dropped. The wind chill rose. Our eyes popped in an expression of horror. There were no donuts. No fritters. No honeymooners. No long johns. No crullers. Nothing but empty trays. When it's too cold for the donuts fairies to come in and work their fresh-baked magic, it's just too cold.

My daughters handled the situation with remarkable composure. But in that dark moment, I cursed winter. "Fie on you Jack Frost! Winter, be gone!"

Monday, January 20, 2014

I Found My Wife on the Internet

My beautiful wife could not locate herself on the Internet last week. She approached the infinite, virtual information window (a.k.a., Google) with limited, real time on her hands. The kids were in school. Her husband at work. The kitchen clean. The glowing computer screen beckoned her.