Monthly Archives: August 2009

Learning How to Vacation

As I write this, I’m in the first half of a much needed two-week vacation here in sunny Florida. My family and I drive down this way every summer to stay with my mother and step-father who both work for Walt Disney World and live almost right next to the Magic Kingdom. (We can hear the train whistles blowing from the Walt Disney Railroad and fireworks exploding at night.) Of course, with family who work for Disney World, we have the added perks of getting into all the parks for free!

Cinderella's CastleHaving been been to Disney World numerous times over the past nine years, I’ve moved beyond a wide-eyed fascination with Disney magic to enjoy some things that first-timers might ordinarily miss, things like people-watching and tuning in to the finer aspects of Disney’s creative and marketing genius. There really is so much to see, take in, and enjoy. But being a people person, I’ve learned to enjoy watching how people behave when roaming around the parks and resorts.

As for the people here,  if you haven’t been to Disney World before, you might think that Disney’s guests all beam with smiles and merriment. At least that’s what you see in pictures and commercials. You do see some of that, yes. But I also see a lot of tension. People come here with great expectations and a desire to “do it all.” So I see people eagerly rushing around and even arguing with one another and with their kids. (My sister, a Disney World call center employee who has spent her last several years dealing with guests, calls Disney “the fight capital of the world.”) Or, I see flat, tired looks on peoples’ faces.  After their stay, many folks return home exhausted, feeling the need for another vacation to recover from the one they just had.

Why is that? I’ve found that there are two sides of a coin to Disney World. On the one side, Disney offers a complete escape from reality. From the moment guests arrive to their resort or a theme park, they enter an alternative reality, an exquisitely orchestrated fantasy world of play. It removes its guests from the outside world into an all-encompassing Disney-style imagination world. Disney weaves together everything guests see, hear, touch, smell, or taste to create this new dimension of happiness.

Caught up in the created euphoria, I see Disney’s guests stretching themselves to the limit in order to be fully immersed in the happiness Disney promises. That’s the flip-side of the coin. Unrealistic expectations slam against the reality that even Disney cannot satisfy the insatiable hunger guests bring with them to lose themselves in Neverland. Walt Disney World, for all of its wonder and fun, isn’t heaven… It doesn’t soothe the longings people bring with them– not by a long shot.

So for my family, we’ve decided to do things a little differently. En lieu of going out every day, we’ve taken plenty of time simply to relax. Instead of the normal running around non-stop from here to there, we’ve taken a much slower, leisurely place. I’ve gotten over the guilt of feeling lazy and non-productive to enjoy just sitting around. I read or work on some fun projects, help my parents around the house, play with the kids, or if I feel like it, hop on the computer to blog about it. I’ve resisted the temptation to worry about work or answer e-mails. It will all be there when I get back. World War III doesn’t appear to be breaking out. So why worry myself about things instead of taking advantage of the precious opportunity I have right now to rest?

I’m re-learning that vacation is a form of Sabbath, not an escape from reality. If I or anyone else needs vacation to escape reality, then it’s probably time to re-evaluate, re-prioritize, or make adjustments to that reality. Sabbath, on the other hand, has a plain purpose: it is God’s gift of rest, re-creation, and reflection. Sabbath offers new life and a deepened perspective to those who take it.

I haven’t come to Florida to escape the world. The inner issues I had when I left are still with me. The conflicts back home will still be there when I get back. But in seeking Sabbath, God has offered me the rest and renewed strength I’ll need to handle all those fires within and without.

So will my family and I be running around in Disney World? You bet! But for me it’s not an escape. I’m using the time to remember what’s most imporant in my life, specifically my relationships with my wife and children, and of course with my God. Can I see God in new ways throught the people I meet and the experiences I have? I pray so. Can my family develop some deeper bonds to sustain us through the stresses of everyday life back home? I pray for that, too. All of this is Sabbath.

And so, I’m going to get off the computer now and enjoy the Sabbath time God has offered me. I hope and pray for each of you that when you have those rare moments of time to enjoy vacation, that it truly becomes a time of Sabbath and not a cheap escape from reality. In reality, there is no such escape!

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Filed under Christian thought, Reflections

The Cycle of Death and Resurrection in the Church

We disciples of Jesus Christ hinge the epicenter of our lives on Christ’s death and resurrection. It’s more than just a doctrine to be preached (what we call kerygma) or something for individuals to believe and trust for their salvation. The more I live as a disciple and serve as a shepherd of Christ’s Church, the more I see that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a massive force that shapes the movement of all things. In the turn of the seasons or in the life cycle of butterflies and flowers, we see universal images of Christ’s death and resurrection. Indeed, all of creation sings in celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

So how might it change the way we understand Church if we look at its life through the lens of Christ’s resurrection? To get to the point, might the decline of most mainline Protestant churches be a sign of death with a doorway into resurrection? Instead of consternating over the state of things, can we re-imagine the church we’ve inherited by allowing things to die in order to release new, unfettered life?jr_sunrise

To understand what I mean, let’s take a look at Jesus’ own life and ministry. Born in a manger stall, his life began in small, lowly, lonely circumstances. By the height of his public ministry, Jesus was surrounded by thousands of people. Then from there, the crowds got smaller and his miracles became fewer and fewer. On the last night of his life, Jesus went from twelve companions, to eleven, to three, and then to no one as he was arrested and taken away to be judged by the Jewish Sanhedrin. Jesus, the one who captivated throngs of people, died an embarrasingly ugly death on a cross, scorned and rejected by the whole world. The Son of God, Son of David, the one whom people called Lord and Messiah, died.

But before Jesus died, he said a few things about the nature of his death. He said, “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it does, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24).  Later in John, Jesus taught his disciples about the meaning of his imminent death. In one instance he said, “Very truly I tell you, all who have faith in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12, TNIV). How is that possible? God would send the Holy Spirit. Jesus then said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever– the Spirit of truth” (John 14:15-17a).

Right after the close of John, we read in the book of Acts that after the resurrected Jesus ascended, the disciples were filled by the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. From there, the mission and work of Jesus Christ spread like wildfire throughout the entire known world. Just as Jesus had promised, the disciples, living and working in his resurrection power of God’s Holy Spirit, accomplished far more than Jesus ever did in his earthly ministry. His death opened the way to his resurrection, which in turn infused his ever-present life into the lives of his followers. One single seed died and erupted into bountiful fruit.

Could it be that the current mainline church finds itself in the waning hours of its life, much like Jesus’ last week? If we choose to see our decline that way, it would free us to imagine what resurrection might look like. We could allow the seeds of our tradition to bloom into new, unimaginably powerful life.

But instead, the mainline church has been looking for resuscitation.  We’ve been looking to pump new life into a dying body. Or as Jesus put it, we’ve been trying to pour new wine into old wineskins. The old wineskins are bursting and the new wine gets wasted. This simply doesn’t work.

John Wesley learned this lesson. The 18th Century Anglican church was a dead, corrputed shell of an institution. Instead of trying to challenge and change the internal structures of the church– for which he often got the boot!– he preached outdoors to masses of people, created small-groups of believers which he called classes, arranged them into regionally based societies, and called and equipped preachers and leaders. By doing all of this, Wesley ushered in sweeping revival, not only to the Anglican Church, but also in England the American colonies through this movement better known as Methodism.

I’m an inheritor of Methodism. But I’m seeing that the formalized version of Methodism which began in 1784 has run its course in America and is quickly heading to its death. Other forms of mainline church could share that assessment. Does that mean Methodism has failed? Not at all, no more than we could assert that Jesus failed when he died! But we must stop our attempts at resuscitation and instead make way for resurrection.

Resurrected church in America will in many ways resemble the pre-resurrection mainline church, but much like the resurrected Jesus, it will look, feel, and act very, very differently. Let me imagine what this might look like in decades ahead. As Sophia from the Golden Girls says, “Picture this…” In the resurrected church, disciples of Jesus will gather for worship, learn and study together, and engage in the missional work of serving and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. But long gone will be the old systems of mainline church structures and traditionalism. Congregational styles of church life may cease to exist or be radically reshaped into networks of disciples worshipping, learning, and ministering in small groups. Denominational structures will become less centralized to be simultaneously globalized and localized to support these networks of disciples. Pastors like myself may have to radically alter the way we live, work and support so that we’re acting more like apostles, building, equipping and shaping these small group networks.

Those are just a few ideas, but in each congregation, including my own, we’ve got to get on with readying our churches for a season of resurrection. We must allow failing, ineffective means, methods, and priorities to die. Then, we must allow the best remnants to grow up into a newly resurrected church.

I’d love to read your ideas and insights about resurrection, too. Let’s get the conversation going!!

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Being Led to Stir up the Pot

Maybe it’s the summertime lull, which always proves to be a difficult time for churches and church leaders, but I’ve been feeling led to shake things up, stir the pot, wake the angry bull, or whatever other cliche you’d prefer to insert. Maybe it’s the strains and pressures of being a pastor, but I tend to shake off the malaise by shaking up my environment. Out of the remnants of what’s left are always the seeds of new life.

stirring the potI’m also entering my third year of ministry here at First UMC. Third year is notoriously tough. Pastors spend the first two years getting to know their new congregation and community. It’s a time for honoring, educating, and building trust, so they are criticially important years. But usually by now, it’s time to step up, stir the pot, and set a direction that will take a congregation into its next chapter. Of course, anytime a leader dares to mess around with the good ol’ status quo, things get rough very quickly. I’m already absorbing hits from deviating off the norm.

Fueling my conviction to stir up the pot are some books that God has literally dumped into my lap in the last three days, one from my wife and several others from a church friend who happened to be cleaning out his library. Here are some of the titles:

Richard Stearns, The Hole in Our Gospel (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009)

Brian Sanders, Life After Church: God’s Call to Disillusioned Christians (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2007)

Julia Duin, Quitting Church: Why the Faithful Are Fleeing and What to Do about It (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008)

Vince Antonucci, I Became a Christian and All I Got Was this Lousy T-shirt: Replacing Souvenir Religion with Authentic Spiritual Passion (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008)

and possibly,

Kenneth C. Haugk, Antagonists in the Church: How to Identify and Deal with Destructive Conflict (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988)

From the titles, maybe you can piece together what theme I’m centering on. In stirring the pot, I’m challenging current assumptions about church, unnailing them, and throwing them out in order to build a more authentic, Christ-centered, missional Body of Christ. That will undoubtedly be unsettling for some, but by keeping the conversations going between God, these books, my blogging community, and my church family, I’m convinced we’ll discern God’s will together.

As I read, I’ll post some new ideas and invite your reflection, too. I really look forward to that! So, fellow pot-stirrers, let the fun begin!!

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A Way Forward for Health Care Reform

health careLike most of you, I’m not even close to being an expert on health care issues. Rather, I’m an observant voter and tax payer who cares about the direction of my country. I’m also a follower of Jesus, and that characteristic above all else shapes my views on the issues. But I have to admit, when it comes to health care, I’ve been perplexed about how to view current efforts to reform its quality and accessibility. On the one hand, I agree with the vast majority of Americans that there must be some kind of health care reform in order to create quaility, affordable options for all Americans, especially those who currently have no health care coverage. I also believe, along with most Americans, that both federal and state government have a role to play in making this happen.

Yet on the other hand, I haven’t been able to discern a clear direction forming on either of these fronts of the great health care debate. How do we create affordable, quality health care for every American? And what is the role of government in making this happen? No one solution seems to be emerging from all the fiery House and Senate negotiations. And of course, I haven’t even mentioned the real thorny issue: in the throws of economic recession, who’s going to foot the bill??

So, after giving all of this some thought, I’d like to offer several suggestions from my little island in the blogosphere. If you like them, spread them around. If you don’t like my suggestions, tell me and others what you would propose.  At the very least, we’d all walk away a little more informed and engaged in the issue of health care. That’s not such a bad thing, is it?

So here goes…

Chris Owens’ Health Care Reform Suggestion List for President Obama and Members of Congress

1) Government must be more of a facilitator, not merely an arbiter in creating health care reform. I appreciate all the efforts of the Obama administration and Congress in tackling this issue head on. Agree or not with their presumptions or conclusions, they are actively engaging an issue that affects every American. What concerns me, however, is a dangerous attitude which many Americans including myself perceive that somehow government knows best and will fix the problem. I believe that attitude is a big contributor to Obama and Congress taking political hits in the polls lately. People are scared! Why? Everyone knows that government is stretched too thinly into way too many things as it is. We roll our eyes all the time at governmental inefficiencies. (Don’t you just love your trips to MVA or DMV??) Are we to now believe that our government will suddenly, miraculously get it right with our health care?  Without degrading its quality and accessibility, will it all be as rosy as they say? We’ve got our share of serious reservations.

2) We can more realistically create solutions through public, regular, open dialogue between health care providers, health insurers, and government leaders. Of course, these conversations have been going on, but not as publicly (and probably not as regularly) as they need to be. As a citizen, I’ll feel a lot better about the decisions being made when I see that all the parties who hold sway over my health care are working together to create a solution. I know I’m not alone in believing that. Say what you will, but frankly I’m alarmed by what appears to be a handful of Washington elites– who may or may not be experts in health care!– making decisions that will affect the care of my family, especially for my son Jacob who has Down syndrome, a person who will need excellent, affordable care for the rest of his life. I would feel significantly better if I could see and understand a forward-moving dialogue process that creates shared solutions.

3) Slow down the decision making!! Another reason why our national leaders may be losing ground in the polls is that the American public sees a lot of haste in handling an extraordinarily complex, expensive issue. President Obama, I know that you want results without unhelpful stalling tactics. As a fellow leader, I understand. But concerning our nation’s health care, we’ve got to get this right or it will cost lives. So create and communicate some longer term benchmark goals for progress and hold Congress to it.

4) Knock off the anti-“big medicine” rhetoric. This ties in with my second suggestion. U. S. Representative and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi recently called insurance companies “immoral” and went on to say, “They are the villains. They have been part of the problem in a major way.” C’mon Nancy… You may have substantive grievances with insurance companies for turning people’s health care into private profit, but what do you expect to gain for America by turning yourself against the very agents with whom you’ll have to cooperate? Perhaps she hopes to punish her “big medicine” nemesis by taxing and regulating them into oblivion. But that will only create some acute pain for millions of people like me who hold insurance through companies like these. Those companies will invariably pass their tax costs along to us customers whose care will only be encumbered by additional government regulations. Unless Ms. Pelosi is prepared to offer a health plan comparable or better than the one I have and prove that it will be completely sustainable, she’s not helping matters.

5) Do not settle for any less than a broadly bipartisan solution to health care reform. In the past, major government initiatives like Social Security and Medicare came about through a long but fruitful bipartisan effort. Now we come to health care. Excellent, payable health care is something every American wants and needs. Why can’t Democrats and Republicans do what they always say they’re going to do: stop the finger pointing, sever their allegiances to special interests, and come together to create consensus? Do we have no statesmen and stateswomen left who can lead us though partisan bickering? If not, then I predict several things will happen. First, whatever is passed will only enjoy partisan support, lack the wisdom and insight of bipartisan thinking, and will therefore result in mediocre success. Then, when we citizens see what a mess this mediocre solution creates for our health care, a lot of politicians from both sides of the aisle will be ousted in upcoming elections. Maybe then we’ll have the kind of leadership our country deserves.

That’s my 2-cents worth. I don’t know enough to offer specific policy points. I have no comment on any of the policies currently being proposed. I just want to see a better process in place for creating those policies. After all, our health depends on it!

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