Thursday, February 05, 2015

What's Next?

Several years ago I read "Moneyball" by Michael Lewis.  At about the same time I began reading, a blog about my favorite sports team.  I soaked up the information being offered, a deeper more meaningful way to understand the game that I loved.  These works pointed to "Sabermetrics" a math based system of understanding the great game.  Imagine a use in the world for math beyond balancing a check book.  And seriously, who does that?  (Checkbooks were these little pads of paper used to exchange money...I know, who does that anymore?)

One of the concepts I learned from Sabermetrics was that just because the results didn't turn out the way one might expect or hope it doesn't mean that the decisive action was wrong.  The idea is known as results based analysis.  If the decision based on the facts known at the time was sound one should understand that randomness creating an unexpected outcome does not mean the decision was the wrong one.  Sometimes, as unlikely as it is, the ball gets intercepted.

I am still recovering from a shocking conclusion to what was a super Superbowl XLIX.  If I didn't have a rooting interest in one of the teams I might have called it the "best" or most memorable since Super Bowl XXV when a field goal went wide right giving the NY Giants a victory and began what turned out to be a four year losing streak for a great Buffalo Bills team.

My immediate reaction was the same as so many others, "WHY DIDN'T THEY RUN THE BALL?"  The answer seems so obvious after the ball is intercepted by the other team.  Why take that chance?  Why throw it?  Why did this have to happen to "US"!  The coach's decision was immediately questioned by millions of people, the broadcasters, team members, former professional players and many others like me who are fans of the game.

A couple days later, coach Carroll spoke with the Brock and Salk on Seattle's 710 AM and demonstrated remarkable leadership in the midst of this unprecedented time for a football team.  If the link works you can find his discussion here:

The coach shows great empathy for fans, acknowledging their feeling of grief while taken responsibility for a controversial decision.  With assurance he explains his reasoning for the play call and one can begin to understand that perhaps the coach was making the right decision, only the result turned out to be unexpectedly bad.  In his game play decision he reasoned it was right to pass the ball when the defense was expecting a run.  Makes sense from a game theory point of view.  Take an action that is likely to get the best result based on what you believe the actions of your opponent will be.  Just because it doesn't work, doesn't mean it was the wrong decision.

A well thought out, practiced, reasoned decision may not gain the hoped for result but it may be the right action to take.  In my ministry I am challenged to make decisions that will help more people understand they are loved children of God.  We plan, we practice and we act.  Sometimes we make a significant difference for others, sometimes the ball is intercepted.  Whatever the result we must continue to act.

"What's Next" is a quote used by coach Carroll and his quarterback Russell Wilson.  They spoke it last year after winning a Super Bowl.  They speak it now looking to move beyond their grief and forward to what awaits them in the next season.  So people, what's next?

Friday, August 01, 2014

What makes a good sermon?

By a rough estimate I've given roughly 1,000 sermons over the past 18 years.   Not sure if that qualifies me to be an expert yet or not, but lets say I've been around the block in preparing and delivering sermons.  As a child, youth and young adult, as well as the few sermons my schedule allows me to hear, I've listened to well over 1,000 sermons.  Yet how many do I really remember?   With some effort could I remember 10%, 5%, less?  

Maybe you have heard some sermons and left thinking,wow that was a great sermon.  Maybe you talked about it at lunch or on the drive home.  How many sermons could you recall the main idea from right now?  Go ahead, take your time . . . a few, a dozen, more?  Really?

I know when I'm satisfied with a sermon, it usually has just the perfect mix of connecting the Biblical story with our lives and leaves us all with a memorable example.  Thereare a few that still stand out to me in how a visual aid connected to a story that connected to the Biblical text and I think, yeah, that was fun!

What makes a sermon "stick"?  Chip and Dan Heath in their book "Make it Stick" suggests there are particular ways we can help our ideas to "stick."  All it takes is a little SUCCESs an acronym for Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional and Stories.  Chances are you can find a few of these qualities in those sermons that you remember.

So, after reading a book about making it stick, what has stuck?  Throughout their work Heath and Heath have used "Stories" to keep the reader turning page after page.  Stories capture our interests and . . . we remember them.  A good story is VERY sticky.

It seems likely to me that the sermon you remember has a good story.  Its likely that this sermon made good use of the original story of the Biblical text, related it to our story and created a new way for you to see the connection of the two.  Maybe something unexpected or concrete stuck with you in such a way that you tell a story about the sermon.  

So, what makes a good sermon?

Friday, July 25, 2014

Random Sabbatical update

Confession Time.  I didn't attend a worship service on Sunday.  Instead I was a regular dad taking their child to camp. On the way we stopped at Starbucks, of course, and met a few of the others heading to her camp.  It provided an opportunity to have a random conversation with a young adult who is struggling with the idea of church, worship and community.  God Bless those random opportunities.

I am still working on a "Made to Stick" book report.  Also, this week I finished "Great by Choice" and intend to create a book report on that as well.  Had a marvelous time in a cabin in the woods this past week.  Thank You to church members who provided that opportunity.  I joked on facebook that I was going back in time.  No cell service, no wifi, I didn't mention the no running water and the outhouse as well!

As the sabbatical already is coming to its closing weeks I am struck by what has or hasn't happened.  Visiting worship has been brilliant and at first I wasn't really sure where that would be on my priority list.  Turns out it has been (with the exception of this previous week) priority one.  Reading has gone fairly well.  Worship planning . . . not as well as I had hoped, yet I am at peace with that.  I am reminding myself of the importance and power to admit "I don't know" and to keep working for an answer.

I am looking foward to talking with the church about what it is for us to be "Wesleyan" after all we are called "Wesley United Methodist Church."  What is it about Wesley's teachings, discipleship and church practice that we want to emulate and grow with?  I have been reflecting on the basic movement of the first Methodists who were moved through small group study to care for the vulnerable and to share their understanding of grace for all.

Hopefully this week I will be able to drop in on a friend's church for worship on Sunday and then I'm off to a house on Puget Sound.  Hope Y'all are well!

Monday, July 14, 2014

Fourth Sabbatical Sunday Worship

As I reflect over childhood experiences, of people and events that shaped my life, I realized how clear my memories are of Sunday mornings.  How important it was for my parents to go to church.  How there seemed to be so many people.  Then as we got to the doors my mom would take us to the nursery and my parents would go into this mysterious room with all the other grown-ups.  What did they do in there?  Why couldn't I go in with them?  I have such a strong memory of the curiosity of that mystery.  What secret activities where those grown-ups doing?  Then one Sunday, I didn't go to the nursery, I went into the room with the grown-ups!  Over time I learned the prayers (wondering if the Holy Ghost was like Casper), I learned to sing and I ate bread and juice to remember Jesus loved me. My experiences there have greatly formed what it means to be part of a worshiping community and I am so grateful for the people of Rochester UMC.  They gave me a great gift as a child participating as a member of the worshiping community.

This Sunday I went to check out the local competition so to speak and attended one of the former Presbyterian churches in town. One personal note, I haven't been shaving the past week.  I'm on sabbatical so why not, right?  I was very self-conscious that I looked scruffy.  I was a lone single man with an unshaven face and I plopped myself down behind a family with two young girls.  Soon another man sat next to me further down the pew and I began thinking of church Safe Sanctuary policies.  Maybe this guy was thinking, who is this scruffy guy?  Why did he sit behind the girls?  Maybe I should have just shaved.

The worship started with two hymn-like songs.  There was a small singing group up front. The music was OK, but I didn't find a connection or excitement in singing them.  After a third song, there was a "passing of the peace" time.  I shook a few hands and sat, following my usual three and out rule.  Then it went on.  A couple more people shook my hand. And it went on.  Oh My Goodness when will it end?  Liturgically I really like passing the peace.  It’s important for us to be reconciled to one another. We should not stand and/or sit awkwardly waiting for this time to end while the extroverts move from one side of the sanctuary to the other. God has granted us grace, we should pass the peace and keep moving on.

Overall, this could have been a UMC service.  The congregation was older but had a good mix of families with children and youth.  The pastor was engaging.  The sermon, well, I've given plenty of shotgun (scattered without a clear point) sermons in my time so I'll give it a pass.  Not an "A"  but a "C".  I've been there.  I knew what I wanted to say, but just didn't get to it.  Then it’s Sunday and time to deliver whatever you have.

A prayer, offering and closing song and Peace Out, have fun watching the World Cup!

Again, I'm left to wonder, what is the purpose of this Sunday morning task?  So much time and emotional energy is given by the staff of any church into this weekly gathering.  Whether it’s traditional protestant or non-denominational we all sing, pray and hear from the scriptures.  Some of it is more entertaining than others.  But, would even the "best" of these services be the right place for someone to enter into the Christian community?  That’s how I entered as a child nurtured by my parents and other loving adults of the congregation.  But would I begin anew through worship?  I'm not sure.  I'm becoming increasingly aware also of how hard it is to wander into these things alone.  God bless all those single people or lone adults with children who have wandered into worship looking to connect with God and with others.  God forgive me for when I and or the church did not greet them well. 

I'm becoming more convinced that discipleship happens best in relationships that are formed in other ways from Sunday morning worship.  Worship can be formative in our lives of faith.  Worship can express things in a unique way.  Worship can give us a gift of community and the presence of God that other gatherings might not.  Yet, maybe we need to put some equal time into other aspects of spiritual formation.  How much more might I receive in worship if I knew a few of the people I was participating with?  How much more might I be open to the message if I had been reading some of the same scriptures and thoughts during the week? 

What makes worship "work" for you?  When does worship fall flat?  Is it the worship that is offered or what you have brought to the worship that will answer those questions?

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Third sabbatical Sunday worship

When I was in the 8th grade I spent a lot of time giving attention to a girl I'll call here Mary.  I spent what seems like hours talking on the phone with her, writing notes to her.  We seemed to be getting on well.  Then she dropped a bomb on me.  She liked some guy I'll call here Peter.  WHAT?  Seriously?  What has this dude got that I don't have?  Peter?  No WAY!  But we've spent all this time talking and . . . then the dreaded words of every teenage boy came, "I like you as a friend . . ."  NOOOOOOO!  I was crushed.  Why didn't she like me?  What is wrong with me?  As I worshiped this past Sunday I wondered. have the mainline churches been jilted, put off into the friend zone?

This past Sunday  I went to "the Stone Church" named as I understand it after their first building in downtown, which was, you guessed it, an old stone church.  Their current facility is a great modern building.  Once again coffee was on offer before worship but this time it was not espresso, just drip coffee, but still on offer BEFORE worship.  Yes, I took my coffee into the sanctuary, although this didn't seem to be as much of the culture here as it was at Four Square.  Also, once again there was the countdown timer on the screen!  What's up with that is it a thing?  It does give a feeling that something exciting is about to happen.

In my seat near the back I was surrounded by a generation that would have seemed more comfortable in worship with hymns.  I couldn't help but wonder and I wanted to ask them,  "why do you worship here."  They didn't seen to enjoy the music so it must have been something else.  I looked around more and noticed that there were a number of people in their 70's and 80's along with families of all ages. That got me thinking about the general situation of the mainline denominations.  What did we miss?  There was a time when our worship numbers dominated.  When I was in seminary the focus was on getting the boomers to come back to worship.  (As a Gen Xer that really annoyed me.)  The churches response seemed to be, "yes, of course they left and explored in their young adult years, but when they have kids they will come back."  But they didn't.  Nor did my generation.  Where did they go?  Well it seems a number of them went to the Foursquares and Stone Churches of the world.

So now what?  What need might mainline churches meet?

Authentic community comes to mind.  One person can set the tone for the community but it takes the whole group to decide to BE community.  Maybe there was nothing the church could have done when the boomers fled.  Maybe the church could have found a way to walk alongside the exploring boomers.  Our cities and towns have upwards of 90% of the people who are finding something more meaningful to do with their Sunday mornings than attend a worship service.  I believe that among those not attending worship somewhere, many of them are longing for a community of care and forgiveness, a community working to transform the dark places of the world, a community connecting to the Holy and to one another.

Maybe its time for the church to stop worrying about why Mary has gone over to Peter and consider instead how we all can be in community together with all our unique and wonderful qualities.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Second sabbatical worship

"Do you have a church that you go to?"  I asked the woman at the bookstore.  We had begun a conversation that seemed to lend itself to the question so I went for it.  Her reply was awesome, "what do you mean by "go"?  All right!  We entered into a fun conversation about the dynamics of church.  She was part of a church network made of small groups that met in peoples homes.  I was excited to hear about her experience and by considering what it meant to be church.  What do we mean by "Going to church."?

I went to a worship service on Sunday morning at 9:00.  I was in the greater King County area visiting a friend and we had plans to attend the Mariners game after worship.  So we picked a United Methodist church near his home.  I knew the pastor and wanted to see something of what life was like in that congregation.  The website was clear that both the 9:00 and 10:30 worship services were "traditional" so we knew the sort of basics to expect.  Soon after walking in the pastor spotted me.  Dang, cover blown.  He was enthusiastic to have me there and it was good to see him.  I found seats toward the middle back and my teenage daughter chastised me for being "Methodist" as a reference to not sitting closer to the front.

We went to church.  Well, we attended a worship service at a church.  It had all the basics of worship that I learned in seminary.  The sermon had some good exegitical work.  (Exegesis, one of those cool seminary words I learned.  I understand it to mean taking information out of the words of scripture.  In this case the pastor did a good job of pulling out the original greek words into our contemporary language and gave meaning to them for us today.)  The children's message was engaging.    The people greeted me nicely during the "passing the peace" time.  Churchy, worshipy stuff happened.  Did I "go" to church?

I found myself distracted from worship a few times.  My sister called in the middle of worship and that was VERY unusual.  (no the ringer was not on, no it did not vibrate in such a way that anyone else knew that the phone had "rung.")  I was tempted to get up and see what she was calling about but I didn't want to make that distraction for others in worship.  I noticed some things about the worship area or the service that distracted me into United Methodist Worship Critic mode.  Yet, now I'm writing wondering what it meant for me to "go" to church that morning.

I arived not wanting to meet anyone really.  I left in a hurry to call my sister back and to get to the Mariners game.  I wasn't there to be part of a community, I went to spend an hour in a room to "worship" but is that that same as "going to church"?  When I'm going to to church I'm going to participate with a community.  I want to hang out with a particular group of people to sing songs, share in scripture and pray.  For whatever reason, I didn't GO to church, I simply found myself attending a worship service.  I'll try to do better next time.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Freak Out!

Two of my primary sabbatical goals are to worship in other settings and to read and write.  This is the first book report of the sabbatical.

I had one thing to "do" at Annual Conference this year, lead a gathering of the clergy before the conference session had officially begun.  My role was primarily as the glue between pieces of work others had done.  I was nervous, what to say, what not to say?  Then I remembered a podcast I had listened to recently that discussed three of the hardest words in the English language to say . . . "I don't know."  I decided to encourage others to say "I don't know."  What if we prepared to truly listen to another by saying "I don't know what this person is going to say."  What if we gathered with a curiosity and care for one another?  So with that, we made bread, broke bread, and conferenced.  That podcast came from the authors of "Think Like a Freak."  Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner.  Thus, by saying "I don't know" I began to "Think Like a Freak."

When their first book "Freakonomics" was published several years ago I ate it up!  Levitt and Dubner produced and easy to read and fun economics book!  What?!?  This wasn't a book about the stock market or the impacts of interest rates or something of that sort.  It is a book about the core of economics, exploring the incentives of people.  Often we use money as an incentive, we sell things in order to gain money or we are persuaded to use money for a particular purpose.  Yet, people are motivated by a number of factors and with an economists eye, they explore virtually any question.  In the first book there are memorable essays on the crime rate drop of the '90s, they pursued questions like, "why do drug dealers live with their moms?"  Their second work originally titled "Superfreakonomics" they tackled global warming, prostitution and terrorism.  Now they bring us "Think Like a Freak."  If you are enthralled as I am you can also hear from them on a weekly podcast at

Steven and Stephen tackle a wide variety of questions and in this book they don't get into detailed
statistical analysis (bummer?) what they do is tell the story of thinking like a freak.  In fact in chapter 8 on the question of persuasion they highlight the importance of telling stories, using the Bible as an example of effective story telling.  I am reminded of the sermon I heard last week about the resistance people have to being converted, but in sharing our stories we show that we care and in caring we are moved sometimes even changed into a new understanding or action.

What if we took a microeconomic view of the church?  Instead of bemoaning declining attendance of the church in the "western" world, what if we started looking for good questions to ask about the motives of the church and the motives of people in their religious and spiritual lives?  In "Think Like a Freak" we are encouraged to admit we don't know, ask good questions, think like a child, consider a persons true incentives, tell stories and even sometimes to quit.  (You will also read an awesome account of why you sometimes hear about the "ridiculous" requests superstars make in their touring contracts, be prepared to be surprised on how smart David Lee Roth looks.)

One of the keys to "Thinking like a Freak" is to go forward with a willingness to think against conventional wisdom. This isn't a comfortable place for many of us.  We are creatures that enjoy affirmation and community with others.  Yet, in asking difficult questions we might find ourselves creating answers that defy the established norms of what it means to be church.  How might thinking like a child help us in our spiritual lives?  What story of transformation can we tell?  What do we need to quit doing?  I don't know yet but I feel the call to seek answers to these sorts of questions.  God help us as we Freak out into the future.