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Archive for March, 2010

Fasting for Lent

If you were to begin a 40 day fast on Ash Wednesday, here are two things to think about.

1) The last time you ate lunch: February 17

2) Today (march 30) would be your first meal since you began on Ash Wednesday.

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I was under the impression that we were living in a civil democracy.  The health care debate has made me question that.

Set aside, for a second, whatever you think about the content of the health care bill and look at process.

There are have been all kinds of protests for and against this thing.  But the level of naked hatred for our leaders is astounding.  The teaparty movement is often little more that the basic militia movement with a few signs of Obama painted to look like Hitler.  Pretty amazing, but not all that surprising.  The fringe on the other side did the same kinds of things when Bush was in office.  Inappropriate, yes.  New, no.

What concerns me more is the recent escalation at various levels.  On one hand it goes straight to the top.  It has now become commonplace for the president of the United States of America to have hecklers from the U.S. congress.  During Obama’s first State of the Union Representative Joe Wilson shouted ‘you lie’.  From there the flood gates have seemed to open up a disregard for order in both the House and the Senate.  The final debate on the Health Care Bill was almost a free-for-all as Representative Bart Stupack spoke, with multiple people shouting ‘baby killer’.

Two things.  1) In my adult life I don’t remember hearing of any congressman, republican or democrat, doing anything like that…until the current group of republicans.  2) If our leaders in congress are incapable of having a civil, vigorous debate about the issues, without demonizing their fellow Americans, is it any surprise that thousands of people have ramped up the rhetoric of hate?

Which brings me to my other area of concern; violence in the wake of the Health Care vote.  Right around the Health Care vote the offices of numerous congressman were attacked.  Many had bricks thrown through their offices and some have even had a few bullets go through their windows.  This same kind of thing has happened all throughout the country, even here in Wichita, Kansas.  The Democratic offices had an anti-Obama brick lobbed through their front window this past weekend.  Read the story here.  On top of this violence the rhetoric about civil war and breaking away from the U.S. has been ramping up.

Really?! Are we turning into that kind of a country?  For some reason I was under the impression that were were a civil democracy.  I thought we had really begun to leave behind many of the evils of the past, but in the last couple of years I’ve been consistently proven wrong.  I thought that our country had moved past much of the racism that has plagued us for years but the naked hatred directed at Obama through the election and in the last year has been appalling.  I thought that the McCarthyism of WWII and Joseph McCarthy had passed but Glenn Beck has revived it with great gusto.  I thought that we were a country that believed in Democracy that, at it’s core, was built on peaceful transitions of power, but some of the violence this weekend is making me question that.

I hope I’m wrong.

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Fair warning, this might be something of a nerdy post.

There was a day when the point of video games was to escape the realities of our world and immerse ourselves in fantasy.  To some extent this is still true but in the last couple of years, the real world and the digital world have begun to collide in some pretty surprising ways.

Recently, I’ve run across two videos that have illuminated my understanding of the relationship between the physical world and digital world.  The first is a video of a speech given by Jesse Schnell, a video game designer and professor of game design and Carnegie Mellon University.  You can watch the video at the link below.

Jesse Schnell at the DICE convention on the future of gaming.

He covers a lot of things in his 20 minute talk but here are the important ideas that I would pull out

1) He outlines the importance of simple interactive games like facebook games.  They are huge and generating unbelievable amounts of money.  For example.  Their are more Farmville (a simple game on Facebook) players than there are total number of people with Twitter accounts.  What’s more, Famville is generating millions of dollars a month.  That whole discussion blew me away.

2) He argues that the popularity of these types of games is due to the fact that they are connecting people back to reality.  It’s not just that Farmville is fun to play, but now you can see how good all of your friends are and play against them.  He goes into this in more detail in the video but the basic idea is that our lives have been so disconnected from reality that we are now searching for any bit of connection to reality that we can, no matter how simplistic or gimmicky that it might be.  Here’s where I think he hits the nail on the head.  This is a compelling argument to me.  His last main point is more troubblesome to me.

3) Combined with the fact that technology is becoming so cheap and even disposable (he argues that everything from our cereal box to our toothbrush will have a computer, screen and internet connectivity within the near future) he argues that game designers have the possibility to design games and point systems that help us be better people with real time feedback and rewards.

So, let’s give him the benefit of a doubt.  Never mind that he never determines what the definition of “better person” is.  Never mind the fact that he doesn’t discuss the unbelievable possibilities for abuse with what he is suggesting.  Let’s say he’s right, gaming can help us be better people.  So what does that actually look like?

Here’s where the next video comes in.  It’s from the TED website (TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design) and features Jane McGonical.  She too is a game designer.   She talks some about the history of Games, the psychology of going on adventures within games, the fact that we are better people (more skilled but also more altruistic) in games than we are in real life, but also how gaming might have a real impact on making the world a better place

She ends her talk by talking about 3 different games that she’s worked on that influence how people think about and act toward the environment, to a game where when you complete the game you will actually have a certification from the World Bank to do development work.  That game is called Evoke. Her perspective really gives some more flesh to the seed of an idea that Jesse Schell starts.

Overall, I’m still skeptical of this all.  I find Schnells insight that we are disconnected from reality and are trying to fill an innate hunger very important.  I just don’t buy the idea that we then need design games that help us feel more connected to reality.  I think we just actually need to quit playing the games and get more connected with reality!  While I admire both of their hopes for altruistic gaming, the idea of thoughtful rejection is never entertained.  To resist the pull or progression of the technological worldview is never questioned.

I guess we shall see what the future brings.

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One year ago today (march 21) we pulled into the parsonage driveway in Harper, Kansas, driving a great big moving van.  This marks my 5th year in ministry but my first as a full time, solo pastor.

When I initially came to Harper, I was attracted to the church because I thought I wanted to be a youth pastor.  In fact, I initially told them that I wasn’t interested simply because it was a solo position and not an associate position.  However, the church had (and still does have) a very large youth group which peaked my interest.  It’s what got me in the door.  The youth program is also what consumed the first 6 months of my time and energy as I worked diligently to paint a picture of relational youth ministry for the church.  But in the last several months, I’ve begun to be consumed with other things.  Namely, I’ve spent a large amount of time and pastoral energy on leading the church through a study on Spiritual Gifts.

This has partly led to a shift in how I view myself.

Coming out of Seminary I was pretty focused on being a youth pastor.  For Pete’s sake my degree is MDiv with a youth ministry concentration.  As I considered the possibility of taking a solo position at Pleasant Valley Mennonite Church I had to undergo something of an existential transformation.

Was I a youth pastor, or was I lead pastor?

I spent many an hour talking with trusted friends, teachers and colleagues who knew me well enough to be a mirror into my soul.  After going through seminary, sure I probably had the skills to pull it off, but who was I?  Was my identity that of a youth pastor or of something different.

I have spent the past year asking myself what it means for me to be a solo pastor.

This question has given me pause in some ultimately very helpful ways.  I came to this position a year ago not really knowing what it meant for me to be a solo pastor.  I have often explicitly said that I am still figuring this thing out and that I didn’t want to over extend myself with too many tasks or obligations that I wasn’t sure that I could handle.  Guided by the question “what are the right things for me to be doing” I have worked at figuring out what my routine should look like and where I need to give my time and attention.  It has also meant that I have been conscious to find people to take on tasks that I know that I cannot handle or do not have the time and energy for.

When I began last year I definitely had a focus on youth ministry.  While I haven’t necessarily lost that focus, I have grown into a more well rounded understanding of my job.  This shift has mainly been spurred on by two things; preaching and visiting.

I have now been preaching for an entire year.  On a regular basis.  Every week.  Honestly, I was terrified about what I was going to fill those sermons with.  As it has turned out, I’ve occasionally had some thin sermons, but more often than not, I have to cut myself off so I don’t go too long.  I have come to enjoy preaching, and the process of regularly preparing sermons, much more than I expected to.

I also didn’t expect to enjoy visiting people as much as I do.  Yes I’m extroverted and can be high strung, which means that I’ve usually directed that energy towards the youth.  The idea of visiting people dying in a hospital and home bound nonagenarians didn’t exactly give me goosebumps.  However, after regularly visiting a select group of PVMC’s finest members I have grown to have a deep appreciation for the wisdom and perspective on life that they have.  I have been blessed in a way that I was sincerely not expecting.  All of this adds up to something of a surprising conclusion.

I think I like being a solo pastor.

I still don’t have the administrative skills to be the lead pastor on a large pastoral team, but I have certainly come to enjoy much of the work that the lead/solo pastor position entails.  For someone that thought he was called to work directly with youth, the realization that I actually enjoy all of the other stuff as much or (dare I say it) even more than working with youth is definitely an odd feeling.

Once again, I have been reminded that even though I think I’m being faithful to the calling of God, that God’s plans are usually different, but always better, than my plans.  Ask me again in a year, but one year out I can say that coming to PVMC was still the right decision and that it looks to be that way for quite a while.

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When it comes to politics I try to, first and foremost, ground myself in Biblical understandings and commands.  Specifically, I try to let Jesus be my guide.  As a result, there are some things that I happen to line up with Republicans on and others I line up with the Democrats.  Still others I line up with Green party candidates and even sometimes find myself in the same camp as some of the libertarians.  I’m usually willing to have a civil and honest debate with just about anyone on any issue.

However, I recently found my religious tradition staring down the barrel of the Glenn Beck paranoia machine.

If you have been living under a rock for the last couple of years Glenn Beck is an outspoken commentator on Fox News.  He’s one of the key people who has been responsible for bringing a relatively fringe set of beliefs into the mainstream consciousness.  Basically he’s adopted the language and arguments of the militia movements and the libertarian movements and helped force out traditional Republicanism, at least on the Fox News network.

At the beginning of march however, he sent out a warning on his radio program that people should look for the phrases “social justice” and “economic justice” in their churches and if they find them they should run as fast as they can.  He goes on to say that these are “code words” for Nazism and Communism.  To be fair, glen does then go on to clarify that everyone’s probably heard a sermon on this but you really have to be worried if your church holds these things as core doctrines or teachings.

Being a Mennonite, whose tradition has held these things as core values for over 400 years, I naturally found myself quite befuddled to suddenly find out that I was really a Nazi and a Communist.

Sorry Glenn.  Wrong answer, try again.

Social justice and economic justice are a core part of churches across all denominations not because there is a vast Christian Communo-Nazi conspiracy.  It’s a core part of many churches because it’s a core part of the Bible and of Jesus.

For those of you who might actually be taking Glenn’s warning seriously, let me make my position clear.  Yes, I believe in Social and Economic Justice as core doctrines and beliefs associated with the Christian faith.  Yes, Mennonite Church USA would also hold these as core beliefs.  And Yes, I hope PVMC also holds these as core doctrines.

But rather than ramble on and on about the core relationship between economic and social justice and the faith, I’ll just let the Bible to the talking for me.

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Deuteronomy 15:7-11

7 If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. 8 You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. 9 Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. 10 Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. 11 Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”

Micah 6:8

8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Luke 18:22

When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Matthew 6:19-21

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rustg consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rusth consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Matthew 25:31-46

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,g you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

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And that’s just getting warmed up.

As my friend Tim would say, “Glenn, Thanks for comin’ out.  Next time remember to bring your glove.”

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There have been two events announced this week that have come as something of a personal shock to me.

1) The Kansas City School District made the decision on Wednesday night to eliminate 29 of it’s 61 schools.  That’s half of it’s schools, closed for good at the end of the school year.  They are laying off 700 out of 3,000 employees, 285 of which are teachers.  Being as both my father and my father in law are in the teaching profession (both and very small schools I might add) this kind of news is almost terrifying to me.

2) Franconia Mennonite Conference in Pennsylvania announced this week that they are letting go all of their conference staff, except for one conference minister and possibly a support staff or two.  That’s really something when you consider that they have (had) on the order of 17 staff.  Possibly the most damning statement in the article in the online version of The Mennonite was the quote from their conference moderator R. Blaine Detwiler, “The conference still functions as if it were doing things for congregations.”  The clear implication of that statement is that even with 17 staff, the conference was doing nothing for their churches.  In recent years I have grown to be a strong supporter of conferences and denominations.  This news, too, is profoundly shaking to me.

There are some in the national media and in national politics that are trying to say that yes, things are getting better.  Yes, the stock market is up from it’s low of 6,000 points to about 10,000, regaining half of what it lost a year ago.  Yes, the financial industry has stepped back from the brink of world-wide collapse.

But from where I sit, things are still going down hill, and fast.

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1- On Monday the second hour of the Diane Rehm show focused on our prison system and the idea of early release programs.  Many of the people on the show argued for locking up the key and leaving people to rot.

2- One of the hourly news stories was about a massacre in Mexico.  It included the strangely poetic line “Revenge was on the lips of everyone”.

It just struck me that Christian concepts of forgiveness and reconciliation are still profoundly counter-cultural.

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