Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Toilet Bowl Sermons

Sometimes people ask me what I think about youth ministry, and I fear they regret asking the question after they receive a wikipedia's worth of ramblings that culminate in principles which raise a defiant fist to conventional practice and offer them little solace. . .

And occasionally I get someone who is even more specific and asks me what I think about middle school ministry. . .that answer is a lot shorter:

"I don't believe in it." (awkward pause)

Then I laugh and tell them I'm kidding. . .which I am. . .barely.

Maybe it's just all the scars speaking. . .

It was a hot, humid, and sandy summer in the lowcountry of South Carolina. . .which may be the most redundant sentence I've ever typed.

I was invited to speak at a middle school summer camp on a murky body of water they called a lake. It sounded so good on paper: bring the family, stay next to the lake for a week, only speak in the evenings, etc.

In reality, the heat all week felt like we were wearing black sweat pants as we sat in the Devil's locker room. . .the humidity was so thick butterflies were wearing headbands. There were bugs everywhere, beetles scurrying into our concrete apartment, dragonflies the size of vultures dive-bombing your head as you tried to avoid the clinging black-grey gritty dirt and the sand spurs (which is like trying to avoid political conversations on Facebook in October).

The concrete apartment we stayed in reminded me of a prison cell, which is appropriate, because the food also reminded me of prison. I bet their head cafeteria worker had a poster of a food pyramid on the wall with hot dogs as the base and carbohydrates you can serve with an ice cream scoop making up the rest of it. My memory is a little hazy but I think the only flavors the soft serve ice cream machine had were Pickle and Foot Stew. . .

 My first night speaking to a room of 200 middle schoolers was also a wonderfully unique experience. The standard Youth Worship Service at these camps, if at full capacity, looks something like this:
Loud Intro Music the Youth Pastor Still Thinks His Students Listen To
(Host Pastor Grabs Band and Speaker so we can "Pray Real Quick")
Opening Video/Announcements Promising Next Big Thing To Be Awesome
Barely Practiced Skit OR Game Found on the Internet or Re-Heated From Youth Events Past
Awkward Transition to Worship Band
17 Member Youth Band Takes Five Minutes Situating Themselves
Lead Singer Prays to Regain "Focus" Lost During Last Five Minutes
3 or 12 Songs Sung By the Band and First Half of Auditorium
Speaker Delivers Paradigm Shifting Prophetic Word of Truth
Songs of Reflection/Commitment/Weird Staring at Band
Closing Comments and/or Re-Preach by Host Pastor

But my Host Pastor had a bit of a wrinkle. . .we just started the singing right away, which I was very encouraged by. . .but then he decided the Game would go next and then me. . .

As the Youth Band finished up a pretty solid set with a blistering combo of Tomlin and Hillsong, the GameMaster got up as he his crew set up the Game. . .which I will now describe to you and give you my usual disclaimer when Truth is about to arrive: I am not making this up.

They brought out 2 toilets, yes, 2 porcelain toilets, that I assume were purchased new and never used. The bottoms of the toilets had been sealed shut and were able to hold liquid, which was fortunate, because they began to fill the toilets up with Mountain Dew. . .Mountain Dew they said represented the other brightly colored liquid usually occupying  toilet bowls.

The next part of set up was the volunteers individually unwrapping bags of mini Baby Ruth candy bars and plopping them into the pseudo-urine filled pots. These Baby Ruths represented the deposits typically made at the First Bank of Porcelain but can also be found in the diapers of toddlers and in places where insensitive dog owners walk their dogs. . .

The Game itself would require the participants to get on their hands and knees and bob by sticking their heads in the toilets and using only their mouths to remove the Lil Surprises from their soup. The winner would be the person who could create the biggest pile of sugar turds. And Katniss thought her Hunger Games were cruel. . .

I forget who won and what the tally ended up being-- I was too busy dry-heaving over my sermon notes. The Game crew came out at the end of the game and removed the toilets and Baby Ruth bombs as the Host Pastor came up for my introduction. . .

"We're really excited to have for our preacher this week, Matt Orth. . ."

No one was listening to him or looking at me as I came up; they were too busy watching the laughing helpers mop up the carbonated pee behind me. . .

To this day, it's probably my best introduction ever.

So what did I do next?

I prayed. Then I taught and proclaimed the Gospel.

Years later I don't remember what message it was or what the response was. . .but I do remember this one thing:
The Gospel was preached right where it always has been and where it always belongs: in the muck and messiness of real people's lives. (just sometimes the metaphor is a tad more literal)

Matt O.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Holy Ghost RSVP

Do you remember getting handwritten invitation cards to birthday parties when you were a child? There wasn't much better than getting that primary colored card with the confetti, balloons, and noisy horn clipart on the front declaring "PARTY TIME!". . .or when you occasionally got the themed birthday party invite. . .perhaps you can remember the accompanying artistic masterpieces with those themes:
(The answers are: Cowboy, Train, and Skate Party)

I grew up before Power Rangers, Dora, Barney, Pokemon, Spongebob, and the Internet. Our options were severely limited. And sure we did have Scooby Doo. . .but if he showed up at your party, it was going to be the dad of the birthday kid wearing a homemade outfit the wife sewed together with fabric from a Thrift store and Scooby's head would be some lumpy paper mache project they paid the art teacher fifty bucks to make. . .

Regardless, getting those invitations for a party were like little mini-Christmases throughout the year. A party! And I'm invited! (Please, please, please have ice cream caaaaaake!)

The standard invitation packs of yesterday have been obliterated in this era of digital photography and accessible technology. Now we have professional level invites going out with our actual kids on the cards. . .and social networking capabilities to instantaneously send out invites for any party. . .who knew?

With the increase of official invitations, there seems to have been a corresponding increase in the number of parties our society has. . .I get invited to engagement parties, wedding showers, the weddings themselves, baby showers, baby birthdays, cook outs for youth groups six hours away, something called Bubble Safari and Sorority Fundraisers for the Troops that involve kissing them. (Thank you Facebook, and no, I did not make any of those up.)

With the onslaught of invitations, it is easy sometimes to forget the joy of being invited. . .for your presence to be desired at a celebratory event, to belong to a fellowship of joy and laughter. There is power in genuine invitation, a power that makes people feel welcome and loved. Correspondingly, no one likes to feel as if the invitation wasn't genuine or sincere. . .that they were just invited because you hit "send to all" or you were worried about their feelings. . .(Just ask some of the hobbits from Bilbo's big party. . .)

My first thought would be to remember the power of invitation in regards to the people in your life, both those who feel included. . .and especially those who feel excluded. . .

But additionally I wanted to write about God and the way we invite Him to our churches. . .

A common prayer phrase I hear at the beginning of our worship services goes something like this:
"And God, we just want to invite you into this place this morning. . ."

I used to get frustrated by that prayer because I felt we people don't really have the power of invitation. . .He is God and He can show up anywhere He wants to. . .

I pictured it like the young child who kept signs on the bedroom door saying "Keep Out" or "Do Not Enter" and the child then pretentiously allows the parent into the room. . .the same parent who gave them life, raised them, pays for the house, and gives them the square footage for their own bedroom and everything in that bedroom. . .

Let me tell you something you little bugger, I can enter this room any time I want to! Who are you to invite me?!

I no longer get frustrated in that way about the prayer. . .because as a parent I get to experience the joy of those moments. . .Even though I can enter my child's room any time I want. . .it feels great to be truly invited into the room. . .

God literally sent Jesus to die to redeem us back into relationship with Himself. . .I believe to be invited into our "bedrooms" is special for Him too. . .even though He is already there and can manifest Himself any way He chooses anytime He wants to. . .

Now the questions for me are. . .
Do we really want Him to "show up" or is it just a polite invitation we give out of ritual?
If He does "show up", how do we know?
and probably most importantly. . .
If He doesn't come to the party, how do we know?

If there's one thing I learned about parties growing up. . .
Everyone knows it when the stars of the party are there. . .and when they aren't.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

How to Find a Burning Bush

You've been in a desert for forty years, eyes with a permanent squint from glaring watchfully over your flock, the finest of wrinkles at the edges, hands calloused to the point where they've cracked all over, the only smooth places are where the wood staff is gripped, your one constant companion during your imposed exile.

The pattern of a shepherd's existence has become a rhythm you move to every morning, every day, every evening. Even the variables of new sheep and new behaviors have been assimilated into your silent liturgy--highs and lows, sun and rain, predators and prey, all surrendering to your regiment, a magnetic pull that allows no freedom.  Today, this day, is every day. And the days have embraced you and made you a seamless part of the irresistible tide of the desert. . .

Is that fire? Probably. You've seen fire before, many times. Most of the time a lightning strike will hit a dry patch of brush and burn itself out--occasionally it will be a fellow wandering shepherd who left their coals thinking them covered well. . .

That is fire. And it is burning brightly, consistently, and. . .permanently? Let us go over to it and see what is going on. . .it's just a slight break in the pattern, a minor detour, a one-time anomaly. . .let us go see why this bush burns but does not burn up. . .

We know what happens now, don't we?
Moses encounters Yahweh, the great I AM, and he finds himself standing on holy ground, a place where sandals come off and heads are bowed. The fire, the bush, the Voice, and the calling all shattered Moses' four decade pattern of shepherding in the wilderness. The Burning Bush is the beginning of one of the grandest narratives of the Bible, the Exodus of God's people, the journey from slavery to freedom, from death to life. . .

I was recently at a conference where I met a very articulate, educated young woman who was  practicing law in a big city. We were sitting at a table in the volunteer's room after lunch and I was asking her typical get-to-know you questions. . .

"So wow, you're getting to practice law in a very specific arena, is that what you've wanted to do?"

"Not really. I'm just doing it for now. I'm called to work with orphans in ___________ but I'm waiting for the fire, you know?"

"What if the fire never comes?"

I received a very shocked and blank look.

Only one person in the Bible ever got a burning bush--and he didn't want it. He wasn't even looking for it, and when he got the Burning Bush moment, he tried to reason with God out of it with some quickly put together rationalizations. . .

I told this young lady that if she had a calling to do something, then she might want to consider the next step as doing it and not waiting for miraculous fire sent from on high to settle into her heart. . .

I had limited time with her, and had already shocked her with my statements so I backed off but I could've gone further and said that "Burning Bush Moments", meaning clear definitive times in God's presence where we worship in awe and understand what we are to do, come more frequently when we are already walking and working in obedience. . .rather than when we are waiting for a supernatural passion to arrive. And even then we are not promised those unique otherworldly moments. . .we may get them (once every 40 years?) but we are most assuredly not promised them.

I was still mulling these thoughts and had just jotted them down on my little mini-clipboard with its mini-legal pad when one of the emcees of the event shared a poem. . .about a burning bush.

It is from Elizabeth Barret Browning and it goes like this:

Earth's crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God;

But only he who sees, takes off his shoes - 

The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

And here is the real secret of the Burning Bush. . .the real secret of experiencing heavenly fire and walking in wonder and awe. . .

Are we willing to slow down our frantic pace, take off our efficiency and profit goggles, switch off our consumer engines, turn down the noises of a million media devices and power down the screens of isolated connectivity enough that we can see the fire all around us and smell the roses of this spectacular garden that has been granted to us? Will our sandals stay pragmatically on as we pluck the blackberry and see only a pie for our appetites. . .or will we fling them away in joy and awe seeing in this bush a miracle of Creation? (Which will make them taste all the sweeter. . .)

The sacred spaces are all around us. . .Lord, give us eyes to see. . .

Matt O.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Night the Tooth Fairy Didn't Come

Raising children is a complex stew of consistency, sacrifice, endurance, creativity and joy. Each moment in the relational process of raising your child contains at least one of these elements, and sometimes even all five. The first concept there, consistency, is a huge one, because it encompasses everything from discipline to family traditions. . .and woe to the parent who breaks the pattern of tradition. . .

Our oldest daughter, Micah, was around six, highly verbal, extremely imaginative and quite passionate, and she instantly loved the concept of family traditions. For her, if we did it once and she enjoyed it-- it was thereby a Tradition which must be repeated. . .and the more creative it was, the more it should be concreted into the patterns of our existence.

It was the perfect storm then: a child who loved imaginative and repetitive activities and the childhood sacrament of The Tooth Fairy. . .

Wait! I go through the pain of losing this bloody wiggly tooth and I get to hide it under my pillow and a whimsical creature from the Other comes while I sleep and pays for my shoddy first edition dental work with cold hard cash? Sign me up!

We added to the allure by paying her in gold Sacajawea dollars (You remember those right? A surefire top ten entry on the Bad Ideas of the Millennium List, ranking up there with peanut butter and jelly in the same jar, George Lopez getting his own late night show, or this product which has a firm grip on the #1 spot) You ever try to pay for something with Sacajawea dollars? People look at you like you gave them a handful of buttons. Nonetheless, my daughter loved getting those 2 gold coins, it was like pirate's treasure (delivered by an orally fixated pixie of course).

It was the night of Tooth #3. . .we had established with the previous teeth the pattern of bedtime hide and morning reward with the Tooth Fairy, and Micah was excited for the tradition to manifest once again. My wife was working late that evening on her animal business and I had some friends over for a sporting event and general male ballyhoo. We tucked Micah in for the night, finished our assorted activities, and went to bed late. . .

Our alarm clock the next morning sounded really weird. . .it sounded like a wailing kindergartener was standing by my ear. . .I woke up in my normal way, which is like a dimwitted bear after a winter of hibernation, and realized there was a wailing kindergartener standing by my ear.

My daughter was at eye level with her palm held out, a tiny misshapen piece of enamel known as an incisor lying there desolate and alone, her mouth contorted into the Saddest Frown Ever, with the following words being bansheed into my ear canal at a volume usually reserved for tornado sirens:

"She didn't come. She didn't come. SHE DID-N'T COOOOOOOME."

My wife and I bolted upright then and gave each other the patented Marriage Look known as the I Thought You Were Going To Face. We followed this up with the We're the Worst Parents in the Galaxy Face and the She's Going to Start Piercing Body Parts at Age 8 Because We Didn't Love Her Enough Face. . .

That moment may have been the worst I've ever felt as a parent. . .the sheer disappointment radiating from my child was completely my fault. . .I straight up forgot a cherished childhood tradition. . .

Shannon and I recovered nicely, her swooping in with the compassionate hug and tone of voice that moms seem to have intuitively better skills in, and I came up with a Plan B which began a few minutes later with a knock at the door. . .

Shannon calmed Micah down enough to hear the knock on the door and said,
"I wonder who that could be? Would you like to answer the door?"

Micah shuffled all teary eyed and red faced to the door and opened it. . .and there on the porch was a letter addressed to her. . .

It was a letter from the Tooth Fairy explaining why she didn't come (The Boogeyman delayed her), apologizing profusely (She normally would never let this happen) and here was a quick treasure map to the gold coins, just leave your tooth there when you find them (I had to hide the gold so the Boogeyman wouldn't get it).

We got dressed and had a fun treasure hunt together, and then went to the computer and started a children's book called The Night the Tooth Fairy Didn't Come (a work still in progress). That morning of disappointment has turned into one of our favorite family memories. . .

One of the things I like to study is the effect and role of unmet expectations in our lives. . .
We all have expectations and the vast majority of the time we genuinely expect them to be met. . .and when they aren't, our responses usually include any combination of disappointment, disillusionment, anger, frustration, bitterness, whining, or isolation.

Expectations and how they are fulfilled or not fulfilled affect us every day. . .even to the simplest things. . .
We get angry at the red light not because it is red but because we expected it to be green.

We get disappointed at the movie for not meeting the expectations we had after we saw the preview, at the meal for not looking or tasting like the commercial showed it or the menu described it, at the product we just purchased because it didn't function the way we wanted to or make us feel the way we thought it would. . .(or the TV show LOST didn't end the way we wanted it to and we're still cynical about committing to any drama in primetime ever again. . .)

But even more insidious and destructive is the way our feelings can fester and cause isolation in our relationships both with people and God. Unmet expectations poorly handled have derailed many a faith journey, marriage, and friendship. . .

We cannot realistically expect people to never hurt us (by forgetting the "tooth fairy") nor can we expect God to always act in the way that we want Him to (That would make us God and Him a circus performer on our leash). I am not saying we walk around only with the expectation to be disappointed, but it would make many of us way more healthy all around if we stopped placing lofty and mostly unvoiced expectations on God and our relationships. . .and concurrently stopped wailing inwardly about those expectations when they are not fulfilled the way we want them to be. . .

In fact, I think many of us are missing the "knocks at the door" because we are too busy screaming "She didn't cooooommme!". . .and if you don't hear the knock, you can't enjoy what might be one of the best treasure hunts ever. . .

"I wonder who that could be? Would you like to answer the door?"

Matt O.

Quick Bonus Story if you aren't tired of reading yet. . .
I think it was Tooth #5 where Micah knew the Tooth Fairy was just us, and she concurrently was very into fairies in general. So that night I put on her little costume fairy wings she had, grabbed her fairy godmother wand and had Shannon take a picture of me sneaking into her room as the Tooth Fairy. I printed off the picture, folded it, and placed it with the Sacajaweas. The next morning she came out of her room not laughing, but screaming, and yelled:
"The Toothy Fairy is NOT A BOY!"
. . .and proceeded to tear up the picture and leave it in the hallway.
You see, once again, unmet expectations!

And I just found this:

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Binkies for Wrinklies (Part 2)

The danger in pacifying by preference is that you can end up with a congregation of babies.
The power of pacifying by love is you build a community of worshipers who belong to one another.

We left yesterday with those main thoughts as we told the tale of Evelyn Cash & The Cup. . .a few more thoughts before I head to the beach for a week of vacation. . .

The goal of your pastoral leadership should never be to make everyone happy, or to remove all reason for complaint. Spirit-led leadership is about shepherding people to love the Lord God with all they are, and to love their neighbors as they love themselves. This has to mean that there will be differences in preferences amongst the flock, otherwise we are only loving those who are just like us. We cannot  truly love unless we are laying down life, and you can't lay down life if you are surrounded by people who all have the exact same preferences as you.
The battle that used to rage in church communities (and still does many places) between Hymns vs. Choruses is a great example. . .instead of learning to serve each other by insisting that the other receive their preference, we pacify ourselves by creating a service for our specific preferences. Or we plant a church that caters exclusively to "our people". . .(I'm a church planter and I recognize this tendency in me as well: the people want something, give it to them quick, before they become upset!)

The older generation and the younger generation continue to separate by preference and personal details because they desire first and foremost to have it their way.

We need diversity to learn what love means. Unity isn't being homogenous, it's about different and unique people becoming One Body because they serve One Lord. We need to learn to build bridges with love when the complaints come rather than racing around to put out the fires of superficial discontentment. The guilt is on leadership for taking this approach too often. . .but the guilt is also equally shared (and sometimes more so) by those of us who sit in services and act like babies demanding their bottle and "pacy" and not giving our leaders the freedom to shepherd. Or having the patience with each other to bear with one another in love. . .

We often think the state of immaturity in American Churchianity is due to theological issues. . .

But maybe it's just because we're immature.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Binkies for Wrinklies (Part 1)

She sat halfway back, right on the aisle, an elbow crooked over the side. It was her seat. The congregation had become familiar with her presence in that location and thus had conceded the spot to her dominion, sort of like squatter's rights for church pews. It was a 200 year old congregation, and Evelyn Cash had sat in her pew for 199 of them. Give or take.

She was always early, which was a good thing, because she wouldn't have been able to give the church bulletin a thorough pre-service edit otherwise. Evelyn had a perfect helmet of hair, "done" every week, gray and white, with highlights of ashy blue mixed in. Large glasses accentuated the predator's eyes, which roamed the sanctuary for the out of place: a fallen offering envelope, missing flags from the stage perhaps, or a youth pastor with an untucked shirt or an unwanted goatee.

Once the "out of place" were located, any listeners unluckily caught in her whirlpool of grumbling got to hear about them from a perfectly pinched and wrinkled mouth, like she had been born smoking an invisible cigar and told to never let it slip from her lips lest she die.

I was the untucked and goateed youth pastor who knowingly swam into the whirlpool each Sunday morning, hoping each week my chipper can-do attitude would break the chains of complaining. . .

"Good morning Evelyn, how are you?"

It's cold in here.

It's hot in here.

I don't know any of these songs.

I saw some of your kids running around outside behind the gym.

You think he's gonna preach past twelve again this week?

Where's the choir? We haven't had the choir in a month.

No organ? These songs don't sound right without the organ.

When are you going to shave that?

Slowly, Evelyn became my enemy and her negativity just an accepted part of my Sunday morning liturgy. Arrive early. Help the Pastor get ready. Meet my students. Tell my students not to run around behind the gym. Get an earhole of complaint from Evelyn Cash.

I began complaining about her complaining. She was becoming a joke to me and the students, like a church version of the old men in the balcony on the Muppets, except without the humor. I wish she'd get with the program and stop being so negative.

"Good morning Evelyn, how are you today?"
"They moved the water fountain out of the foyer."
"Yeah, it was leaking on the floor, and now we have more room to greet people."
"Hrmmmm. Well, now I can't get a drink when I come in."

I just walked away gritting my teeth and shaking my head. And then a thought occurred to me, Evelyn Cash is my enemy, what am I supposed to do with my enemies? Love them.

I went downstairs and got a cup from the kitchen, filled it up from the water fountain and brought it back to the sanctuary. . .

"Here you go Evelyn."

 A pause. Something resembling a tentative smile crept onto her face, a coy look softening her hawk eyes. . .

"Thank you."

One cup of cold water was all it took. I got pre-service hugs each week instead of complaints about my casual attire. Some weeks I even slid into the pew beside her and flirted a bit. . .

"Whatcha know good looking?"
"You stop it!"

A highlight of our holiday youth group caroling that year was stopping at Evelyn Cash's and everyone getting hugs from a teary and gentle saint. (Pic below, complete with my Youth Pastor Hair Blonde Edition 2.0)

I remember the story of the cup of cold water that turned an enemy into a friend often, because it speaks in multiple ways to life in American Churchianity. . .

I've already commented recently on the lost art of listening to those who have stories to tell (http://rustytugboat.blogspot.com/2012/09/lost-quotes-post-4.html) so I won't go into that any further. And the lesson on loving your enemy rather than complaining about them or avoiding them speaks for itself. . .but another thought. . .

Pacifiers (or Binkies) are what we give babies to stop them from crying, to pacify them, to calm them down. They are momentary fixes in the emotional development of the child, and parents with toddlers who love pacifiers have to not only potty train them, but also eventually get them off the binky.

Did I pacify Evelyn? Without being condescending, I did to some degree. But how did she go from crying to contentment? With an act of love, with a bridge of relationship by serving her. She was not pacified by me succumbing to her preferences. I did not order the music team to play the 17 organ-led hymns of Evelyn's worship canon every service for the rest of her life.

The danger in pacifying by preference is that you can end up with a congregation of babies.
The power of pacifying by love is you build a community of worshipers who belong to one another.

Tomorrow we will journey a little farther along with these thoughts. . .

Matt O.

Friday, October 5, 2012

How Are You?

"How are you?"

How am I? How am I?

Will you wait for an answer
or will you walk by grinning
knowing I'm just fine,
just like you, just like him, just like her?
We're all fine.

Good, good, and you?

"How are you?"

How am I? How am I?

Stand here and listen as I keep your hand in the grip of the shake you meant to release,
as I hold on and answer the question you asked but didn't really mean. . .
You have asked, and I will answer,
I will look you in the eyes and open my heart and my mouth and you will receive an answer,
a piece of me and we will no longer be
strangers bumping politely in the same dark ocean. . .

How am I?

Drink deeply from the wells of life was once the magnetic drumbeat of my soul.
The echoes of the Creator are everywhere, dance accordingly.
Yet other drummers crowded in, other rhythms to move to,
although it was no dance. . .
It was a trance, a shuffling, I became a zombie of the highest order,
craving not the flesh of the living
just content to flail along slowly to the next numbing destination.
Alive, yes, but unaware.
How am I?
Well that drumbeat has returned. . .
At first an uncertain thump off in the distance
like a clap of thunder from a storm whose rain you may not feel. . .
Thum. Thum.
I took a rest from aimless wandering, a pause from coasting on momentum from memories past
and I turned that ear of the spirit towards that far off call.
Thum. Thum.
A Wind rustling browning leaves, 
An alarm clock long forgotten
waking a weakened sleeper.
I grabbed my pilgrim's compass and found it faithfully pointing still towards
rich soil, high seas, and colors that could paint the gray world alive. 
How am I?
I am stretching out folded wings for the first time in ages, shaking dust off tools long forgotten and reclaiming paradigms and epiphanies of an eternal vocabulary. . .
restoring mental faculties filed away flippantly by the dictator of real life.
I am allowing the muses and the rainbows to restore the joints of flight and fancy
with their otherworldy magic,
to whisper whimsically the nameless things in my life and make this tin man dance again.
Drink deep from the wells of life.
He is good. And He gives good gifts. 
And they are present in every sparrow, every hair, every breath.
Each joy, each pain, each hope, and each death.

How am I doing?
Oh friend, I am fine.Very fine, thank you very much.
But now I ask:
How are you?
Matt O.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Gambling with Orphans

"There is a youth group in Southern California who decided to adopt an orphanage in Brazil and support them with prayer, service, and monetary giving. The teenagers help get monthly sponsors for the orphans and they organize one big mission trip to go there every year. In addition to just serving the people who live and work at the orphanage, the youth group likes to arrive with a large financial donation. I'd like to tell you the way the youth pastor and his students fund their trip and where the money comes from for the donation. . .
One Saturday night, every month throughout the year, they hold a Casino Night. The Gym gets transformed into a gambling casino complete with lights, decorations, card games and dice games. The teenagers dress up in formal wear and are the dealers and hosts for the event, running the games, handing out mixed non-alcoholic drinks, etc.
They invite the church and the whole community to attend and it's a big hit. The deal is this: any winners get to keep what they win but whatever the "house" makes goes to support the orphans, 100% of it. So far, they haven't had to do any car-washes, and the orphanage is thriving thanks to this youth group. So, our first question is. . .what do you think about this youth group?"

These were the opening words of an Ethics class that my partner-in-ministry-crime Seth and I taught over ten years ago in a local church. The room was packed. It was a Sunday School room for 45 but there were at least 65 people in there, from senior citizens and college students to homeschooling moms and blue collar dads. I blame the high attendance on the announcement we gave from the stage in Big Church the previous week. . .
. . .the announcement where Seth and I threw out to the crowd various ethical questions like "Is it ever right to lie?" or "Should we ever disobey the government?". In the midst of that announcement, Seth went in slang mode, cocked his elbows in the air, mimed pinching a cigarette in one hand and yelled "Can Christians ever burn one?" The crowd erupted in laughter, and ten days later we had an overflowing class. Was it our humor they were drawn to or did they really want to know if they could burn "one"? We may never know.

We started off the class with a "What do you think?" question about the gambling Youth Group in California. To this day, it might've been the most electric 60 minutes of Christian Education I've ever been a part of. . .it was like we had all the Republicans and Democrats of the world in one room and told them we could only nominate one person for president and it was going to be Lady GaGa.

You know those small groups when a leader throws out a question and then ends up answering it because they waited for two minutes and all they got was one mumbled cliche from someone staring at the floor? Well, this group was the opposite of that with gas thrown on it. . .

People had opinions and they let 'em fly. The following are some quotes as best as I can remember them. The one about smoking crack is the only one I'm sure I got right verbatim. Yep, the one about smoking crack. . .

"I don't see what's so wrong with it, as long as the money is going to a good cause."

"Gambling is wrong. End of story."

"Show me in the Bible where gambling is wrong."

"What's the difference between spending a few bucks a month on the lottery and gambling thousands of dollars a year on the stock market."

"There's a difference! One's an investment!"

"Really? I thought it was you taking a chance of making a ton of money off a smaller amount of money. It's like a lottery for rich people."

"We're supposed to be influencing these kids for good. Might as well take 'em to the street corner and teach 'em to smoke crack!"

The class went back and forth, with Seth and I occasionally jumping in and playing Devil's Advocate (or assuming the role of  Referee of Civility) and I'm pretty sure we could've filled a second hour. Maybe a third.

We calmed everyone down at the end to give our closing speech which went like this. . .
"There is no youth group in California doing Casino night. We made that up. We are not endorsing gambling or even saying that the ends justify the means. We did want to start this Ethics class off with a dialogue that made us examine what we believe and why we believe it. But we also wanted to point out that life is very complicated and sometimes the easy answers or the cookie-cutter answers we've always had or heard don't satisfactorily answer all the questions. 
This class is going to be about navigating some big questions with grace and understanding, teaching us to think through our decisions and actions in a way that is true to the Scriptures but not necessarily what we've always heard."

The class eventually dwindled to about 30 people. After the first class, we had one older gentleman who had a severe hearing problem leave the church in anger saying we were promoting gambling. I tried to invite him back but he didn't hear that either.
The quote of the night, however, came from a middle-aged woman, who didn't leave the church but did leave the class. . .
"I didn't know it was going to be like that. I thought they were going to tell us what to believe."

Christianity at its core should not be a religion (though it manifests as very religious most of the time) but rather a relationship. And relationships require relating with another personality personally. We cannot be content with others telling us what God is like, or just telling us to behave in a way that pleases the Big Guy Upstairs, we must walk in the relationship ourselves. . .and we'll probably end up with the same conclusions most of the time anyways. . .but I like actually drinking the Pumpkin Spice Latte as I walk amongst the falling leaves as a crisp wind flows around my newly unearthed sweatshirt. . .rather than just saying "Oh, yeah, I just love Autumn, too!" because my favorite news reporter or blogger said "that's what we do, we love fall!"

And there aren't always perfect blocks to put into all those weird shaped holes that life keeps showing us (more and more as you get older). . .I don't want other people's factory-issue blocks to cram into those spaces, I want to have a personal relationship with God where I trust Him in such a way that we can fashion blocks together even using my doubts and uncertainties in the process.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go place a bet on a horse named T Party. . .my preacher said he's real fast. . .

Matt O.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Playground Preachers

In late 2000, I began to be blessed with opportunities to go on the road and teach about following Christ to teenagers. (I was also blessed because someone bought all the Twinkies and Spam I had left over in my Y2K bunker.) The prayer process back then of deciding where to go to preach was similar to many single young men's prayer lives: "Lord, if they want me then I want them".

I drove all over the Southeast, most of the time to remote places, ending with me trying to read tiny painted signs at night on a deserted and wooded road. This was pre-GPS and smartphone, so all I had were the old school Google directions which printed out 64 extra lines of copy and gave you a map the size of a postage stamp, and my internal compass which had I been a sailor would have caused me to be thrown overboard.

I remember one event from those early years I had been asked to speak at, a youth revival in a hidden county in Tennessee that I U-turned and christian-cursed my way to. . .

I arrived and met the gentle and unassuming youth pastor as well as the keyboardist and his wife who would be leading the singing (Back to back keyboardist blogs!). The standard protocol for these events after meeting each other and judging whether or not you have "buyer's remorse" already (Ex: "This guy looks like one of those worship leaders" "I bet this youth pastor can't even spell CHUBBY BUNNY" "This preacher doesn't look like an evangelist, heck, he looks like he could be on the chess club at the high school", etc.) is to then go over The Event  and make sure we're all on the proverbial same page. This is usually followed by 1 of 2 different kinds of meals:

1. Pizza, with side dishes of chips and soda, often times off brand soda like Mountain Moon Drops or Dr. Thunder. Often the pizza is picked up by a well-meaning Soccer Mom who in her never-ending thirst for perfect planning picked the pizzas up 85 minutes early just in case something goes wrong. Nothing will go wrong lady, you just stack them on the tables. This leads to cold and cardboard like pizzas. Also, you eat with the students, who do not want to eat with you because you are lame and old and they have no idea if you're going to be a Yell At Them and Get Me Saved (Again) Youth Preacher or a Funny Stories From College That Usually Involve Pee, DooDoo, or Puke Youth Preacher. You don't want to sit with Option A and things are unknown at this point. (Unfortunately, I was neither A or B and went for Mad Prophet Youth Preacher and ate with one hand, standing on a chair, bugging out my eyes and pointing with my other hand and mumbling the words "hidden sin" as I chewed the cold Domino's sausage cardboard.)

2. The Last Supper This is the opposite of the Pizza meal. The youth pastor and you know this is the last meal of sanity and decorum you'll have all weekend, and the last meal that doesn't involve the words Make Your Own Sub or Italian in it. This meal is usually at the YP's favorite restaurant and involves appetizers and pieces of properly cooked cow because the YP has been given the Church Credit Card for the night and he refuses to be remembered as the wicked and lazy servant. . .

Back to the narrative: the rundown on this Event, however, had a slight wrinkle. . .before Pizza or The Last Supper, the YP said we needed to meet the senior pastor because he wanted to talk to us. He said it in a sheepish way, like he was embarrassed almost to bring it up. My spidey sense began tingling. . .

The worship leaders and myself entered the Senior Pastor's office, the large dark wood desk greeting us as we entered, looking like it had taken the hymn A Mighty Fortress literally. The walls were covered with the prerequisite family photos, nature shots, and framed Seminary degree and the back wall had the standard issue book shelves full of books the pastor had read, wanted to read, had been forced to read, and ones he wanted others to think he had read.

The black leather swivel chair was turned away from us, facing the computer screen, and had a high back, like a throne, making it impossible to see the Preacher. . .

He swiveled around dramatically. . .and. . .
He was wearing the Phantom of the Opera mask.

I'm kidding. Sorry.

He swiveled around dramatically and, I'm not making this  up, had his hands steepled in front of him like Mr. Burns from the Simpsons. I won't describe his looks too much but if I was brought in to a police line-up consisting of 500 males and told to pick out the Preacher, I would've picked this guy in my top 3 without seeing the other 499. . .

We were looking up at him in all of his Pastoralness because his chair was purposefully set above ours. He unsteepled his hands, placed them menacingly on the edges of the desk palms down, then said hello and immediately launched into this speech (and again, I am not making this up. . .):

"We're glad you're here. But I want to tell you something, you're here to serve. You're not here to just do your thing at night and then play golf with your buddies. We're gonna work ya. Understand? And I want you to know. . .This is my sandbox. If I feel I need to step in at any time I will. If I think I need to take the microphone away from you, I will. Do I make myself clear? This is my sandbox."

Yes. Yes you do. Perfectly clear. And I couldn't answer then because I was young and rendered speechless by your Power Play but I've got an understanding now that I'd like to share with you wherever you are. . .

That church was not your sandbox. It was a collection of God's people, God's flock, that He gave you the privilege of shepherding with gentleness, humility and faithfulness. It was not your personal playground for you to build sandcastles of statistical success in, so that you could feel worthy or accomplished or silence those feelings of insecurity you've had your whole life because of hurts received in the past from your home or school. The church is not a territory you must mark with your spiritual bigtalk or a domain you must protect and expand for your ego's sake. . .it is a small mustard seed you must nurture and care for. And I know you think you were just protecting your flock from possible "wolves", but I know you now, and I now many others like you, you are not humbly protecting your flock like a parent with a child, you are puffing your chest up and sitting on the hoard of your treasure like a conqueror with his sword out fearing that a rival may snatch what is yours if you turn your back for a moment. . .The church is not a sandbox, a stepping stone, or a trophy of validation, it is a beautiful and imperfectly green pasture you are called to nurture for God's Kingdom and Glory. . .

The church is not a sandbox, although that day it felt like it. . .as I listened to a child warningly kick sand in my eye and let me know there would be no sharing taking place as long as he was there.

And because of our time with Pastor Sandy, we didn't have time for a Last Supper. . .bottoms up Mountain Frost.

Matt O.