Pumpkin Spaghetti Sauce

It’s October, it’s autumn, it’s harvest season… You know what that means. It’s all pumpkin all the time. It used to mean lots of pumpkin pie. Then someone added pumpkin bread. Then there was an explosion.pumpkin-isolated

Coffee shops with pumpkin lattes, salons featuring pumpkin spiced hair, and stores with pumpkin scented lotion. I went grocery shopping and saw some pumpkin spaghetti sauce (no, I didn’t buy it). Is anyone a little pumpkin weary at this point?

There’s an old saying, “You can never get too much of a good thing.” There’s another old saying that goes, “You can get too much of a good thing.” Imagine that.

We can’t make up our minds. I’m in the boat with everyone else. I love pumpkin. I didn’t think I could get too much of it. I was wrong.

Pumpkin Spaghetti Sauce sounds intriguing.

I must admit. The Pumpkin Spaghetti Sauce intrigues me. I may even try it one day. I’ll have to be in the proper state of mind, however.

What is it about we humans? We love to jump on the bandwagon. If something works, we exploit it. If something tastes good, we have to overdo it. If something becomes stylish, we have to fill our closets with it. Is there no end?

I know by now, some of you are asking yourselves, “How is he going to relate this to the church?” Well, here goes.

We do the same thing in the church. If something works for the church down the street, we have to do it. I don’t know how many times over thirty-five years of pastoral ministry I’ve sat in meetings and heard this mantra.11999659_1063107853700084_1851421374755003260_o

“It worked for them, it will work for us.” “All the other churches are doing it, so should we?” “That looks like a cool ministry. Let’s try it!” It’s the pumpkin harvest all over again.

We are such followers. I guess that’s the nature of sheep. But how about we follow Jesus instead of the flock down the road? Do you think it might be a good thing to have an original thought? Might we take a slightly different path than “what worked for them?”

“A lot of church traditions began when we saw a need…”

A lot of church traditions began when we saw a need, worked to address it, and filled that need. It was such a success; we had to do it every year (whether the need still existed or not). Then the church down the street had to copy it because it looked like a successful program. Then the entire denomination adopted it as a mission program because…well, who knows why? But obviously, everyone should do it.12182763_1003345439685612_8139003419264814306_o

We’re the church. The Great Shepherd leads us. We’re wired to meet needs and serve others. Needs change and causes rise and fall. Yet, we often are plugged into the same program we’ve been doing for twenty-five years.

What say we all make some pumpkin spaghetti sauce and sell it to fund our building program? Who’s with me? (Sorry—got carried away…)

I Can’t Hear You!

There’s a recurring theme in the coverage of major sports that bothers me. If you watch these things, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

The scene is the outside entrance to the players’ locker room or stadium. There is a traveling estate (bus) parked near the door. Players are disembarking and heading in. There are fans and reporters standing along the perimeter of the walkway.

martin-lutherAs the adored athletes stroll by, they act like there’s no one else around. They can do so quite easily because they are wearing state-of-the-art headphones.

I often wonder what they’re listening to: Mozart, rap, the latest Christian teaching on social justice? Then I think, “Are they listening to anything at all?” Maybe they just put them on so they don’t have to interact with anyone else.

When I was a kid, there was a TV series (a comedy) called Hogan’s Heroes. One of the main characters was a Nazi soldier named Sergeant Schultz. His famous line was, “I see nothing!” He used this every time he heard something he wasn’t supposed to hear.

There are loads of examples we could site of people refusing to hear for one reason or another. Sometimes we call that selective hearing.

“Selective hearing can be experienced everywhere.”

Selective hearing can be experienced everywhere. It’s probably most disturbing when it’s found in the church. At this point, I must admit I’m probably as guilty as anyone.

We end up in the church to begin with because we somehow heard the call of God upon our lives. Regardless of how we heard it, it drew us like a magnet. Then things got tough.

We began to realize that being a Christian is a whole lot different than saying we’re Christian. We began to experience a call to discipleship—a call to commitment—a call to DO rather than to simply SAY.

“Once we heard the call, it became hard to avoid.”

Once we heard the call, it became hard to avoid. Eventually it became a lot easier not to hear the call at all. We put on the state-of-the-art headphones, and we went our merry way.

Oh don’t get me wrong. We still do a lot of the right things. We still have a sense of what the call is all about. But we’ve gotten really good at hearing it when we want to hear it and blocking it out when it’s inconvenient.

Jesus Did His PartI’ve gotten really good over the years of wearing the headphones when the call draws me into areas where it’s going to cost me my pride. I want to be who I want to be, and I want everyone to know how good I am. Sometimes answering the call threatens to strip me of that pride. How dare the Lord put my status in danger.

I’ve spent thirty-five years in pastoral ministry. Much of that time, I’ve played it safe. I’ve placated those who could (or would) make it hard on me. I’m guessing it’s time to begin slipping off those headphones.

Go to Church (or Not)

Glen HandThere is an entire segment of the church that doesn’t “go to church.” Just to make sure you know what I’m talking about, please allow me to explain.

We all know that the church is not a building–it’s a people. It’s the gathering of believers. Literally, it’s the “called out ones” or “called together ones.”

There always seems to be a number of people who identify as Christian, but don’t seem to take part in the process. They don’t attend services. They don’t give of their time. And, apparently, they don’t give of their money either.

This, of course, is nothing new.

In many Christian denominations, pastors and other leaders are happy when a third of the members show up. It’s an age-old story. Sorry folks, but that’s just the way it is.

More recently, however, I’ve come face to face with a whole new population of dropouts. And when I say dropouts, I mean that in a very literal sense. These are people who have just gotten fed up and left—period.

The reasons for their leaving are myriad. I won’t even begin to list them here. Suffice it to say, a lot of those reasons are legitimate. They tried for a long time to “go to church.” They’ve even tried two or three or seven different congregations. They’ve done this over long periods of time. Now they’re just done.

These are not people who, as one might Smith Chapel 3suppose, were just hanging around the fringes of the church. This new segment (at least new to me) is comprised of leaders, standouts, elders, pastors, and diehard church folks. Now they’re gone.

When I say gone, I mean gone. I’ve listened to some of these people. I’ve heard their stories. I’ve spoken to some of them. Not only have they left, they have no intention of ever coming back.

If they’re gone for two months, you may as well cross them off the list.

When I was a young pastor, I remember attending a clergy meeting where absentees were discussed. The statement was put forth in that gathering that if someone was MIA for two weeks, you had better check up on him or her. The ensuing statistics indicated if they were gone for two months, you might as well cross them off your list.

That sounds a bit harsh. As a pastor, I can’t bring myself to cross people off the list (particularly after a mere two months). But alas, those are the statistics.

This is a dilemma for those of us left behind.

All this leaves a dilemma for those of us left behind. Do we spend our time trying to re-enlist the services of the dear departed, or do we move onto more fertile ground? Do we attempt to learn why such devoted people leave and then proceed Church IIIto plug the dike? Or do we go about business as usual and consider their absence an anomaly?

These are not questions we can take lightly, nor are they easy to answer. There’s only so much time. Where is it most appropriately spent?

Sand Flounder: The Official Fish of Today’s Church

Have you ever heard of a Sand Flounder? I remember reading an article about them. They’re fascinating creatures. They begin their lives looking like ordinary fish. But as time goes on and Mother Nature beats them into submission, they become quite grotesque looking.

Apparently they go through larval type SandFlounderstages and do it quite rapidly. They end up becoming very flat and lay on the ocean floor. Their right eye migrates to their left side so both are looking up as it lies there.

One description I read said they are “left handed” (a term I find rather ridiculous for a fish). Some of them become really ugly–even for a fish.

When I read about these misshapen creatures, I immediately thought of today’s church. I suppose that’s insulting to some, but I can’t help it. I’ve been a part of the church most of my life. Frankly, it’s not always pretty.

Interestingly enough, a simple, two-line fish drawing was the clandestine symbol for the early church. It’s the early church from which we’ve evolved to become what we are today—a little grotesque and somewhat deformed.

I don’t say these things lightly.

I realize we live in a different era that demands different strategies and twenty-first century know-how. Yet I often wonder if we need to take somewhat of a U-turn to the first century in our attitudes and actions.

Take a good look at what was happening in the early church. Look at the Book of Acts. Check out the letters of Paul, John, and Peter. How did we get from there to here?

Acts chapter two describes a church that looked out for each other (as well as their neighbors). Their love and compassion for people was so prevalent that they enjoyed “the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

jesus fishI realize it was all new and exciting then, but shouldn’t it still be new and exciting? Every day is new, and serving others is exciting. It seems to me we’ve lost our fervor.

I know we’ve come a long way and we’ve gotten quite large. I just read the following group of statistics:

“World Christianity consists of 6 major ecclesiastico-cultural blocs, divided into 300 major ecclesiastical traditions, composed of over 33,000 distinct denominations in 238 countries, these denominations themselves being composed of over 3,400,000 worship centers, churches or congregations.”

With that kind of weight, we’re bound to get a little bogged down in trivia, dogma, and tradition (as well as a myriad of other things we could all mention).

If we actually are like the sand flounder and barely resemble what we started out to be, I believe there is still good news.

  1. God seems to love us still.
  2. God’s grace is sufficient.
  3. Even if we begin taking baby steps back to where we should be, God will bless each of those steps.

Amen?

Restrooms and the State of the Church

Locker Room SignThis is the sign I see every time I walk into the men’s locker room at my neighborhood gym (please stop laughing—I work out every chance I get, spare tire not withstanding). I don’t know about any of you, but I find this policy a tad disconcerting.

I don’t know if it’s that I’m “old school.” It could be I’m a bit self-conscious. Is it possible I’m a prude? Or maybe I’m just “a guy.” In any case, I’m always bothered by what it says. I don’t want ANY females in my locker room. I don’t care how old!

It always reminds me of an old Bill Cosby routine. A guy takes his two-year-old girl into a men’s restroom, and all the other guys are embarrassed and mumble about a female’s presence. A woman takes her son into a restroom, and all the women make a fuss over him. When asked how old he is now, she replies, “Thirty-seven.”

Much to my relief, no females have yet to enter the locker room while I was in there. The closest I’ve ever come was when a young boy’s mother stood at the door and yelled for him to come out. I got a little tense when he refused. I thought for sure she was going to barge in on my less than modest state of dress.

No Females Allowed

It didn’t happen. Yet, I was definitely panicking as I quickly plotted my route of escape. I’m not sure if I’d fit into one of those lockers. I should probably practice that one, just in case. One never knows when these fire drills will pay off.

This is, of course, a minor thing. Who cares if some loving father brings in his four year old daughter (well, I guess I do)? It’s not an earth-shattering thing.

In our society, signs like this are everywhere. They invite people in, and they keep people out. The church is no different.

With the church, however, it seems that our IMG_1038signs are invisible. We say things to “outsiders” that are as loud and as visible as any printed sign. Because of that, a lot of those folks remain outside.

Often, our written signs on the exterior of our buildings are welcoming. They invite people to worship. They tell folks we’re a loving congregation. They attempt to excite the senses and draw the curious.

The signs once inside are too often very different. On the inside we begin to flash signs that send a different message. With our looks, body language, tone of voice, and actions (or non-actions) we say entirely different things.

We say things like:

  • You’re different than me!
  • Who invited you to come here?
  • Couldn’t you find a place better suited for your type?

I’ve experienced this myself on occasion, so I know it’s true. It all begins with attitude. Have we developed the welcoming attitude of Christ, or are we protecting our little club?

RSVP (French for “Send Me the Bill”)

54fq5mjhiw1wzhj3_580x380There have been some recent news articles about disgruntled wedding couples charging their no-show guests. That’s right. If someone RSVPs and fails to show up for the reception, they receive a hefty bill.

At first blush, this seems a bit tacky. Yet having been the father of the bride a couple times, I guess I can have some sympathy for these couples (at least in principle).

Weddings (if you include the receptions) can cost many thousands of dollars. Where I live, the average cost of a wedding could buy you a small home (if you bought it in a different county). At the very least, it would be a nice down payment.

“IT AIN’T CHEAP!”

If someone tells you they’ll be there, you pay someone handsomely to prepare for their time with you. You want them to enjoy it, be well fed, and have great entertainment in a beautiful setting. These things aren’t cheap.

So if they don’t show up, it could be highly annoying (not to mention expensive). You’ve just laid out a few hundred bucks so someone you love (or at least someone you thought enough of to invite) could share in your celebration. Your big day arrives, but your guest does not.

It’s the old “I threw a party and no one showed up” routine. That gets old in a hurry. It’s one thing to be late. But to dis the entire day…?! Not good (or polite).

g6oi2q0ak48rpwx_580x380Taking all that into consideration, deep down inside I can’t say as I blame the angry couple for sending a bill. I certainly would advise the no-shows to take a different course of action. At least let someone know your plans have changed.

As I mentioned earlier, however, sending a bill seems a tad tasteless (even if we understand the emotion behind the gesture). You may be hurt. You may have lost some money in the process. You may even have lost a friend or two. But sending a bill? I don’t know about that.

Jesus told a story or two like this. Remember the parable about the guy who threw a wedding banquet and no one came? No bills were sent out that day. Instead, new invitations were handed out. Strangers were invited. The waiters went out and beat the bushes looking for people who wanted to party hearty.

Apparently, God sees things a bit differently than we do. When folks turn him down, he doesn’t fret over it. He moves on and gets new folks. Imagine that.

It’s not our party!

Maybe we of the church could take a lesson from him. Instead of getting torqued, insulted, hurt, or indignant, we could move on to more fertile ground. Put in the place of the guy who threw the party, we often become discouraged and give up.

There’s one big difference though. It’s not our party. We’re the waiters. Buck up, folks! It may be time to send out a few new invitations.

#PassTheSalt

When I attended the 2015 Washington Prayer Gathering, I noticed several people around with great t-shirts. One of them said #passthesalt. I loved this shirt because it was very understated and a little clandestine. More importantly, it made a significant statement.

12068467_881692215248807_477277797573105055_oSomeone asked me what it meant. While I couldn’t speak for the people wearing the shirt, my assumption was it was a reference to Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount.

In Matthew chapter five, Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth.” He says this immediately after telling his followers they would be persecuted because of him. The implication is this: the world might hate you, but the world still needs you.

In those days (and even now), salt was used as a preservative. There weren’t a lot of refrigerators around, and even less electricity. Salt was an important commodity. When it lost its “saltiness” it was discarded.

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”

Jesus wanted us to be the salt of the earth. That’s quite apparent. He coupled that with wanting us to be the light of the world as well. You remember—a city on a hill, and all that.

So “pass the salt”, at least in my mind, must be a reminder that we are to be salty enough to give a little taste to the world—to help preserve it—and to do it in an overt way.

It’s interesting to me that I liked the t-shirt in question (at least in part) because it was a little clandestine. I guess I’m like a lot of people and DSC_0231don’t want to be the “in your face” type. That’s okay as long as we’re not withholding things altogether. Hiding sounds appealing because of the persecution that goes along with being out in the open about things.

Yet, that was the very point of what Jesus was telling his followers. You don’t hide a light under a bushel basket. You can’t hide a hilltop town. And if you’re supposed to be salt, pass it along before it loses its zing.

Every time I think of salt as a preservative, I think of ham. I live in Virginia. We’re famous for our hams here.

One thing that’s true of hams is the salty taste. It’s tough to eat a good ham sandwich without drinking a beer (or whatever quenches your thirstbuds).

Without the salt, the hams wouldn’t last long. They wouldn’t taste very good either. I’ve never had a saltless piece of ham, nor would I want one. It’s just not very appealing.

Believe it or not, it seems that Jesus feels that way about the world. It’s just not the same without Christians giving it some flavor. What’s worse, it probably wouldn’t last very long without us either.

DSC_0172That might sound a little arrogant on my part. I am a Christian after all. But along with the blessing of being needed comes the burden of persecution. I guess it all balances out.

Donkeys, Elephants & Sheep: An Unlikely Menagerie

DSC_0126 A couple days ago, I attended the 2015 Washington Prayer Gathering. Thousands of area Christians met that day to pray for the city, for our churches, and for revival.

I always enjoy seeing Christians of various stripes gathered together in unity. All colors, dissimilar theologies, and diverse styles of prayer and worship became an amalgam of church that day.

The entire thing lasted less than two hours. During that time there was great music, a lot of smiling, and some really inspirational prayer time.

DSC_0101One of the pastors who led in prayer that day was Steven King (no, not the famous author) of Cherrydale Baptist Church. He used a phrase that hit me and stuck with me. He said we’re not donkeys, we’re not elephants, we’re sheep.

He said that in prayer, and I laughed out loud—right there in the middle of thousands of people intent on seeking the Lord. I couldn’t help myself.

I laughed out loud…

I think I laughed because it was so clever. I also laughed (I think) because I wish it were true.

His statement was an allusion to the political proclivities of us all. He was making the point that this gathering was not a political one. It was a spiritual one.

The donkeys and elephants, of course, were a reference to the major political parties in this country. They are never quite so prevalent and present as they are where we stood (in the heart of Washington DC).

DSC_0238On that day, politics didn’t matter. On that day, there were indeed no donkeys or elephants. We who gathered there on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial were sheep. We were followers of Jesus Christ.

We were not there as voters. We were not there as protestors. We were not there as agitators or detractors. We were there as Christians wanting God’s best for our city and nation.

Would that were always true. But it’s far from true most of the time…or so it seems.

Political Leaners

In my limited experience, most Christians are such political leaners they can’t stand straight anymore. What I mean by that is we seem to have blinders on when it comes to our politics.

I know Christians who are Democrats and some who are Republicans. I know Christians who are political liberals and some who are conservative. Who I don’t know, (or don’t seem to meet very much) are Christians who try to be independent of politics. In other words, people who think for themselves—who act on things based on their knowledge of Scripture rather than their biases of culture or heritage.DSC_0203

I’m always amazed at the number of Christians who are Democrat or Republican because they were raised to be so. I’m sorry folks, but times and circumstances change. Maybe some of our affiliations should as well.

I’m sure a lot of you will disagree. But it seems to me, we need a few more sheep and a lot fewer donkeys and elephants in our menagerie.

The Nerd Strap (or How I Got My Groove Back)

My First Cell Phone 

Several years ago, I finally resolved myself to the idea that I should have a cell phone (like 95% of the rest of the population). It was an easy decision. My employer told me to get one. How important was I?telephoneThe company paid for it, so it was a no-brainer. I had resisted up to that point. I didn’t want to be that connected or that reachable. Nor did I like the idea that I could be interrupted at any time by a buzz in my back pocket. The fact that I didn’t want to spend the money probably played a large part in my obstinacy as well. I’m much cheaper than I look.

With these obstacles falling by the wayside, I was feeling more and more like it was time. Besides, I liked my job (the paycheck in particular). Like I said, it was a no-brainer.

I don’t remember too much about that phone. It was rather small, black, and fit easily into my pocket. I do remember, however, being deathly afraid of losing it.

There were several reasons for this:

A) I wasn’t used to carrying one and wouldn’t miss it for a while if I misplaced it.

2) I have a tendency to leave things lying around (like my car keys). The new cell phone was a prime candidate for this proclivity.

And D), I didn’t want the hassle of having to go through the bother of replacing it (or telling my boss I lost his phone).

One feature of this device stands out in my mind, however. It had this handy dandy cord that I could attach to it. So I did. I found that if I secured one end to the phone, I could wrap the other around a belt loop. Voila! No DSC_0086more possibility of losing that phone. What won’t they think of next!

This was all well and good until I spent some time with my oldest granddaughter. One day she looked at me rather curiously and postulated the following question (which has since been emblazoned on my mind). “Papa. Why do you have a nerd strap on your phone?”

Let that one sink in for a second or two!

Why indeed? I actually had what I thought were some pretty good reasons for this darling attachment. But somehow, they all faded into oblivion with that innocent, little query. Nerd strap?

Well… I have no desire to be geeky (or even emit a hint that there is the possibility of a nerdy bone somewhere in my slightly aging body). I didn’t let on that day, but shortly after I got home, the nerd strap disappeared.

These are MY end times.

The prophet Isaiah once said, “a little child will lead them” (Is. 11:6). I’m quite sure he was speaking about end times and not my life. However, these are MY end times. And so, my granddaughter led me out of my nerdy wilderness. Oh happy day!

Furries, Bronies, and Comic-Cons: My Return to Normalcy

Furry DuoIt seems like every time I leave town and stay in a different city for a few days, I run into a convention. Now, I’m not speaking about just any convention here. I’m not talking about Shriners, politicians, or doctors.

When I run into a convention, it’s not all that conventional. The pictures you see displayed here in this blog are all ones I took with my very own Nikon. I have dozens of these pix because I keep running into these people wherever I go.

These groups are Furries, Bronies, and Comic Cons. That doesn’t count the last group I ran into when I didn’t have a camera with me. I think they were super heroes, but I’m not all that positive.

In case you haven’t had the pleasure, allow me to explain what I know about these fine specimens (which frankly isn’t much). It’s not my area of expertise, but I’ll do my best.

Furries are people who have an interest in fictional anthropomorphic animal characters with human personalities. In others words, they like animals that act like humans. They come to their conventions dressed like their favorite characters. They call them their fursonas (catchy, huh?).Bronie

Bronies seem to be a little more bizarre by general social standards. I’ve heard them described as adult, male fans of “My Little Pony.” In case you’re not up on that product, it was a toy marketed back in the early 1980’s (primarily to little girls). It became quite popular and exploded into a phenomenon that included all sexes, ages, a TV series, and a movie.

Comic-Cons (derived from Comic Book Convention, I think) are similar to the first two in some ways. This seems to be a more popular, broader genre. These folks gather at comic book conventions and dress up like comic book characters. From what I’ve seen, it’s also a good excuse for some of the young ladies to dress rather provocatively (be still my heart).

While it all seems like good-hearted fun, there are apparently some darker facets to these groups (especially at convention time). I’m not going to explore those here, but it’s all on the internet. And as we all know, if it’s on the internet, it’s got to be true.

Whatever it is that turns these folks on, they seem to be everywhere I travel. Because I seem to run into them around every bend, I will occasionally engage one of them in conversation. I’ve found, on the whole, they seem to be likeable, even normal folks.

Mother GooseIt’s easy to look at these characters in full regalia and come to snap judgments about them. I’ve heard them called weird, perverted, and even sick. I choose to refrain from joining in on that bandwagon, however.

It occurs to me that a lot of the world looks at us Christians in the same light. All of a sudden, these folks are looking more and more normal to me.