Everything Must Change

I’ve been reading Brian McLaren’s newest book, “Everything Must Change”. I am not all of the way through it, but it is incredible. I had felt as though his previous books lacked a sense of clarity. This work brings much of the cloudiness of his vision of the Kingdom of God into sharp focus. On top of that, this book gives a finely crafted theological argument upon which to build this vision.

There is so much to say about this book, but I don’t want to jump the gun. My mind has been racing while I’ve been reading and I need some time to let it all soak in.

So, have you ordered the book yet? I got my copy at Overstock.com.

McLaren vs. Osteen

I just ordered my copy of Brian McLaren’s newest book, “Everything Must Change”. I can’t wait to get it. I read the first few pages at Border’s the other day, but they were selling the book at full price, so I went online and ended up buying it for $5 less after shipping on Overstock.com. It should be here in a couple of days.

In the meantime, I’ve been doing some comparative analysis. McLaren’s book came out within about a week of the release of a new book by “America’s Pastor”, Joel Osteen. What a stark contrast between the two pastors and about the messages contained in these books.

When I did a search for each book on Amazon.com, I found editorial reviews from Publisher’s Weekly for both books. Here is what they said about McLaren’s new book:

“Starred Review. McLaren, a leader in the emerging church, issues a salvo of arguments for radical hope in the face of profound dilemmas. The prolific author and pastor identifies the earth’s four deep dysfunctions that have created a suicide machine: crises in prosperity, equity, security and spirituality. What could change, he asks, if we applied the message of Jesus’ ‘the good news of the kingdom of God’ to the world’s greatest problems? Here McLaren builds on the theme of his 2006 book The Secret Message of Jesus ‘that bringing about the kingdom means transforming the world we live in’ to propose that we create a hope insurgency. Using a close reading of the Gospels to challenge conservative evangelicals’ emphasis on individual salvation, not to mention end-times theology and, by implication, the prosperity gospel, McLaren argues for establishing a beloved community based on justice, peace, equality and compassion. McLaren’s conclusions are not new, but his ability to be clear and persuasive and get the attention of a segment of America’s Christians are exceptional. While his critics will find yet more material for challenging McLaren’s views, his supporters will consider this book a riveting call to a new conversion. (Oct. 2)” – Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

And about Osteen’s new book, “Become a Better You”, Publisher’s Weekly had this to say:

“Megachurch pastor and bestselling author Osteen follows up Your Best Life Now with this disappointingly unoriginal Christian self-help book. The seven subtitular steps to improvement include instructions to develop good habits, better relationships and an inner life. Osteen balances mind-over-matter pep talks with claims that God wants to bless faithful people with successes. The future is always promising, because God never performs His greatest feats in your yesterdays. At the same time, in order to receive God’s blessing, one must back up prayers with action, obey, maintain a positive attitude toward life and do the right thing with the right motives. Some of Osteen’s advice is sound; for example, he suggests that if you are forgiving and kind to colleagues and friends, they’ll cut you slack when you have crabby days. Other suggestions like ‘writing down a big goal and posting it on your mirror or desk’ are unremarkable. Laced throughout are anodyne first-person vignettes; Osteen struggled with frustration when his favorite restaurant announced a 45-minute wait. The hurried Osteen went to a nearby burger joint, only to have a brief encounter that changed another customer’s life. Voila! God turned Osteen’s disappointment into blessing! Though this book is destined for strong sales, it offers nothing innovative. (Oct. 15)” – Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Even a search of their respective websites has much to say about each of them as pastors and as individuals. The website for McLaren’s church, Cedar Ridge Community Church, has a simple design and talks about the activities and community of the church on its home page. The website for Osteen’s church, Lakewood Church, has at least three pictures of Osteen and a very prominent link to where we can buy his latest book. It also has a few prominent story leads about Osteen’s recent appearances of Good Morning America and the church’s status in Outreach Magazine.

Their individual websites continue this same pattern. Osteen’s personal webite has more links of his speaking on Larry King, the CBS Early Show, and Good Morning America as well as links to purchase his books. McLaren’s personal website is simple in design and does have a very prominent link to his book. But it also has links to liturgical resources and invitations to dialogue and get involved.

Okay, I may be a little skewed toward McLaren. I’ve read many of his books and agree with his take on the current state of the Church and the direction that we must go now. But more than that, I simply have a problem with the way in which Osteen presents himself. The message of Jesus Christ was not meant for us to become a “better you”, it was meant to change the world. And Osteen’s use of the term “America’s Pastor” is disconcerting.

But I think what has gotten me most uptight is that Osteen’s book is currently one of the best selling books in the U.S. McLaren’s book has hardly made a ripple. But among young pastors, I think that we will almost all be reading McLaren’s book and I can’t think of one person that will pick up Osteen’s. In other words, Osteen may be able to make a lot of money, but McLaren will have a far more lasting impact on the Church.

When I get the book, I’ll let you know.

A Poem from My Brother…

The hands of faith have a hold on me

It has taken some years to feel it’s grip

I struggle to understand what it all means

Some of it’s pain and some of it’s joy

It comes and it goes no matter my mood

The questions I have I may never know

I just hope that someday

I will see

How the hands of faith got a hold of me

Ministry in the Real World

Matthew 26:36-39a”Then Jesus went with them to a garden called Gethsemane and told his disciples, ’Stay here while I go over there and pray.’ Taking along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he plunged into an agonizing sorrow. Then he said, ‘This sorrow is crushing my life out. Stay here and keep vigil with me.’ Going a little ahead, he fell on his face, praying, ‘My Father, if there is any way, get me out of this. But please, not what I want. You, what do you want?’ When he came back to his disciples, he found them sound asleep.”

As most of you know, I work another job on top of my duties as pastor of this Church. I have the distinct privilege of being with a company which works with parents that are in the process of reunifying with their children after they have been taken into custody by the State of Maine. It is mentally trying work, but it can be very rewarding at the same time. Seeing children leave our care and go back home to live with their biological parents after as much as two years away is an incredible thing to witness.

Unfortunately, I have seen the other side, too.

I have worked as a Family Visit Supervisor for almost one and a half years now. In that time, I have taken part in five “goodbye” visits where the children have been removed from the home permanently because the parents have been unable to recover from their mistakes and problems. Those visits are very difficult, even when you know deep down that it is probably for the best. One mother broke down and sobbed uncontrollably as I drove away with her two young children in my car. Another one couldn’t handle the pain and simply asked that I take away her infant son back to the adoptive home very early in the final visit. Still another father welled up with tears as he gave his three-year-old daughter a picture of himself and asked her to “always remember” him.

As I said, it can be a mentally difficult job.

Whenever I do these visits, I always struggle for words to say to ease their pain. Most often, the kids are not the ones that are hurting at that moment. It’s the parents. The parents understand the enormity of the moment. They understand that these “goodbyes” don’t lead to another “hello”, at least not for a very long while. I still haven’t found anything that I can say that would seem to make it any easier or give them a sense of hope. But I have found that an empathetic smile, a touch on the arm, or a simple look into their eyes has a way of calming them. For a pain that is so obviously beyond words, it only makes sense that words cannot contain a sense of hope.

I think that is what makes Jesus’ statements in the Garden of Gethsemane so profound for me. Jesus knew that the most difficult moment in his life was coming, and he simply wanted someone to be there with him. He wasn’t looking for anyone to say anything. He didn’t want someone else to do it for him or share the pain. He wasn’t looking for anyone to do anything, except maybe God. He was simply looking for someone to be there with him and care enough to not fall asleep. And he couldn’t even get that. He faced all of the pain of the cross completely and totally alone.

As I’ve said many times, we live in a world that is losing hope. But I think more than that, we live in a world that is losing “touch”. We can talk and debate and communicate and argue all day long, but we seem to be losing our sense of community. As our understanding of the world gets larger through the use of technology and media, our strong personal relationships seem to be suffering. As we are bombarded with images from across the globe, we struggle to know our neighbors, our friends, and our families.

Jesus would say that we have fallen asleep.

Is that an alarm clock that I hear?!

An Open Post to the Bishop

Good day, Bishop.

Thank you, so much, for a great annual conference in New England last weekend. I especially thank you for the recognition that the new local pastors received during the Ordination Service on Friday night. Having received my license in the last few months, it was nice to be recognized for that accomplishment. But more than that, it was wonderful for all of the local pastors to be recognized for the ministry that they (we) do within the Connection.

But I am writing you today as an act of confession. This year, I had decided to commute back and forth to annual conference for a number of reasons, not the least of which was my 8 month-old daughter ay home. Another reason was so that I would be able to provide pastoral leadership for our beach services on Sunday morning. They had just started up again for the summer and I felt as though the service needed the continuity, not to mention that we had added the serving of Communion to these services and I would need to be present to make that happen.

(This is where the confession comes in…)

After the 8 AM service on Old Orchard Beach, my wife and I took the baby home and had every intention of packing up the car and heading to Wenham for the final day of the annual conference. Unfortunately, through some act of divine intervention probably inspired by the unexpected beautiful weather, my vehicle missed its turn and we ‘ended up’ in Boston. So, we took advantage of this twist of fate and (sadly) skipped Conference Sunday.

But what we found was an amazing testimony to the work of the Holy Spirit in Boston. We walked around the city and eventually ended up at Boston Commons. We found three separate churches holding open air services while we were there. One of them (Park Street Church) was holding a big event called Picnic in the Park. Another, the ‘Open Air Chapel’, was serving the Eucharist to anyone that wanted to partake while providing some light music and meaningful liturgy. The third, a Spanish-speaking congregation, was holding their own private service of Communion while sitting quietly on the grass. There was such a strong presence of the Spirit in that park. God is truly moving us out of our comfort zones (our own churches) and challenging us to not “hide our lamps under a bushel”. It was a such a wonderful expression of the things that you and many others have been talking and preaching about over the past several years (and longer).

So, please forgive me for skipping the final day of conference. But also be encouraged that God is still in control of this part of the world and that the Spirit is moving more and more every day!

Baptism

As I am writing this post, I am getting ready to perform my first baptisms this coming Sunday. If everything goes well, I will be baptizing four babies and one adult as well as bringing several people into membership. It looks like it will be a pretty special day in the life of this Church and for me personally. But all of this preparation has made me contemplate the mystery of Baptism.

Article XVII of the Book of Discipline states that Baptism is “not only a sign of profession and mark of difference whereby Christians are distinguished from others that are not baptized; but it is also a sign of regeneration or the new birth.” The Book of Resolutions has a lengthy section adopted in 1996 called “By Water and the Spirit: A United Methodist Understanding of Baptism” that goes into great detail about the theological understanding of baptism, its necessity, and what it means to the believer and to the church.

But at its heart, Baptism is still a mystery.

We are baptized because Jesus was baptized. On that, every Christian can agree. But that is just about the only point upon which we all agree. Some denominations, such as the Baptists, only baptize adults or people of an age where they can make a conscientious decision to be Christians. Others, like the Roman Catholics, require the baptism of infants so that they may be cleansed of “original sin” and can be sanctified before mortal death. Some denominations insist that true baptism only occurs when a person is fully immersed in water. Others feel that a light sprinkling is sufficient. Some denominations require special water to be used. Still others feel that any water will suffice.

And still the mystery goes on.

John Wesley held firm to an Anglican understanding of baptism which held that “in baptism a child was cleansed of the guilt of original sin, initiated into the covenant with God, admitted into the church, made an heir of the divine kingdom, and spiritually born anew.” At the same time, he acknowledged that baptism was “neither essential to nor sufficient for salvation” but was the “ordinary means” by which God used to give us the benefits of Christ’s workings in our lives.

I don’t know about you, but that still doesn’t really make it any easier for me to understand.

The truth is that Baptism is one of the two sacraments recognized by the United Methodist Church, the other being Holy Communion. Sacraments by definition are outward signs of an inward state and are meant to be the best way that we can openly show what is happening on a deeply spiritual level. They are, in essence, always a mystery.

I remember when I was baptized. I was nervous and I didn’t know what to expect. I was called forward by my pastor and went through the ritual aspects of the baptism and eventually sat back down in my pew. And nothing at all happened. I wasn’t happier; I wasn’t more free; I wasn’t more generous, or less selfish. Life didn’t become easier or any less frustrating. I was simply a little wetter at the end than I was at the beginning.

What I later realized is that nothing is supposed to change when you are baptized. As Wesley says, baptism is “a part of the lifelong process of salvation.” It is an opportunity for the Christian community, what we call the Church, to formally recognize God’s work in your life through Christ. It is a community celebration of the cosmic kind and a point of contact between Heaven and Earth. It’s a mile marker along the highway of faith, but it is not the starting point or the end of the road.

It is a special time in the life of the believer and of the community at large. It can be a deeply spiritual moment, sometimes even more meaningful for the congregation than for the participant. It is often a time of celebration for families and renews the generational ties of a family to a particular Church or denomination. It can be all of these things, and more.

But, it’s still a mystery to me. Praise be to the God of Mystery, and for all of those who have passed this Faith on to us so that we may celebrate it’s mystery together.

Friday Night Thoughts

Friday night. The baby is asleep. Robyn is out with friends. I’ve got Bob Marley on iTunes. (“No Woman, No Cry”… my favorite Bob Marley song.) I should be tired, but I’m not. My mind is all over the place tonight. I can’t seem to get my thoughts focused enough to actually get anything done. I’ll do pretty good for a day or two, but then it all falls apart again.

Next week I’ll be driving back and forth to the New England Annual Conference for the United Methodist Church. I’ve been invited to participate in the Ordination and Commissioning Service because I got my Local Pastor’s license this year. But I don’t think that I really want to go. It is a fairly long event, and they are holding it on Friday night after dinner. I think I just want to get on the road and drive, but I’ll see. You only get your license once, but it’s not like this is ordination. It’s a big deal, but I hate taking myself too seriously. It simply doesn’t mean much of anything to anyone outside of the people who will be in that room that night. And I’m not out to impress them.

I have to really try to figure out what I need to do this summer with the older kids. Bekah and Caleb need to have a good summer, but I am working a lot this summer. Maybe I need a new job. I don’t seem to be getting ahead at all. As a matter of fact, I just keep getting further and further behind. But Bekah and Caleb don’t care about that. They just want to see their Dad, and I really want to see them, too. The more time I spend with Izzie the more I understand just how much I have missed with them. I owe them more than a few hours out of the summer, but I can’t take the time off to be the kind of Dad that I want to be.

Maybe that’s why I can’t sleep tonight.

A Call to New York

I got a phone call from my mother today. She saw the kids in New York last weekend while she was there for a college graduation. She called on Sunday night to tell me something, but we never connected until tonight. She wanted to tell me that Caleb (my 10-year-old) told her that I didn’t like him because I avoid his phone calls.

It broke my heart.

I’m not the type that really likes phones. I actually avoid them like the plague. I love my email. Email can be answered at 2 AM in my underwear. Phone calls are done at inconvenient times. And right now, I have a lot of inconvenient times. So I am not avoiding Caleb (or Rebekah) on purpose, but I do generally avoid the phone. (They even called me at 10:30 AM on a Sunday… I was preaching… they know I have to preach…)

So I called them tonight. They were both doing fine. I talked to each of them for a few minutes. And when I talked to Caleb, I made sure that he knew that I loved him and that I missed him very much. The fact is that I do miss him (and his sister) very much. I hate the fact that they live there and I live here. I fight the guilt of having this great life with Robyn and Izzie while I am missing all of the great moments in their lives.

For instance, tonight Bekah had a concert for her choir. She is in a select chorus of hand-picked kids in her town. From what I have heard, she is pretty good. And all I want to do is hear her sing. I wish I could be part of their lives everyday, but that option has been taken away from me.

But I have to believe that this is all for the best. The fact is that I just want to be their father. I don’t want them to grow up and think that I don’t love them. I have no idea if it will all turn out okay, but I have to believe that it will be.

At least that’s my prayer every night.

Reflections from a Monday Morning Breakfast

The baby let me sleep in today. She got up at 5:15 again, but all I had to do was move her and put the pacifier in her mouth and she slept for almost another two hours. She finally got up at about 7:00 and had a big breakfast (for her) and a bottle. It was wonderful. More importantly, she was wonderful. The morning is so awesome with her. It is becoming our special time together.

The problem is that it reminds me sometimes of just how much I miss my other two kids. I spoke with the kids on the phone on Sunday afternoon. Neither one of them had much to say. They had just seen some of my family on Friday and Saturday, so we talked about that for a bit. But most of the time we spent talking was just for the sake of talking.

Being with Izzie everyday has reminded me of just how much I enjoy being a father and how much I miss having Bekah and Caleb in my life all of the time. I had gotten to a sense of ‘normalcy’ with them out of state over the past couple of years. But now, with a baby around all of the time, I have realized just how much I have missed.

So, today I feel a little bit sad for the things that I have missed. And I also feel a little hurt and angry at how I lost them. But I can’t stay sad for long. After all, it would be far sadder if I didn’t miss them at all.

So tonight I will go home to my wife and my littlest girl. I’ll give them both lots of hugs and kisses, and I’ll look at Izzie’s face and see hints of her older siblings in it. Then I’ll put her to bed and thank God that I have such a wonderful and caring family.

After all, having children is a huge gift and an even bigger responsibility… no matter how long you have them for.