Archive for June, 2012

A Little Help from My Friends

Some folks wonder if they’ll run out of ideas for an enterprise like this blog.  My problem lies in the other direction. My “Idea Zone” file just keeps on growing. I don’t always look at it before I write a post. Sometimes (like last time) an idea presents itself just when I’m ready to write. But not every week is like that. Besides, some of those ideas in the Zone are worth addressing in some depth. I want to explore them all fully. So I wander through my IZ often in order to re-acquaint myself with the inhabitants. A little time and distance often reveal fresh possibilities in too-familiar material. My problem isn’t finding something to write about. It’s choosing from an abundance of ideas and issues I want to address. A related problem is my recent busy-ness. I’ve struggled to find enough quiet space in which to think, meditate, cogitate—yes, and pray—to sort out the best among all those good ideas.

So I’d like a little help from my friends and followers. Among all that’s on my mind, what’s on your mind too? What would you like to see addressed in this space? Which among the ideas below grabs your attention or catches your curiousity?

 Highlights from My Idea Zone

  • The resurgence of Creationism in schools and other parts of society; its implications for Christianity, society, and scientific progress
  • The obesity epidemic—Does the church have a role to play in addressing the issue? How does stewardship of one’s physical resources fit into the bigger picture of whole-life stewardship?
  • Some multi-part issues:
    • Lessons learned at my pool table about life and ministry.
    • Names we shouldn’t have to call the church (e.g.” friendly”, “missional”, “bible-believing”, “evangelical”, “externally-focused”).
    • History we must teach upcoming generations—Clarence Jordan, Watergate, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Nazi attempt to co-opt the church, Joseph McCarthy, the Civil Rights struggle; who or what would you add?
    • The Bible, its place in our lives, the different ways we read it and how those different approaches shape our theology, our practice, and our life together. (Might be another multi-part project!)
    • We’re losing the ability to compromise or to disagree agreeably. We’re insisting more and more in politics, religion, and other areas of life on “my way or the highway”. Can we find a different way?
    • “I’m not talking to you today, God”—one woman’s way of praying through a very tough time.

That’s by no means all. My intent when I write is never to bring the final authoritative word on a subject, but to share my perspective in the hope of starting a wider dialog that generates more light than heat with regard to the subject.

So, friends and followers, a little help please. Which among these ideas rattling around in my mind interests/concerns/excites/angers/puzzles you? What haven’t I covered that’s on your mind? Chances are you’re hardly the only one thinking about it.


The Unlocked Church

More than 120 tornadoes battered the Midwest last April 13-15. One of them hit Thurman, Iowa the night of April 14. It damaged ninety percent of the town’s buildings including Thurman United Methodist Church, the community’s only church. A young mother, her husband, and their three children had taken shelter in the church basement. It offered more protection than their modular home. The tornado destroyed their modular home, but that young family walked out of the church basement unscathed. They were not members of the church, but they knew the church basement would be unlocked. Thurman UMC’s building is always unlocked.

What kind of madness is that??? Every church I served in 43 years of ministry constantly struggled to keep its doors locked. Periodically the Trustees would find too many doors left unlocked too frequently. If repeated warnings/scoldings didn’t change things, the Trustees would call in the keys, rekey the building (at considerable expense), devise a more restrictive policy, and issue new keys to “authorized users”. The effect of this excruciating process in every case was to lock out some folks who deserved and wanted to be included. Some found the new policy burdensome or confusing, so they dropped out of whatever task or group they’d been involved in. They gave up trying to get through those locked doors. Others were denied keys in the name of “security” because they did not meet the new policy’s stricter criteria. Typically the issue arose again within a few years and the same people applied the same solution–with the same result!

Thurman UMC’s basement wasn’t open because too many people had keys, or because the Trustees had given up on maintainng proper security. The church was open because–it’s always open. Three years ago the people decided to leave the church doors unlocked–all the time. Word spread quickly among the town’s 229 residents. When that family needed shelter from the oncoming tornado, they knew they could find a safe place in the church.

“We decided we are a community church,” explained TUMC’s pastor, the Rev. Jaye Johnson. “We are open to our community and we are not going to lock our doors…today that decision may have saved lives…If they would have found the doors locked…we could have been looking at casualties, no doubt. We are quite grateful they found their way into the church.”

I am well aware that rural Iowa’s wide-open-doors policy won’t work everywhere. My 43 yeas of ministry included a few church burglaries–all of locked buildings–and one small fire in an unlocked chapel open to the public. We Christians are sinful people living in a sinful world. That means that locks, alarms, and more sophisticated security solutions have a legitimate place in church facilities. But we dare not let reasonable and prudent security keep us from being “a community church…open to our community…” It happens before we realize it. Our focus shifts from opening doors to welcome all within reach to “locking up”, maintaining security, and making sure our perimeter isn’t breached without authorization.

Even when we sing the Lord’s Song: “we’re…a community church…open to the community”, we haven’t truly unlocked that death-grip on “our church”. We lock people out through clear but often unspoken expectations: “Dress nicely–like we do. Watch us and do what we do. Here we sing only these songs that sound nothing like the music on your IPod. You’ll have to learn to speak ” church” so we don’t have to translate the Gospel into words that fit your everyday life. Please cover up the tattoos–and the piercings. They scare us. And make your life fit our schedule. It works for us. Make it work for you too. We don’t like to change.”

Unlocking the church is more about getting God’s people outside than getting people inside. Jesus didn’t wait for people to come to him. He went wherever people worked, played, and lived. He sent his followers “to the ends of the earth” to share Good News. Only a tiny fraction of real “church” action happens inside the church building. Most of it happens “on the road” as God’s people follow their Risen Lord. It happens wherever folks discover that the church community is a great place to take refuge from life’s storms. “We are the only church in town,” explained Rev. Johnson, “so a lot of people claim us as their church.” TUMC’s not “their church” just because it’s the only game in town. TUMC’s “their church” because it’s Unlocked–in spirit as well as in fact.




Change–or Harden

2500 years ago the Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed that “Nothing is permanent but change”. Many have since echoed his wisdom. Today it feels like the pace of change has reached warp-speed. Part of us cries out, “Make it stop!” Another part of us recognizes the wisdom of author Evelyn Waugh: “Change is the only evidence of life,” Another writer, Bruce Barton, said simply, “When you’re through changing, you’re through.”

Change is the story of our lives. Political change is front and center for most of us. We Methodists are again dancing the Methodist Shuffle, our annual denominational ritual that re-arranges pastors and congregations, hopefully for the best. Graduation time brings major change. We simultaneously celebrate accomplishment and anticipate new beginnings. We attended one high school graduation last week and look forward to another next week—which brings me to the itch I’m trying to scratch.

Next week’s high school graduate is Brianna, our oldest grandchild. She’s done very well. She has  exciting options from which to choose what comes next. Her choices will shape her life for many years. (No pressure, Bri!) We’re excited to see this next chapter of her life unfold. We’ll gladly support and encourage her as she navigates those challenging choices. It promises to be a complex and sometimes stressful process.

But Brianna, her fellow graduates, and those who share their lives aren’t the only ones swept up in massive change. Change tsunamis are creating constant turbulence in most of our lives.  One part of us says, “Make it stop!” while another part replies, “When change stops, you stop.” Some change is predictable and within our power to influence. Students choose to complete their schooling (or not), to study certain subjects, and to work and/or study and/or ??? after graduation. Our choices often carry unintended consequences—change we didn’t know we chose!  But change isn’t always chosen. Illness, accident, human-caused or natural disaster strike suddenly and transform life forever. National and global forces alter our lives without our consent. Unpredictable, uncotnrollable change frequently forces itself upon us–ready or not!

We can’t always choose the change that affects us. But we can choose our response to its effects.  This isn’t new information, but it’s critical. We may choose denial. I’ll go on as if nothing”s changed. I’ll ignore the physical symptoms I’m experiencing. I’ll ignore the financial red flags until I can’t juggle any more, I’m getting squeezed from all directions, and I’m out of options. I’ll ignore the relationship alarms as long as I can stand the pain. Churches  ignore the warning signs of empty pews, bored members, and lifeless worship until their very existence is threatened.

We may blame someone or something. Pointing fingers may make us feel better momentarily, but it doesn’t solve the problem. It keeps us locked in the past rather than moving forward. Or we may choose the simplest, easiest, quick-fix solution. We seek the fix that asks the least of us and promises the most. We  go through doctors until we find one who tells us what we want to hear–not what we need to hear. We follow the simplest, most over-promising political or religious “answer person”. Trouble is, the self-proclaimed savior with all the answers has seldom addressed all the questions.  His/her quick fixes may make us feel better fast, but not for long. The cure is more cosmetic than real. While they may promise to restore a “good old days” past. the truth is that forcing tomorrow’s issues into the mold of yesterday’s answers is virtually always a bad fit.

We can respond to change with denial,blame, or too-easy oversimplified solutions. Or we can choose to adapt and learn. In a new-church start I served, we used the F-word a lot. NO, NOT THAT F-WORD! Flexibility. Adapting and adjusting quickly became a way of life. Resources were often unpredictable. Key people got sick. Sometimes our rented facility wasn’t unlocked at the right time. Innumerable glitches jumped out and said “Boo!” On our best days we didn’t deny, blame, or whine. (OK, sometimes we did, but we got over it quickly.) We put our heads together and said, “Here we are. How do we make things work?” In other words, we adapted. We learned on the fly. We focused clearly on our purpose while staying flexible with regard to methods.

Flexibility and adaptive learning are key survival skills in a world of warp-speed change. About two hundred years ago, Johann von Goethe wrote, “We must always change, renew, rejuvenate ourselves; otherwise we harden.” When we harden, life can break us. The branches on the living trees in my yard are flexible. Branches on the dead trees have hardened. They don’t bend and flex. They break under far less pressure than those flexible, living branches can handle.

So, Brianna and your millions of fellow graduates, and all of us trying to make our way through life’s warp-speed changes, here’s a brief summary:

  • Change is a fact of life. “Nothing is permanent but change” and “When you’re through changing, you’re through.”
  • We can’t always choose the speed and direction of change, but we can choose our response.
  • The F-word (Flexibility) is essential in navigating today’s warp-speed change.
  • “We must always change…otherwise we harden.” When we harden, life can break us.

With all this in mind, let us heed the advice of an old car commercial: “Enjoy the ride!”