As I Prepare to Preach on Pentecost Sunday

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The wind is blowing a gentle breeze outside.  As I type these words I can hear its swooshing sound and see the trees outside my office sway.  Three Sundays ago the wind was blowing at 50 miles per hour and I was at home sick while my associate preached.  At that point I was a little bit sad Pentecost wasn’t then because God’s Spirit is breathe and God’s breathe is 50 miles per hour and more mighty.

As in answer to prayer the wind is still blowing today, albeit with much less force.

The wind blew my hair as I unlocked the doors of the church this morning.  I was reminded that the church is the content of the breath of God.  The Spirit is the breath but as the Spirit breathes, we are what it pulls in and then sends out.

In the same way that when I take a breath I am pulling in some weird mixture of Nitrogen, O2 and CO2 (among other things) and then breathing out a similar mixture, but with more CO2 than O2, the Spirit breathes in this weird mixture of holy and sinful people and then breathes those people out, but with more holiness than sin.

As I stepped in the door I turned to look at the two giant trees that grace our front lawn.  I was reminded that they also breathe in and breathe out only their breath is the reverse.  They give us more oxygen and through it more life.  We give them more carbon and through it more life.  They do our part.  We do ours.

I have always appreciated the trees for that very reason.  Without them, we have no life.

What I have not always appreciated is that my breath is just as valuable to them as they are to me.  Without my breath they die.  Without my gift they wither.

Today, on Pentecost Sunday, we remember that glorious day when God’s breathe blew over all creation.

In spiritual (Spirit-ual) worship we are breathed into God.  In benediction we are breathed back out to all creation.  We are breathed in sinful and breathed out holy.  However, we are not breathed out for our own benefit or own pleasure.  Holiness is not for the benefit of the saints, in the same way that my CO2 does nothing for me.  Holiness is for the benefit of the creation, for all creatures of our God and Kingdom.

Pentecost happens so that the saints may heal the hurting.

So that the saints can fix the broken.

So that the saints can love the unloved and unloveable.

So that the saints can reconcile the enemies.

So that the saints can comfort the afflicted (and yes, afflict the comfortable)

So that the saints can adore the ugly and entertain the lowly.

Pentecost happens so that a Holy people can redeem the world.

Happy Pentecost Everybody!

Holy Wednesday Reflection: The Power of Resurrection

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I don’t know when the last time you were tested was.  It could have been clear back in high school or the early days of college.  It could have been a recent certification for your career or even a job interview.  My guess is that very few of us find those experiences fun.  Nerve wracking is probably a more adequate description than
“entertaining.” And I assume you probably want the test to be over long before it actually ends.

The worst tests I have experienced in my life have been from miniature satans.  The Hebrew word, “satan” actually means accuser and I have met my fair share.  They are always innocently provocative, pretending like they are just doing their job for king and country and the betterment of humankind.  Their accusations are anything but. They come at you with everything including the kitchen sink. They have been keeping a list of your wrongs and they have reached the point where they believe you need to know. So they corner you and let it all come out.

My only option at that point is to listen and to keep my own temper in check. There is nothing but to endure it and hope it is over soon.

In Mark 12, as Jesus teaches in the temple, the satans come out.  The chief priests take their first stab, blatantly attacking Jesus’ authority.  After their accusation fails to stick, the Pharisees take their turn, asking about taxes.  After they fail too, it becomes the Sadducees turn.

For those of you whose only experience with the Sadducees is from that Sunday School song, they were not actually all that sad, you see.  But they did flat out refuse the possibility of a resurrection from the dead.  Their slogan may as well have been, “you only live once.”  This put them at odds with everyone else around at the time.

But in Jesus they may have seen an opportunity to endear themselves to their opponents.  So Jesus’ public testing continues as the Sadducees bring their most convoluted critique against the resurrection.  They propose a very complex hypothetical concerning marriage.  “Suppose a woman was widowed 6 different times forcing her to marry 7 different brothers.  Whose wife will she be when everybody rises from the dead?”

Then I am sure they sat back in their smug arrogance, assuming that they had just stumped the famous teacher, as they had probably stumped many others.  But Jesus does have a reply and as his reply to the Pharisees looked forward to his death, so his reply to the Sadducees looks forward to his resurrection.

“Jesus replied, “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the book of Moses, in the account of the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!””

I think like the Sadducees we do not know the power of God displayed in the resurrection.  I think sometiems we get caught in this assumption that the New Creation will be just like the old one except without death.  We simplify the reality of the resurrection of our bodies down to a cheesy romcom with a happy ending.  We catch ourselves arguing, “New creation will be everything we enjoy about this life and none of what we don’t.”  Or worse, “In the new creation we will get unlimited freedom to do whatever we want without consequences!”

I am not sure that is what Jesus is arguing to the Sadducees.  Instead Jesus is advocating that the resurrection will touch every corner of our creation.  There won’t be any institutions, establishments, nations, companies or people that will not be fundamentally changed and that includes even our sacred marriages.

As we look forward to Easter morning, we look forward to a cataclysmic, apocalyptic and fundamental change upon the world where everything we know is radically altered.  Our eating, our drinking, our entertaining, our relationships will all be transformed by the new creation that God has wrought upon our existence.

And that is fundamentally good news!

Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, create in us new hearts again today that long for the resurrection of the dead and the great new life to come!

My Ash Wednesday Homily

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I plan on saying something similar to this during Ash Wednesday tonight.  Hope those of you who are not there will still enjoy it.

I love Joel.  I love that it is one of a few books in the Bible that has its own holiday in Ash Wednesday.  Sure we Joel shares the ashes with Genesis 3 and Is. 58 but don’t be fooled.  This holy day is all about Joel.

There are a few things I love about Joel.

For one, I love how short and vague the book is.  It is only 3 chapters, snuggled there towards the end of your Old Testaments between Hosea and Amos. It’s about an army or an army of locusts or maybe just locusts.  Who knows?  Regardless it is quite apparent that Israel’s got a problem.  This army is destroying everything.  I love the line in 2:3 that says everything in front of them is the garden of Eden and everything behind them is wasteland.  I know some people like that (just kidding).

There aren’t any easy answers to the problem.  There doesn’t seem to be some Wal-Mart pesticide they can spray around the crops.  They don’t seem to have enough soldiers in the army to actually go to war.  It’s bad.  It is a bitter day, a dark day.  They didn’t know the way out.  Our garden is about to become wasteland and there is nothing we can do about it.

Another thing I love about Joel is that Joel is one of few of the prophets to not play a blame game.  There is no announcement of judgment or criticism.  Joel doesn’t point the finger at any particular group and say, “this is your fault.”  It might be implied that some sinfulness is to blame.  The others certainly go that way.  But Joel doesn’t go that way, at least explicitly.  Joel seems to be more concerned about the future than the past.

And Joel’s forward looking solution (if it can be called that) is this, “let’s return to God because God is gracious and compassionate.” (2:13)  I don’t know how to solve the problem but I know the problem solver.  Let’s give him a call.  Let’s get him in here and see if he might help us.  Let’s return to God.  Let’s get the whole assembly together from the young to the old.  Let’s postpone the weddings and get the pregnant moms out of their hospital beds and let us fast and let us pray and see what God might do.

The next thing I love about Joel is the open ended question right there in the heart of chapter 2:14, “who knows?  The Lord might have a change of heart and leave a blessing behind.”  Contrast that with the army that leaves a wasteland behind.  If we go to God and if we plead and pray and beg and fast then God just might relent and bless our socks off.

This is the movement of Lent.  The other 310 days out of the year we seem to collect horrible problems without easy solutions.

I think of the movie Lethal Weapon 4.  Mel Gibson and Danny Glover begin the movie by going out fishing.  As 90s action movies go, they end up getting in a shootout with the Chinese mafia.  Mel Gibson goes home to his wife and he is all banged up and she says, “You were just going fishing!  Do you go looking for trouble?”

And Mel Gibson says, “No, trouble knows right where to find me.”

I can relate.  Trouble’s got my number.  I have problems.  My problems got problems.  Most of them are my fault.  A few aren’t.  But none of them, not one of them are easy to solve.  Like all of you I am a victim of my own personality which brings it with bad attitudes and bad choices but we also have to deal with each other’s bad attitudes and bad choices.  And most days the weight of my own helplessness is too heavy to bear.  I bring this up because I think you all might be able to relate as well.  We are victims of our own dumbness and we can’t help ourselves and we can’t save ourselves.  There is no bootstrap tough enough to pull ourselves up by.

So 310 days out of the year I have problems without solutions.  I tear my hair out trying to find a way that I can just look at myself in the mirror with some dignity.  I try solutions and they fail miserably.  I brainstorm new ideas and people laugh at them.  I try to reconcile and end up sounding more bitter.  .  .and being more bitter too.  I have problems and I don’t know the answers.

But I know the great problem solver.  I know the great redeemer.  I know the great forgiver.  On Ash Wednesday, this special day, as we look back at 310 days of sinfulness and the trouble and problems it causes, maybe we need to hear Joel again, “Return to the Lord your God, for he is merciful and compassionate, very patient, full of faithful love, and ready to forgive.   Who knows whether he will have a change of heart and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God?”

Who knows?  Maybe the army will turn back or even be overcome?  Who knows?  Maybe those locusts will all die?

Who knows? Maybe one day your problems won’t have problems.  They will have solutions!

Who knows?  Maybe one day there will be reconciliation and forgiveness between you and those you hurt?

Who knows?  Maybe one day about six and a half weeks from now there will a glorious and new morning where Jesus rises from the dead to proclaim forgiveness, to be our God and to leave a blessing of eternal life behind?

Who knows?  Maybe there will be a better day, a newer day, a glorious day we call salvation where we will be God’s people again!

I would welcome you tonight to wait for that new day by receiving the ashes and eating the Eucharist meal.  The ashes are a reminder that without Christ we are dust and will return to dust.  We wear them boldly but not proudly.  We are not proud of our own sin and our helplessness but we boldly proclaim that our sinfulness is not the end of the story.

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: A Very Stupid Book

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I had a college professor that always assigned one lousy book a semester to read.  He claimed we needed to read stupid books so we don’t become stupid people.  The reasoning was that stupid books teach critical thinking in a way good books never will.

Under his thinking, I grew a lot yesterday afternoon.

You see, every year I get a free book in the mail from a forgettable organization that specializes, I assume, in giving pastors free books.  This is now the 4th book I have received from them and the other three were worth reading.  They weren’t ground breaking but they were practical, helpful stuff.

This new book was a step lower.  It might have been the worst book I have read in some time.

It was called “Growing God’s Church” by Gary L. McIntosh.  Apparently Gary McIntosh led a research team that interviewed a bit over 1,000 new Christians and new church members.  Their questions focused on how and why these people had come to Christ.  The book was published to help pastors reach people better.  On that premise, this should have been a book worth flipping through for an hour on a sunny afternoon.

However, very strangely, the book didn’t begin with the results.  Instead McIntosh spent five chapters trying to argue that evangelism should be the only goal of the church.  He retold the four gospel stories and Acts as if they were 1950s gospel tracts.  McIntosh wanted his readers know not to be fooled by what Jesus actually said and did but to know that Jesus really just wanted to get us into heaven and recruit us to preach the 4 point Romans gospel.  He even argued that the only reason Jesus showed compassion was because it was an incredibly effective evangelism means, not for the sake itself of compassion.  Don’t be fooled.  God isn’t love.  God is evangelism.  God only loves to dupe us into praying the sinner’s prayer.

His exegesis of the gospels was more the eisegesis type.  Eisegesis is the frowned upon practice of taking your preconceived ideas to Scripture to find proof texts.  McIntosh seemingly all ready knew that getting people into heaven was the most important thing and he did not want to be bothered by what the gospels actually say, just to know that Jesus agrees.

His most blaring example came from Luke.  In Luke Jesus begins his public ministry in Nazareth by proclaiming that he will “make blind see, the lame walk, the lepers cleansed, the deaf hear and to proclaim good news to the poor.”  (Luke 4:22)  Then Jesus goes out and does almost exactly that to real life blind, deaf, sick and poor people.  Later Jesus even sends a message to John the Baptist, pointing to the actual miracles he had accomplished as proof that he was the Messiah.  Gary McIntosh brings this up and uses it to argue that Jesus only came to help the spiritually blind, lame, sick, poor and that Jesus didn’t actually care about actual blindness, this despite the fact that Jesus actually made blind men see.  But McIntosh decided it was just metaphorical so it is.  This is just one example of many I could cite.

The research was questionable too but, to be fair, all research is.  For one, his sample size was too small and limited to a few denominations.  He made some wild generational claims that I don’t think will hold true throughout lifespans.  He points out gender and generational differences that were statistical ties but uses the fact that one was .5 higher to argue that everybody in that demographic are that way.

His main assertion in the second half of the book is that family members make the best evangelists.  He argues we should nurture and use that.  Ironically I do wholeheartedly agree and think his research does validate that.  More than that he has some okay ideas about how to go about it.

Also, even though I loathed McIntosh’s eisegetical interpretation of the gospels, he still referenced a few verses that I had not thought of in quite some time.  I have been studying the use of the word “glory” in John’s gospel and McIntosh quoted one of the “glory” verses I had not yet noticed and that verse at first glance does seem to support his thesis and not my own.

But those random useful snippets are not what made the book worth my time.  It is incredibly easy to get stuck in the rut of only reading things that fit my preconceived notions.  Most of my books come to me from the suggestions of colleagues in my own tradition.  Those books are good but I sometimes wonder if it is a waste of time to read things that tell you everything you all ready knew.

In turn, it might not be a waste of a Monday afternoon to read a book from someone in a completely different theological tradition.  He quoted verses I hadn’t noticed and suggested things I would not have thought of.  Even though I disagreed with him, at least I now know why and how his tradition sees things.

In the end I might take a chapter or two to my outreach team to help them think critically about evangelism in our local community.

In my professor’s thinking we might have McIntosh’s stupidity to thank for the elimination of our own.  Or maybe I am wrong about everything and he is right.  We only find out when Jesus comes.

Until then, have a great Valentine’s Day!

Alan Rickman: A Pastor’s Ode to a British Acting Heavyweight

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I grew up watching James Bond movies.  I now own all of them and occasionally will throw one in my antiquated DVD player and let it be background noise while I work on more productive things.

I do not apologize for being a Bond fan.  After all the James Bond franchise invented movie franchises.  When they made Dr. No in 1962 nobody could predict that 50 years later there would be 23 of them and that the arc of quality, and box office sales with it, would extend ever upwards, albeit with occasional dips along the way.  Even the most maligned Bond movies today were considered quality movies in their own era.  They just did not age well (consider Die Another Day).  And the most maligned upon their release have now been given second visits and been found to be ahead of their time (consider On Her Majesty’s Secret Service).

Yet what makes the Bond franchise unique is that the pool of acting talent in England is much smaller than the US pool.  This means that any British actor who makes it big immediately gets considered for a Bond role.  Apparently this was true of Alan Rickman.  If you type “Alan Rickman James Bond” into Google (as I just did) you will find countless articles from the last 20 years claiming he would be or should be the next Bond villain.  The latest was written just months ago.  And I would love a Rickman villain.  Him and Daniel Craig would have been incredible foils.  Moreover, Bond does seem like the perfect fit for a Rickman, especially after his devilish turn in the first Die Hard movie.

All that to say when Harry Potter made Rickman a household name, I ran across an interview with him where they asked him about the number of times he had been asked to play a Bond villain.  In that article he explained that he was not a villain, did not like playing villains and would avoid those roles from here on out.  Those roles were limiting and there is the concern about character formation.

Years later, Snape killed Dumbledore and became
the “Half Blood Prince” at the end of Rowling’s sixth Harry Potter book.  Probably being the only person who remembered the interview, I felt a massive sense of sorrow for Rickman.  He had been duped into a villain role after all, albeit an incredibly well written one.

At that point, given my strange attraction to all things dark side, I went on to hope that Snape would become the new dark lord at the end of Harry Potter.  After all he deserved power more than any other character in the series, especially Harry himself!

Alas that was not to be.  It turned out Snape had a hidden love interest and the hidden love saved the Harry Potter-verse.  If he wasn’t going to be the dark lord, I figured I’d settle for secret hero, especially if Harry named his son after him.

I read another article after the last Potter movie was released.  That article claimed Rickman made J.K. Rowling sit down with him before he signed onto the Snape role and explain the entire character’s arc.  Presumably Rickman does not share my affinity for the dark side and wanted Rowling to guarantee him he would not be a villain.  After all, he was done with those roles.

I respect that more than I can say.  In fact it reminds me of Richard Kiel, who played the iconic Jaws in two Bond movies and was a born again Christian.  He talked often about how much he regretted letting the Bond producers make him into a monster.  Rumor has it that Kiel made them humanize Jaws at the end of Moonraker by giving him his own love interest.  That love interest is maligned by fans but I always liked it because the ridiculous plot of Moonraker involved the villain killing everybody who wasn’t “perfect.”  In a movie movie like that only Jaws the imperfect can save the day.  When he does, he tips a champagne glass to the audience and utters his only line in the two movies, “Here’s to us.”  The “us” isn’t just his girlfriend.  It is everybody who isn’t “perfect.”  In his own Richard Kiel way he was reminding us all that the imperfect are not the villains.  They are human too.

Rickman gets a similar scene at the end of Harry Potter when Dumbledore says something to the effect of, “You still love her after all these years?”

Rickman utters, “Always!”

Always I refuse to play 2 dimensional villains.

Always I choose characters with emotional heft.

Always I bring weight and dimension to the big screen.

Always I will act my heart out to increase our understanding of humanity.

And never will I be made into a monster just so that the James Bond’s and Harry Potter’s of the world can have someone to shoot bullets and fling spells at!

Even though my hopes for his rise to Dark Lord status were squashed at that point, I couldn’t help but cry tears that you could put in my own pensieve.

On that note, I close with his other popular line from Galaxy Quest.  It is one of the most absurd movies ever made, but once again Rickman brought a style, a class and a depth to his role that elevated it to a cult classic.  When holding the dying Quellek he utters,

“By Grabthar’s Hammer, by the sons of Wovan, you shall be avenged!”

Rest in Peace Sir Alan.

 

The Thing About Goals and Resolutions

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2015 is ticking to its close.  As it does I am finding that I am at a weird point in my life.  For the first time ever my entire career is stretched out in front of me.  There will certainly be surprises on the horizon but the meta plot is set.  I know what my vocation is, who my wife is, what my children look like and what my long term calling looks like.

For that reason, for the first time since my freshman year of college I have tons of goals and aspirations.

I have been meaning to read 100 books in one calendar year for some time and I think this year I can pull it off.  I have started to write two books, one a fictional satire of Christian marriage conferences and another a non fiction work on theology, worship and video games.  I could get both written this year or maybe just one.

At church we are launching a discipleship and leadership training program that I have huge expectations for.  Beyond that, our worship attendance could easily double in the next year with a bit of hustle.  We have launched committees to overcome certain obstacles and one year from now they may have conquered giants.  Then there is the ongoing building and facility updates.

In greater ministry areas, I am building a network of people to help plant churches in Salt Lake City.  (Contact me if you are interested).  We are talking about hosting a summit that would produce a strategy for doing so and I hope to have at least planned that by this date next year.  I am also helping a pastor friend establish a non profit to help fund his ministries and there are several other things I could mention.

All that to say, 2016 could very well be “The Year I Hustled.”  And I hope it isn’t, “The Year I Worked Myself to Death!”

But as an athlete I am no stranger to goals and resolutions.  I appreciate their incredible value in keeping us motivated and on target. I know goals and I know how to set them and how to achieve them and how to react when I fail in meeting them.

That last one is what I wanted to share a bit about today.  One of the most valuable lessons I learned about goals, I learned from my coach and another athlete.  That athlete had a goal to qualify for the provisional for nationals.  When he achieved that, my coach immediately made him set another goal.  So he wanted to get the automatic qualifier.  When he did that, he set another goal, to place in his heat and go to the finals.  When he did that he set another goal, to place in the top 5 of the finals.

That last one didn’t happen.  I don’t think he ran well at all, actually.  In disgust and disappointment, he mourned to our coach in disgust that not only had he failed to get his goal but that he hadn’t even come close.

Our wonderful coach said to him, “What you are talking about?  You wanted to qualify for nationals and you did.  You wanted to get to the finals and you did.  Sure you set a goal you eventually couldn’t get but that is the whole reason we set goals, to find our limit and you had an awesome season where you discovered your limits.”

I think you should have an awesome life where you discover your limits.  I think that involves setting good goals.  I think you should hustle your buns off attaining those goals.  When you meet your goals, I think you should celebrate and tell everyone.  (That isn’t pride, by the way.  Pride is taking credit for things you didn’t do or failing to rejoice when others achieve their goals too.)  Then I think should set more goals and work your tail off to achieve those too!

But if you do that, eventually you will find your limits.  You will hustle your buns off to place last at nationals.  New Year’s Eve will count down and you will have only completed 98 and a half books.  Your discipleship program won’t produce disciples.  You will lose 55 pounds when you wanted 60.  You will only be able to do 78 pushups at one time.  You get the drift.

When those limits are found, you should rejoice as well because, after all, you didn’t even know it was possible to do 78 push ups at one time!

Happy New Year!  May 2016 bring you great hustle and great payoff!

 

 

What’s Pastor Kevin Watching: Christmas Episodes!

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I have been working on a few posts about all kinds of things and none of them have come together all that well.  So instead I bring you something appropriately seasonal!

Over the last week my wife and I have been revisiting some of our favorite Christmas specials on Netflix.  While there are some great Christmas classics for the big screen (White Christmas anybody?) the small screen has produced a wonderful amount of quality holiday spirit!

Below are some of my favorite Christmas episodes.  This list is by no means exhaustive but these are some I have enjoyed this year that I thought you might as well.  (The links are to the IMDB pages)

Scrubs Season 1 Episode 11 “My Own Personal Jesus”

Carla doesn’t believe in Jesus but her new boyfriend Turk does.  J.D. gets stuck working a nightmare shift.  It is all redeemed when a sick woman finds out that she is giving birth to a baby and Turk has to follow a God given star to find her in the park!

 

Frasier Season 5 Episode 9 “Perspective on Christmas”

This isn’t just the best Frasier Christmas episode, it might be in the running for best Frasier episode.  Martin gets stuck singing “O Holy Night” in the Christmas pageant but he can’t hit the high note.  Frasier accidentally tells Roz’s mom that Roz is pregnant.  Niles gets stuck on top of an elevator.  Daphne thinks Martin is dying.  Frasier’s Christmas present is to tell everyone just how much he loves them and why.  When they protest, and in a great punchline to the episode, Frasier calls up a masseuse!

The West Wing Season 1 Episode 10 “In Excelsis Deo”

The President buys books at a used book store.  C.J. finds out her secret service code name is “Flamingo” presumably because she looks like one and Donna wants skiing equipment, only to get an old used book about skiing.  But this episode shines because Toby uses his White House clout to arrange a funeral for a homeless veteran.  A frustrated President chides him by saying, “Do you not think every veteran in the country will now be asking us for a funeral?” Toby disarms him with one line, “I certainly hope so, sir.”  Oh and Mrs. Landingham has her best scene of the show by telling us about her twin sons who died in Vietnam.

Doctor Who Season 6 Christmas Special “A Christmas Carol”

I am not a huge fan of any of the Doctor Who Christmas episodes except for this one.  A grumpy planet owner refuses to let a spaceship land, endangering everyone’s lives.  The Doctor revisits all of the owner’s past Christmases to find out why he is so grumpy.  Due to the timey-wimey stuff, it turns out the Doctor is to blame but in the end the Doctor convinces him to save the day.  This could have been just one more of the countless riffs of “A Christmas Carol” but it manages to be very fresh and heartfelt.

A Charlie Brown Christmas

Who can keep themselves from mentioning the classic of classics?  What more needs to be said except Charlie Brown saves Christmas by ruining it.  Although 50 years later it is saddening that this show did nothing to actually change consumerism from devouring Christmas.  In that vein, a certain South Park special is also worth noting.  .  .but not watching.

So there you have it.  I accept your gratitude for filling up your Netflix queue for the next couple days!  You can suggest other favorites in the comments below.

And Merry Christmas!

 

 

Feeding Toddlers, Feeding Church People

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My kids do this thing that I think all children do.

My wife and I are like most parents.  We want our children to receive good nutrition and to receive it often.  We balance out their meals with fruits, vegetables, meat and grains.  Regularly we place this well balanced smorgasbord of great proteins, carbs and sugars in front of them.

My children do a great job of picking through the options, eating their favorites of that day.  The fruit usually disappears first.  After that the cheese.  Then, if they are in a growth spurt, the meat and grain.  If not they are usually done.  Some days they don’t eat much at all because they really aren’t hungry.

But other days they look up at my wife and I, with plenty of food still on the plate, and say, “I am still hungry.”

“Well then eat your ham.”

They look at us awkwardly.

“I don’t very much like ham.  I was planning on more grapes.”  Or applesauce, or oatmeal or something else completely random.

As it turns out, in toddler terms, “I am still hungry” does not mean, “you are not feeding me.”  It means, “you are not feeding me what I want.”

Church people do this thing that all people do.

I am like most pastors.  We want our congregation to receive great spiritual nourishment.  We want their lives to be drenched in the Scriptures.  We want their love to overflow to the least and lonely.  We want their trust in Jesus to be commendable, the faith worthy of the saints!  We want their hope to be encouraging, conquering and casting out the worst of fear.

So we pastors work hard to balance out their spiritual plate with outreach events, discipleship groups, book studies, engaging worship services, and just plain fun get together’s.

They do a great job of picking through their favorites, going to what they want to go to and participating where they want.  But then they look at the rest of our ministries and tell us, “I am not being fed.”

To most church people this sounds like a brilliant critique.  After all it is biblical, stemming from John 21 where Jesus tells Peter three times, “Feed my sheep/lambs.”

They think that the pastoral job is Peter’s job, to make sure that the good church people are “fed.”  They think they can get away with insulting our work if they use the metaphor that Jesus did.  “Jesus said you should feed me and I am not being fed.”  That is code for, “You are failing Jesus.”

They are right that Jesus’ command to Peter was not just for Peter.  What they get wrong is that Jesus’ command to Peter was for everybody who calls themselves a “church person.”  After all, the church’s mission is the apostolic mission and the apostolic mission extends to the “sheep that are not of this fold.”  (see John 10:16).   When Jesus told Peter to feed the sheep, he was talking to the entire church, laity and clergy alike to feed the world and nourish them into the Spirit’s presence.

In light of that, I wonder if those who are “still hungry” are so because they have a full plate in front of them, a plate full of ministry and service opportunities that give spiritual food to both the giver and receiver.  But they don’t realize it because that food looks like green beans.  And they are not very hungry for green beans.

In their lingo, “I am not being fed” doesn’t really mean, “I am hungry.”  It means, “I don’t like the food that you are offering.”

Just a thought for a winter’s Sunday afternoon.

Blessings on the week ahead.  May God give you the food you need to feed others.

2015: The Year I Sold Out to Suburbia

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TIME’s last magazine of the year was released to my tablet this morning.  I have been an avid TIME reader for about 7 years now and always look forward to the year end issue.  It is a fun issue including the “Person of the Year,” best pictures of the year, best moments of the year, best 15 minute celebrities and the like.

The TIME year end issue always gets me thinking about the year I had and what were my best moments.  In fact, for years now I have done this ridiculously cheesy thing where I name every year.  The titles have ranged from the sappy, “2008: The Year All My Dreams Came True” to the tamer, “2013: The Year That Just Was.”

After tapping through TIME and drinking my coffee, I got my two kids dressed, fed my dog, stepped out of my split level suburban house, climbed into my mid level SUV and suddenly realized, “2015 is the year I sold out to the suburbs!”

That realization might not have been difficult for some but for me it is a difficult reality.  There is this version of myself from late college and early seminary who loathed everything about suburbia.  You can chalk that up to a typical Millenial’s rebellion against his childhood but I felt pretty secure in my belief that Satan controlled the suburbs while God dwelt in the small towns and inner cities.

After all, I worked in an inner city homeless shelter with wonderful, but homeless, saints.  The suburbs of that city had police officers who would see wandering homeless people, pick them up in their squad cars, drive them into the city and tell them, “Don’t ever come back.  This is the place for you.”  I wish I was making that up but I am not.  I believe there was a some racism there as most of the “homeless” they found were hispanic or black.

Beyond that, suburbs are/were the heart of selfish consumerism, that great evil which is the modern day equivalent of what Jesus called, “the pursuit of wealth.”  They waste the most resources, hoarde the most stuff and destroy the most families.  They do all of this while being quite smug.

At least that is what I thought.

Yet here I am in 2015, only 3 and a half years removed from seminary and 6 and a half from college, living in a suburban split level with 2 kids, a dog and an SUV.

It all started before 2015 with a reluctant job interview initiated by me because of a sense of calling.  Soon after I was getting a new Costco membership, stocking up on Starbucks gift cards, shopping in malls, eating at Olive Garden and watching movies once a month at the local megaplex.

I can offer you all kinds of excuses and justifications for this sudden turnabout.  I could mention that I am married to a wonderful woman who never shared my negative feelings about the suburbs and now is quite happy here, happier than she has been in the entirety of our marriage.  And as the old but funny adage goes, “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!”

I could also mention a report that I can’t name but I know exists that suggests poverty is now moving to the suburbs.  I seem to remember it said that based off of current trends, in 10-20 years the suburbs will have decayed to shanty towns while the inner cities rejuvenate.  I read that report 10 years ago, which means we are that much closer to it.  I could put up pictures of buildings on my suburb that illustrate this trend.  I can even tell you the names of people I know who live in the suburbs and are making far below the poverty line, despite working 40 hours a week in great jobs that do incredible good for society.

More than that I could also argue that I am here to “sanctify the arrogant suburbanites,” that if suburbs are where the sinners live, than that is where the gospel should take root.  I could point to the fact that even though John Wesley and Phineas Bresee, the grandfather and father of my tradition, spent much time among the poor, their real contribution to the church was that they lived among the wealthy and encouraged the wealthy to also embrace the poor.  See, that is what I am doing!  Except that I am not and that attitude is as arrogant and self righteous as the worst of the suburbanites.

Putting that aside I could even satisfy a bit of my guilt by letting you all know that my family took a drastic cut in pay to move here and the church I took over was running less people on a Sunday than the church I left.  However, since moving here my wife has found a great job that she enjoys and we are making slightly more money than we were before.

So maybe I could just tell you the truth.  One day in mid September 2014 (which is “The year I broke my own heart”) I was walking down the street in a wonderful and impoverished small town whose residents were rough around the edges but solid diamonds underneath.  On that street in that town I heard God say, “Time to go” and I was certain it was God so I made plans to leave.

Then in October I was sitting a dinner table with a new friend who has since become a great ministry partner.  In that conversation he shared with me about Utah and about the spiritual needs and I heard the voice of my Lord tell me to come here.

As it turns out, I actually might have a little bit in common with that infamous Old Testament prophet Jonah.  The inner city and small towns are my Tarshish.  The suburbs are my Nineveh.

And after God said, “Hey Kevin, go to Nineveh,” there was no use going anywhere else but Nineveh.  It was far better to go willingly than to buy a ticket aboard a whale’s digestive tract.

So here I sit, typing this out on my brand new laptop, in my split level suburban house, after putting the kids and the dog down for a nap, ready to go to the big city for a date night with my wife, perfectly pleased to let all of you know that 2015 is “The Year I Sold Out to Suburbia.”

 

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: The Man From Oudewater

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I am Wesleyan/Arminian.

It might surprise you to know that four word sentence is rife with interpretive possibilities.  The truly uninformed think the last word indicates I am from a country somewhere in Africa called Armenia, even though Armenia is actually in Eastern Europe.

The slightly more informed know the sentence implies some sort of belief in human free will at the expense of an all controlling God.

The little bit more informed think that the emphasis should lie on Wesleyan and not Arminius because, as we all know, John Wesley died without any of Jacob Arminius’ books in his library.

The even more informed would argue back that Wesley had plenty of books written by Arminians.  Therefore the 18th century Wesley owes much to the 16th century Arminius.

My friend Rustin E. Brian is even more

Click to buy from Amazon (and please, please do!)

informed than that.  Luckily, he wrote a short book to bring the rest of us nitwits up to speed.  Sadly, before reading about the man from Oudewater I was one of those who thought the connection with Arminius was tenuous at best.  I thought that if our tradition had a “Great Grandfather” it would probably be Thomas Cranmer, or even Martin Luther.  I mentioned this to a Wesleyan scholar at a conference awhile back who disagreed and that quite vehemently.  I think an hour later he asked one of my former seminary professors what he had been teaching us!

In remembrance of that embarrassing incident, I eagerly snatched up Brians’ book about Jacob Arminius and read it in a couple sittings.  After all, if the scholars of our tradition are saying Arminius is important, I better know my stuff!  Brian’s book was the perfect primer, an albeit really short one.

It turns out Jacob Arminius actually lived a much less impressive life than I had supposed.  Despite underplaying his role in my tradition, I had somehow assumed he died with an international following, several published works to his name and as a martyr for his cause.  It turns out he spent most of his ministry as a pastor and only the last few years as a professor.  He died of sickness at a fairly young age.  He was not burned at the stake or beheaded for his beliefs like I had previously assumed.

But due to one of history’s great ironies, his name has had a far more fascinating history than his life.  It has become synonymous in Protestant circles with “free will” though we should alter that to “freed will.” Arminius’ theology has also become a critical component to theodicy conversations as his framework retains God’s power while not sacrificing God’s love.  Arminius’ name has also been valuable in carving out a middle road through all the Christian traditions, making those of us who bear his name a catch all for anybody seeking a different road.

Yet what I appreciate most about Arminius’ biography, or at least Brian’s reading thereof, is that Arminius’ theology was what it was because Jacob was a pastor first.  John Wesley was too, for the record.  And I am too, as is Brian.

In fact, in late college and all throughout seminary I struggled and prayed with whether or not to apply for PhD programs and seek a faculty position at a university.  At that point I was proving myself to be an adequate teacher and writer.  I was an okay student, a B+/A- one, which one novel cleverly characterized as the black sheep of academia.  On top of that my professors were wonderful people who had a life changing impact on me, a pastoral impact no less.  It was those same professors who advised that academia was a brutal place with low wages and long hours with high expectations.  It was not a job for the weak or uncalled.

In the end I chose the pulpit but not because I don’t value the input of ivory towers.  Most days my entire ministry rests upon the conclusions of those who spend their days doing nothing but studying Scripture.  Their contributions are invaluable and they need all the time in the world to think through them.  However, their contributions are worthless without pastors whose feet are on the ground and whose hearts are among the people.  The great contributors of our tradition have been pastors who spent the morning studying and the afternoons and evenings ministering.

Therefore, I am grateful to call Jacob Arminius my great grandpa and to be one of many who continue the work he began in local parishes.  I am grateful too for my esteemed colleague, Rusty Brian who continues that work in his local parish and write books like these as an extension of his ministry.

Now off to work I go!