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.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Sabbatical Sunday June 22

The anxiety began the night before.  I don't have to do this do I?  Good grief how does anyone go to church for the first time on their own?  I'm a church professional and I don't want to go to some mystery church where I don't know anyone.  What should I wear?  Will the people be weird?  Do I tell anyone who I am?

I went to bed without setting an alarm on purpose.  I wanted to rest.  I woke to discover it was 9:00.  Good grief, I've slept longer than I wanted, oh no, I missed my chance at the 9:00 service, am I really going to do this?  OK, there is a 10:30 at the Foursquare church, I'll go to that, after all the pastor used to play baseball for the Seattle Mariners!

What to wear?  No tie obviously.  All the good golf shirts are in the wash.  Button down white shirt, kakis  and Toms for shoes.  Should be unremarkable enough.  I depart with just enough time to park and enter with a few minutes before worship starts.  The entrance is pretty obvious but no signs.  A woman hands me a half page piece of paper.  On one side is an announcement on the other are what appear to be sermon notes.  (No order of worship, not surprised and envious.) Coffee!  Everyone has coffee, then there is the sound, ooooh an espresso bar!  Bonus! But there is a line and the screens in the sanctuary seem to be counting down  . . . 3:17, 3:16, 3:15 and fog!  They have fog machines, this is going to be cool.

The band starts up and they rock out some song that seems somewhat possibly familiar.  I count about 150 in the sanctuary and realize now is when the people are coming in.  Soon the sanctuary is so full I can't count 300? 400?  Many casually entering in with their coffee (dang, I should have gotten some, I wonder if they would take plastic?)

During the second song.  I notice the monitor on the back wall counting down so those on stage could see it. 5:20, 5:19, 5:18.  The final song is followed by a video testimonial which is touchingly done.  The pastor comes up to give an announcement about an upcoming event, two more announcements come across the video screen and then another pastor introduces the offering.  At this point I realize everyone on stage has been male.  We saw one woman in the testimonial and one woman give an announcement for a moms group.  Hmmm.  As the offering plates finish going around the pastor comes up and begins his sermon.  I look at the clock 25:00, 24:59, 24:58  . . .

The sermon is OK.  Some interesting tidbits from the sermon got me thinking which is always a good sign.  One was an unsurprising statistic stated but not quoted with sources that "The last thing new Christians do is give financially to the church, the first thing they stop doing is telling their story."  Yup.  I was especially impressed when he continued talking about sharing our stories and he said "Don't try to convert me, care for me."  We have a winner!

The service ended quickly with a prayer that included an invitation to renew your relationship with Jesus, the band leader young adult came up and said thanks and see ya, that was it.  Boom out, service time 55 minutes.

I was struck by the pastor's teaching about conversion.  "No one wants to be 'converted!"  Yet there was a clear call to share the story of Jesus and listen to other people's stories.  This is an evangelical call that I hope Wesley could engage in as well.  Our distinction in how we share the story may still be in how we read scripture and make use of reason, traditions and experience.  We may be more comfortable with some questions.  We are likely more "liberal" in how we look at social issues.  However, there is a core desire that we share, we want people to know they are God's loved children.