Sunday, April 29, 2012

Gone Fishin'

I'm not sure the point of all this, but there's something in here.

11 months ago I was a little stressed out. Okay, a lot stressed out. And I needed a stress relief in life. So on somewhat of a whimsy, I posted a facebook update that said, "I think I need to take up fishing again."

Karen instantly replied and said "I've got a lot of old fishing gear sitting unused in the garage - I'll bring it by." And two days later, it was sitting in my garage.

After another month or so, I found a couple free days and headed up to Moneycreek Campground on the Skykomish River, where I sat and fished and read and journaled and prayed and fished and watched some trains and fished. It became an important moment in turning the corner last summer, figuring some things out and doing some necessary business with God.

And I found out Wes was getting into fishing too. So not much later I spent a lovely day on the Olympic Peninsula with Wes and his father-in-law, Bob, trying to track down some King Salmon. Didn't catch any, but it was nice.

But Mike knew I needed more. So late that summer he said the magic words: "want to learn how to fly fish?" And right then and there he gave me my first fly-fishing lesson.

Which led me to Blake and the Gig Harbor fly shop, and a basic fly-fishing setup. And a day on the lake at Cascades Camp catching small-mouth bass. And a couple days last fall fly-fishing for steelhead in Eastern Washington.

And a sunny day on the Stillaguamish last November. And a few days on the shore at Penrose Point over the winter. And a rainy day down at the Lakebay marina last month. And a sunny day out at Lake of the Woods last Sunday, where I began to teach the girls to fish.

And this coming week. I'm flying with some guys to Southeast Alaska for a little retreat time. With plenty of fly-fishing for steelhead. Yum.

I guess I'm just surprised how much change can come into a life because of one simple little facebook update. And the help of a few friends along the way.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

More Thoughts on Dead Bunnies

I promise this will be shorter than the last. But one more thought has been gnawing at me since last week's screed against unhealthy marketing techniques employed by churches in their desire to get people in their doors.

Think about the language employed in that postcard - "Bunnies stay dead. Jesus didn't." Those are fighting words. Those are combative words. Those aren't hopeful words, but judgmental words. They point fingers at all those families out there who think Easter is about bunnies and candy and egg hunts, and they say "you're wrong! Easter is about Jesus!"

Now, don't freak out on me. I firmly, 100% believe that Easter is about the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, late of the grave but now residing enthroned in heaven, awaiting the day of his return to earth. Bunnies and eggs and candy can be, and often are, a distraction from the more important message of Jesus.

But that's insider language. That's language we use when the Church gathers; we remind ourselves that our hope lies in the fact that "He is Risen!" And yes, the message of resurrection can and should enter into friendly conversations when the opportunity arises. This is not a message Christians should keep to themselves.

In other words, I believe when we are gathered, we can challenge each other to keep Jesus first and foremost. And when we're in the company of no-church-goers, if the opportunity presents itself, it can be appropriate to share our hope in the resurrection of Jesus.

But that's not what's going on here. "Bunnies stay dead. Jesus didn't" is just another way of saying "We're right and you're wrong!" This isn't an invitation to anything so much as a criticism of those families and their silly Easter bunny traditions. It's too easy to read this as "We know the truth about Jesus, but you only have your bunnies, so neener neener."

By criticizing the (mostly harmless) celebrations of the people in the community, the church is actually building walls, drawing lines in the sand, creating division where it ought to be building bridges.

I'm reminded of a quote by John Fischer, in his book What on Earth are we Doing?

"Non-Christians today think that many Christians are out to get them, not because they are lost and need to be found, not because they are lonely and need a friend, not because they are dying in their trespasses and sins and need to be saved, but because they are wrong and need to be either set straight or defeated."

There are a lot of families out there just struggling to get by. Families desperate for traditions and moments of togetherness. I know a couple of single moms who are working incredibly hard to build memories for their kids; often, those involve longstanding family traditions like coloring eggs and going on Easter egg hunts. Moments of joy are few and far between; Easter bunnies and Easter eggs are one of the rare moments of frivolity in their otherwise difficult lives.

And suddenly, in the mail one day, out of the blue, comes a postcard saying "You're doing it all wrong! You're a failure for playing with bunnies, when Jesus is the real reason for Easter!" Just what part of that is Good News?

I know, that "Jesus didn't" is supposed to be good news. But the best news, delivered in the wrong way, is still a bitter pill to swallow.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

When Youth Pastors Grow Up (?)

About 10 years ago, there was a youth pastor holed up in his office, trying to think of a creative way to get kids in the door so he could tell them about Jesus. This was a significant part of his job. Yes, actually telling kids about Jesus was important, but getting them in the door occupied most of his energy. Kids were busy with school and family and Halo, kids weren't interested in church, and the kids who were interested were mostly heading to the bigger church down the street, the church with the bigger budget and the cooler toys. So our youth pastor friend here was desperate to come up with a new way to get kids into the door of his church.

On good days, most youth pastors would say their primary goal in life was to introduce kids to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and then to train them as followers of Christ. On more honest days, however. . .the unspoken truth was that their unspoken goal was just to get kids in the door. Yes, before you can tell kids about Jesus you need to meet them, so getting them in the door was a good goal. But in reality, one of the only measures of success that could be gauged was "how many kids are sitting in the seats?" Church members would look at the budget every year, and compare it to "how many kids are sitting in the seats?" Youth pastors would read books and go to conferences and the not-so-subtle message they heard was "effective youth ministries have lots of kids sitting in the seats." All the youth pastors in town would gather for lunch, and everybody knew who the superstars were, who the really important youth pastors were - the ones who had the most kids sitting in the seats. In fact, the really really important youth pastors didn't even come to the meetings, because they were so busy taking care of all those kids that were sitting in those seats.

And of course, they all knew that the way to get kids into those seats was to offer something really cool. Really radical. Really awesome. Really gross. Really relevant. Like a series called "Jesus and Sex and Dating." Or, more often, an event that was just awesome and super and gross. Like when the church across town held the Nickelodeon-style Slime Night, at which the youth pastor and his staff and some of the cool kids all got slimed, and it was gross and awesome and amazing, and all the kids in town were talking about how cool it was when the youth intern (the new hip one) had gotten slimed.

So our youth pastor, the one in our story, had to come up with something even more cool and gross and awesome than slime night. He didn't want to admit it, but he was in competition with all those other churches, so he had to out-cool, out-awesome, out-gross those others. He needed something more super-awesome than Slime Night.

So he sat there, with a couple of his volunteers, and the racked their brains, until an idea popped into his head.

"I know. . .let's have a toilet bowl night! That will be super-gross and funny. We can have toilet-themed games! Like, we could fill a (clean) toilet with Mountain Dew, and throw in some Tootsie Rolls, and make the kids get them out with their mouths - like bobbing for apples, only in a toilet!"

(note: this is an actual youth group event that has been tried in many youth ministries across America. I'm not making it up.)

And then his intern said "Yeah! We could even throw in some mustard, so it looks like diarrhea!" And they all laughed at that one for a good 5 minutes.

They spent the next hour coming up with slogans and toilet bowl relay races and toilet-paper games. The creative arts girl went to work putting together the graphic arts for the flyers. And they all went home that day, stoked at their creativity that was sure to bring in a big crowd to sit in those seats.

Now, the thing is, sometimes in youth ministry, this isn't all bad. Kids like gross and different and fun; they might invite their friends to toilet night, and they'd certainly talk about it for years to come. A steady diet of gross-out super radical youth ministry can be dangerous, but the occasional goofy game night can be a welcome moment of frivolity for stressed-out kids.

What I always wondered, though, was what would happen when all these youth pastors, whose primary giftings seemed to lie in creative ways to fill the seats, grew up and became senior pastors or church planters. There has often been, unfortunately, a correlation between a youth pastor's immaturity and their success, at least insofar as getting kids to sit in those seats. So what happens when that mentality of "immaturity + gross-out factor = more people in the seats" moves upward into the senior leadership in the church?

That question is now being answered. A few years ago a church in a Seattle suburb held a large promotional event, offering free tattoos during their morning worship service. This year's example was a church in South Carolina that mailed out thousands of mass-mail invitations to Easter worship; on the cover was a photograph of a dead rabbit on the road, obvious road-kill, surrounded by plastic Easter eggs.

Setting aside the fact that mass-mail invitations have been proven to be absolutely worthless in attracting people to church, these were sent out with the direct purpose of offending people. According to their pastor, "Are we willing to offend some to get the attention of other folks who have no regard for Jesus, the church, the gospel or Easter?  That's a risk a we're always willing to take."

Listen, the gospel is offensive enough without us adding layers and layers of trumped-up offense. As the Rev. Don Robinson once said, "If we're going to offend people, let's make sure they're offended for the right reasons." Proclaiming the lordship of Jesus? Okay. Mailing out postcards with dead bunnies to unsuspecting families? Not so much.

By the way, that whole 'competing with the church across town' idea was certainly at play here. Because another church in the same town set this sign up to attract people:

If there was one thing lacking in many of the youth pastors I used to know, it was the filter that said "Just because it gets people's attention, it's not necessarily a good idea." And the subsidiary filter that said "Just because it's my idea, it's not necessarily a good idea."

Unfortunately, it seems that, just because these youth pastors grew up and became senior pastors and church planters, they didn't leave behind the "be super-shocking and amazing to get people in the seats" mentality.

Not to rant about this too long. . .but just imagine for a moment you're a frazzled single mom, barely making it through a long day of getting kids up and out the door to school, heading off to work, picking up the kids from day care, running them to soccer practice, heading home for dinner, and then little Susie picks up the mail and finds this picture of a dead rabbit. Exactly what part of that makes you say "Oh yes, I want to go to that church! That looks like a place where I'll find the love, mercy, grace, hope, and friendship I so desperately need! That looks like a place of hope and grace!" Really. . .what non-church attender is going to come to your church because of this? The only people you're really going to attract is people who are already attending other churches, but getting a little bored with the same-old same-old. So you're not spreading the gospel, you're really just stealing sheep with the help of cheap marketing tactics.

And that's not how you build a healthy church.

Addendum 1: Over the last few years I've hung out with many youth pastors who seem to be doing much better at the disciple-making thing, avoiding much of the gimmick-based ministry of earlier days. So don't read this as any kind of judgment against today's youth ministers. The ones I know are pretty cool people.

Addendum 2: I just noticed that Eugene Cho posted a blog about this same subject a few days ago. As usual, he says it a lot better than I did.  

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Songs for Easter

On Friday a thief, on Sunday a King,
laid down in grief but awoke with the keys
to hell on that day, the firstborn of the slain,
the man, Jesus Christ, lay death in his grave.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Friday, April 06, 2012

Songs for Holy Week: Good Friday

Amazing love now flowing down
from hands and feet that were nailed to a tree,
his grace flows down and covers me.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Songs for Holy Week: Maundy Thursday

"The bread of the angels becomes the bread of man;
heavenly bread puts an end to all images.
O wondrous thing!
The poor, lowly servant
partakes of the body of God."

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Book Review: The Gift

In The Gift, Jeffery Mitchell (a Covenant Pastor and colleague) has penned a fable bringing ancient wisdom into present-day life. The larger narrative is a fictionalized tale of Mitchell's visit to a fabled Ethiopian monastery, and his encounter with a fascinating document there. The heart of the story is that document itself - "The Book of Zadok" - which tells of a priest and his work with King Solomon.

While the story is fiction, Mitchell uses the biblical account of Solomon as his framework. We find Solomon lost and confused, seeking clarity from Zadok, Israel's priest. As the story progresses, Mitchell shows a deep insight into the human heart with all its questions, doubts, temptations and hopes. All too often I discovered Solomon's words describing my own inner discussions; Zadok's probing questions forced me to consider the masks behind which I often hide. Mitchell's work as a spiritual director shines through in the way he senses the work of the Spirit in the human heart.

Most helpful, rather than come from a position of already knowing it all, Mitchell shares his own struggles to understand and implement Solomon's "Seven Pillars of Wisdom." Thus the book comes across as the gentle encouragement of a friend, rather than a lecture of a superior guru.

The Gift is a small book and an easy read, with enough of a plot to keep the reader interested, but its depth is surprising. This is a book that could be read multiple times, with new insights gleaned at each passing. One could make comparisons to other, more famous 'fictional allegories' in the Christian book market (I won't name names), and the truth is, The Gift is among the best I've read in recent years. As a bonus, a small study guide is available on Jeff's website.

Thanks to Evergreen Press for gifting all ECC pastors with The Gift at this year's Midwinter Conference, and to Jeff for sharing his gift with the world.

Songs for Holy Week

(not sure what the slideshow has to do with the song, but I've always loved the lyric. . .)

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Songs for Holy Week

Once again, the Agnus Dei - "Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world."

Monday, April 02, 2012

Songs for Holy Week

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.