Archive for 2012

Reality Check 101 talks about how important it is that each congregation discovers its vocation or calling from God. Discerning congregational vocation is a lot like figuring out how to play a hand of cards.  Some congregations will discern that they are called to play the hand that God has dealt them in Hearts, that is by focusing on their heart for mission.

Once the core leaders realize that it's really ok for their church to be totally invested in mission, a subtle shift takes place. The congregation begins to think of themselves as a church with Christ’s heart. Thier identity becomes shaped by their vocation to be serving the needs of others. Discovering they are a "heart-driven church" is a releif. They stop being obsessed with church growth and balancing the budget and start focusing on doing what they find fun, that is, showing God's love. Not every church has this calling, but those that do find a lot of joy in fulfilling their calling.

In the closing scene of the Christmas classic, “It’s a wonderful life,” George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) realizes that the world has been changed for the better by his actions. This, “I’m making a difference,” attitude is essential for success in playing Hearts. The church council should spend a few moments each month reflecting how this church has made the world a better place. Each committee meeting should include some time for evaluation of how successful this group has been in furthering the loving outreach of the church. In the same way, seek to interpret the church budget as a mission budget. Instead of saying “x was spent on office expenses and y on staff salaries,” break each line into how the money benefited the ministries and outreach of the church. If the paid youth leader spent a week with the teens on a mission trip, then that week’s salary appears under the mission budget. Cultivating a culture of charity is the chief goal of the council. Don’t get caught up in the trap of comparing your church to other churches or organizations. Having this church feel good about doing the good that it can do, is key.

As the fact that this church is choosing a ‘heart’ path is communicated, leaders should look for opportunities to verbalize what they have discerned. Adopting a mission statement, such as, “We’re the church that cares,” doesn’t instantly make it so. Using missional language in all of your communications, however, does shift the identity of the church. It would be nice if both your people and those outside the church stopped referring to it as “the church on the corner of Pine and Main” and started calling it “those nuts that are always helping the homeless” or “the church that raised $10,000 to defeat malaria.”

John 1:5
...the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.

“What is light?” I asked my father.

“Well, that depends upon what you need it for.”  My father was somewhat an expert on the subject, having worked on optical design, first for Sandia Labs, and then at Goerz. “When you design a lens, light is like the waves that you see upon the sea. All of the colors of the rainbow are but different lengths between the peaks and troughs of light’s waves. But when you take a closer look, pondering the smallest bits that fall like dust upon a photocell or a roll of film, then you best remember that light is really a particle.”

This was my first encounter with what is known as a paradox. Two understandings that are both true, yet opposite. At Christmas and the holidays, paradoxes abound. 

To name just a few:
    •    Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as an example of family values.
    •     Peace on Earth, promised. Then Herod slays the innocents.
    •    Wisemen with extravagant gifts and Jesus’ uncompromising emphasis on simplicity.

I think its a good time to be uncomfortable with God’s built in ambiguity. What do I need him for? When I am desperately in need of his comfort, he is there like the waves of the sea washing over me. But when I do theology, and analyze God down to the smallest bits, then I’m better off accepting my own uncertainty. In the details of everyday life, I seem to be able to discern that something is good and God’s will for me to do, or perceive that something is doable and within my capabilities, but I can’t have both. It’s the darkness within me that still doesn’t comprehend the light. 

Light falling on Joseph
Christmas Eve

She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door. It was time. She was almost accustomed to the growling rumble of bombardment. The game of trying to discerned a pattern had worn her numb. A progression of booms, growing ever lower and more muffled, would be followed by a blast so close that you heard the rain of second story glass. She had hidden for three days in the linen closet, most of it curled fetal-like reading her book by candle light. Beth no longer believed that one moment might be any safer than the next. Nor that this house was any safer than another. This suburban street, that she had chosen for its security, didn’t deserve to be spared by the universe any more than a similar street in London or Hiroshima or Stalingrad. Her students taught her; “spies are everywhere,” and, “when it’s your time, it’s your time.” 


Before placing the book, Beth had taken her sleeve and carefully dusted plaster from the table. She turned and said, “I will miss this place.” On Friday nights she always sat in the adjacent chair listening to Mozart, drinking Chardonnay, and reading by the now toppled lamp. Beth’s name meant ‘house’ in both Arabic and Hebrew and she took shelter in fluidly passing between the languages. All across the Fertile Crescent, even in Farsi she suspected, words and stories reinforce cultural values regarding hospitality.  She knew that overstaying her visa and even leaving this book in its reverent repose, might be misunderstood. Apologetically, she whispered, “It’s a gift, not a witness.”


Yesterday, a tank rumbled on her street. She had heard the pop-pop-pop of the Government’s heavy machine guns. Rebels call them ‘fifty’s’ and Beth didn’t care to know why. “Good. The fight will soon pass on.” She remembered the weather maps back home, and how the fearful anticipation of a tornado always gave way to the delight of sunshine on the other side of the front. Her parents had taught her how to take shelter in closets. An hour later, she heard, ‘swoosh-swoosh.’ Rebels were in her alley launching mortars. Book in hand, she went to the door and yelled for them to move away. They asked her for food, but she had nothing to bribe them with.


At the door she made a decision. She would go home. Not because she was afraid nor because those who told her not to come had been proven right. Her parents live in a gated community. What if, God forbid, she is captured or worse? Early on in the siege, she had passed a woman weeping in the street. “It’s the unknown,” a voice whispered behind her. Beth’s last email said, “I’m Ok. I’ve learned that faith doesn’t shield you from harm. It does, however grant you the dignity to live in harmony anywhere; San Francisco, Singapore, or Syria.”


The ground shook again. She used the doorframe like a crutch, but she didn’t hesitate. Outside one of rebels lay dead. She pulled up his keffiyeh, covering his face. Like a prayer, she chanted what the book had taught her: “The race is not to the swift. The battle is not to the strong. Wise women and men know hunger and brilliant people often go poor. Even when elected, rulers can be cruel. From the dust, we celebrate life. With each breath, beauty. With each decision, our dignity. I chose to live among you. I do not regret it. Time and chance happen to all.”

copyright Bill Kemp, 2012

Thaddeus McChesney leaned into you when he spoke. He gave you irrefutable advice and detailed explanations of the trivial. His job at the bottling company had involved adjusting the labels, truing them to lay parallel to the draft’s bottom and spell checking their fine print. I doubt he ever drank a beer. His edge was important to him. Why dull it? He ate organic, fearing to introduce the slightest dust into the well oiled machinery of his life. The fact that he expected such accuracy of others nurtured in many hearts a concern that he might never die.


One day, though, he failed to awake. Mary, his widow, a mouselike thing, sat me at the kitchen table. I offered her the condolences she deserved for her fifty years of loyalty to the intense little man. She stood beside him, if not one step back into his shadow in the gold framed photo of them on the table. Then as now, she was dry eyed and unsmiling. The day was quiet and I waited with expectation for some kind words which I could repeat when I eulogized Thaddeus McChesney.


“I wanted simply to cremate him,” she began. Waving her hand limply over her head as if chasing flies. “They want to do an autopsy. Besides...”  She took three neatly typed pages and placed them before me, covering their wedding photograph. I skimmed down the twenty-five bulleted lines. 


“His final wishes?” I asked. She shrugged in faint affirmation. Even in that quick glance, I could count three typos. Bullet number thirteen was repeated. It ended the man’s first page and then was repeated on the second, as if wanting to be viewed in a full length open casket was of importance to Mr. McChesney. 


This repetition forced the man’s twenty-fifth request to be orphaned on the third page. I read it and paused considering how intrusive I should be as their pastor. Finally I said, “Since he is... in a better place. We don’t have to obey...”   


“I want what he...” She waved vaguely to the white sheets in my hands, then rose to make coffee. She knew that I needed something to say for the man. Lighting the gas burner gave her time to compose her thoughts.


“He was a dedicated employee of Rolling Rock.” I knew this story. When Thaddeus passed the mandatory retirement age, he refused to surrender his employee badge. They gave him his watch and handshake anyway and made him gatekeeper of the company parking lot. I often saw him walking the rows of cars checking each plate number against his clipboard. Even in winter, he wore a dark suit and grey tie. His silver hair neatly stayed in place. 


“Cremation would have been good,” She concluded. “Mr. McChesney enjoyed being warm.” I was incredulous. Her husband had been secretary of the church trustees since long before JR was shot. Many Sundays I begged him not to keep turning the thermostats down. McChesney would rise on toes and put his nose and inch from mine before citing the precise statistics on fuel saving for each degree of setback. 


Now in the dead of August, I almost expected him to jump from his coffin and implore the funeral director to quit running the air-conditioning so high. Instead, Thaddeus lay pallid white, all of his zeal drained and replaced by formaldehyde. His grey tie was noose-like around his neck. I thought of the coffee cup I had left untouched on Mary’s kitchen table. Had something in those three typed pages poisoned my normal regard for a widow in her grief? Should I squeal my doubts to someone in authority? They did do an autopsy, didn’t they? I steeled myself to look down to bottom of the casket. Yes, she made them do bullet twenty-five. He was wearing plaid pants. 


When I came to Mary McChesney in that final minute before the closing of the casket and the beginning of the service, I wanted to ask her about the results of the autopsy. Was it his heart? Had a stroke caused him to sleep passively away? Or was it... Instead I said, “Did he deserve this?” Mary smiled the faintest line and said, “He forgot our anniversary.”


copyright Bill Kemp, 2013