Friday, November 23, 2018

My First Black Friday: "Save yourself" at Menard's

Keep this in mind.

There's never been a moment in my life when I've thought, "I can't wait until Black Friday."  Never.

Everything about it is diametrically opposed to my worldview and ethics:  rampant consumerism, bait-and-switch ploys that hamstring the economically impoverished, and - most importantly - early mornings.  Plus, large groups of people.  That's the deal-breaker for me.  I once abandoned a New Year's party in high school because the house - by my own estimation - was beyond capacity.  I pushed my way through a huddle of sophomores in the entryway like a salmon swimming upstream.  Keep this image in mind.  It will come around again.

So, I'm not sure what foolishness overtook me yesterday.  With some prodding and enticing from my brother-in-law after our Thanksgiving dinner, I agreed to go with he and his wife and my father-in-law to Menard's this morning.  Drew, my brother-in-law, waved his iPhone in front of me at the dinner table, complete with the Menard's 6-hour Black Friday promo.  Maybe it was the cordless tire compressor.  I could really use one of those.  Certainly, the barn door hardware was part of it.  $39.99!  50% off!  And, I really needed to get a ceiling vent for our bathroom.

Sensing my weakness, Drew threw his upper-cut.  "We can get Square Donuts" on our way.  I'm a sucker for donuts.  Every time.

We circled back to the topic of our Black Friday trip as we said our goodbyes for the night (Drew conscipiously avoiding the words "Black Friday" I now realize).  We agreed upon a time.  I'd pick my father-in-law up at 5:30 am.  We'd meet Drew and his wife at 5:50 and be in Terre Haute by 6:15.  I'd be eating donuts by 6:15 am.

The donuts is probably why I woke up ready to go at 4:30 am.  Definitely.

Sure enough, we get to Drew's house at 5:50 am.  His car is running, and we're back on 40 heading west bound while Brazil quietly rests.  There's hardly another car on the two west bound lanes, and we start joking about how we'll get there to find like ten people in the store - just a few retirees and insomniacs.

Just past Rose Holman I make some joke about the Terre Haute Air Show.  That was one of our last forays over this way, and it was a madhouse.  Traffic backed up for hours, poor planning, and - again - crowds:  all the makings for frustration.  How silly that was of us!  Man, I'll never make that same mistake again.  

Meanwhile, we were driving into a trap.  Everything was about to go sideways.

First of all, there was no Square Donuts.  Of all things, some family had the nerve to honor this cultural holiday by - you know - sleeping in ... and enjoying a quiet morning at home with their family.  I know this because I called the Square Donuts number and was told such.

No worries, though.  We were still in a jovial mood.  Pretty soon, we would be leisurely browsing the aisles of Menard's - picking up our two-pack of Stanley tape measures (25' & 30').  Pretty soon we'd be listening to the "save big money at Menard's" jingle in a cavernous retail store practically all by our lonesome.

This next thing is the best part.

We're approaching Menard's, but not quite there. Off to our right is a darkened retail store, one I had never previously noticed.  But for whatever reason, the entire parking lot was full.  Holly, Drew's wife, says, "That's funny.  Trader Buck's flea market sure looks busy, but the lights aren't on."

Then it hit us.  Trader Buck's wasn't busy.  Menard's was BUSY!  In fact, Menard's was so busy that not only was its parking lot already full, so was Verizon's and La Isla Mexican and Trader Buck's and the U-Haul drop-off place tucked back into the alleyway.

It was a trap!  But before we knew it, we were following a line of cars pulling into Menard's.  Dazed and confused,  Drew, who was driving, bypassed two customers pushing two over-loaded carts.  We nearly hit an Amish woman carrying an armload of Mason jars.  Eventually, after driving out to what I can only describe as the place where Clark Griswald parks the station wagon at Wally World, we realized we needed a plan.  Joe, Drew's dad, volunteered to drop us off.  He would sacrifice his Black Friday deals for us.  Heck of a guy that Joe Cooper.

But first, we drive past the front of the building.  I'm not sure why.  Someone said something about needing to see how long the lines were.  Unfortunately, we were duped it this moment.  The lines looked extremely reasonable.  So, Joe dropped Drew and me off.

The moment I set foot in the store, I knew we had a problem.  The place was teeming with people.  All the carts were gone.  And there was "caution" tap strewn about the front, directing the herds of customers through two designated checkout lines.

Drew and I regrouped in the tool section.  By this point, I literally could not think of any one single item I had planned to purchase.  Not a one.  I stared blankly at the tape measures in front of me.

Thankfully, Drew still had his iPhone and Black Friday promo.  I pulled up the pictures, recovering my wits and made a B-line for the cordless tire compressor.  I turned to Drew like a man desperate to avoid a coming plague or zombie acopalypse, "Where do you think the barn door hardware is?"  A man rolled a cart past me with what had to be a three foot slab of summer sausage.  Scores of people had oversized dog beds hanging over all sides of their carts.  I resorted to my salmon-swimming-upstream strategy.  I stuck to the side aisles, slipping through the masses gathered around the dog toy section.  Up in front of me - near where the barn door hardware was supposed to be - there was something resembling the beer line at a Colts' game.  I would discover only after what was causing this human whirlpool:  Menard's had dropped whole pallets of Chinese electronic items on its sales floor to lure its Black Friday shoppers into a feeding-frenzy of heavily discounted junk.  That is, of course, except for the barn door hardware.  That was a steal!

I made it out alive.  Never mind that Drew and I got separated.  He nearly got suckered into the 5-foot high blue-tooth speaker.  Thankfully, I pulled him out just in time, and I found a sales clerk.  "Where are the shop-vacs?  The ones in the promo," I called out over the blue-tooth record players.  "Down there, aisle 35," he replied.  "Look for the plywood section."  Naturally.

Now we came to a critical moment.  Up to this point, everything we had accumulated we could carry with our own two hands.  Shop-vacs, though, are large.  So are pancake air compressors for $74.99.  Same with rolling tool chests.

Drew put his stuff on top of the tower of shop-vac boxes.  I knew what he was looking for:  a cart.  Good luck with that!

I'm afraid to admit this, friends.  Here is your first peek into some of my darker recesses.  There I was in aisle 35 with my brother-in-law and the prospect of this casual morning turning into my final hour. I'm sad to say I could not be my brother's keeper.  "Drew, I'm going to go see if I can check out.  I'll be right back.  And I'll bring a cart if I find one."  That last part was definitely a lie.

I wove my way towards the front, hoping I'd find some lonely sales clerk with one of those Star Trek-like scanners, eager to check me out.  Ever the idealist.  Of course, nothing.  I looked around me and saw a sign pointing towards the appliances.  "Checkout line," it read with an arrow pointing back to some forelorn distant corner.

Do you know that part in A Christmas Story when Ralphie realizes the extent of his predicament - a Soviet-era bread-line stretching beyond sight?

Now I must tell the second awful thing about myself.

I saw a man struggling to keep command of his two carts near the fake Christmas trees.  A ten-foot gap opened between he and the two women in front of him.

Yes, I did precisely what you are thinking I did.  I was THAT guy.

But, I was also THAT guy who happened to be only forty feet from the checkout clerk.

Five minutes later, and I was unloading my meager gatherings (one cordless compressor, one box of barn door hardware, one pair fur-lined Thinsulate gloves, and one 50' Stanley Fatmax garden house.  The garden house was totally an impulse buy.)  Shell-shocked, I never even thought to look for the ceiling vent, the only item I truly needed.

I asked the two women in front of me what time they got there.

"2:30," they said.

"What!  Are you serious?  How much sleep did you get," I asked.

"Three hours."

"You're nuts," I said.

Says the guy who just cut two hundred people to buy an armful of goods.

And who never did get any donuts!

Yup, folks.  This is me.  And this is us.  Welcome to America.  Home of the Black Friday.

By the way, I just checked.  Barn door hardware.  $39.99 online.  Same price as I paid this morning.

Laughs and memories for next year's Thanksgiving, though:  priceless.



Sunday, April 02, 2017

Calling All Inter-generational Missionaries

My sister sent me a message the other day through Facebook.  Somehow, she had caught a glimpse of my friend, Josh Husman, doing his thing on Facebook Live.  Josh and I go way back.  We met each other at DePauw.  Josh stood with me in my wedding.  And, to top it all off, we were also part of the greatest Fuller Theological Seminary flag football team ever created, although the actual documentation on this achievement seems scant.  Then again, we did have an Armenian track star lining up for us at wide-receiver, so there is that.

In any case, there was Josh on my computer screen, dressed in his hipster cardigan, standing in front of an elegant and sharp looking backdrop of neon tube lights.  Around him were the obvious displays of a modern worship band:  a drum set, several guitars in their stands, microphones, and a keyboard.  I may have even spied a banjo. 

Josh's story is an incredible story.  In five years, Josh and his fellow servants have seen a church grow from a small plant meeting in an out-of-the-way office building on the north side of Indianapolis to a congregation with four weekly services.  Oh, and it's also moved from that little office building all the way up to the heart of Carmel, Indiana, taking over an old Borders Book Store.  Inside it is now barn-wood and stainless steel and Kuerig machines and Ikea tables.  

Most church plants don't make it.  Like 80% fail.  But, this church - Mercy Road - is more than making it.  It is flourishing, and it is flourishing largely because it is engaging younger people.  Gen-Xers like me, to be sure, are coming to church.  But, primarily, they're hitting it big with Millenials.  I know Josh well enough to know it's more than just a young church.  Tom Abernathy goes to his church.  Yup, that Tom Abernathy.  That old dude from IU Basketball's glory days.  Still, Mercy Road trend's young.  You don't go there if you like choirs and robes.

Which is pretty much exactly like the church I serve, aside from the barn-wood and the worship band and the the neon tube lighting.  We pretty much trend young, if you count 60 as young.  Oh, well, I guess we do have a Kuerig machine.  We even have two!  And we have a projector. 

Anyhow, this explains why just after lunch, I found myself traveling up the road with three of my church family members up to Autumn Glen, one of our resident local assisted-living communities.  

Allie Peabody lives in one of the smaller condos at Autumn Glen.   She's been back there now for about six months, and normally she would make the short trip to our church on Sundays.  However, a few weeks ago she took a weird step, damaging a ligament in her foot.  She didn't think much of it at first.  Allie is tough, and if you want proof just ask her about the time she coordinated a protest to get a "STOP" sign installed at a local intersection.  She mobilized a crew, got everyone into action, and after the local authorities saw she was serious, they relented to her request.  But, time and age have a way of presenting challenges that are even too tough for people like Allie. 

At least, that's what I'm learning now as a pastor to Allie and others like Allie.  Like John McKee, a ninety-year old man who has worked harder and longer than I can even begin to imagine, who still walks his yard to pick up the sticks before mowing his lawn for the first time in the spring.  John is the sort of guy who puts us young whipper-snappers to shame, but recently his back has laid him low again.  He looked me in the eye today and told me he is thinking about going in for his third back surgery.  He's had four bypasses by the way, too.  One time they even went ahead and just replaced a whole artery in his neck because the old one was growing useless and constricting the blood flow to the width of the lead sticks in a mechanical pencil.  So, yeah, individuals like Allie and John, they've seen a thing or two.

When you sit with older individuals these are the stories that will come up.  It used to make me squirm a bit, but I've since grown to see that there is holiness even in this liturgies of illnesses and aches.  Besides, if mortality proves true, there's a good chance I'm headed down this road too.  i

More importantly, if you sit long enough with the Allie's and the John's of this world, you also begin to hear and see another story unfolding, a beautiful and deeper story.  That's precisely what happened as I sat with Allie and a few others in the library room at Autumn Glen.  We moved past the aches and pains.  We moved back in time.  Allie started telling me about killing chickens once a week for the family dinner, lopping off their heads and plucking out all those feathers.  You saw this fire called dignity start burning in her eyes.

To my left, Juanita took up the slack and added her own story.  For a year, she would take the bus all the way up to Indy, get off at the bus stop and walk thirteen blocks to her employment only to do it all over again each afternoon as she headed back for Coatesville.  So when Juanita tells me about her aching feet again in the future, I'll think twice before I write her off.  I can't say I've walked those thirteen miles in her shoes.

There are times I'm wise enough to shut up and just listen, and what I begin to hear is of a generation that isn't so much demanding respect as wondering how precisely the world has moved on so quickly.

But, as I watched these four individuals come alive in that library, this other thought really took control of me. 

Josh's church needs our church.   

And our church needs Josh's church.

For whatever reason, ours is a culture that compartmentalizes almost everything.  Advertising and marketing trends break us into generations.  Churches often follow suit.  Hands down, though, the healthiest young people that I know are the ones who are gaining wisdom from their elders.  Likewise, the healthiest senior adults I know are the ones who are actively interested in what is really happening in the lives of young people.  I don't mean harping or bemoaning on what is wrong with young people.  That is a different thing.  No, I mean those older adults who are still young at heart and longing to pass on their wisdom and love to the next generation.

I am reminded of a couple Anna and me met while we were out in Pasadena.  We were going to this hip church, for - you guessed it - young people.  Hey, we progress in stages, okay.  It was called Warehouse, and by intention it was the exact opposite of the morning service at the big church.  No choir, no pews, no hymn books, and no grand stage.  Everything was stripped down, and to suit the younger audience, church started at 6 pm in the evening.  Young people like Anna and I didn't start filing into until 6:05 pm at the earliest of course, and when we did, there was a worship band leading us through a series of songs to ease us into the service. 

Near the center of the aisle, though, in the middle of the congregation at Warehouse, there was this older couple, probably in their mid-70's.  He was tall with nicely parted hair and khaki pants and loafers.  She wore casual but classy clothes and often had bracelets or jewelry around her neck.  They stood out among the crowd, and at first I wondered if they had accidentally walked into the wrong room, as if they had come for a Primetimers Bible Study, but took a left where they should have taken a right. 

Not at all.  They were here, I came to find out, because they believed it was important to be there for the next generation.  They believed it was important to see how young people were connecting with God and to be there to support this next generation in their faith.

I don't know that they would have put it this way, but they were inter-generational missionaries.

We need more inter-generational missionaries.

We need mature, older Christians willingly stepping out of their comfort zones to befriend and encourage younger Christians.  And we need younger Christians to embrace ministries of help and service to older adults.  We need younger Christians to embrace opportunities for friendship and to claim a mentor in their lives.

We need to find each other because each generation has so much to give to the other.  We need to find each other because separated as we are, all of us languish.  But, perhaps most importantly, we need to find each other because the future of the church in America may just depend upon it.

Josh's church needs our church.

We need Josh's church.

Let's hope we find each other. 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Community: "To Boldly Go ..."

I'm more of a Star Wars guy myself.  That means something if you are a fan of science fiction.  That's all you need to say to some people for them to get you.  For there is a difference, you know, between Star Wars and Star Trek.  It's hard to pin down exactly what the difference is.  Maybe Star Trek is a bit more for the technically inclined.  Maybe Star Wars is more for those deep into Jungian psychology.  Ask my wife, and she says there pretty much the same thing.  She's probably right, but - please, oh please - don't try to tell that to a Trekkie or a guy wearing a Storm Troopers costume at Gen Con.

Anyhow, Star Wars guy that I am, I still couldn't resist seeing the new Star Trek movie that just came out:  Star Trek Beyond.  I read a few glowing reviews, and those endorsements combined with near record heat temperatures made the cool movie theater seem like a perfect place to spend a Sunday afternoon.  Turns out it was a great choice.  It turned into one of those moments that mirrored and clarified my life in the way that sometimes only fiction can. 

Without giving away too much of the plot, the story begins in a rather unexpected place for James T. Kirk and his crew:  boredom.  Well, not just boredom.  There's also a bit of relational strain among the captain and his crew.  The life of space adventurers is supposed to be glamorous, adventurous, difficult, sexy, challenging, and rewarding.  Sure enough, when we first meet James earlier in the series, he's a young, hot shot.  He's Tom Cruise in Top Gun:  brash, daring, and ambitious.  But, the James we meet in this film has been at the helm of the ship for awhile.  He's been into the depths of the universe.  He's faced his fair share of challenges, and - for better and for worse - things have become ... well, routine.  Or if not routine, than ... well, complex.  Difficult.

The same is true for the rest of the crew.  The thrill of venturing into unexplored territories and uncovering new mysteries is also, so we learn, coupled with the realities of relational difficulties.  Sure, the crew of the USS Enterprise is boldly going where no one has ever gone before, but they're also having to live in close quarters.  There's the rub.  For communities are made up of individuals, and individuals are prone to testing each others nerves from time to time.  Couples have their spats on board the Enterprise.  Some wonder if it might be time to jump ship for another adventure.  Some even find themselves wondering if what they are doing really is all that important.  It does, after all, feel like things are becoming a bit "episodic" as James puts it early in the movie.  Everyone seems after awhile to playing the role of their typecast.

Of course, the movie is tapping into something all of us have felt at one time or another.  Stay anywhere long enough, and you'll come up against this.  Doesn't matter if it's a job or a marriage or a church or even in a family.  At some point, if you commit to the work of community and unity, no matter what it is, you will face these challenges.  Is it worth it?  Maybe there are other adventures out there for me?  Perhaps I need a change of scenery for my life?

It is precisely here that I need to keep remembering that this place called struggle and that town called boredom is not a trap.  It is not something to escape.  It is the place we learn to die to our obsessive need for the "new" and "promising."  And it is the place where we begin to invest ourselves into something that goes beyond us.  It's where we have the choice to really be invested in our real community, not just some false or self-fabricated notion of what we want our marriage or church or school system to look like.  Here we come to what Walter Wangerin Jr. refers to in his great book on marriage as our reality, the person or place or community we are actually called to love and not just some wistful notion of what we wanted to love.  

I know I'm not alone in my experience of this step in "growing up into Christ."  Like many of my friends who are truly trying to root ourselves here in Greencastle and truly seeking to make this place a better place, I know that the so called easy option of moving onto another church or community is a short-cut that doesn't really go anywhere.  It's a "chute" that can actually lead us to regress.   

Personally, I'm facing it as a pastor.  Eight years into providing ministry to this place, I've been here long enough to see incredibly moving moments of grace, of healing, and of new life.  For all the bad press ministry gets about over-work and little pay, nothing in my mind can ever compare to the unbelievably gift it is to hold a four-month old child in my arms and proclaim the absolute depth of our faith:  God has uniquely made and knows this child, and God lovingly has already prepared everything needed for this child's life and salvation.  Nothing can surpass the joy of being so close to both God's glorious love and the precious, tender, vulnerable reality of being human.

But, of course, eight years also can make you realize that you're no longer the savior and that despite how present God is in this community, that doesn't mean that miracles are happening at every turn.  No, some challenges - like the perpetual weeds in parking lot - seem to always linger and refuse proper treatment.   Relational strains occur.  The easy work has already been done.  It becomes challenging not to typecast people. 

Now, what is left is the hard, important and daily work of community.  Or, as Henry Ford says it, "Coming together is a beginning.  Keeping together is progress.  Working together is success."  So it is that truly good pastoring, I'm discovering, is just like any other work of community.  Perseverance and grit and steadfast love are a lot more important than passion or feelings or thrills. 

Here, too, is the genius of Star Trek Beyond.  When we are faced with these moments of boredom and strain, we have a choice.  We can flee the boredom for something more attractive.  We can pine for a new job.  We can subtly start looking beyond our marriage for something to satisfy us.  We can begin to think that our better life lies in some community behind or before us.  OR we can make a re-commitment and double down on being a part of this marriage, this community, this job. 

Of course, the beauty of movies and parables is that they give us images to locate these types of moral decisions, and Captain Kirk's decision is clear enough.  Is he going to be a member of this ship?  Is he going to remain committed to his crew?  Will he go down with this ship even if it means giving up his own freedom and future opportunities?  Will he continue to boldly go into that place that is even more unknown, challenging, and at times significantly more frightening than the depths of outer space:  deeper into community?

The deep satisfaction at the end of this movie is the firm reminder that the investments we make in each other and towards something bigger than ourselves are of extreme worth.  They do matter!  The ship must be staffed.  The crew needs to continue to do its job, no matter how mundane the job.  The crew must persist in its bold hope and belief in its mission - especially when the threats of evil and crushing nihilism seem just too near and overwhelming.

Community matters.

Unity matters.

Being an invested member of life and living for others matters!  It is how we truly mature in Christ Jesus.

It takes great courage.  Tremendous courage.  Heroic courage, even.  The type of courage that is big enough for the big screens, even if most of us do it in homes and churches and jobs that aren't going to make the big screens.

Kudos to all of my friends out there with me who are making those courageous decisions to double down on being invested in this particular place of Greencastle.  I see you in the struggle.  We're all in it in some way.  And I just want to say it's worth it.  It's definitely worth it.


Sunday, April 03, 2016

Colonial Williamsburg

"We're really doing it," I said to my kids while leaning over Anna in the fifth row of the Jamestown theater.  It was copying a great line from Dumb & Dumber, the only appropriate way to emphasize this momentous occasion, a family trip we've been talking about since last year, a trip to Colonial Williamsburg.  

We had discussed making the trip this past fall, but once that didn't work out, I made sure to get it on the calendar for this spring.  By mid-February we finally had our lodging taken care of, thanks in large part to my in-laws and a time-share exchange program they've held onto through the years.  About a month ago, I started researching things-to-do while here, and three days ago, we set out about 9 o'clock in the morning from our home.  For the trip out, we took it in stages, traveling all the way down to Beckley, WV the first day and covering just over 400 miles.  By sheer luck, I managed to book a room at a Holiday Inn that was a mere 1/2 mile from a West Virginian attraction we knew absolutely nothing about.  But, just prior to leaving I made a call to a kind couple in our church to see if they woulld keep up the rhythm of our Sunday morning Bible study in my absence.  They were happy to do so, and in the course of our conversation, he revealed to me a lovely little place called Tamarack, a type of artisan and craft market right near Beckley.  That was the lovely little find that mere 1/2 mile from our hotel.  So, after grabbing dinner at Panera and relaxing in the pool Thursday evening, we took our time getting on the road Friday and spent part of the morning strolling through the wares at Tamarck.

Friday's drive was a bit shorter, but seemingly more difficult.  We had to push through the steeper climbs of West Virginia, crawling up and hurtling down as we marveled at the earlier ancestors who pushed over these passes on foot and on horseback.  By mid-afternoon, though, we were driving on the outskirts of Richmond, and we ended up at our condo at the exact hour of check-in.

Truth be told, Anna and I have actually been here before, although it seems like ages ago now.  The day after we were married, we landed on the runway of Newport News airport and spent the next week (our first together) at the Marriot's Manons Club just on the western edge of Williamsburg.  This time we are on the eastern side of the city, and we traveled with more cargo this time, of course.  

Today, we set out early after packing our lunches.  My goal:  tackle Jamestown first thing, eat lunch in the cargo on our way to Colonial Williamsburg, buy tickets for Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens, and then spend an hour or so getting our bearings in the streets of Colonial Williamsburg.  Surprisingly, things pretty much went exactly as planned, and except for the fact that we didn't pack enough warm clothes, we had a great first day out exploring.  We stepped aboard a replica of one of the three English vessels that landed on the James River back in 1607.  We toured the simulated Jamestown fort, including a lively conversation with a well-informed and engaging blacksmith.  We witnessed another pair of colonists fire off a few rounds from their muskets.  We walked through a simulated Powhatan camp, with their more "integrated" living systems - much more to Anna's liking.  And we stumbled upon a few wild Wellsummer rooster that immediately brought back memories of good ol' Thatcher.

Colonial Williamsburg turned out to be much more fascinating than anything I had envisioned, and I'm already looking forward to returning tomorrow.  We stepped off the shuttle into the heart of the city, and immediately climbed the steps into the Magazine, the munitions storage on the opposite side of the courthouse.  Up in the Magazine, an period-actor dressed in the style of a British soldier gave us the tid-bits and history of arms development in the colonies, and he happily answered Wyatt's question about the efficacy of the bayonets by saying that they were quite effective, especially because their triangle shape made for wounds that "would not easily close."  

From there we walked about the streets, pausing at the gallows and much longer at the colonial garden.  Anna and Elise already have plans to return there first thing tomorrow, and we took many pictures of old ingenuities that Anna wants to employ in her own garden.

Lastly, I persuaded everyone to go listen to James Madison in the Hennegan theatre.  There were dubious, and I'm not sure the kids enjoyed his whimsy and whit.  But, Anna and I thoroughly enjoyed this man's ability to so thoroughly immerse himself into the language, the thinking, and the times of America's youngest years.  Plus, his description of the challenges of creating a just democracy without inevitably succumbing to either the tyranny of an unruly populace or the soul-sucking decrees of a heavy-headed empire seemed only too relevant.

We are eager for tomorrow's trip back to the Colony.  The fireworks start at 10:15 am with a public protest on the Capital steps regarding the imposition of taxes from the ruthless British parliament!

Until then ... We return to our rest.


Thursday, October 01, 2015

The Future of Ministry

John the Evangelist had a revelation while serving a sentence of exile on the Patmos.

I think I just had mine in the parking lot behind Marvin's in Greencastle.

I just got off the phone with a former mentor of mine, Rex McDaniel, a Presbyterian minister who is on the cusp of retiring and "near the promised land" as I joked with him.  After a bit of catching up, I asked Rex how ministry was going.

His description of his church's position and his own floored me with its relevance for my own life.

Rex has been in ministry since the mid 70's sensing a call to love others in the name of Jesus when the Church in American still believed it's best years were ahead of it.  He grew up as a pastor out on the East Coast in the 1980's and early 90's, watching his congregation and his family grow with the suburbs surrounding them.  Then, in the late 90's he returned home to Southern California where he has been the pastor for Calvary Presbyterian Church in South Pasadena for over fifteen years now.  He came as a wise and experienced minister; the kind of man aptly capable of steering the ship of a large Presbyterian congregation that had enjoyed decades of life as a congregation.  The narthex of the church is lined with the pictures of former ministers - all men - who have stood in that same pulpit before Rex, like mighty captains overseeing and steering the vessel of the church:  sitting on committees, preaching on Sundays, visiting the sick, launching new programs, being the public face of the church in the community.

That role of being pastor to the flock and minister in the community is a role that Rex has enjoyed.  He wouldn't say this about himself, but I can:  he's done well in his role.  Calvary Presbyterian Church has been blessed by his ministry.  And, as Rex himself said, the church has been very good to him as well.  By that he means not just that specific congregation in South Pasadena.  He means too the overall mother Church and our denomination.  Because Rex was able to minister at least in the waning days of Christendom, he's been able to enjoy the benefits of having cultural relevance.  He's been asked to join Rotary Clubs and Kiwanis meetings in each place he's served.  He's been granted special discounts from time to time.  And, most importantly for a man on the cusp of retirement, he's been blessed with a pension and retirement plan that far exceeds what most Americans can expect these days, not to mention an incredible condo facing the idyllic scenery of the Rose Bowl of all places.  Rex, true to his name's sake, has a regal future in front of him, and he knows it.

But, he also knows this.

It's not going to be this way for me or for those in my generation.

The game is ending.

Time is running out.

And here is how Rex knows this is true.

For several years, Calvary Presbyterian Church has been running a preschool on its campus.  This preschool is a shining light in the community.  It has a waiting list and families in the area are eager to get their kids into it.  For years, though, very few of the families who have children in the preschool actually come to Calvary Presbyterian Church on Sunday.  That's nothing new.  But, this is.
During the week, Rex and the rest of the ministry team at Calvary hosts a mid-week chapel service for the preschool.  In the past, it's just always been there, and nothing much was made of it.  But, as Rex said, in the last few years, more and more parents are insisting that their kids not go to the chapel service.  They're afraid that their children will be force-fed some type of doctrine.  They are convinced that the church will be bad for their children.

And this is the change.

It's been happening so subtly, it's hard to really believe it's true.

But here we are.

There was a time when church life served as a type of center for American families along with the local school, sports teams, and civic life.  Back in those days, in the 1960's even up until the 1980's, if you were a middle class family, church was likely a part of your weekly rhythm.

"Now," Rex admitted to me, "the idea of a Lord's Day worship rhythm for families isn't even something they are considering."  It's not even on their radar.

Not that Rex and Calvary haven't tried to make it more appealing.  They, like so many other churches, have tried to make the packaging more appealing to the customer.  They first tried a blended style of worship and brought in the guitars and more expressive means of worship.  They then went full bore and completely contemporary, a move that has helped bring some passion back to the congregation that is already there.  Only problem is it hasn't actually brought in anyone else from the wider community.

No matter how attractive and appealing Rex and Calvary try to make Sunday morning, it's just not something many people in Southern California are interested in.


Here's the analogy that helps me conceptualize what is happening:

When I was growing up, I used to eat all kinds of sugary-cereal.  Coco-puffs.  Lucky Charms.  Fruity Pebbles.  You name it, I probably had it.  And every time I went to the grocery store, that's where I wanted to go.  I wanted to see Count Chocula and Tony the Tiger.

Now, when my wife takes the kids to the grocery store, they hardly even set foot in that aisle.  My wife bee-lines it to the value boxes of Raisin Bran or Grape Nuts, picks up the goods and gets out of their as quick as she can.  Or, she doesn't even make it that far.  She goes to the new organic section and picks up something that is healthier.

She knows that those "other" cereals are not good for our kids, or at least not as good as they could be.  So, she chooses not to expose them to what she calls the sugar of "white death" or tries to expose them to healthier dietary options.

Don't you see this is precisely the same shift that has occurred in how our culture views Christianity these days?

I doubt there are many here in our community who believe that Christianity is an out-and-out danger to their children, but I can assure you there are some.

But, even if that isn't the case, there are many more here in our community who might feel like what the Christian faith has to offer may be good ... it's just not as valuable as ... well ... developing those skills that will make your child attractive to a good college, becoming an honor student at school, or developing some musical or athletic potential.  Besides, there is something to the whole realm of faith that can be a bit too fanatical, as we've been rudely reminded of in recent weeks with the onslaught of visiting "street preachers."

Far more important to most parents these days is whether or not their kids get into a preschool like Calvary's got than finding a church community like what Calvary offers.


There's more.

There's another reason why Rex isn't so sure guys like me will be able to go the distance like he has in ministry.

In this modern reality that Rex is seeing so clearly, the question isn't, "How can we get people to come to our church?"  It's "How can we equip our members to go out and be church where they are?"

For so long, big, mainline churches like the Presbyterian Church have operated on the assumption that if they just open up their doors, people will eventually find their way to their parking lot and into their pews.

Those days are long gone.

The problem, though, is that big, mainline denominations don't make the transition from "come-to-us" to "go-to-you" easily.  In fact, they often don't make it all.  And that's precisely the tension Rex feels as he prepares to bless his congregation for the last time and ventures into retirement.  He's not sure Calvary Presbyterian is going to make it.

He can see that promised land where the church has to be willing to give up its very identity, but the church still has a lot of core members who aren't ready to admit that.  That core group is still chasing a fantasy ... an illusion ... a memory.  They still harbor the prospect of getting back to "1962 Calvary" as Rex describes it.

So there's this impasse.  Maybe there's a reason why Moses and his generation couldn't make that trip on into the Promised Land.  The transition is too severe.  The death and rebirth too demanding.

Churches like Calvary and Greencastle Presbyterian are not going to find their way by going backwards in time.

But, it takes a type of rebirth entirely to give away that image in favor of going out to be in the midst of the wider community.

It takes becoming a culture of Christian missionaries living as a minority within a dominant secular America.

And for me and my generation of ministers, it's going to mean giving up on a lot of those assumed cultural privileges that Rex readily admits are nice but never guaranteed for those who walk by faith.  That nice pension may not be there.  The prospect of watching a church grow through the decades with the minister is highly unlikely.

More likely, the time will come ... and perhaps not very long from now ... when I will have to find a way to return to the ways of Paul, to become a tent-maker of sorts and find another occupation, to find a means of supporting myself so that my work isn't about helping navigate a large, mainline vessel of a church.  Instead, my work will become a means of earning what is necessary to support my family, to live in a place, and to do the work of Jesus Christ in a more incarnational way.


And all that from one phone call in a parking lot from behind Marvin's.

The Lord works in mysterious ways.