Monthly Archives: June 2009

The Unbridled Power of the Word

Hebrew Bible

As a pastor, I spend a lot of time each week studying the Scriptures for for the teaching and preaching I do. But I’m also a consummate student of the Bible. If somebody dropped a large wad of cash in my lap and I had my choice of PhD programs, I wouldn’t hesitate to pursue biblical studies. I love the discipline of studying the ancient languages that formed Bible’s original texts, while learning the historical, political, religious, and cultural backgrounds that shaped their composition. Drawing on all these skills along with my undergraduate background of literary analysis, it’s a thrill to unpack and explain the Bible’s meaning and its timely intersection with everyday life in the here and now.

However, there’s an inherent danger in my work. Dr. Craig Hill, my New Testament and Greek professor at Wesley Theological Seminary, pointed it out. He warned us that even in all our attempts to critique and examine the Bible, as Christians we must allow the Bible’s rightful place to examine and critique us. I understand his warning  to mean that we must develop a “second naivete” towards the Bible, free from critical and analytical thinking, that allows the Word of God to speak for itself, forming us into the image of Jesus.

This happened to me on Saturday as I was putting the finishing touches on Sunday’s message. As usual, I formed my sermon around a few passages of Scripture. In this case, one of them happened to be Ephesians 3:14-21, which reads:

…I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (NIV)

If you’ve ever read through the book of Ephesians, then you know how magnificently it reads. The author, in his attempt to describe the heavenly reality he sees, spills out his words to overflowing in long, breathtaking, ornate phrases. For him, our experience of Jesus Christ is so astounding that the words can’t flow fast enough from his mind to the page. From beginning to end, the whole book of Ephesians reads this way.

Now, I’ve just given you my brief analytical synopsis of the book of Ephesians’ style and tone. I was prepared to share something like this on Sunday morning. Yet as I was reading the above passage one more time in preparation, suddenly those thundering words showed themselves for what they really are: the unbridled, eternal, earth-shaking Word of God. No longer would this passage sit passively to be analyzed, parsed, and explained. The Word burst the bonds of my feeble thinking to resonate with a tremendous, holy power. I began to see a truth, which if heard and believed, could completely revolutionize my life and the life of my congregation.

I saw a Word which spoke of being strengthened by the Holy Spirit’s power. Then I remembered this same power raised Jesus from the dead (Ephesians 1:18-20). And not only is the power of the Holy Spirit in us, but the risen Christ dwells in us as well. This power gives us the strength to comprehend the vast, multidimensional, infinite love of God. God’s love is greater than any human knowledge to be had. I could Google anything I wanted for an eternity and come to know all things, but God’s love would far surpass any of it. Knowing this love fills us with everything that is of God. Wow! Did you hear that? The God who formed the universe fills us completely as we grasp the powerful presence of his love. This same love can accomplish anything beyond the outer limits of our wildest imaginations… Everything of this great love and power culminates in the glorification of God, for all time and in all people.

Whew… When I let go and allow myself to be raptured into the sweep of this Word, life is no longer the same. And what’s amazing still: this is just one small passage of Scripture. Could you fathom what would happen to us if we stopped to listen long enough to the rest of the Bible, to every word of it? We would be unrecognizable!

Oh Lord, give us eyes to see and ears to hear. Humble us to the unbridled power of your Word that would blow through us, crush us, form us, and set us ablaze with your Holy Spirit. Make it so in my own life, God. Please do it… Amen.

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The Tragedy of Michael Jackson

Like so many today, I was shocked and saddened at the sudden death of pop icon and superstar Michael Jackson. As a Gen-Xer I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t know his name or hear his music. Michael’s death reminded me that the first album I ever owned was a tape of Thriller. My mother bought it for me along with my very own walkman. (Do you remember those?) With my headphones on, I listened to that tape over and over again, non-stop. And when I wasn’t listening to the tape, I had the radio on, cruising from station to station to hear “Thriller”, “Beat It”, and “Billy Jean”. I don’t recall any other performer who held his kind of superstar power. He and his music riveted my imagination. When Michael Jackson came to town on his Thriller tour, the Washington Post had a full-page autographed insert picture of him which hung on my bedroom wall for several years.

Michael’s good friend Elizabeth Taylor rightly dubbed him “The King of Pop,” and that he was. His music and artistry captured the adoration and respect of a whole generation of young people. And I was one of them.

But then, right at the crest of his powerful career, the magic of Michael Jackson began to ebb away. His inwardly-focused, unusually exotic, outlandish lifestyle seemed to take a strange twist. We heard tales of amusement parks, zoos and other lavish attractions at his Neverland mansion. Then we began to see odd changes to his face– Michael’s infamous plastic surgeries. Speculations about his health and behavior covered the tabloids. We saw images of Michael dangling one of his children outside a window balcony. The stories of lawsuits over child molestation, breaches of contact, and his marriages flashed across the headlines. And it went on and on and on…

Only God knows the inner workings of Michael Jackson’s soul and the things in his mind that led him to the decisions he made over the course of his life. I’m sure the speculations about the kind of man he was will dominate entertainment shows and documentary specials for years to come. Frankly, I think it’s all pretty pointless. He was who he was.

The real tragedy of Michael Jackson, however, is not any of this, but rather the neglected opportunity he had to rally his massive influence to benefit the world who made him famous. When I was a preteen fan of Michael Jackson, anything he might have said or done would have motivated me to be a better person. Even his reclusive, quiet voice could have commanded so much in the lives of people who adored every aspect of his being. And yet, for whatever reason, he turned most of what he had onto himself. And that’s the true tragedy of Michael Jackson: he failed to use the influence he had to make more positive, lasting impacts on the world.

michael_jackson07Yet Michael Jackson doesn’t stand alone in this failure. I think of others like Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin, and others who died far too soon without living up to their full potential in using their gifts to accomplish untold amounts of  good. It makes their deaths all the more painful.

Looking at Michael Jackson’s death, I’m also deeply challenged to examine my own life. If I were to suddenly die today or tomorrow, could I honestly say that I used every gift of influence and ability God has given me to accomplish the most good? It’s easy to pounce on a fallen giant, but do I stop to look at my own life with the same kind scrutiny? My former hero’s death has me thinking again. I hope he has even gotten you to think of your own legacy, too. Perhaps then, the ongoing influence of Michael Jackson, even in his death, could spur on some lasting good.

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Beginning with New Questions for a Church in Decline, Part 1

Jabbing and slinging mud at the mainline church has become a new intellectual sport among church leaders, and at first glance, this blog may be yet another fruitless contribution to the worn out question, “Why is the mainline church dying?” It is not. I’m moving on from mudslinging to asking questions that might lead us into resurrection. How can the mainline church enter into Christ’s resurrection, and what does that resurrection look like?

What few church leaders seem to understand is how the negative bantering back and forth has contributed virtually nothing towards the church’s health. My attempts to sound more dire and apocalyptic than you don’t revive a thing. Besides, we’ve all seen the statistics: steep declines in membership and money, aging buildings and church members, ineffective programs and initiatives, an irrelevant vestige of religion from a bygone era, yada, yada, yada, etc, etc, etc… While we must confront the truth head on, break the denial, and accept that Church in the 21st Century takes on a shape markedly different than before, we’re still left asking, “Now what?”. Suddenly the room grows eerily silent. We then realize that those who complain but offer nothing substantive to mediate the problem are the problem.

So, beginning from my little island in the blogosphere, I’d like to offer a new set of questions for the mainline church which I will address over time. (I’m doing so as loudly as I can to anyone who will listen!) My bishop once wisely said that we don’t arrive at the truth by offering answers but by asking good questions. In other words, the mainline church finds itself retreading the same debates over its decline because it begins the conversation with inadequate questions. Let’s take a look at some of those questions and then reword them to be more authentic, biblical, and Christ-like.

Question #1: How can we get our churches growing again?

There are two major faults with this question. First, the question preoccupies the mainline church with institutional survival. Let’s face it, the mainline church, especially my own United Methodist tribe, loves to crunch numbers. We count numbers like worship attendance, the number of new members, numbers of people in classes and activities, how much money is brought in and spent, and on and on.We love it when the numbers project upward because that means the institution is thriving. We worry when the numbers spiral downward because that means the institution is in jeopardy.  But there’s a major problem with this kind of focus: individual souls are just another number which props up the legitimacy of the institution. At the end of the day, what the institution values most is its own viability, not the viability of each person the blood of God was spilled to save.

The second fault is in the word “again.” That presupposes that the same construction and configuration of church we’ve inherited will be an effective means for today and the future. It is not. Pioneering books like George Barna’s Revolution warn us that congregational styles of church may have a limited shelf life, and that we need to rethink what Church is, how it gathers, how it disciples people into the likeness of Jesus, and how it spreads the good news of Jesus to the world. So can we see growth, absolutely! But… not by pouring new wine into old wineskins.

Question #1 Rephrased: How can we build the kingdom of God with new disciples of Jesus?

Notice that the emphasis is no longer on us or on our survival, but on the survival of a lost world. It heals us from our addiction to numbers and moves the growth from institutional growth to kingdom growth, the latter encompassing every local church, every denomination, and indeed our whole world. It mobilizes us outward, looking towards the reign of God and the healing of our world by the blood of Jesus, one person, one family, one community at a time.

Please note that I’m not trying to dismantle or disregard the mainline church. I love my heritage as a United Methodist, and in fact, the kind of thinking that I’m suggesting is more in keeping with John Wesley’s vision than the dead form of religion he feared we would fall into and have indeed become. If there is any hope for United Methodism, we must once again rekindle our love for Jesus Christ, his gospel, and people who have yet to be born again into a new life with Christ and his Church.

Along these lines, I believe the answers to this question make themselves clearly apparent when we simply shift our focus from ourselves to Jesus and the world he died to save. When we do that, we find ourselves simplifying how we carry on as a Church– our worship, study, and engagements with the world around us. We find ourselves gathering together in the outside world where people normally live, work, and play. We realize that we captivate people not with pizazz but with authenticity. We move from being clever, cute, and flashy to being transparent, honest and profound. We see that the world has already heard about God so many times before. They’re not standing around waiting for us to say it again, this time with PowerPoint and a band. If they gives us a chance at all, it will happen when they see us doing what we say we believe and then speaking a message that points straight to Jesus.

To be continued…


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Touched by a Piano

Over a year ago I began to fulfill a longtime goal: to learn the piano. As a lifelong musician and song writer with a proficient knowledge of music theory and performance in vocals, woodwinds, and strings, my lack of piano technique had been an increasingly painful sore spot. So over a year ago, I asked my church’s organist, Dr. Mack Statham, if he would take me as a student. After a while, he finally agreed. Since then, the journey of learning to play has been one of the most joyful and rewarding endeavors of my life. Of course, any piano student will tell you that learning piano can be just as frustrating as it is fun, but for me, that synergy of vexation and victory defines the essence of joy. While I don’t ever expect to be a concert pianist– God has me plenty busy as a pastor– I can little by little live into my dream of being able to sit down at a piano to play a piece of music.

I’m also blessed to be pastor of a church who thoroughly enjoys and celebrates God’s gift of music. They open any door for musical expression, and here, I have found a place to offer my musicianship in our worship of God. Plus, I’ve never seen a church with as many pianos as this one! Better yet, living next door to the church building grants me the luxury of going over at a moment’s whim to play my choice of one of those dozen different pianos.

But, a few nights ago, I had the time of my life playing one of the most gorgeous instruments I had ever laid my hands on. Here is how it happened…

Once a year, my church welds together our passion for music and mission work into one night and calls it “Missions and Masterworks”. Dr. Mack puts on the concert with all the proceeds benefiting mission work. I can’t think of anywhere else where Gershwin and malaria netting  for sub-Saharan Africa come together. But in our church, they do. For the last three years, Dr. Mack has been joined by his son Robert for a duo-piano concert. They rent two Steinway concert grand pianos and set them in our sanctuary, facing one another, looking almost like conjoined twins.

For the last two years, I eagerly await these concerts. From the moment the piano movers roll in the Steinways until the last chord is played, I am like a little kid in Disney World– wide-eyed, open-eared, ready to run and soak up every moment. It’s seems almost too good to be true having two gorgeous instruments like these with classically trained pianists who master their performance… all in my church!

But here is where my story really takes shape. Late Friday night, well after the concert was over and the lights were off, I walked over to the sanctuary where those Steinway pianos were still sitting. I had all the time I wanted to play them. With my etude and exercise books in hand along with Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”, I sat down in front of one of the Steinways to play… all by myself in the quiet of the night. The gentle, simple, intricately balanced, clarion sound of every key I pressed rose and resonated into the chancel area where they sat. In a rare moment I shall not soon forget, that piano swept and held my spirit. It even seemed to carry along my mistakes with its gentle, graceful tones. It was as if that piano beckoned my hands and heart, sweetly calling, “Keep playing… Swim through my sound. Let me take the movements of your fingers, your hands, and your feet, and sing for your soul.” Novice of a player that I am, the piano seemed to help me play through passages I haven’t been able to play before.

I must have sat there in front of that piano for well over two hours. It was all I could do to leave it. But when the reality hit me of how tired I was and how early the morning would be, I knew it was time to go home. Getting up and walking away from the piano was like parting a good friend I might never see again. Yet as I walked home, those feelings of rapture diminished any feelings of grief. It was an experience, simple and yet deeply profound– one that will linger with me for quite a long time.

a Steinway concert grand piano

Being raised in a musical home by musician parents and grandparents, the appreciation and performance of music was a given. Not a day goes by that I don’t stop to deeply listen to some form of music and find myself singing or playing. My home is a musical haven now, filled with instruments, CDs, singing, and playing. Yet moments like that Friday night remind me how deeply spiritual of a thing music is. Music, I believe, was one of God’s first creations. It began the moment his first creatures raised their voices in praise or tapped their feet with any kind of rhythm or pattern. Humanity has revelled in its soul-stirring power ever since. It took a Steinway piano in a late night quiet sanctuary to remind me once again.

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Thank you to the House

Today, the House of Representatives did something courageously, efficiently, and with strong bi-partisan support. (And yes, I’m talking about the United States House of Representatives!) They passed a resolution condemning Tehran’s crack down on the recent demonstrations over the election while blocking any electronic communications that report on them. Rep. Howard Berman-D, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and co-sponsor of the bill said, “…we must reaffirm our strong belief that the Iranian people have a fundamental right to express their views about the future of their country freely and without intimidation.” Amen, Mr. Berman, and thank you, House! It’s about time that someone from Washington showed enough bravado out of their love for freedom and democracy to make a stand in solidarity with a suffering people who want real peace and freedom.

There is much about my country and the direction of our society that as a disciple of Jesus I can challenge and critique. But one thing I will always celebrate about America is our insistence on upholding and protecting the unalienable human rights of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and freedom to peacefully assemble. The current state of countries like Iran show us how easily tyranny can snatch those freedoms away. Tyranny, fascism, communism, and totalitarianism are easy ways to govern because they feed off our worst natures to gain and seize power over others in order to advance the will of the few. But true democracy and freedom must always be guarded and protected from our worst natures, even here in America.

President Obama had the perfect opportunity this week to uphold and advance the message of freedom to thousands of brave, persistent protesters who are putting their lives on the line for their freedom and a better Iran. Instead, in an effort to soften the stance of a notoriously anti-American regime, one he hopes to engage in dialogue, the President’s remarks were carefully worded, tepid statements. Couldn’t he offer both an open hand to that “clenched fist” along with a passionate defense of human freedom and dignity? As leader of the free world, I would have hoped so. Perhaps he still will, especially after such an overwhelmingly supported resolution from the House.

In the meantime, I’m remembering, supporting, and praying for the people of Iran and others like them in unfree places. I stand with them and pray for the day that they can reap the same dignity and freedoms I enjoy and often take for granted.  And as a disciple of Jesus, I pray for the day that he will return, rid the world of evil and unrighteousness, bring all before the judgment of God, and create a new heavens and a new earth. Come, Lord Jesus!

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An Act of Intentional Obedience

Changed PrioritiesThe older I get, the more I realize that my life is pulled along by the currents of priorities. Those priorities are either set by God, set by others, or set by whatever personal desires seize the moment. And sadly enough, most of us don’t even realize it. Our day’s events are rarely intentionally determined by a guiding list of principles. Rather, we respond to the immediate needs of others or the most recent, loudest demands. Then, to shut out all the voices and neediness around us, we crawl into our personal escapes, justifying that we need the rest or need to “get away.”

All too often, I’ve found that as busy as I get doing all the work that has been given me to do, I can still feel empty, like I haven’t accomplished anything of real worth or value. Why? It’s simple enough. I’ve allowed other people and other things and those fruitless desires within me to divert me from the work that matters most. I’ve heard people say that the things which matter the most don’t shout at us; they whisper. So, it’s all too easy to confuse the crass, bossy voices of the immediate for the calm, patient invitation of the most valuable.

So, why the philosophical foray?

For too long, Jesus has been after me to focus on two things: listening and writing. I love to listen, yes! But I wonder if I spend my time listening to the best things… For me, reading and praying are far better ways to listen than just keeping up with the latest Facebook updates or news stories. After listening comes the act of writing in a way that moves others to think, act, and move towards the God who made them.

As an act of intentional obedience to God, I’m keeping a blog. I’ve tried blogging in the past, but eventually lesser things would creep in and smother away the time it takes. So, I’ll be posting a blog at least three times a week. Hold me accountable for it! I invite you to be in conversation with me as well.

At the same time, let me ask you: what are a few essential, valuable things that have gone neglected? Will you join me in picking up and keeping only the very best??

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