Archive | February, 2013

George Washington and me

george washington image

For most of my life I’ve admired him from a distance.

George Washington was someone I knew from history classes in school and from biographies I’ve read as an adult.  He deserves to be remembered with gratitude for his role in the founding of our country.

But then, yesterday, the former President and I suddenly had something in common.

I went to see my primary care physician early yesterday morning with a sore throat.  I was certain it was a strep infection.  I couldn’t swallow without pain.  But then I can be dangerous when attempting to make diagnoses while surfing the Internet.  I’ve convinced myself that I’ve had all sorts of serious illnesses, just by reading WebMD.

The primary care physician took a look at my throat and suggested I head over to the ER.  Which I did.  After the usual wait, the ER doctor took one look at my throat and said, “Oh, yeah.”  I like quick diagnoses.  I never want to be anyone’s interesting case.  The ER doctor sent me up to the seventh floor to see the “ear, nose, and throat guy,” who wouldn’t be back from lunch until 1:30.

“How are you today?” he asked cheerily, as he entered the examination room.  By that time I couldn’t answer without pain.

So, he took a look at my throat and said, “George Washington died from that.”

Now, just think, George and I have something in common, with the big exception that I have access to antibiotics.  After a quick, but nasty little procedure involving a lot of blood and pus (one reason many people do not go into health care professions), I was on my way with a bunch of pills, including some Vicodin.  I even stopped in the hospital cafeteria for a little ice cream to celebrate.

On the way home in the car I remembered hearing a similar comment during the birth of our first child.  My wife had been in labor for hours and hours.  (She doesn’t want me to give the actual time, but it was a long time.)  Finally, our OB came into the delivery room and said, “Oh, a hundred years ago, you would have labored and labored and then died.  I think we should do a c-section.”  Of course we quickly agreed.

I’m thankful for antibiotics and other drugs. I’m thankful for the breakthroughs of modern medicine.  I suspect people will look back a hundred years from now and marvel over the painful and barbaric treatments we use today, but right now I’m more grateful than I can say to be alive (and to be the father of a very healthy 29 year old, who came into the world through a c-section).

George Washington ultimately died by suffocating.  For hours, like me, he couldn’t swallow.  And then, at the end, he couldn’t breathe.  It was a painful way to go.

I am more thankful today than I can say.  There’s nothing like a little visit to the doctor’s office to put the rest of life into perspective.

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Not feeling very Lenten this year

following-jesus

It’s Lent.  And I don’t feel very Lenten.

I received ashes last Wednesday during our Ash Wednesday service.  I even wore the smudge on my forehead to the grocery store after worship (which might count, in Jesus’ words, as “parading your piety before men”). On the first Sunday in Lent I preached the obligatory sermon on the story of Jesus’ temptations.  I even noted the purple fabric thoughtfully draped and wrapped throughout the sanctuary.

So, I’m trying hard to get into the spirit of the season – I really am – but it’s not happening.  And I’m probably not alone.

One guess is that I’m missing those long, Midwestern winters.  There’s nothing like a long, unforgiving winter to get you ready for Easter.  (My favorite storyteller Garrison Keillor likes to say that March in Minnesota is for people who don’t drink – to show them what a hangover feels like.)

But the truth is, I don’t really miss the kind of winter that stretches well into March (and April).  I kind of like daytime temperatures in the 70s which is what you have if you live in south Florida.

Another guess is that I haven’t given up anything this year.  I know other people who are giving up chocolate, beer, or ice cream for the season.  Frankly, I’ve never been much of a “give something up” kind of person (or much of a chocolate and beer kind of person either).  I’ve always found that “taking something on” works better for me.

But not this year.  My Lenten disciplines of reading and prayer are nice, but I’m not on the road to Jerusalem just yet.

My best guess is that the routines of church life are keeping me from the spiritual experience I really want.  Ironic, isn’t it?  I’m so busy doing all the things people expect of me at this time of year, and all those things are turning out to be a distraction from the one thing that really matters, the one thing I really want.

How did things ever get this way?  How did our activities and programs and meetings take on such importance that they now leave little room for … God?

My friend and neighbor Father Sherod Mallow, rector at All Saints Church, tells me that his church decided to give up meetings for Lent one year.  They called it a “meet-less Lent.”  I was intrigued.  But he said it was a disaster.  Apparently you can’t stop meeting during Florida’s peak season, the time of year when everyone is around (I can’t believe how many Canadian license plates I see on the road).

I wonder what that leaves.

This is an important season to me.  Not that I like feeling penitent all the time, but I do like the feeling of preparation – the idea that Easter is coming and that I need to get ready.  More than anything I want to make the journey to Jerusalem with Jesus, trusting that he knows what he’s doing, trusting that he can see what I can’t see, trusting that Easter will surprise and dazzle and bring new life.

Excuse me while I set aside a few minutes to reflect on that.

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Smart phones in church

smart phone in church

At my Friday morning men’s Bible study recently, I saw someone looking at his smart phone and running his finger down the screen.

I thought, “That’s rude.  He’s checking email during my Bible study.”

But then, a couple of seconds later, he spoke up and said, “I found another translation that gives a slightly different meaning.”

So, he hadn’t been reading email after all.  He was using his smart phone app to look up our scripture reading in other translations.  And his insight turned out to be surprisingly good.

Another story.

I regularly listen to the podcasts of a well-known preacher, and I was surprised a while back to hear him say at the beginning of his sermon, “Let’s take out our tablets or smart phones, and turn to Luke’s Gospel.”  No Bibles in the pew racks at his church!

One more story about the phenomenon of electronic communication in church.

A few weeks ago, I went back to my office after the last morning service, and before packing up my laptop I checked my email inbox.  Sure enough, there was something, but I knew that the sender had been in the last service.  She was commenting on my sermon that morning.  How could that be?

I looked more closely at the time the email was sent, and it looked as though it was probably sent during the offering.  After the sermon she had found her smart phone and dashed off a few comments about what I had said.

I’m happy to say her comments were all positive, but … still.

A few years ago, if someone had feedback to offer about my sermons that person would have gone home, thought about it, and possibly wrote it out and dropped it in the mail – what we now call “snail mail.”  I might have seen it by Tuesday at the earliest.

Today I get feedback faster than I might be ready to hear it.

What do I think about all of this?  I’m not sure.  But here’s the thing: my opinion doesn’t matter very much.  Nearly everyone is now connected not just occasionally, but … ALL. THE. TIME.

The well-known preacher I mentioned has obviously decided to embrace what’s happening: “It’s here, it’s hip, let’s embrace it.”  I tend to take the “let’s think this through” approach.

But maybe my reluctance here is based on fear.  Do you know what the number one use of electronic devices in worship seems to be?  It’s fact checking.  If I mention a date in history, a book title, or an author, in my sermon, the fact checkers immediately go to work.

And then, at the door after worship, I’ll often hear what Wikipedia has to say about it.

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“Who’s out there bringing people in?”

evangelism

“So, what is our church doing in evangelism?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, who’s out there bringing people in?”

“I’m looking at one of our top recruiters right now,” I said.

This little exchange took place a couple of weeks ago before a men’s gathering started.  A concerned church member was looking thoughtfully at his plate of scrambled eggs and wanted to know what we were doing to bring in new members.

I don’t think he liked my answer very much.

Look, our church makes use of all the marketing and technological tools that exist to invite people into our ministry.  Naturally, we could do some things better.  Our website is new and easy-to-use, but it’s not nearly as flashy as some I’ve seen.  We’ve got a Facebook presence too, but not a lot of people (beyond yours truly) are interested in updating it.

But we’re doing everything that a church can do.  We even place ads in the local newspaper, even though studies show that those ads do a better job of making members happy than of bringing new people to the church.

What needs to be said, however, is that evangelism – not quite the same thing as new member recruitment, but you get the idea – is the responsibility of every member.  While much has changed about the church in the last generation, one fact has not – overwhelmingly, people visit a church for the first time because they’ve been invited to do so. 

Study after study confirms this.

Surprised?  You shouldn’t be.  Christian faith since the beginning was spread by word of mouth.  It was spread by people who were excited about their new lives, by the transformation they experienced, by the sudden new freedom of life and conscience.

Our best recruiters are the hundreds of people who sit in the pews each week. Clearly they’ve found something that’s meaningful to them.  Now they need to pass the word along.

Yesterday there were 21 people in the new member class which was held immediately after the last morning service.  And because the church is located in a sunny climate, two of them are going to be affiliate members, which means they’re retaining their membership at a church up north (in the frozen wasteland of New York State, I believe).  But still, 19 new members is an exciting day in the life of any church.

Before the class started, I asked the new members to introduce themselves and tell a little about how they came to the church.  (This exercise is useful for lots of reasons, but it tends to give priceless information to the Membership Committee members who attend.)

As it turned out, every single person in the class knew someone in the church.  Our top recruiters are doing their job.  I’m so glad.

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I felt like a pastor today

graveside

Before a memorial service last week, I was about to walk into the sanctuary with the grieving family, and an usher whispered to me, “I don’t envy you this work.”

I suppose that’s the perception – that, as a pastor, I would dislike funerals and memorial services, and maybe also that I would much prefer to be officiating at a wedding.

You might be surprised to know that I would much prefer to be providing care to a family in grief.  (My feelings about the majority of weddings are a subject for another blog post, one that should probably be left unwritten.)

Just so you know, I am not alone in feeling this way.  I have no hard data – and I’m certain there are exceptions – but my guess is that a large majority of pastors would say pretty much the same thing.  I’m not a betting person, but I’d put money on this.

And it’s not that I like grief or sadness or pain.  No one does.  It’s that at a funeral I ordinarily feel like a pastor, this thing that I’ve trained to do and that I love doing.  At a funeral I feel as though I’m doing something worthwhile.  I feel as though my work is important and needed.  My theological and pastoral training gets a workout.  There’s no phoning it in.

I felt the same way when I led the church’s grief group the very next day.  There were 16 people – most of them members of the church, some of them not – and they were speaking earnestly, sincerely, and genuinely about their grief, about what it’s like to lose a loved one and then (somehow) go on.

I sometimes feel emotionally wrung out after these meetings.  So many raw emotions are expressed.  We laugh too – more than you might imagine – but mainly we talk about feelings of loneliness, confusion, sadness, and pain.  Occasionally I speak, but mostly I nod and listen with encouraging looks.  It’s hard work, harder than it sounds.

And here’s the thing: I always go home feeling like a pastor, like the person I was called and trained to be.

Too much of what pastors are expected to do these days is, well, not very pastoral.  We raise money, we supervise staff, we become intimately acquainted with the roof or the A/C systems – all of which are critically important to the maintenance of the institution, but none of which was a factor in our decision to leave family and friends behind to follow Jesus.

This is not to complain about any of those responsibilities.  I knew when I accepted this position that I would be expected to do all of those things – and more.

But what I look forward to, savor, and can’t get enough of, are those moments when I feel like a pastor.

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The golden age of television

woman watching TV

Watch much TV?

The expected answer to that question of course is no, because as we all know too much TV watching is bad for you.

But have you noticed how much good TV there is lately?  Have you noticed that we’ve entered a sort of golden age of television?  I mean, some recent TV programming is really, really good – and is even making Hollywood look really, really bad.

I’m not talking about sit coms produced by the networks with their canned laughter and predictable plotlines.  And I’m certainly not talking about reality TV shows starring the Kardashians, or the Osbournes, or someone named Bethenny Frankel (who in the world is she and why should I care?).  I’m talking about TV programming that’s ambitious, challenging, and thoughtful.

Has anyone else seen Game of Thrones?  Oh my goodness!  Yes, the first few episodes contained some gratuitous sex and was definitely not suitable for family viewing, but the overall product is stunningly beautiful.  I was never a huge fan of The Sopranos, but it was good, ground-breaking TV.  Big Love, the story of a Mormon family in Utah, has been a personal favorite (I will never think of polygamy in the same way again).  Deadwood, set in the western frontier town, is no longer being made, but it was good while it lasted.  And the new TV series from Netflix, Game of Cards, is can’t-stop-watching good.  Who would have thought that we’d ever see Kevin Spacey in a TV series?

And with this incomplete list, I probably missed one or two of your favorites.  Walking Dead, for example.  (Can someone tell me why zombies are suddenly so popular?).  And maybe Dexter (which I like because it’s shot in Miami, though it’s admittedly gruesome).  And certainly Downton Abbey.  (I admit that I wanted to watch Downton Abbey this year instead of the Super Bowl.)  The son of a church member is involved in the production of Boardwalk Empire (and has an Emmy for his work), so I’d better mention that show too.

Look, this is dangerous territory for a pastor to wander into, and I want to make myself clear.  Very little of this programming is suitable for children or families.  Beyond that, there’s nothing distinctively Christian about any of these programs.  Even Big Love, which is about a Mormon family, mostly doesn’t touch religious themes.

What I like is that a formerly despised medium (television) is now attempting to deal with larger questions and themes – and frequently in such beautiful ways.  Art (and I never thought I’d refer to TV programming as art) exists to provoke and challenge us.  It exists to inspire and renew us.  It exists to ask questions we may never have thought to ask.

Painting, sculpture, opera, film, photography, and – it almost hurts to admit this – television can enrich our lives in many and surprising ways.  Art entertains, yes, but it does so much more.  I suppose it can even be dangerous and subversive.  It can turn our worlds upside down.

If you’re watching – and from all the Downton Abbey talk around me, I’ll assume that you’re watching at least a little – I hope you’ll start asking good questions like “what is this writer/actor/director trying to tell me about life?” and “is that what I believe?”

I never thought I’d live to see the day, but maybe it’s time for a Sunday school class at my church on “How to Watch TV.”

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