Wednesday, February 29, 2012
"The Voice". Maybe you've seen it. I hear that it's now approaching "American Idol" viewership. In "TV speak" that means it's a really big hit. I've been watching the past few weeks as season two has begun. If you have no idea what I'm talking about then here's the "Cliff's Notes" version. Aspiring amature singers have been auditioning for the show over the last several weeks. There are four judges that sit in gigantic, rather comfortable looking chairs. They critique each aspiring young singer with what looks like a great amount of thought, at least judging from the very serious faces they make while they listen. If you didn't know any better, you'd think that they were studying for final exams. It's basically the same concept as all of the other shows that judge America's Greatest Talent, America's Greatest Dancer, America's Greatest Cook, and America's Greatest Idol. One difference with this one. On "The Voice", contestants earn a spot on the show by going through what they call "blind auditions". While the singers perform, the judges have their backs turned to the stage. They can't see who's singing. They can hear but they can't see. If they like what they hear, and if they want the artist to be on their "team", they press a button and their chair turns around to face the stage. A sign lights up at the bottom of the chair that says "I want you". I like it. The judges don't want to be in any way biased by what they might see. They want to judge on merit (and voice) alone.
Have you ever heard the expression, "you eat with your eyes first"? It's true, presentation is everything. If it looks like it just came out of the dumpster out back then you aren't going to eat it. I once ordered a green hamburger on St. Patricks Day. Not good. I decided that before I put it in my mouth. Sandwiches with weird looking bread are a turn off for me. I like my fries to be long and thin, I don't like for them to look like miniature waffles. Long, thin ones taste better. Maybe that's why green ketchup and Diet Coke on white cans never passed muster with the public. It's just to strange. It looks funny, which of course means that it's no good. It's not just food. I hear that something like 80% of all people who visit churches for the first time decide whether or not they'll come back before they ever walk in the door. I guess you worship with your eyes first too.
I'm wondering what criteria I typically use when I judge the people I meet? Is it hair color and style? Color of skin? Weight? Smartphone? When I see someone with a cup of Starbucks in their hand, this communicates something to me. I'm not sure what exactly, but I know that if the next person I see has a cup from the Exxon down the street then I will make a judgement call. Shiny black Hummer vs. Ford Fiesta? You get the point. There's a place in the Bible where it says that Jesus could "see into the heart". This can sound like a threat at first, like, "Jesus knows the skeletons in our closet". I don't see it that way. Jesus sees past our hair. He looks past the diet long since forgotten. Droids and iPhones are the same to him. Starbucks might be what's served at the heavenly banquet (surely it is), but Exxon will do just fine. Jesus sees us for who we are. Children of God I think it says.
Try this for Lent (we have 5 weeks left). Try doing a blind audition. I'm not suggesting that you turn your back on everyone you meet, and then if you like their voice, that you then turn around with a shirt that says "I want you" printed across the front. That might land you in jail where the food is not meant to be pleasing to the eye. Instead, try to look past outer appearance, dress, or coffee cup. Try your best to see people for who they really are. Rather than huffing and puffing because you have to sit next to that "person" on the flight home, strike up a conversation. Maybe they like Starbucks too. Instant bonding will commence. If you get "stuck" next to another one of "those people" with one of those ridiculous sounding ringtones that has the same effect on you as nails on a chalkboard, rather than thinking them to be yet another "loser" who's strayed right into your path, say hello. How are you? When you're in the elevator and the girl gets in with purple hair and a piercing in every visible orifice complete with complimentary tattoos, nod your head as if to say"good morning". Better yet, say it. Don't judge by what you see outside because you (we) have no idea what's going on inside. You might be the only "good morning" they get all day. They just might need it. Perhaps, you have been placed in their path for a reason.
Try the blind audition. Meet some fascinating people. Drink Starbucks. Love people. After all, it says somewhere else in that book I referenced earlier that they are your brothers and sisters in Christ. I think they might be worth getting to know.
Tuesday, February 21, 2012
A few weeks ago, a man named Josh Powell blew up his home in Washington State with his 2 small children inside. On purpose. The world was left to wonder why. How can one be so cruel? How could a man do that to his kids? Why is their so much cruelty in the world? Thank goodness that we had Westboro Baptist "Church" to answer these very important questions for us. According to this "church", it all happened in Washington because of the state's recent "rebellion"; a reference to the state's support of same sex marriage. God was punishing Washington. Westboro has protested a number of military funerals because the "church" (note the repeated use of quotation marks) believes that our soldiers are dying in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan because of our country's tolerance for homosexuality. They hold up signs like "Pray for more dead soldiers"; logic so skewed and twisted that it is beyond my ability to even comprehend it. I've seen pictures on the news that showed Westboro children that could not have been more than 5 or 6 years old holding up signs with messages that I won't dare repeat. You can Google the "church" if you want to see them for yourself. My 5 year old son recently held up a sign that said "Good Luck Dad, we love you" at the 5K I ran several weeks ago. The "Westboro kids" hold up signs condemning the world to the eternal pit of fire; unless of course it repents. At least according to the 4 year old. This, in my opinion, is just about as sad as it gets.
This is not a blog about whether or not I believe that homosexuality is sin/not sin, right/wrong, a choice/born that way, so if that whole conversation makes you uptight then you can read on. I have my feelings about it that are personal to me and the people that I know and love. I do want to say this. It seems that the church (not just Westboro) has made it a habit of demonizing the people that it calls "sinners". Not only that, but it seems to pick and choose which "sins" among the many are worthy of this particularly charged demonization and condemnation. Maybe I missed it, but I've never seen or heard the church actively communicating the fact that those who abuse their wives to the point of sending them to the ER in the middle of the night are going to the above mentioned eternal flames. I don't see the church holding up signs that are condemning people who blow up their kids. I haven't noticed the church demonizing pornography, genocide, or child abuse. Again, maybe I've missed these regular displays, signs, protests, and "occupy-like" movements by the church because I don't get around to watching the news every day. But if I were a betting man, I'd bet the farm that the reason why I don't see these things is because they simply aren't happening. In fact, my bet would be "all in".
I've been doing a little research. I've noticed that in the Bible, when Jesus sat with "sinners" like "tax collectors" and "prostitutes", etc; his interaction with them was far different. Sometimes, Jesus would even hang out with lepers. Lepers were considered ritually unclean, which was about the worst possible state of condition a human being could be in. You were an outcast if you were unclean. No one wanted anything to do with you. Period. Jesus did in fact point the finger when he encountered people like this. Funny thing though, the finger got pointed at the "finger pointers". Jesus had some "not so nice things" to say to the self righteous legalists who seemed to make a living out of pointing out the faults of others. Like this one time when Jesus sat (reclined) at a table with the afore mentioned "sinners". The Pharisees (legalists) jumped on that one like a fish to water. "Why is he sitting with them"? Part of his response included this, "I desire compassion...I did not come to call the righteous but sinners". Guess what? That word "sinners" included (or includes) everyone. If you are reading this blog then like it or not, you fall into that category. You are a sinner. So am I, there's just no getting around it. You also get the grace of the cross. WHAT DID HE JUST SAY? Yes, you also get the grace. May not make sense my fellow believers, but you get it. Oh, by the way, guess what Jesus did one day when an unclean and socially unacceptable leper came right up to him and begged to be healed? Jesus touched him. SCANDALOUS!!! He touched a leper, which meant that Jesus was now unclean!!!! At least according to the rules. Those rules were not the same as Jesus' "rules". His rules are not the same as our rules either. "My ways are not your ways", he said. Thank God.
So to the "Westboro-like theologians/churches" of the world, time to fess up. You know who you are. To call yourself the "Body of Christ" means to act like you actually are the Body of Christ. The message is salvation not condemnation. Point your finger at one you call a "sinner" and the finger can be pointed right back at you. That statement is true for everyone but the sinless Jesus. What were those words again? "For God did not come to condemn the world but to save it". That's the Gospel of John. Those are the words of Jesus. And again. "Forgive them Father", Jesus is quoted as saying as he hung on the cross while looking down at the people who were calling for his death and giving him sour wine and gall to drink. And to put it another way. "Do not judge others, for you will be judged by the same measure that you are judging them". Yep, that's Jesus. Grace rules the day in God's Kingdom. I don't claim to know who's in and who's out or who gets the "pit" and who gets the clouds. I don't know who spends eternity "smoking" or "not smoking" as the familiar church signs declare. I do know that when I condemn/judge that I'm usually doing it to make myself look better and feel better. At least I'm not as bad as that guy, right? I know that Jesus loved the people that the world said were not supposed to be loved. He accepted the unacceptable. And then in one great and awesome act, he saved the world and asked a couple of things in return. Believe. Repent. Love God. Love neighbor. Love self. Love neighbor? Love self? What does that mean?
It means to love sinners I suppose.
Sunday, February 12, 2012
I saw something on Facebook today that raised my blood pressure to unsafe levels. Here are some quotes from the thread. I have removed the names to protect the innocent. In regards to the passing of Whitney Houston I read the following. "She was beautiful and talented before she got into drugs". "In 6 months we're all gonna find out she [overdosed] but it won't be her fault. Let's all blame Bobby Brown, get real folks"!! I just read this headline on the the Fox News website, "Prescription drugs found in Whitney Houston's room". I am sad today, and not just because one of the great talents in the world has died.
It's not the first time I have had these feelings. I'm not gonna get on my high horse and tell you that I've never engaged in this kind of stuff so please don't read this as some self righteous blog from a guy pointing his finger at everyone else. Note that I will use "we" not "you". It's the source of some of my sadness today; the thought that I can be guilty of sensationalizing the flaws I see in others. Most notably, the rich and famous. People like Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson and Amy Winehouse and Elvis Presley. People who "fell from grace". People who made the conscious decision to share their amazing, God given gifts with the world despite the fact that they knew that it would put them under the microscope forever. People who didn't handle that all so well. And since their lives could only exist in the proverbial fish bowl, their every flaw was exposed for all the world to see. What did the "world" do with that most of the time? It demonized them. It held them to a higher standard. It watched from afar and judged them without knowing a whole lot about them. It forgot, somehow, that they were human. I am a part of that world. I've done it. I've pointed. I've whispered under my breath. I've held them to the highest standard and flippantly decided that they "knew what they were getting into when they chose to go public". So it's ok for me to judge because they made it possible for me to do so. It comes with the territory. I'm sad.
I was thinking just now...what if Whitney was my daughter? How would I handle reading the posts and the headlines? How would I deal with the fact that the words, "most amazing voice in the history of the industry" were usually footnoted with "life that spiraled out of control"? How would I be able to function, having lost a child, with the judgements of her character coming from people who knew little or nothing about her? What if I was Whitney? What if my weaknesses and my struggles were exposed for all the word to see whether I liked it or not, whether I chose it or not? What if my demons were public? What if the fingers were pointed at me? Once you're in the fishbowl you will always be in the fishbowl. It's like stepping off of a high cliff. Once you make the step it can't be undone. No matter what you do you are all in. You might regret making the step once you begin to fall, but it still won't stop the fall. Maybe that's why they chose to live in the kind of "fog" that numbed them from the reality that they could never be normal again. I'm not condoning bad behavior and addiction. But it makes me wonder just the same.
Thank God for the word "redemption". God redeems. God makes us whole. Jesus, when in the midst of the most broken, made a habit of being present and loving them. The people who had fingers pointed at them because of their "sins", those who were outcasts, those who were "less than" for whatever reason, were always welcomed and loved by Jesus. They were forgiven. They were loved. We are loved. You, me, Whitney, Michael, Amy, Elvis. Loved and redeemed. I have to think that in God's eyes they were never drug addicts or alcoholics. They were broken. Lost for a time yet found. That one sheep that strayed, so loved by the shepherd that he left the flock to find them. They are home. Too soon by my standards but home nonetheless.
We make mistakes. We do things we're not so proud of. We say things we wish we could take back. Sometimes we are forgiven by the people we know and love. Some times we are not. We are never unforgiven by God. When we're lost we're found. Last night someone lost a daughter in a room on the 4th floor of the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Someone lost a mother. Someone lost a friend. I hope that I'll remember that the next time I decide to start pointing the finger at the next "fall from grace". I hope we'll all remember it. Good thing that God never forgets. Lost and then found.
Ellen and I once danced on the beach to the voice of Whitney Houston. It was sunset. One of my greatest memories. I've loved Whitney ever since. Thanks for the memory. I will miss you.
Thursday, February 9, 2012
The captain had just announced that we were about 180 miles outside of Houston. The flight attendants were prepping the cabin for landing. We'd been instructed to turn off our portable electronic devices. The "lead flight attendant" reminded us to "be careful when opening the overhead compartments because the contents may have shifted during the flight". For some strange reason he ended that final instruction with this rather cryptic remark, "in the event of an emergency evacuation please leave your carry on behind". My first thought was to try and figure out why he would have said something like that. I mean, it's like the roller coaster operator saying, "if the lap bar doesn't hold for the duration of the ride don't forget to hold on to the sides as best you can" as you begin the ascent to the top of the first 300 ft. hill. Some things I can figure out for myself. If the plane goes into a free fall at 20,000 feet I can promise you that my leftover Wagyu Kobe Beef steak from the night before that I've kept iced down all day in my carry on will be the very last think that I'm thinking about. Anyhow, the remark wasn't so much cryptic as it was prophetic. Within 5 minutes of his announcement the Continental 777 began to shake like it was sitting on top of the dryer in my laundry room. I have experienced turbulence before but never like that. The plane shook and dropped and climbed and then it shook and dropped and climbed all over again. I kept my eye on the flight attendants for any sign of panic. They acted like "no big deal" while I sat in my seat begging God not to orphan my son. I prayed like a crazy man. I looked out of the window fully expecting to see a lightening strike on the wing or a little monster looking thing throwing objects into the engine like I'd seen years ago in the movie "Twilight Zone" (see picture above). I'm not sure what the problem was out there but it was pretty severe. I tried to mock the flight attendants by acting interested in the tennis match that was playing on the little TV in front of me rather than my life that was flashing before my eyes...but to no avail. I made mega deals with God for the next 10 minutes. Get us out of this and I SWEAR that I will_______. Since we survived the ordeal I am left with a lifetime of promises to keep, all made on the night I thought we were going to die on the plane. Interesting. As soon as the shakes began I was begging God for help. Call it prayer if you will. I call it groveling like a desperate soul on a plane.
My most passionate prayers come when I really need God for something. When I thought that the adoption of our son would fall through at the last minute I was praying out of desperation more than anything else. When I took my "General Ordination Exams" I was praying for help. When I recall any crisis in my life I remember that the prayers were never far behind. Of course, this is a good thing. What about when there is no crisis? How "fervent" are my prayers then? When life is good and all is calm...how desperately am I seeking God? Are my prayers for thanksgiving as passionate as the ones I prayed for a safe landing? I'd love to tell you that my prayers are the same no matter what. I'd be lying...and you'd probably know it.
Truth is, I need God right now just as much as I did on that plane. Sure, I'm just sitting here in my big, comfy chair with my Macbook Air in my lap and the sound of falling rain tapping on my windows and the fire crackling in the fireplace. But I need God. I can't type without God. I can't see without God. I can't do very much at all without God. The air that I am drawing in and out of my lungs comes from God. I couldn't look up right now and see Christian Aguilera acting like a lunatic on "The Voice" without God. I certainly couldn't pastor a church or preach a sermon in front of over 200 people on Sundays without...God. I couldn't be a dad or a husband. Everything comes from God. It's all created by God. It's all given to me by God. Any ability that I have to do anything is given by God. I don't expect that I will live every minute of every day in the realization that I am completely and totally dependent on God for every single thing in my life. But I am thinking it now. And I am just as passionate in my thanks for my life as I was the other night on that plane. My prayers in times of thanksgiving and joy must at times mirror the desperate prayers I lift up in times of need. Please God sustain me. I am desperately in need of you. Lift me up God. Keep me whole. Keep me safe. Thank you for the comfy chair and the cozy fire and the rain tapping on the windows. Thank you for my son tucked in right now quietly snoozing in his "Lightening McQueen" bed. I desperately need you God. We need you.
What a feeling to land that night. The next night we were home safe and sound and getting ready to warm up dinner. The Wagyu Beef? Left it on the plane. Hope the "lead flight attendant" enjoyed my leftovers.
Saturday, February 4, 2012
I wonder why I do it. I signed on to Facebook a couple of years ago and I've been hooked ever since. Well, maybe not so much "hooked" as fascinated. Ok, hooked. I have tried to figure this out to the very best of my ability and for the life of me I can't seem to put my finger on it. I will admit that, at least at first, I was determined to have lots of friends...it was a quest for the unspoken badge of honor that comes with having 1,000 "friends". I was "friending" everyone that I had ever come into contact with and I was accepting "friend requests" at a breakneck pace. Just so you know, I never made it to 1,000. I actually thought that people would come across my page and realize that they had just stumbled upon a wildly popular guy who's life was more than worthy of their attention; sort of like the "most interesting man in the world" from the Dos Equis commercial. Sadly, like the Dos Equis guy who doesn't seem so interesting to me, the world wide web discovered that my life was/is not the most fascinating thing. They most likely discovered that my "wall" was filled with posts about the abundance of lettuce on my tacos or my average pace time on my last 6-mile run. On occasion I would make what I thought was a harmless political statement about the issue of the day which would only serve to show me, in black and white, that my "friends" can be quite hurtful with their responses. I once had an argument with an atheist that sent my blood pressure into orbit whenever he would make his remarks back to me. Just the other day I came across a stream of posts where a number of people said that if their pastor dropped an F-Bomb in the pulpit that it would be perfectly ok with them because it would show that the pastor is being "authentic". I had to take deep, slow breaths at my desk to keep from hyperventilating. I also discovered that even when people were reading my stuff they were not always paying attention; like this one time when I posted something like "having the worst day of my life" and a half dozen people clicked "like". Others were more pastoral in their responses by commenting things like "SSFY", OTRSW, and "HYFBL". One simply did this; :( ...I felt so much better.
So my 600 friends and I trudge through life on FB. I think this is perfectly ok as long as we adhere to the following rules. We have to remember that friendship is not defined (totally) by who appears, or does not appear, on our FB friend list. A FB message expressing sorrow over a friend who is grieving a loss in their life is good. An accompanying phone call or handwritten note is even better. It's also important to remember that if we choose to post something controversial, off color, or sensitive, then we shouldn't be angry or overly disappointed when people (some of whom we may be very close to) respond in ways that we may not like. If you say you like/dislike nationalized health care or you post your opinion about abortion then you will get a charged response that you may not necessarily like. If you choose to drop F-bombs on your wall with great regularity, or if you post pictures that are racy, off color, or in bad taste, then don't be angry if people "unfriend you" or hide your posts. They still want to be your friend and they probably aren't judging or condemning you, they just want to keep their own walls as clean as they possibly can, especially since employers are known to search FB walls when considering applicants for jobs and they will associate what they see on your wall, whether you put it there or not, as a reflection of who you are. Parents can believe the same. Fair or not, that's the world wide web. If you are somewhere between the age of 0-18, and you post pictures of yourself in a revealing string bikini while holding up a half empty bottle of tequila, surrounded by a half dozen boys twice your age; or if you are a guy holding a funny, illegal looking cigarette in one hand and a loaded .44 in the other, then please don't be surprised if someone like me slips the printed version of the pictures to your parents. They say it takes a village; FB only helped to make the village just a little bit bigger. Another thing. If you know someone out there who posts something about ending their life, about being bullied, or some other thing that makes it appear that they are in real, imminent danger or distress....get involved. And not like this, :(
I think it's important to remember these basic rules. The same applies to Twitter and whatever else might be out there. Please act interested if I post something about the salty popcorn I'm eating or my straight set win on the tennis courts. I will try to be more attentive to your stories about dirty diapers and the red light that you always have to wait for. I will try to show grace if you "like" the fact that a rock went through the windshield of my car. I'll assume you "liked" by accident. Just in case you missed the post last weekend, I finished my 5K last weekend by placing 53rd out of over 160 runners and I achieved a personal best time of 27:27. Please "like".
And if you see a picture of my son on FB holding up a half empty adult beverage, please let me know. He's only 4 years old. LOL.
Thursday, February 2, 2012
This has to be said. It might make you angry. It might make you stop and think. It might make you decide to never read this blog again. But it has to be said. I have been noting some recent Facebook posts that speak of the "demise of the church". Mostly, they are talking about the Episcopal Church of which I am a part. For years, it seems, we've been lamenting about all of the things that are wrong with the church and what we "don't have". If only my church had a bigger/nicer building. If only we were situated in a better demographic location over there next to the Chik-Fil-A. If only we had more children. If the national church would only stop debating about human sexuality. If only we had a bigger budget. If we had those things THEN EVERYTHING WOULD BE DIFFERENT! Ok, I understand that buildings, demographics, budgets, etc. can have an effect on the life of the church. I also know that folks are out there working very hard to grow so I would never want to belittle all of the effort. But this attitude that keeps cropping up time and time again communicates to me, and everyone else I suppose, that the Episcopal Church simply cannot grow. There are too many things working against us. Let's just be who we are and nothing more. Let's just ride it out and let the chips fall where they may. Let's continue to be ok with a denomination that averages less than 70 people on Sundays in its over 7,000 congregations across the country because, after all, the economy's just not what it should be. We can't help it, it's really not our fault. Woe is me.
Here's what really gets to me. I think, no let me change that, I KNOW that we have in many respects forgotten just who we are. So let me refresh our memories. Episcopalians believe that Jesus Christ is fully present at the altar of our churches. Fully. Really. Without going into a diatribe on the theology of the Eucharist, suffice it to say that to come to the altar of an Episcopal Church means an encounter with God. And what happens when you encounter God? I'll let you answer that for yourself. Check this out now, ok? It doesn't matter what your demographics look like. Your budget doesn't matter. Whether you've got 300 on Sundays or 30, Jesus Christ is present at the altar. Here's another amazing fact. It doesn't matter if you've been divorced. It doesn't matter if your a lifelong Episcopalian or a lifelong Southern Baptist. Rich or poor, gay or straight, black, white, or brown. Democrat or Republican. If you're baptized them come on up to the table and encounter the Holy. What else, might I ask, does your church need?
Let's do this. Let's seriously start inviting people to this table and solve this "problem". Really, I'm being totally serious about this. When the invitee asks why they should come, let's be unafraid to tell them why. And if they give you a funny look when you say that "Jesus Christ is fully present" at the table then just tell them to come and see. After all Episcopal Church, that is what we believe. Clergy, you don't need a 6-week seminar to get your people to do this. You don't need to call committee meetings. You don't need an evangelism team. Tell them, urge them, to invite. Just invite. I don't care how, just invite. I can tell you it works. I am blessed to serve in a congregation that understands this fully. And it is growing...quickly. If we invite them then they just might come. Eat at an amazing restaurant and you will let everyone know all about it. Feel the same about your church. After all, the food offered there is the stuff of miracles. And if they balk at your invitation or treat you differently now because you're the "religious one" in the crowd then shake the dust of your feet. I think they'll appreciate the invitation more than anything else. I mean, think about what you're offering them. If this "strategy" doesn't seem to be working right away then just keep inviting. Never stop. Have a sense of desperation about it because people need what God is serving up at our altar. Invite. It'll do more than a $10,000.00 advertising budget or big fancy website ever could.
Grow or die. That is the choice before us. That's not being overly dramatic, that's a fact. I think I read somewhere that, centuries ago, when the church was under horrific persecution and was forced, literally, to go underground, that it grew like it had never grown before. I don't suppose that underground tunnels qualified as "good demographics". I wonder what their budget was? Thing is, they never forgot that the God they worshipped was a God of miracles and transformation. They invited people to go underground with them. People came. Even though they were risking their lives they came. When they came they encountered the Holy in the midst of all that persecution. And the church grew. The Body of Christ grew. Miracle, no?
Don't worry so much about what we don't have, think about what we do have. We have Jesus Christ, "God with us", right there at our altar. Grow or die. What do you chose? I'm going with grow. Join me?
And if you're reading this and searching for a church...well...Google "Episcopal Church" in your area and check it out for yourself. I'm sure you'll find a home.