Saturday, November 29, 2008

Christmas is Not Your Birthday

Yesterday I was with my extended family for what has become a annual tradition for us. No longer do we purchase gifts for the adults in our families, we use that money instead to engage a mission project. This year some of us rang the bell for Salvation Army outside of Eastview Mall in Victor NY. I loved what this taught our daughters. Then we gathered together and had purchased gifts for two families of single moms. The gifts were laid out on two tabled and we could see the mission right in front of us. The families we would never meet, and they may never know who we are, but they will know that someone cares about them enough to give them gifts.

This couples nicely with what we are doing here at the Cortland UMC this Christmas. We are asking people to reduce what they spend on Christmas, gifts, parties, decorations etc, and then match dollar for dollar what they do spend on an offering going to assist a school and clinic in Kenya. We are asking people to live more simply so that others may simply live. Our goal is to raise $10,000 by the end of the year so that we can give Jesus a gift on his birthday. Remembering that Christmas is not our birthday but his.

I am sure thins might be a long shot, but I want to invite all who are reading this blog to join us in remembering Christmas is not your birthday. If you would like to contribute to our fund, or possibly invite your church to participate, sharing this mission would be wonderful. You can send any contribution to Cortland UMC, 734 State Rte 222, Cortland NY 13045, ATTN: Christmas is not your birthday.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Altar of Consumerism

Today is black Friday here in the US. It is the day when people wake at ridiculous hours to rush out to stores (some by 4am) to get that extra special deal. I heard one commentator this week say that Black Friday was capitalism at its best. I say it is consumerism at its height. On this day people will place themselves further in debt. Credit cards will be maxed out, and bank accounts pushed to their limits, all in the name of almighty stuff.

Most of the people who are going out to buy today do not need any of the stuff they are buying. People in our community who are really in need will not be found at the stores this morning. They will not be pushing and shoving to get the best deal on a flat screen TV. They will be doing what they do everyday, trying to figure out where then meal for the day is coming from. When I think about it in those terms, I am almost embarrassed by the stuff I have.

In a country full of irony, yesterday we celebrated thankfulness. Some celebrated the stuff they have, others celebrated the people and relationships. No matter what we paused to be thankful for, the pause by and large is over, and the race for more and better stuff is on. We as Americans continue to complicate our lives with the desire to acquire. Some day I hope I learn and others learn to simplify. Then the words of Gandhi will ring true, live simply so that others may simply live.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


I am taking some time today to count my blessings so to speak. It is in fact Thanksgiving morning, and yet another day to be thankful. I could use this space to talk about things like entitlement and pride which hinder our ability to be thankful, but not today.

I want to list what I am thankful for. First and foremost I am thankful for the God who created, redeemed and sustains me. Next I am grateful for my amazing wife who walks with me through this journey of life. I give thanks to God for our three wonderful children, who give me wonder and challenge me to be a better dad every day. My gratefulness extends to my extended family who have walked with me through life and continue to be with me. There are many friends whom have played a role in my journey. In particular I am thankful for the godly men who God has placed around me. Thanks Bill, BJ and Alan.

No matter who we are, or what life seems to be bringing our way, there is reason to be thankful. Not just on this day, but everyday. May we all be thankful.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Vision is a funny thing. All too often it has nothing to do with one's ability to see. I wear glasses so I can see words more clearly, and so I can function without bumping into things. My glasses improve my ability to see, but often my vision is still blurry. No I do not need to go to the eye doctor for a new prescription. What I need to do is spend more time before God to be reminded of the vision. For me vision is about the preferred future God is calling us to. It is the place where God longs to meet us in the future. The challenge is I often get distracted from the vision.

When I arrives at Cortland, I sought after God. I wrestled with God until He gave me a vision for this place. The wrestling took the better part of a two weeks. I limped away sore and not sure if it was worth it, as the vision was large and so much greater than I have ability to accomplish. Then the quite voice reminded me that is the way it is suppose to be. So what was this vision. I could see a church which was leading the way in the community, state, country and world, both inside and outside the church, to be on mission. God intends to use this church to change the world for the people of Cortland, New York, the USA and the ends of the earth. I saw a vision of a church which was large, not for the sake of numbers but for the sake of impact. I saw a church which others were coming to so they could learn and join the mission of God in the world. I saw a place where God was using us to be innovators and risk takers for the sake of the Kingdom.

As you can see nothing about that was status quo, in fact status quo is the enemy of this vision, or any vision for that matter. It is my responsibility to lead the church toward this vision. I forget that from time to time, and crave after status quo. Thank God, my wiring is such that I cannot settle. Forward.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Never Be The Same Again

This week I am working on a sermon which started brewing about two weeks ago. The sermon is titled Jesus as an Accessory. I am wrestling with the ways in which we use Jesus as an add on to our live. Sure on Sunday morning we put our Jesus on and go to church with all the other people who put Jesus on. It is possible that we even wear a little of our Jesus in our day-to-day life. You know just enough Jesus to be recognized, but not enough to really make a difference.

I am continually amazed at how little difference Jesus makes in most of our daily lives. As I read through the Scriptures I find people who encounter God/Jesus, are never the same. The face-to-face encounter forever transforms an individual, and communities to function completely different. This is not just the blind who see again, or the lame who walk again. This is the rich young ruler, this is Samuel, this is Jacob. From his encounter with God, Jacob went away with a limp and a new name, Israel.

When people outside of the church look at the church what repels most is the fact that there is so little of Jesus in the lives of those who call on His name, and sing songs to Him. We must stop using Jesus like a necklace or a watch. Rather we must fashion our lives in such a way that we are never the same again.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Growing Up is Hard To Do

One of the quotes I have often used about being a pastor is as follows, "The church would be so much easier to lead if there were not all those people." I understand the church is the people, and without people we do not have the church. However, when working with people the level of frustration can get very high. I guess it is not working with people that creates the frustration directly. I continue to make a classic mistake of trusting people to make an assessment of their own life. The place where I get caught most with this is in the area of spiritual maturity.

We all know people who have journeyed with God for a while and have been developing in their understanding with God. Now people who have reached deeper levels of maturity rarely talk about their maturity, or compare theirs with others, but the problem comes when claims are made which are not supported by actions. I am amazed by the number of people in churches who have made claims about their level of maturity, yet continue to function as infants. As is true in all aspects of life we want the bonus of being a grown up, with out the responsibilities. We want to do what we want to do, until it gets hard, then we want someone else to do it.

I want to be clear at this point I am not placing blame on anyone but myself. People are people, and I think I would learn. My biggest mistake is I tend to give people too much credit for their journey. Perhaps this is the tragedy of an optimist. As I continue to grow up and get burned by seeing the best in people, only to come up short, I am learning some hard lessons. The lesson I am wrestling with today is that people, no matter what they claim, want someone who is going to tell them what they need to be doing, and to hold their hand as they do it.

So while, I think people are much more capable than they are, a notion I am not willing to give up, I am learning to be more directive. Something I expect to do with people who are new to the journey with God, but I am learning more people are still in that early stage than I like to think.

Growing up is hard to do. Still that is what we are called to do. We cannot be infants in our faith our whole life. We are to go on to maturity. It is not easy, we have to do things we don't want to. But that is all part of growing up.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


I thought the last entry would be the last in the series about how the church got to the place it is, but I was wrong. I have been in Nebraska for the past few days, through several interactions with my family here I have come to realize just how great the void of leadership is in the church. Even more interesting is how people who are not regularly engaged in the life of the church understand the leadership of the church.

I was sharing with a relative who works for the National Parks system about my thoughts of getting a PhD in the future, and focusing on leadership. This relative was amazed to learn that leadership was not the main focus of seminary curriculum. From where he observed the church, leadership was the most crucial thing a pastor could provide.

I believe at one point the church was predicated on leadership, with in the congregation, community , nation and world. We have come to a point where in function the role of leadership is something reserved for a select few, but not necessary for the development of the local church. This has been happening so long congregations have become trained to not look for leadership from their pastor. Most are simply looking for someone to manage the ministry, but move it in any particular direction with a future and a hope. The result, most churches have gone nowhere.

That may seem like a harsh criticism. After all there are thousands of wonderful church dinners every day. There are churches all across the nation who have people faithfully attending Sunday services, and even a few meetings here and there. The same people week in and week out. I guess you could say the church is being lead by accidental negligence. Accidental negligence, means because there is no leadership the church is headed in a direction. Death is a direction, just not one with a hope and a future.

Oh, Lord may I never settle for managing the church. May I never be found in accidental negligence. May I and others who have the obligation, privilege and responsibility to pastor the church, lead it in the path of God to a hope and a future.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Beyond Existence

This will be the final entry on the reasoning behind how the church has gotten to where it is in America. Let me start with a veiled disclaimer, less veiled now that I have stated it. I am grateful for the contributions of churches like Willow Creek and Saddleback. I also need to say that the way other people used those ministries and ministries like them created the corporate church which was driven by attendance numbers. This produced a church culture which I bought into for years, that was all about increasing the numbers, even if we were not doing the mission of Christ.

This understanding of church became entrenched and church became another business in America, complete with the movers and shakers, flashy marketing, and high powered conferences. I am not against moving and shaking, I am not against flashy marketing or high powered conferences. I do have a problem when that becomes the goal above the mission of Jesus Christ. The church in America became a multi-billion dollar industry in America, and lost sight of the call of God on the church.

Time has come to reclaim this call. We have seen this in recent years as some of the heavy hitters, Willow and Saddleback have studied places like Mosaic and this thing called the missional church. The missional church in and of itself is not the key. Rather, it is the thought pattern that we ought to be on the journey of faith in such a ways that compels us to function as Christ calls us. The whole point of the church is mission, not existence. Existence is the goal of business, transformation of the world for the sake of Christ is the mission of the church. This too could fall pray to the business of the church if we are not careful.

So how do we keep the focus? Vigilance by those in leadership. We must consistently be keeping the mission in front of the church, as well as pushing the edge. The champion of existence is the status quo. Leadership must constantly challenge the status quo, and constantly challenge the church. In the old days this was called be prophetic. Prophets call the people of God beyond existence into mission. Calling all prophets.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Jesus As An Accessory

I am continuing to look at the state of the church in America, and the reasons I think we have gotten to where we are. Today I am looking at this issue of how we view Jesus. Like many historical figures there are many different views on who Jesus was and if he is an is. There are the classic labels of good teacher, prophet, holy man, Son of God, Messiah, rebel, religious reformer etc. There is no conclusion as to his current state of being as well. Most who are followers of Christ hold to the resurrection, this is not a view held by all. For the purposes of this discourse, I am working form Jesus as Messiah, Savior and Lord, and the resurrection being Truth.

Having said that, I want to look at the ways we interact with Jesus in the church today. More often than not, Jesus is used as a tool. At times a tool for great good and at other times a tool for great harm. The church using Jesus as a tool has had many poor consequences, the one I will look at is the way we allow Jesus to impact our daily living. I content most of us use Jesus like an accessory in our wardrobe. As long as he accents what I am doing he is fine, but he is not allowed to shape what I am doing. For men I see a tie as an optional accessory, to be used only when absolutely necessary. For the most part a tie is chosen to match the outfit, not the outfit to match the tie. Very rarely do we allow the accessory to determine what the rest of the outfit will be. the exception is when we want everyone to see the accessory we have. Thereby announcing our possession as a status issues.

This is how many are using Jesus. A little show and tell now and again, but no real impact. The roles have been reversed. We think we are the main show and have made Jesus to be the accessory. In reality Jesus is, was and will always be the main show and we are the accessory. Our role is to accent the work of Christ in our world, not ask Christ to accent what we are already doing. For all too long the church has attempted to form, mold and shape Jesus into the image we want. The result is an impotent church. Many forms of ecclesial Viagra have been used, but the problem continues, the church remains impotent. The solution is not found in a wonder drug, or the latest program. The solution is found when groups of men and women place Jesus as the main thing, and radically live out the live Jesus calls us to live. We must become the accessory.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Failure to Deny

Continuing the journey through understanding how the church as gotten to this point I now turn to a difficult topic, self denial. I have found in my life and in the life of most people I know denial is not a problem. Humanity seem to have a great ability to not recognize the issues of our lives. What I am talking about however is self denial. Ironically the most significant reason we struggle with self denial is in fact our problem with denial. Confused yet?

Humanity tends to lose sight of the fact that life is not about the rights, desires and ambitions of the individual. That is not to say there are not certain rights each person has. It is to say things like the right to life, the right to not being enslaved and such are good rights. Like the good Americans we are, there is a tendency to take our rights to the extreme. Then there is the troubling teachings of Christ in Mark 8. That we must deny ourselves if we are going to follow him. Not for a moment am I suggesting we allow thinks like slavery and poverty because it is exercising denying ourselves. However, we need to recognize that our lives are not our own.

I probably could have saved time typing and you reading by saying this, It is not about me. For the most part, the church is America has taken on the mantel of individualism, and the church has become "me" focused. For the church in America to break out of this pattern of "me"centrism, it will involve self denial.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Free Fall of Mediocrity

Today I will resist the election discussion and continue to look at how the church in America got to the place it is. Once again I am brought to the word mediocrity. There is one phrase I associate with mediocrity more than any other in the life of the church, "As long as you are doing it for God, it will be good enough." Can we imagine what might happen if God just decided to do things as good enough? What if as God created the earth instead of good, He settle with good enough, or even at the creation of humanity which was deemed very good

The church established a pattern of going through the motions, do the same old thing time and time again, and after a while, the pattern lost its meaning as well as its excellence. Our current culture does not like to have the excellence discussion. There are policies which bend our thoughts away form excellence, like No Child Left Behind. Rather than encouraging excellence, it invited everyone to settle for mediocrity as long as you can pass the test. Years ago the church adopted its own no child left behind policy, and it is alive and well.

Fear of being seen as judgmental, or as rigid has caused us to not strive for excellence in anything we do or the beliefs we state. We would rather boil things down to the lowest common denominator so all can agree, than challenge, encourage and teach so that all could reach for the standard of God. Basically the acceptance of mediocrity in the life of the church has run its course well and now the church is full of relativism, and anything goes.

Understand this is not about conservative or liberal. This is not about any one social issue. Churches which are willing to take a clear and defined stand about their understandings of God can come from any perspective. When damage is done is when any perspective is simply embraced regardless of what is believed to be true.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Is It Worth It?

A reminder that I am exploring the shift that took place in the church which moved it from movement to institution, and the implications of that shift. Today I will focus on what drives the church. As best I can tell what Jesus was leading the early followers to do, and what the early church was doing, was all about building the Kingdom of God. More specifically, the primary focus was to live in such a way that others could experience the Kingdom by how you lived. In one of my favorite movies, The Last Samurai, in the last scene Tom Cruise's character is asked to tell the account of how someone died. His response is, not about death but about how the person lived. Jesus death was crucial and without it we are all still in great trouble. However, if all that is examined and celebrated is the death of Jesus, something is missing. The way Jesus lives and called others to live was equally important.

As the church journeyed further from the movement of Jesus to the institution, two primary thoughts drove the church. One was all about salvation through the cross of Jesus, and the other was all about the re-order of society. These are both solid drives for the church. Often, however, they were mutually exclusive. Classically this has been outlined as the evangelical church and the social Gospel church. Pardon the oversimplification. These two drives caused the church to change focus. The evangelical church was and is convinced all that needs to happen is the world simply needs to be saved by the blood of Jesus. Truth. The social gospel church says that we bring people to Jesus by re-ordering society to look more like the Kingdom of God. Truth. The result is a church that is irrelevant to most, and impotent to really transform the world. So, we simply go through the motions to keep the institution alive because that provides one with a sense of doing something worthwhile.

It is time once again to have a drive change. The time has come to recapture the original movement. The work of the cross transforming lives in order that society would be transformed. It is very difficult to motivate people outside of the institution to sacrifice for the sake of the institution, it has lost its meaning. I do think that people will sacrifice for the sake of transforming the world. If the church's drive is to simply exist it has already died. the good news is God does some of his best work with dead people, but they must be willing to admit they are dead. Church for the sake of church is foolish, church for the sake of transformation of the world for the sake of Christ, that is worth dieing for.

Monday, November 3, 2008

How Did We Get Here?

In the midst of a class I was teaching in the church I was sharing my thoughts about the state of the church in America as a consumerist, narcissistic, imitator of culture. From across the table the question came, how did we get here? It made me think there are many reasons we are here, and it would take a lot of time to outline what has driven us to this point. So, I thought I would take some time to share my thoughts. Over the next few blog entries I will be writing about that topic.

To frame the discussion I need to delve into the world of sociology, and the works of Ernst Troeltsch. Mr. Troeltsch wrote about how an idea transforms into an institution. Please note this is a huge oversimplification of the work. Essentially an idea surfaces and others gather around the idea. The idea then gains momentum, becoming a movement. the movement grows and begins to develop normalizing factors, or norms which inform the understandings of the movement. As the development continues the norms create a more concrete structure and form known as an institution. At this point the institution can easily lose sight of the original idea and movement, and exist for the sake of the institution. This is know as institutionalization.

The church in America is riddled with institutionalization. At some point in history the idea an movement gave way to keeping the institution alive. This had implications for what drove the church, what has been taught by the church and how the church interacted with the world around it. There are key points in history which this is noticed. When the Roman Empire named Christianity the official state religion. When Martin Luther partnered with the Princes of Germany. The church of England being the state church. There are others, but those are some of the big moments. The struggle is nothing new.

It is amazing to me how there is a connection of tying religion with government and how the focus can be diffused. In the next entry I will explore how what drives the church changed, and the implications of that change.