The holiday season is filled with teachable moments. As you prepare for the children’s Christmas pageant and approve various images for advertisements and to placed on the worship screen, have you exercised care to represent the diversity of the world that Emmanuel entered into? We might have a black wiseman in our nativity set, or at Easter, make mention of Simon of Cyrene’s race, but is this mere tokenism? What about wrestling with the exclusivity of our approach to the holiday season?

How do we picture Christmas?

Say Yes to the Dress

TLC does a bit of fluff called “Say Yes to the Dress.” It shows brides arguing with their mothers as they choose a dress for her to wear for three hours on one day and costs — well, if you have to ask the price you’re not really putting yourself into their demographic. It’s Queen for the Day, remade for today’s cable channel surfer, minus the backstory of how miserable the woman’s life was before this moment and how much she needs to feel special for an hour. My hatred of Say Yes…  may be why Isaiah 62:10 popped out a me this week.

Advent 3
Sunday, December 14, 2014

The recent brouhaha over President Obama appointing a soap opera producer as ambassador to Hungary reminds me of the way congregations choose their leaders. There is a word for when  nomination committees give out church offices as rewards for financial or political gifts. It’s the sin of simony, much protested by Martin Luther.  But, I wish there was a word for doing the opposite. Too often, nominating committees beg people who work 9 to 5 at finances or in the building trades, to serve on the stewardship committee or as trustees. The resulting leadership is articulate and knowledgable, but lacks passion.

Simony - the word for today

How does it begin?

I’ve learned a trick from Sci-Fi guru Orson Scott Card, when I’m at the bookstore, looking for a novel, I always read the first 13 lines of the book. If the author doesn’t nail it in the first half a page, the book isn’t likely to be worth it. Mark’s gospel is a good read. He begins with ordinary folk flocking out into the wilderness to hear a prophet. What would make them do that? They have a need to know that life will turn out Okay. Some of them have lost children to malnutrition. Others are struggling through failed marriages.

Advent 2
Sunday, December 7, 2014

The story is that Alexander the Great had a mistress named Campaspe. She was beautiful and he was proud of her, so proud, that he took her to the famous artist, Apelles, who painted her in the nude. Alexander loved this painting. He noticed something, though. The reason Apelles did such a good job at the painting, was because Apelles saw Campaspe’s beauty more clearly than Alexander did. Now you would think, Apelles would get in trouble for ogling  the Great’s girl. But Alexander chose instead to give Campaspe to Apelles as payment for the painting, which he took home to his palace.

Alexander watches as Campaspe is painted

Keep Awake

There are times in our lives when someone needs to shake us. We sing, “Don’t worry, be happy.” Something’s burning. We open a window and spray air freshener. The snooze button of our alarm clock has been taped down. Advent is meant to take a double edged sword to our post-turkey somnolence.  First, it reminds us of the generations who longed to see the wrath of God come and break the mountains of oppression that bound them. Then it tells us that the Jesus whom we want to receive on Christmas morning with Walmart gifts and egg nog, belongs to those who are awake, looking for him in the cold night.

Advent 1
Sunday, November 30, 2014

Henry's Questions

Imagine Henry, a Easter-Christmas nominal Christian, coming to your church this week and hearing Jesus’ story about how on Judgement Day, God will sort us all out, like a shepherd separating sheep from goats. Henry has never spent a day upon a farm. He wonders what is so bad about goats. He gets the bit about how people, who are only nice when they know that there’s something in it for them, deserve Hell. But, what’s this talk about all of humankind being brought before God (Jesus) and given only one chance to make it into heaven? Henry, like Hamlet and many other fictional people, views his life as a series of good and bad decisions.

Pentecost 29
Sunday, November 23, 2014

Many churches are in conflict today. Often these fights have become abusive, traumatising parish leaders. I can give at least three reasons for why the American church scene has become so rancorous:

1) The steady decline in American church participation has caused us to feel depressed in our church work. Depressed people are risk adverse, passive aggressive, and argumentative.

2) The constant emphasis on church growth and how laity are keeping their pastors from being successful, has made us all feel ashamed. Shame-based cultures shuffle blame around rather than dealing problems in an objective fashion.

Is your church experiencing conflict?

Beware of Women with Tent Pegs

You have to have three items handy before you tell the story of Deborah; a glass of milk, a tent peg (a sharpened stick will do), and the biggest sledge hammer you can find. Unfortunately, the Lectionary ends the story of Deborah at Judges 4:7. You need to tell the whole story, all of Judges 4. I think it’s fun just to read it — ham it up, if can — let people draw their own interpretations. Many will say, “Surely, that’s not in the Bible!” Then you can give one, or more, of the following reasons why the story of Deborah and Jael is important to remember.

 

Pentecost 22
Sunday, November 16, 2014

This week in Illinois, I had a lay person complain to me about his church. The church had been one of those success stories. A small congregation in the 1980s, receives a dynamic and gifted pastor who stays for over 20 years. In that time, the church grew. It became a large church with staff. When that pastor left, however, a rapid decline set in. They went through a series of pastors and now they are a small congregation again. “Wow,” I said. “I have just heard the same story from a church in Pennsylvania.”

Having a 1 in a million pastor is random reinforcement

Final Lecture

If you are hearing Matthew 25 or preaching it in church this month, there are some things you ought to keep in mind. First, the context of the three parables that Jesus tells, is that of his final week on earth. Like final lecture of the late CMU professor, Randy Pausch, Jesus’ last stories have special significance. Usually, we say that these three stories are Eschatological, that is, they deal with the final judgement of humanity and the second coming of Christ. But, I think that it is worth digging deeper.

Pentecost 27
Sunday, November 9, 2014

About once a year, I attend the contemporary worship service at a church adjacent to the University of New Mexico. I like this church and enjoy the informal, but well organized, youth-oriented service. The praise band is lively, but punctual. The pastor knows how to give an appropriate message for that setting. The church has invested heavily in lighting and sound, so that the fellowship hall is ideal for contemporary worship. But, where are the college kids? I didn’t see any.

 

Are you marketing to college-age adults?

Jesus Redefines Sainthood

In the past, I have emphasized the all in All Saints Day. Not this year. There isn’t an ‘all’ in Jesus’ definition of saint. In this Saturday’s holiday lection, Jesus begins his sermon on the mount with a series of blessings (Matthew 5:1-12). Each of these Beatitudes are a reversal in our definition of saint. Those with impoverished faith are sanctified. The theologically trained go unnoticed.  The meek are praised and the ambitious considered un-saintly. Mourning counts for something. The bad theology that considers our misfortunes to be punishments for being less than perfect, is thrown in the trash bin.

All Saints Sunday
Sunday, November 2, 2014

From time to time, churches go through transition. It may be a change of pastors, made more traumatic by the length of the exiting pastor’s term (more than 8 years), an over or under-functioning leadership style, or the presence of parish conflict. It may be that the church is changing locations or involved in a merger or parish realignment. It may be a transition to a different form or category of clergy leadership. These major changes require theological understanding and prayer. They are best undergirded by congregational study and a renewed emphasis upon the importance of worship and the sacraments.

Church Transition takes us thru wilderness

From Mount Pisgah’s Lofty Height

The story of Moses and the great wilderness transition comes to an end on Mount Pisgah (Deuteronomy 34:1-12). Like all great stories, it is bitter-sweet. The future lays before Moses. He can look into the Promised Land, but not enter. His role has been to guide the people out of slavery and through a transitional period. I’ve always felt that those who look for some sin to be the cause of Moses not crossing the Jordan, miss the point. Most of the world’s greatest leaders were given boundaries. Winston Churchill led Britain through World War II, and then was promptly voted out of office.

Last Sunday in Pentecost
Sunday, October 26, 2014

On two occasions, I have pastored congregations whose people and leadership had less expendable income than the average resident of the the state. I noticed that when I went to meetings, I was the only person with a calendar. It was part of the culture of both of these congregations, to focus only on the present. I had a hard to time drumming up interest in planning programs that occurred in the future. A Zen master might praise these people for being mindful and living in the moment. Imagine how frustrating I found it.

 

Your churches economic culture effects its temporal focus

Only God can make a Pomegranate

The Lord God led the people for forty years in the wilderness in order to bring them to the only land in the Middle East that doesn’t have oil. Still, it was a pretty good Promised Land. It had pomegranates and figs. It had copper and affordable housing. But, what Deuteronomy 8:7-17 fails to mention is the location. They say that the three most important assets of any piece of real-estate are location, location, and, Location. Palestine had that in spades.

 

Pentecost 24
Sunday, October 19, 2014

Every church deals with four kinds of people: Faithful, Snackers, Near, and Far. To be successful, you need to tailor your evangelism and mission to meet the needs of each group. You also need to be brutally honest about your programing and budget. It’s very easy for the Faithful to consume all of the resources to the exclusion of the other three people groups.

The four groups are:

Homer Simpson is your typical church snacker

Love the One You’re With — NOT!

A Crosby, Stills, and Nash song used to advise that when you’re down and confused because the one that you belong to with is far away, you ought to just, “Love the one you’re with.” In Exodus (32:1-14), God’s people get discombobulated because Moses is up the mountain and God seems far away.  There are times in our lives when we find our primary relationships thinned out and fuzzy. It may be that our spouse is traveling or working a different shift. Face time disappears. Every word between us is miscommunicated.

Pentecost 23
Sunday, October 12, 2014

To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Denominational officials have a very limited tool box. They can credential new clergy and defrock inept ones. They can move pastors from place to place (or make suggestions if it is “call” system). They can keep both the congregation and clergy persons informed about policies and best practices. Given this tool box, every church problem looks like a leadership issue. The nail that fits the denominational official’s hammer is a church that will do better, if only they have the right pastor. But, what if governance of the congregation is dominated by a group of dysfunctional lay leaders?

A small tool box limits your ability to see solutions

Hanging Ten

I have a solution to the controversy about displaying the Ten Commandment in public places, particularly courthouses. Put up only the second tablet. Traditionally the Ten Commandment (Exodus 20:1-17) have been divided, with commandment one through four on the left (or right if you are speaking Hebrew). These are the “crimes against the Lord God.” In a pluralistic society, such as ours, we have no right to expect everyone to call the same god, Holy. The second tablet of commandments deal with our crimes against each other. These six seem appropriate for the walls of our courthouses, as well as, the schools were we teach our children about civic responsibility.

Pentecost 22
Sunday, October 5, 2014

Authority?

I warned our dog, Bella, that she’d be in the blog this week. She didn’t care. She prefers to be stubborn. The current problem involves antibiotic pills that I am hiding in her doggie treats. I say, “Trust me.” She doesn’t. She eats the treat and spits out the pill. We argue. She growls, “Who made you an authority over me?” It’s the same place Moses was in as he led people across the wilderness. People were grumbling because Moses picked camping sites without regard to water.

 

Pentecost 21
Sunday, September 28, 2014

In San Diego there’s a boat museum with three old submarines tied to the dock. I was visiting the Russian Whisky Class submarine from the 1970s, when I noticed a beautiful sailboat tacking against the wind in the harbor. What’s the difference between these two boats? The sailboat is dealing with wind and current. It is taking risks. The Russian sub is securely fastened to the shore. It is a museum piece. I find that when I talk about the church in the postmodern world, the image of the sailboat resonates with only a few church leaders. Most pastors and lay people would prefer to have their house of worship firmly entrenched in tradition.

This sub is a museum piece

Selective memory

I have a special “Macro” lens for my camera. It’s job is to selectively focus on little things. If I want to get a broad picture of the landscape, I need to switch lenses. We all suffer from selective memory. Even when we talk about our day over dinner, we selectively focus on the things most likely to make us feel that we deserve that second desert. Most of the arguments that we have with our loved ones, involve a heavy dose of selective memory. So too, the conflicts that arise in church.

 

Pentecost 20
Sunday, September 21, 2014

Pages

Subscribe to billkemp.info RSS