Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Hats, Cats, and That's That

I have decided that I'm not a hat person. I want to wear a hat, and I've been looking for just the right kind of hat for a long while but I have yet to find one that fits my head in such a way that I can look in the mirror and go, "Ahh, that's it!" Instead, it's usually, "Ahh, no. Not that one." I say that, sometimes even out loud and, on occasion, my wife can be heard agreeing with me or breaking the silence with, "I don't think so, sweetie." And I listen, so the search continues.

I had a hat once that I really liked and I wore all the time. I bought it when I was a sophomore in high school and wore it into my sophomore year of college. I bought it at the Greece Town Mall, when I was working at the Shed House, which was a pant store, mainly. I was the only guy that worked at the store, which wasn't a bad deal what's so ever! I tried the hat on and the ladies all said it was me. Who was I to argue with four women on that particular day. So I bought it. And wore it.

The hat was made of stiff felt (or something of that nature). It was brown and it fit just right. It had a dark ribbon around the base of the hat. I felt "cool" in it. I wore it when I'd go out on dates, when I went out with my friends, when I went to concerts, when I'd go camping and hiking and canoeing in the mountains. I even wore it to church. It became part of my persona, whatever that was at the time.

When I graduated from high school, two very close friends of mine, Kurt and Bruce, and I went on a month long road trip. And the hat went with me. I remember even wearing it when I went into the ocean in the Keys in Florida. I have know doubt that every girl on the beach thought I was the coolest guy around.

Well, probably not but I was young and naive then.

Here is a picture of Kurt and me sitting in Kurt's van that was to be our living quarters for the trip during July 1976. It was the day before or the day of the big trip. Notice that my hat was right where it belonged.
(At the time, Kurt's hair served as his hat!)

Well, I lost my hat sometime during my college sophomore year. I don't remember what happened to it but for a year plus, while in college, it was my hat and my long blue coat (which I wore during the late fall to early spring). I never could find a hat just like it, no other hat fit just right.

During the summer leading into my junior year someone bought me a new hat. It was a leather hat - tan in color. It had a larger brim than my other hat. I was given the hat just before I went on a canoe trip on the Raquette River in the Adirondack Mountains. It was a trip that several friends and I had taken on numerous occasions together. This trip was the worst we'd ever had been on!!! It rained just about every day, and on the day that we were to portage the two miles around the falls, one of the guys wrenched his back and basically couldn't do much of anything the rest of the trip.  I'm not sure what hurt him more, his back or the continued hard time we gave him when we made his bed, cooked his food, served his food to him, and carried him to and from....everywhere!

As we were taking everything out of the canoes to carry on the long, unbearable two mile hike, I leaned over to grab the canoe and my hat fell off into the river and began to float down toward the rapids/falls. Now, I don't remember if I was able to retrieve it before it took the ride down or if, in fact, it shot the rapids and flew over the falls, but my hat was never the same after that. It was soaked, lost its shape and it never fit right again.

I haven't owned a hat like either of those two again. I've worn a cap on numerous occasions. In fact, I have several caps that I wear. A couple are Looney Tunes and one is a plain tan one with "Germany" on the front that I found lying on a bench in Disney World a couple of years after Heather and I were married. Oh, and then there is a straw hat that I've worn at the beach or when hiking but it fell apart within a couple of months. And a friend gave me his hat during a hike when it was cold and wet and sleeting. He said for me to keep it, so every time I wear it I think of Michael and wonder if his brains might rub off on mine. No such luck, yet.

Not too long ago I stepped into a specialty hat store and looked at the hundreds of hats that they had on display. I tried on a few. None of them felt right. There was one that caught my eye, though, more out of curiosity than interest. It was a fur hat that looked like it was made out of a mink, with face, eyes and tail. The lady said that it was actually made out of a cat. I didn't believe her at first, with her bright blue eyes and a slight smile, but upon further inspection, she may have been telling the truth.
It really freaked me out. I imagined me wearing that hat at some gathering, being the center of attention and conversation with the people around me when, all of a sudden, that cat jumps off my head on to a wayward mouse scampering by and then back onto my head as it munches on its delicacy. Or worse, it decides to go into a feline banshie craze and attack the onlookers after it had ripped my eyes out. No thank you.

Which is why I've never been much of a cat lover. They act too innocent and nonchalant and then can go spastic on you in no time at all. They act "too cool" for me. Have you ever seen a cat do something stupid, like run into a wall or fall off a counter top and have them look at you like you were at fault or, just as bad, as if they didn't do anything stupid at all? "I meant to do that." Dog's will at least admit to you when they flubbed it. They don't hide but, instead, they come to you and seek reassurance that they're OK. "Master, I'm kind of feeling, well, ah, could you give me a hug?" Cat's, on the other hand, say, "Who you lookin' at?"

I've owned two cats in my lifetime. I was a kid then. The first wandered out from the woods by our house in Pennsylvania one day and just hung around and eventually moved in with us. I don't think we actually invited him to live with us but he just did, and for some strange reason, we were OK with that. We called him Charlie. He seemed like a Charlie. He had blond/orange color fur.

He obviously had a rough life before coming to us because one day we couldn't find him around the house. When we looked out across the yard, we saw him at the edge of the parking lot. I called and called to him but he didn't come. If you are given nine lives, it seems to me that you might not want to be so careless that you use them all up. Charlie must have. My dad went to where he was and found him dead. He had been run over, all nine lives used up.

Charlie was a good cat, though.

The second cat we owned I found stuck in a ravine filled with trash. The poor thing must have been there for awhile because it was so scrawny looking. I brought her home and fed her, bathed her, gave her the name "Smokey" and she, too, moved in to stay. Not only that, she blessed has with a litter of kittens. They had the run of the house. We also owned a dog, Penny, who chased these kittens around the house all the time. It was a game to them all. It was the funniest thing to watch, especially when Penny would hit the wood floor and crash into the wall, feeling all stupid and clumsy and coming to me for reassurance and comfort. The cats, on the other hand, when they crashed into the wall, would go behind the couch (or inside the couch!) and lick their wounded pride where no one could see them.

Which is why I've never been drawn to being an owner of a cat.

By now, if you are still reading this lengthy rambling piece, you may be ready for some kind of moral, some kind of spiritual insight or biblical principle. The thing is, this piece is just about my hats and my cats.

And that's that.

PS: For those who might feel that you just wasted your time reading all of the above and then finding no thoughtful insight, I do not want you to go away uninspired. So...

“Some hats can only be worn if you're willing to be jaunty, to set them at an angle and to walk beneath them with a spring in your stride as if you're only a step away from dancing. They demand a lot of you.” - Neil Gaiman

“Owners of dogs will have noticed that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they will think you are god. Whereas owners of cats are compelled to realize that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they draw the conclusion that they are gods.” - Christopher Hitchens

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Attack of the Phone Zombies

I got a new phone yesterday. My wife and youngest daughter will be getting theirs next week, which is why I went ahead and upgraded mine, since our package and monthly bill was going to change whether I upgraded or not, because the ladies were upgrading. Turns out, in the long run, my monthly cellphone bill will be actually noticeably lower. I had the sales guy recheck it three times. Now, how about that! Nonetheless, I have been suffering from buyers remorse. But it dawned on me, I really wasn't. What I am suffering from is upgrade fear.

I haven't had a smartphone in almost 3 years, just had a plain text and call phone. Things have changed overt those years. Phones have become more complicated, they can do more things. So now I have to learn all this stuff all over again, and then some. And have you noticed how, for a while, we were wanting smaller and smaller cellphones, and now we want them larger? My new phone is almost 3x the size of my old one. I feel like I'm packing a gun on my hip! 

As I said, I had a smart phone but downgraded almost 3 years ago. The reason I did so was because I discovered that, when I was in line at a store or waiting for a seat at a restaurant or hanging around outside a music club waiting to get in, I would be on my smartphone, playing games, checking emails, perusing Facebook, surfing the net. What I wasn't doing was engaging with people around me, talking to them, connecting with them. I became convicted that what I was doing wasn't good and that it was detrimental to society. 

I read, according to a June 2012 Mobile Mindset Study that extrapolates its results to the entire country, that about 60% of the cellphone users can’t go for more than one hour without checking their phones for messages, getting online, or whatnot. I doubt most can even go that long. We are quick to say that cellphones have helped us stay better connected with our friends and family, making us better aware of what is going on around us, but I really have doubts about that assertion. As one blogger put it: "We think we’re really connected but there’s a metaphysical disjunct between true reality and really always being virtually connected." We really aren't connecting in a personal, intimate way, where conversations, body language and emotions are being shared with one another. Sorry, but having a conversation by text is not a conversation, and it leaves a whole lot of room for misunderstanding of what is trying to be said. Ask any parent who has just finished having a text conversation with their teenager. And, if the family is lucky enough to have meals together, watch how much the cellphone has become part of the family dynamic, or the lack thereof.

We are human beings who were created to relate with each other; and Christians have been recreated, in part, to share Christ's love with people through words and relationship and action. Smartphones have changed those dynamics! We need to change those dynamics back to a place where we are engaging with our fellow human beings; and for us followers of Christ, we need to stop holding up our phones and putting Christ into our pockets and instead put our phones in our pockets and start holding up Christ's love and grace for others to see.

So, if you see me, and I'm around people, and I spend more than a minute on my phone, please come up to me and say, "Jim, the real world is out here, not in there."

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Doing Church Differently

(I haven't blogged in a long while. It's not that I haven't had anything to say, it's just that I've had difficulty blogging about what has been on my mind. If I could attach something to my brain that would write down the conversations and thoughts that go on up there, it would make things so much easier. I have preached some of my  best sermons in my head or car and I have had amazing conversations with myself over very important issues, and have good arguments as well. You would be impressed. I often am, and I'm not easily impressed! Anyway...)

I have been doing a great deal of thinking about the local church of late. In fact, this thinking process has been going on to one degree or another since I re-entered the ministry in 2004. I'll spare you all the details that led to that re-entry except to say that all that came before had a great impact on changing how I approached ministry and what I believed that ministry, and the church, could and should be. I still have a long way to go!

Over the last couple of years, that thinking process has included another direction. I' been pondering the current state of the local church and the people that are not being attracted to it. These people, encompassing mostly young adults but also a growing middle adult population (I believe) are referred to as the "Nones" because they have no church connection. They no longer attend, either because they've become turned off from the politics of church (small and capital "P"), the hypocrisy of those in  the church, they have been hurt/betrayed/abused by the church in some way, or they simply were not raised in  the church. Recent statistics put these "Nones" at 1 out of 7 adults and 1 out 3 young adults.

Even though the "Nones" have dropped out of or never have gone to church, many of these people, nonetheless, have a spirituality in their lives, believe in God on some level, and have a desire to understand and grow in these areas. They are searching but not by means of the church. Therefore, I believe, the way we do church, and the usual "church" ways we use to reach out to others to get them into church, will not necessarily appeal to them. 

I am no expert, I am simply writing about what I think, and what I have come to think is based on conversations, lots of reading, conversations (I know, I already said that but it's important), my experience, and observations. (See some resources list below.)

The "Nones" (and those who haven't so much left the church but who simply occasional attenders ) not only have a spiritual interest but also desire developing a better handle on "handling" life (don't we all?). They don't want to be preached at (what the church tends to do from the pulpit), they don't want to be lectured (what the church tends to do from the pulpit and in its teaching), and they don't want to be told what they need to do (what the church tends to do from know). They lean more toward self-discovery yet they also want flexible guidance, non-condemning accountability, and conversations that involve the sharing of life stories, experiences, ideas, and acceptance (I call this process "Holy Conversation" - may not be an original idea of mine but it fits). 

I hate to say it but such environments don't typically exist in current church structures. They should but they are usually rare or limited. We can discuss why such environments don't exist at a later time. That should be an interesting  conversation!

It's my growing belief that we need to add a new approach to church planting, not instead of how we church planting now but in addition to how we've been doing it (though I do wonder if we don't need to do some adjusting to how we've been doing it because, honestly, we are now in the 21st century and we aren't getting the "Nones). The problem with this different approach is that it really doesn't fit the typical model that most denominations follow in planting churches, as one looking from the outside in at a distance, so I could be wrong in that evaluation.

Here's my view of it (I can tell you're just giddy with excitement!): 

The "Nones" aren't interested in church membership. They want to belong but not necessarily to a religious organization that seems to emphasize numbers and money, let alone to most major "membership" organizations. They want to be part of a group (typically a small one) where "everybody knows my name," as the song goes. They want to sit around over coffee (tea, soft drink, water, even a beer or a meal) and converse (from which we get "conversation") about life, faith, experiences, hopes and dreams. They want to be challenged to grow but not dismissed or criticized if they hold a differing view or belief with the one(s) who they are conversing with. And even though they believe that truth is relative (what is right for you may not be so for me), they nonetheless are looking for an absolute Truth that isn't changing or fluid. They want to understand this spiritual void that they feel but aren't able to connect with or necessarily explain...their spirit/God's Spirit. And they are struggling to make sense of their life, careers, relationships, family, emotions, etc.; to piece these together and find their purpose. All these come into play on one level or another in the "conversations" they have with friends and acquaintances (walk by a bar or a nightclub or some other hangout and listen to what they are saying to each other, even to complete strangers).

I see a new kind of church emerging, not one that meets in a large building on Sundays but one that meets one day during the week, in the morning before work or over lunch/dinner; or in the evening at a coffee shop or resturant or a home or...anywhere that offers a space. The groups are made up of ten to thirty people (reach thirty and you form a new group). The pastor serves more as a facilitator-consultant-coach than a preacher. The people gather, the pastor sets up the discussion (teaching? - maybe there is a topic), and then asks questions to generate discussion. As this holy conversation moves along, the pastor weaves the Gospel into the sharing of the peoples life stories being shared (isn't the Gospel the greatest of all stories?). People share opinions and ideas and experiences, and in the process, the group learns from each other. The role of the pastor is to help make connections among the group, connect ideas, ask questions that help people discover answers within the discussions and the life stories shared, and from the sharing of the Gospel. 

Of course, the hope and goal is to start several of these groups, develop additional leaders who then help lead other groups. Mission projects can be taken on and shared, supported, and worked by all the groups together. And, in time, a special gathering of all the groups can be implemented on a quarterly or monthly basis, coming together to worship and the sharing of gifts and talents in various ways utilizing the arts (music, dance, art, drama, etc.). And from these groups, as members express interest in going deeper in the conversation, connecting with more spiritual issues, and building on scripture through study, prayer, and deeper accountability, subgroups are formed. (Very much a Wesleyan approach.)

Ok, I've probably rambled on way too long, and I wonder if this makes any sense to anyone besides me. As I said, things are always clearer "in" my head. So, let me go back and re-read this, make any changes, clarifications, or corrections, in hopes that it will be clearer. Feel free during this pause to go to the bathroom, get a drink, or check your emails and texts...

Well, seems like I'm just shy of this being a dissertation! Sorry. The good news? I'm about to wrap this baby up.

I know that there are still a number of questions that need to be answered. How does one go about forming such groups? What about children? How would such a approach be financially supported? How many groups can one pastor oversee? Are these groups autonomous or will they have some connection with each other? What about worship and the sacraments? No membership emphasis? These are but a few, and I'm sure that you may have several of your own. Maybe I can address some of these in another blog, if the interest and response is there.

All this is still a work in process but it has been rolling around my head, and in my heart, for several years. So I decided to try to articulate it so that I can work on refining it. Thanks for reading, and I would love to hear from you, your thoughts, insights, ideas, and questions.

Resources - just a few:

Thirteen Issues for Churches in 2013 part 1 
- Thom Rainer, Blog (be sure to read part 2)

Recapturing the Wesleys' Vision 
- Paul Wesley Chilcote, book

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Walking in Another Person's Flip Flops

OK, I'll be the first to admit that doing a blog post that consists of quotes from a book (again) is probably the lazy persons way of doing things, and there might be some small truth to this, but it really is more than that. As I mentioned in my last post, I've been reading John Fischer's book, "12 Steps for the Recovering Pharisee" and it has some really good things to say about us people who claim Christ as our Lord and Savior but have a way of falling way short of being the kind of witness that truly attracts others to Christ. So, as I read through the chapters, I'll be sharing some quotes from each chapter/step of recovery. If you don't get the book for yourself, hopefully some of the quotes I post will at least get you thinking.

Step 2: We have come to believe that our means of obtaining greatness is to everyone lower than ourselves in our mind.
"We need to learn to see ourselves through other people's eyes to see ourselves as we really are."
"It's virtually impossible to get another view of yourself by yourself. Just like we need at least two mirrors to see the angles most other people see of us, we need other people to tell us who we really are."
"Recovering Pharisees need to have people around them to tell them the truth - to hold up the mirrors."
"It would be wise to look at the groups we travel in and see how honest they really are. Do we have our own prejudices and secrets? Ate we honest with one another, or do we protect one another's weaknesses and sins? Do our groups foster an accurate portrayal of ourselves as we really are, or do they bolster a kind of corporate lie or propaganda?"
"We need friends who tell us the truth - other shoes in which we can stand."
"Standing in someone else's shoes changes our view of ourselves, but it also drastically changes our view of others when we see their situation from their point of view. If we truly see from someone else's perspective, we might at least be able to understand why they do what they do instead of issuing a knee-jerk judgment of what we do not understand."
"Empathy is a marvelous antidote for the tendency to judge others, and personal pain is the pathway to empathy. It's worth the pain to become more human - to identify with people - to join the human race." 
"To empathize with someone you don't even like is a sign that you have accepted and faced your own problems and therefore can understand how other people can be trapped by their own difficulties in life, even if they are difficulties outside your experience." 
"As a Pharisee, there is no doubt that the need to judge other people is at the level of an addiction. It is intimately tied to our sense of identity and is the means by which we feel good about ourselves. We judge without thinking, and it's a habit we can't get along without."
How well do we do when it comes to putting ourselves into another person's shoes? How quick are we to write somebody off or to pass judgment without giving any consideration to what their circumstances might be, how they might interpret a situation different than our interpretation, or how they might have misunderstood our intentions/words/attitudes? How open are we to the possibility that our situation or our interpretation or our intentions, words, or attitudes could be, if not wrong, certainly impact our perspective and opinion?

May God give us the sensitivity, the caution, the compassion, and his grace, to place ourselves in the flip flops of the person we are judging, and give them the benefit of the doubt.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Me, a Pharisee?

Many, many years ago, back in the early 80's, during the first stage of my life as a minister, I did a sermon series entitled, "Me, a Pharisee?" It was a rather pointed message, more pointed that it should have been, at times, and made a few folks upset with me. It wasn't that I wasn't preaching the truth, I was, but you can sometimes preach the truth/Gospel in a way that cracks open peoples heads instead of challenging and healing peoples hearts.

I pray that I'm much different now in how I preach the Gospel and God's Word in my third stage of my life as a minister.

Somewhere around 2001 I was going through a clearance book bin at a Christian book store and came across a book by John Fischer, "12 Steps for the Recovering Pharisee (Like Me): Finding Grace to Live Unmasked." Well, it reminded me of that sermon series from way back when so I bought the book. Besides, it was on clearance and you should never pass up a bargain on a book. It ended up on a shelf, quickly forgotten. As they say, "out of sight, out of mind."

Then last week or so I was working on a sermon and went to the bookshelf to get another book for an illustration I had remembered but accidently pulled off this John Fischer book, which I had forgotten about. I felt compelled to start reading the book. You know what? This is an interesting book and well worth reading. And very uncomfortable and convicting. Now I know why it remained on the shelf!

I would like to share with you some quotes from the first chapter of the book. Read them carefully, thoughtfully, prayerfully, asking God to speak to you about you. 

Step 1 - We admit that our single most unmitigated pleasure is to judge other people.
"Few activities in life rival the thrill of passing judgment on another human being."
"Our eyes look out, they do not look in, and if they are looking for what is wrong, they will always find much upon which to focus.."
"I think to myself, rationalize by myself, decide for myself. I am the author and finisher of my own perspective."
"So long as we remain our own authority, we do not have to be challenged. We can carry on with our own conclusions about ourselves and others, even if they contradict reality, because we are in charge of all the conclusions, and we can bolster our story however we want."
"If I judge even one person, I announce that judgment is the basis upon which I want everyone evaluated - myself included (Matthew 7:1). This is the law of impartiality. You want to judge? Fine, get ready to face the Judge.
"In the same way, if I want mercy for me, then I have to allow it for everyone else, even those who, in my estimation, are 'worse' sinners than I. This is the big picture that we all need to see: Justice for all; condemnation for all. A cross and an empty tomb for all; mercy for all." 
"When God calls for perfection, it is assumed that I cannot perform it. It's the demand for perfection that keeps me relying on God's mercy and grace. But the call to faithfulness is a call I can answer. Faithful to follow, faithful to confess, faithful to obey, faithful to repent, faithful to believe, faithful to pray and seek God - all these are the requirements of faithfulness. All of them are doable and are, in fact, my responsibility and my joy, having been the unexpected recipient of so great a mercy."
"Remember the words of Jesus: Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. for with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Lk. 6:36-38)"
"What an incredible proposition. Want love? Give love. Want mercy? Give mercy. Want acceptance? Give acceptance. Want to judge? Get ready to be judged. Want to escape judgment? Don't judge at all. Don't do it. Get with those who want to get over this problem and remind each other of God's grace."
Might a recommend you get this book and read it for 2012. Get some of your Christian friends together, or your Sunday school class, and read and discuss this book together. I think it is time that we remove the mantle of living and behaving like a Pharisee and start truly living and acting like a follower of Christ. We've done enough damage to our witness as Christians and his Church. We need to remove the masks that keep us hidden, that make us critical and judgmental, and instead have our words and lives be a true reflection of Christ's light and glory.