When people think of the church...

...this is what I want them to say.

From the May 2006 issue of INTERIM, the newspaper for the Diocese of Missouri, in PDF here:

"When our group arrived in Lui and Deborah, (a member on a six-month mission in Lui) saw all the goodies we had brought, she was amazed. She had told some people that many, many people in Lui needed drugstore-style reading glasses. Well, someone(s?) in the Diocese of Missouri had gone out and bought over 100 pairs of glasses, which we transported with us. And she had expressed the clergy's desire for clergy shirts, and we had bought something like a dozen. And she had told of the need for fabric, and fabric we had brought. She was just about overwhelmed. She told many people, including many Mori friends, "I declare! If I had told them we needed ice cubes, they would have found a way to get them here." --Lisa Fox

Read the blog written by the latest visitors to Sudan.

Welcome to the Sidebar 4/28/06

Checking the RYW blog for comments and new readers this morning, I found another worthy blog, the link to which now lives in the Sidebar under "Blogs I Read." It's "A Youth Minister's Journey," authored by Dan Boles of Marietta, GA.

AYMJ carries a good sense of what we're really up to in youth ministry; building up Christ's church and knocking down any barriers to that buildup that we find on our way. Since the unity of the Body is one of my greatest passions, I was really pleased to find this quote:

"Will we ever come to see the day when we celebrate our denominational beliefs in such a way that recognizes denominational heritage and history, but also no longer obscure community in Christ? Will we ever see the day when we are fed through the Universal Church's visible "oneness?"

Welcome to the Sidebar, Dan!

A Few Loose Canons

In light of the recent mess the report of the "Gospel of Judas" caused, I thought today to share a few more books of the Bible that would make it into the pages of Scripture if the canon was open today.

"The Gospel of Priority"-- which describes how Jesus said it's okay, when Christmas Day falls on a Sunday, to skip church because we had our dose of Jesus the night before. The second part of the book gives the right relationship of church and sports teams, and the conclusion exhorts people to insist in their prayers that God let them know months in advance which church activities to go to, so they can work them into their calendars.

"The Letter from the Romans"-- where each denomination has the chance to explain why only the members of its own churches will be going to Heaven.

"The Gospel of the Lampstand"-- where Jesus explains how He always intended for America to rule the world.

"The Wise Sayings of Mom and Dad"-- this book will contain all the little gems like "God helps those who help themselves" and "There are starving children in Africa, you know, now finish what's on your plate" so they can finally be in the Bible, where parents for generations have insisted they are.

"The Book of Paths"-- where Jesus says that really, it's okay to believe anything you want because all the religions really do point back to God-- that stuff about Jesus being the only way was really just to scare the Romans.

And finally, "The Book of Jesus Loves... um... You." This book gives a complete list of all the people Jesus doesn't really love, because no one really believes He hung out with all the people the Bible says he did, or if He did, it certainly doesn't mean I have to.

I've offered this short list today mostly in satire, but now that I'm reading over it, this passage comes with a warning-- some of these "books" and "gospels" are becoming tempting. Let's be very careful, since they're not in our Bible, to keep them out of our ministries!


The only bumper sticker...

... I will allow on my car is one I saw today at Shaw Park when I went to see a baseball game.

"Orthodoxy" it said, "Telling the Truth since 33 A.D."


Something to read this morning

Mark Moring at Christianity Today Movies offers a brilliant tongue-in-cheek commentary on how Christians should deal with the Da Vinci Code. Here's a quote to set the stage:

AARRGGHH! Another interruption! But it's not the phone or my PC. It's a still, small voice inside …
"I'm not afraid of The Da Vinci Code," the voice says. "Sure, it's full of lies, but I've had worse things said and written about me, and I've come out just fine. And besides, I love Ron Howard, Tom Hanks, and everyone associated with this movie. You've seen the tagline on their trailer and poster: Seek the truth. They're all just seeking the truth, and I am that truth. They're looking for me. I can still be found."

Personally, I'm torn about the movie, but not because of its content or potential challenges to faith. I welcome those. What I'm bothered about is that the book was such artless, formulaic schlock that the movie can't, in the end, better tell the story (movies so rarely do) and I'm not sure I want to put myself through it again.

And I was thrilled, as a person of Nordic descent, to see both last week's "Frazz" cartoon about the proper pronounciation of the word "Sauna" and the Language Log's commentary on it, including a few items of discussion from the good ol' Upper Peninsula of Michigan.


The Yellow Marshmallow Gospel

I had my first marshmallow Peep of the Easter season today, and inspired by this bit of sugary goodness, I decided to find a way that Peeps reflect the Christian life.

When they're fresh out of the package, Peeps are soft. They don't resist when you bite them. If you squash them, they pop quickly back to their original shape.

But leave them on the counter for a couple of days and let them experience the world, and they toughen up. They're even better to eat that way. And you can use them for more than just eating-- propping open doors, and holding toothpicks on the Easter veggie plate.

New Christians are like Peeps-- they haven't seen a lot of the things Jesus warned us would happen, and if they're squashed by the hardship that comes to His followers, they frequently pop back to their original condition. But leave them out for a bit, while they soak in the world and the tests God has in store for us, and suddenly they're good for more than eating. They're tougher, for one thing, and more resistant to pressure. They hold up under the hard work of being a disciple. But they still look fresh and yellow, because the light of Christ glows out of every believer, both old and new!


Easter Egg Hunt

I have been enjoying a rest during Holy Week and a grand celebration of the Feast of Easter. Thus I don't apologize for my lack of posts this past week, but I do explain them.

On Easter Sunday, I went to lunch with three families, two related ones from CSMSG and a set of their friends. After the first round of food and a game or two of cribbage, we went out for an Easter egg hunt. In pairs, one blindfolded and one sighted, we wandered through the yard looking for our treasures. The person with the blindfold picked up the eggs, led to them by the voice and directions of the guide.

It takes a lot of concentration to be a guide. You have to be focused very sharply on your partner and the ground around her. You need to be aware of your own steps, your partner's path, the obstacles and the other players.

Done this way, the Easter egg hunt is a very spiritual thing. God, after all, is completely aware of where we stand and what is between us and our goal. We, because of our human nature and the distractions of our world, are blindfolded. When we find spiritual treasures, it is not because we could clearly see them ourselves (for now we see in a mirror dimly) but because God led us to them.

This Easter season I challenge two things; first, that we become aware of our blindfolds and the dependence on God they require of us. Second, that we celebrate all the more when we find the surprises God has left on the ground for us, because we have such a loving guide who doesn't leave us to fumble around on our own, but walks with us and whispers directions.

Christ is risen! Have a blessed Easter season.


Try Realism

The Christian Science Monitor carries an article today under the headline "Guard Recruiters try Realism and succeed."

A quote: Whenever potential recruits ask about their chances of being shipped off to Iraq if they enlist, National Guard recruiter Pierre Chatman doesn't sugarcoat it: 100 percent, he tells them.
"We are the military. That's our job," says Houston's top recruiter. "We used to stress protecting the home front - and it was easier to do. But all that has changed."

Remarkably, it's having some success. While active branches have experienced recruiting woes during wartime, the Army National Guard is now seeing its ranks rise for the first time in three years.

K.P. Yohannon's challenging book, "The Road to Reality" offers a similar injunction.

"Why is is that the young people of our churches are given fun and games rather than the challenge of the Great Commission? ...Teens want to test out the ethics and morality of their church and parents to see if it really works. But what are we giving them instead? The standard answer is to hire a youth director to plan parties and trips around the premise: 'You can be a Christian and have fun too!' ...What would happen if instead we treated our youth with total seriousness, exposing them to mission field learning experiences? Opportunities to love and sacrifice for others? To serve on the front lines of the Gospel?"

What hard truth will I expose my students to this week? What challenge will I give them? How honest will I be about what Christ demands of us?

Actually, this week I'm challenging my students to sign up for a game of broomball. But my commitment to this place is that the Gospel will be in everything we do, so Christ will be with us in our fellowship. And I do preach sacrifice and discipline, and if we un-grow (Mike Yaconelli's phrase) because of it, so be it. But the news seems to tell me we won't.

If it works for the Guard and for international missions, it can work for an Episcopal church in the suburbs too.



"Receiving the Eucharist does not mean eating a 'thing-like' gift (Body and Blood). No, there is a person-to-person exchange, a coming of one into the other. The living Lord gives himself to me, enters into me, and invites me to surrender myself to him, so that the Apostle's words come true: 'It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.' (Gal. 2:20) Only thus is the reception of Holy Communion an act that elevates and transforms a man." --from "The Spirit of the Liturgy" by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI

"How many times have you felt something happen to you in church? How many times have you walked into church expecting something to happen?" --Rev. Michael Blewett

A couple of months ago I had lunch with our clergy secretary, who is a faithful Catholic woman. I did make her talk shop just a little bit, because I had some questions about various Catholic beliefs and traditions I had recently heard about. As we were getting ready to head back to work, we started to talk about Communion. I've been raised with the explanation that the elements (bread and wine) are really Jesus' body and blood because He said so, but the substance (the flour and grapes and whatnot) don't themselves become anything different. The Catholic belief is that what's given in the Eucharist has truly become Christ. And I have no problem with that. I would happily commune in a church that practiced that way. What I disagree with is churches who say that the bread and wine are just symbols. I said to Heidi, "I believe communion is what God says it is, so it doesn't matter to me exactly what happens to the elements, but something has to happen."

And it shouldn't just be the elements that experience some change every week in church. We who worship should be different people each week, or each day, when we walk out of the worship service. That's the point, after all-- transformation that allows us to better hear God's word and do the work He commands.

The trouble is that most congregation members rush into church at the last second, hear the Word, shuffle through the bulletin looking for announcements during the sermon (I am honestly making an effort to stop doing this, and shuffle during the offering instead) and many members hit the doors after communion. Yes, they receive the important parts (Word and Sacrament) but I don't think they should be at all surprised when they don't feel changed. People who worship this way haven't prepared in a way that opens them to transform.

A plan of mine is to find whatever students are in the building fifteen minutes before worship begins and gather with them for ten minutes of preparation before the service. We'll spend the first few minutes pointing out things to look for in the service; is it a feast day for a saint? Are there special guests? What's the historical context they need to understand the Gospel? Then we'll collect prayer requests from that group so they know what to add to the prayer list. And we'll close with a time of silence, to calm our bodies and minds so we walk into worship open to the power of what happens there.

If we're not drawing students into worship with the larger community, we're missing the point of our time together. But if we're only plunging them into a worship that isn't designed for people (and that's good; worship is about God, not about us, so there are supposed to be things we don't completely understand) and not offering them time to prepare, we mishandle our stewardship of these young disciples.


The Rookie's Library: April 8, 2006

What I'm Reading:

"Dave Gorman's Googlewhack Adventure" by Dave Gorman, (C) 2004 Overlook Press ISBN 1585676144

"So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading" by Sara Nelson, (C) G.P. Putnam's Sons ISBN 0399150838

"A Mystery of Errors" by Simon Hawke, (C) 2000 Forge Press ISBN 0312873727

What I'm Watching:

Bluefish TV's "Stories" series on DVD

"Top Chef" on Bravo

A terrific guitarist/singer on YouTube

What I'm Hearing:

Our Lady Peace "Gravity" album

Good Charlotte "The Young and the Hopeless" album

O.A.R. "Hey Girl" album

Useful Courses I'm Taking:

"Theosis: Total Transformation in Christ" at CSMSG's Great Wednesdays

"Volunteer Management" at St. Louis Community College-- Meramec


A Yearly Reading List for Seekers

I'm working on putting together a series of lists; each one with 100 or so books on it, meant to be read over the course of a year by various groups of people; youth ministers, spiritual seekers, youth, etc. Today I'm posting the first 10 of my Seekers list, and asking you who read the blog to comment with other titles that need to go on it. (When you post, give title, author and one sentence or so... "Read this book because...")

A Seeker, in my definition, is someone who has realized the need for something resembling God (although they may not use the proper name when they describe the need) and has begun actively looking, though not exclusively in churches, for a way to fill that need.

1. "Messy Spirituality" by Mike Yaconelli. Read this book because it strips away a lot of the misconceptions people have of Christianity and honestly invites readers to enter Christian life from exactly where they are.

2. "The Ragamuffin Gospel" by Brennan Manning. Read this book because Manning admits his own struggles and talks about how God is not afraid of people who sin, struggle, doubt and question.

3. "The Road to Reality" by K.P.Yohannon. Read this book because it lays out plainly what's really required in a Christian's life, and challenges people who read it to identify where their lives are off that path.

4. "The Runaway Bunny" by Margaret Wise Brown. Read this book because it paints a picture of how God reacts when we try to get away from Him; not ever forcing us back, but pursuing and walking with us the whole time so that when we realize we need God, he's not far away.

5. "Anyway: The Paradoxical Commandments" by Kent M. Keith. Read this book because it will give you an idea of how you ought to be treated by Christians, and a sense of when to challenge them when they're not open to your seeking.

6. "She Said Yes" by Misty Bernall. Read this book to counter the idea that God doesn't really do anything powerful through people today-- it was all back in Bible times.

7. "Why Believe" by Greg Laurie. Read this book because there are answers here; real ones, with the real questions that go with them, and they will help drop some of the barriers to accepting God's love.

8. "The Case for Christ" by Lee Strobel. Read this book because the author began as an atheist and when he started to investigate what Christians believe, (so that he could discredit them with the facts) he found that he could not escape belief of his own.

9. "A Beginner's Guide to Studying the Bible" by Rolf E. Aaseng. Read this book because walking into the Bible without any idea of what to look for in it is about as safe as chasing a squirrel up a power pole, and as enlightening as walking through an art museum wearing sunglasses.

10. "Surprised by Joy" by C.S. Lewis. Read this book because it tells the story of how one of the world's more celebrated Christians became a Christian.


Measuring Spiritual Growth

Part of my shiny new gym membership is a session with a personal trainer, to gauge where I'm at as I begin a fitness program. He took a lot of measurements and ran me through a practice workout. Right now, I am tired and sore.

Without those numbers, the trainer would not be able to either plan out the exercises that will work best for me, or track my progress. I might end up hurting myself by taking on too much, or not performing to my full potential because I would stop before I reached my real limits.

This made me think about the way we measure spiritual growth in our students. In fact, do any of us track where our students are spiritually when they enter our program? Do we then use those notes to measure how they grow before we send them on, to the next ministry or to the real world? Do we use those findings to help us plan our program and set goals for our teaching?

It doesn't have to be a "PERMANENT RECORD" type thing that we'll all end up scared of, but I think it would be useful to say "by this time next year, my students will know X,Y,andZ about Christ-- they will be able to recall Q number of verses from their life passage of the Scriptures, and they will have been exposed to this many ideas and chances to put them into action."

Keeping track of spiritual growth will definitely take time. I'm not sure it's worth doing if we aren't committed to a long-term ministry, because the minister after me will have different ideas of what he/she wants to teach. To start out, I think we should track these areas:

Worship attendance
Daily Bible reading
Service projects leading to a service lifestyle

We should gather these data one-on-one with our students and keep the files private. We're not doing it to identify superstars, just to help fine-tune our ministries to meet our students where they need us to be. And we should not track things like prayer life or fasting, disciplines Jesus told us to keep private. By recording spiritual growth and spiritual discipline, we help our students by training them to be accountable. We also help ourselves as ministers by actively finding out where our teaching is doing well and where we need a little more push.

And by all means, we need to track our own growth. Let's not forget that it's near-impossible to teach what we aren't learning.


Welcome to the Sidebar!

Yet another fun link to add to the Sidebar today; check it out-- Larknews.com.

It's sort of like what would happen if a church newsletter and theOnion had a baby. Here's the start of the story that first caught my eye: "Youth Pastor Hazing on the Rise"

DUBLIN, Ohio — During a routine inspection of First Nazarene Church's facility last month, state regulators heard "a weakened voice singing hymns" in a basement utility closet. They broke the lock and found the church youth pastor inside, chained to a shelf and trying to write a lively midweek youth sermon by candlelight. "It was shocking and sad," the inspector said. Cruelty to youth pastors has always been a quiet part of church life, under the guise of job preparation and "training a servant's heart," but some youth pastors are speaking out and saying the hazing has gone too far.

There is some truly good stuff on this site-- enjoy!

The Rookie Reviews: "Smashed" by Koren Zailckas

Have you ever had a day when your stomach will just not settle, when everything seems just a quarter-inch off its mark and although you're really excited about what you have to do, the most you can muster is a queasy kind of enthusiasm? I had that day reading Koren Zailckas' book, "Smashed: the Story of a Drunken Girlhood."

The book describes in vivid language how the author spent nine years of her life, from age 14 to 23, finding her way into the alcoholic culture. She carefully exposes the reasons behind her habit, how it developed from a bonding ritual to a near-daily fact of life. Candidly, Zailckas describes her parents' attempts to help; the way alcohol affected relationships with boyfriends, roommates and strangers; and the steps she took to alternately hide her drinking from and proclaim it to the people around her, depending on what part of her life they involved themselves in. She acknowledges the choices she made and the problems they caused but as a reader I can understand why.

"At the time, I write off these behaviors as a need to adapt... Later, I'll be able to see that this is how it all starts. I concede to shifting my personality, just a hair, to observe the standards I think the situation calls for. From now on, every time I drink, I'll enhance various aspects of myself... The process will be so incremental that I'll have no gauge of how much it will change me. I will wake up one day in my twenties like a skewed TV screen on which the hues are all wrong. My subtleties will be exaggerated and my overtones will be subdued. My entire personality will be off-color."

Through her story, Zailckas shows drinking having strong social connections, for her and all the other young people she knows. Half the story of the book is the author's own drinking and the other half is explaining the people she drinks with: what their favorites are and how she reacts to them, the ways she changes to fit them.

"I sense Natalie has also taken away a part of me, the pure part that used to order Shirley Temples with dinner because my parents' friends thought it was dimpled and darling, like tap dancing with 'Bojangles' Robinson. Still, the loss is worth it because I have won Natalie's respect. I can tell she is proud of me for having endured the burn of the liquor and the risk of getting caught. Her esteem is worth every sip."

"Smashed" describes the adults in the story as unable to help, mostly because they are unwilling to see the problem and wanting an easy solution (which reads like "we caught you so you're not going to do this anymore") so their own hands won't have to get too dirty in fixing it. From a ministry standpoint, the relationships these adults have with the author are too distant and too inauthentic to have a chance of reaching her.

Drinking, in the story, leads to injury, hospitalization, and bouts of vandalism. In college, the whole community joins in and being drunk loses its stigma and fear of being caught. After graduation, in the business world where alcohol greases all the wheels and keeps all the negotiations running smoothly, it is still acceptable. For the church, I hear a strong indictment in this book to face the culture that's set up this way and challenge it fearlessly.

Although all of Zailckas' experiences with drinking damaged her body and mind in some way, only a few discouraged her at all. After nearly a decade of problem drinking, she began to take her first fumbling steps toward leaving the habit behind. And the book lets us know for her it will be a work in progress, a lifelong struggle. What's unfortunate is that she doesn't seem to find people who will support her in her changing, the way she found them to help her start drinking.

This book isn't a manual for dealing with alcoholism; it's a story. It lets us who care look deeply into the eyes of someone who might be any of the students we work with. Where in the book we see gaps, spaces that loving people might have filled and pointed the author away from her destructive path, we can see where to stand in those same spaces for the young people we know.


Easter Bunny display offends "non-Christians?"

From the youthministry.com weekly newsletter this morning, this link:


To this story: A St. Paul, MN, city office removed a display with an Easter bunny, plastic grass and colored eggs because the people in charge were worried it might offend non-Christians.

Some serious work needs to be done teaching people what things are Christian symbols and what aren't!

Next on the block, reindeer, jack-o-lanterns, and big foam fingers.


Three Things I Would Do If...

Backyard Missionary has some answers to the questions that I linked to last week. And, in good postmodern fashion, some more questions that those answers inspire. One of the check questions is "What would my ministry look like if my salary didn't influence me?" Here's my take on it.

1. I would work with one kid at a time. That one kid would have my complete attention. I would know his parents, her friends, hobbies, school activities and the deepest faith questions in his imagination. If my salary didn't matter, I would not try and make crowds of disciples, just one at a time.

2. I would not let adults interrupt me when I talk to students. On Sunday mornings I circulate all over the church, moving between the two main doors, the great hall and the classrooms. I welcome students and spend whatever time they'll give me chatting with them. And adults come up, important ones, vestry members and committee chairs and fundraising leaders who ought to know better, and start asking questions. They always begin with "I don't want to interrupt you..." and because my salary does in fact matter, I don't point out that they wouldn't be talking to me if they didn't want to interrupt.

3. I would give up administrative time to worship instead. My filing cabinet would be a nightmare (or more of a nightmare than it is now) but I would know what the daily Scripture readings were for each morning. My calendar might not be always up to date and loaded conveniently into my Palm Pilot, but I would be unceasingly offering my students' prayer requests to God. I might not have time to attend every planning meeting, but I would be modeling for the adults in those meetings how much my time with God means to me.

What would my ministry look like, and what would its effect be, if I put these three ideas into practice in my real world and dared my congregation to tell me that my salary matters more?

Jesus, Jesus, make me a match!

Now and then, as part of my ongoing commitment to social research, I surf through a few of the online dating sites, looking over profiles and reading what people say about themselves.

Something I've noticed: in the sections describing an "ideal match" people are starting to be more candid. "I'll be honest," they mostly go, "the person I'm looking for is physically fit and pretty good-looking."

Who does this rule out? Just about everyone, since you know the sentence goes on in the writer's mind, "with a million dollar job and no bad habits." Who's got a chance to get this date?

We're talking in lots of churches about raising our standards, expecting more. "We're a 'come-as-you-are church," said one of our priests in a new member class this weekend, "but not a 'stay-as-you-were' church."

I think a good evangelism line would read like the dating profile. "The kind of person Jesus is really looking for is strong, committed, well-read in Scripture, knows his or her talents and can use them to build the Kingdom." It just needs one tag that the dating site will never have; this detail sets the two apart-- "and with Christ, you-- no matter who you are when you first walk in-- will become that person."

Online dating is about seeking someone who's already perfect, which is at best an unreliable idea. The supposed perfection leads to the relationship. The church takes whatever people we find and invests massive amounts of time and love in them. Thus the relationship leads to the perfection.