Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Good Things ...

Back in September I posted a blog entry about the closing of the Oasis Coffee Shop on the southside of Johnson City. The Oasis was a good meeting place. There were two guys who, when they were there, always made me glad. One of the men would often bring his small daughter along in her little car-carrier. He would place her next to him on a chair and then he and his friend would pull out a chess board and begin playing chess. When I saw them I always had a feeling of all being right with the world.

I haven't seen these guys since the Oasis closed. But last week they resurfaced at Panera. One of them is a teacher in Sullivan County, so he can only come when school isn't in session.

They invited me to play (they have a board that allows for two to four players). I didn't accept their invitation because I would have dragged the group down. The teacher (Dave, I think) is starting a chess club at the school where he teaches.

When I was in high school I would have scoffed at the idea of joining the "chess club". My age is showing, though, because now I think it's cool.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Aspect #4: Communities Entangled

Before we talk about entangled communities, I just wanted to take this chance to show you the kitchen ceiling at Grandview. The sprinkler system that is supposed to save us during our fiery emergencies has frozen and exploded again. Special thanks to Carla McKinney, Maggie Schade, Gene Nix and Neal Voke for being the first responders.
Here is Neal as he continues to handle all of the hubbub that comes with a water pipe mishap.

I now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

Aspect #4: Communities Entangled
Welcome to the final installment in this short series on aspects of Grandview that are our weaknesses and strengths all at once. This final topic is a little tricky because it’s something I witness more than I experience--so I may be way off base. Feel free to correct me, enlighten me, challenge me, or affirm me on this issue (on any of the issues, but on this one in particular).

Bob Owens once told me that it was sometimes difficult to go to church with the same people you know at work. He likened it to a fish bowl. He isn’t the only one who has mentioned this to me.

Imagine you are staff or faculty at a school (maybe you don’t have to imagine this) and you work with someone who has a different vision of Christian education than you. Also, this person thinks that the direction of the college or seminary should be very different than the one you prefer. Now throw in the fact that when tensions rise you see flaws in this person, even as you expose your own flaws.

Shall we throw another level of difficulty into the equation? Imagine that on Sunday morning you go to worship God and THAT VERY PERSON is giving the communion meditation. Suddenly, your desire to focus on forgiveness and love and the power of God to heal relationships is being outflanked by a person who is grating on your last nerve.

I can see how working and worshiping with the same set of fallen characters could be a distraction. The closest I come to this is when I’m holding a grudge against someone and I have to stand up and preach the undeserved, overwhelming, free grace of God. If you have never been in an extended “discussion” with your spouse and then tried to walk to the pulpit and preach on forgiveness then I highly recommend the humiliation that wreaks on your soul.

Let’s deepen the entanglement, shall we? Milligan and Emmanuel are sister institutions, but they aren’t the same institutions. When one institution speaks the other one doesn’t necessarily say, “Amen.” Not only that, their funding sources are often entangled as well. Not deep enough yet? How about this: When I became the senior minister of Grandview, Dan Lawson was the chair of the elders. Dan is the guy who asks me for money for Emmanuel ... and he was my boss at the same time.

Wait, wait ... it gets better. I’m now a trustee at Emmanuel and that makes me a part of the board that oversees the Presidency of Mike Sweeney at Emmanuel. Mike is a member at Grandview and, as such, has some say over my job as well. Let’s not stop yet; we’re on a roll! Grandview gives money to Emmanuel and Milligan. Emmanuel and Milligan staff and faculty give money to Grandview. And we’re all answerable to each other in official, unofficial, and sometimes annoying ways.

How great and twisted is this!

You can guess some of the strengths and weaknesses of these circumstances. The weakness is that some folks are tempted to withdraw from the church emotionally. I understand why. People only have so much emotional and spiritual strength and we kind of hate to summon it for something that strikes us as voluntary after summoning it all week at work. And, like it or not, people slip into the mistake of viewing the church as a voluntary institution. Never mind that Jesus didn’t institute college or seminary, but did institute the church. With the exception of the church staff, the church doesn’t pay our bills, so when we’re feeling emotionally and spiritually tapped out, the church is the easiest place to cut.

Now to the strength of the entangled community. The anonymity of contemporary culture doesn’t really allow the church to encourage discipleship on difficult issues. If I challenge somebody on something in his life and he doesn’t like my challenge, he can too easily slip away and start attending a church where nobody will notice or challenge him. In fact, if he looks like a decent chap, when he shows up at the new church they might even put him in charge.

Only when our communities are hideously entangled do we discover that sooner or later our flaws will be uncovered. Once uncovered, maybe we’ll take seriously the need to apply God’s standards to our flaws.

If your job situation causes you to resonate with what I’ve written, allow me to challenge you to make some friends at church with people who aren’t in your workplace fish bowl. There are plenty of those folks here. If you’re reading this and you’re not part of this entanglement, thank you for being the kind of person who can help bring fresh air from the outside! God can use you at Grandview in marvelous ways.

Please make it a priority to form kingdom friendships that God can use to bless others. The strongest of these bonds will be formed when we invite people who are not like us to become a part of our lives. When that happens we are truly living BEYOND ourselves.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

An Unpaid Advertisment

While I'm working on the sermon and the final post in this series, I invite you to take a gander at our dual Two 4 Two Adult Class offerings this Spring.

Spring Two 4 Two Adult Classes

Beginning February 3 at 5pm:
Lorna Crouch, Teacher

Beginning February 3 at 7pm:

Jason Bembry, Teacher

Aspect #3: A Surprising Ability to Change

Aspect #3:
A Surprising Ability to Change

Grandview has a history of embracing change. We’ve had more name changes than the artist formerly known (and now re-known) as Prince. What began as Fourth Christian Church became Virginia Street Church of Christ became Virginia Street Christian Church became Grandview Christian Church.

We’ve never considered our building sacred. We met in a house at first, then the energetic young church built a building (by themselves ... in two days) on Virginia Street. That building is still in use by a church today. They added a fellowship building at some point (I’ve never seen a picture of that one). The city demolished that building when they built University Parkway. To compensate Grandview the city sold us the plot of ground we now occupy. We built the original sanctuary in 1975. The original sanctuary was essentially unfinished when they began using it. Carpet and pews came later. We still have people here who volunteered to hang drywall, paint, and do other things to cut costs (Bob Hall ... which one? Both!). In the 80s we added an education wing. Then, in 2004, the building took the shape we now enjoy (and continue to fund).

Grandview leaders weren’t just willing to change names, buildings, and locations, though. The most remarkable change came in the 80s when, under the ministry of Frank Smith, the church moved to accept women as full members of Grandview (meaning: women could hold any position that men could hold). That change is a tough one for a church to make. I wasn’t around here in those days and I don’t know much about how the change was received.

In the mid to late 90s the church allowed a change in they way we worship, adding more contemporary elements. I wasn’t around for that, either. I’ve heard differing stories from different folks on that process, how it unfolded, and what it meant.

A year and a half ago we added a new worship service called the Table. It felt like a bizarre experiment at first, but that change was well received and the service is doing very well, even when students aren't in town (thanks, Jeff Miller, for your leadership there!).

I don’t believe in change for the sake of change. Neither do I believe in staying the same for the sake of staying the same. If you drive around East Tennessee you will spot plenty of churches that decided change was an enemy. I mentioned yesterday that if leadership hadn’t made tough decisions in the past then Grandview would still be Virginia Street Church of Christ and most of us wouldn’t know each other. We wouldn’t have the missions budget we have now. We wouldn’t have Grand Central Station for the children. We wouldn’t be able to support Interfaith Hospitality Network at the level we do.

Here is the dirty little truth about change that some people avoid: Change will happen, no matter how hard we try to deny it. We can fool ourselves for a little while, but change will catch us. I used to hear that Dick Clark was the “ageless one” and that he never changed. Plastic surgery and youthful genetics made that description seem almost real. If you’ve seen him lately you know that age did catch him. Denying the aging process isn’t as healthy as recognizing it and “growing old gracefully.” The church you now enjoy as Grandview Christian Church will never be the same as it is today. The question isn’t, “Do we change?” but “How do we become more and more faithful to God?”

If we want to be a church that follows Jesus to places we haven’t yet been, a church that goes BEYOND where we are today, then we need to be open to the changes God might bring into our community. I believe the change that would make me the most uncomfortable right now would be the destabilizing jolt of an influx of people who are new Christians. People who don’t “get it” yet. Want to have some fun, Grandview? Reach out to people who don’t know Christ. Pick one. Get to know the person in need. Invite him or her into the community (not just to worship). If that “unstable” person has kids then the youth group’s equilibrium falls to pieces, your Sunday School class will have a very different conversation than normal, and the eyes with which you see Grandview and the importance of Christ will change in an instant.

Tomorrow's Post: Aspect #4
Communities Entangled

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Aspect #2: The Church that Scrutinizes Worship

I've only included this picture because I think it is fantastic!

Aspect #2:
The Church that Scrutinizes Worship

This post is about the worshiping life of Grandview. Ahhh, yes, fools rush in where angels fear to tread. No other issue ... let me repeat ... no other issue has caused more tension during my ministry at Grandview than the issue of what is and is not appropriate worship. Please remember, gracious reader, that we have been through two capital campaigns and a building program. Those things were tough, but they weren’t nearly as tricky or quirky as the worship debate. Grandview has a history of paying very close attention to worship issues.

Let me state the positives attached to our carefulness in the worship arena. Worship has the power to expose theological issues you never even knew existed. To whom do we pray? Did you know there are debates about if it is appropriate to pray to Jesus (as opposed to the Father)? What language is appropriate? When we sing, how often should “I” be the subject of the song? How often should God be the subject and/or the direct object or the subject? Are all musical settings appropriate to the message the words are meant to convey?

Do we design our worship services to reach the lost? If so, then we have to ask why we are letting people who don’t even believe in God determine what we sing when we worship?

What humor is inappropriate (I’ve discovered the limits of THAT one more than once)? When is it okay to write my own parable and then preach it as if it were a true story? I love to write stories. It took me a long time to discover, though, that some people thought I was telling stories that actually happened. I’ve undermined my own credibility at times. Fred Craddock taught me that if you’re going to tell a story that isn’t historical, you have to place very obvious cues for the hearers so they will know how to receive the story. I have received much grace during that whole process of learning

The bottom line is that worship is supposed to be true (in all aspects). We’re not interested in faking emotions or trying to get people to cry or “pumping up” worship with hype. When God shows up in special ways we want there to be no doubt about the authenticity of that moment.

I appreciate the careful attention to implications of the worship we embrace. I believe this careful attention has kept us from falling for fleeting fads. This was driven home to me when I visited churches during my Sabbatical, churches that seemed like they were one big attempt to elicit a spiritual experience. I’ve been to rock concerts that accomplished the same thing--that didn’t make them Christian.

The negative side of this attention, though, is that people are afraid to take leadership roles in worship; they’re afraid of disapproval, of criticism, and of angering people they love and respect--and for fear of making "stupid" mistakes. Fear of God in worship? Okay, at some level that is appropriate. Fear of someone scowling at you instead of praising God? That’s not so appropriate.

I naively believed, when I became Grandview’s minister, that there were two styles of music and worship vying for top dog status. If only! There is the stuff from the 70s (I grew up singing these things ... “in the stars His handy woooOOORk I see..”), 80s contemporary, 90s contemporary (we haven’t made it to the 2000s yet), old-time gospel music, classic hymns of the church, and more.

I can’t remember what I was told when I joined Grandview, but what I heard was that some people wanted contemporary while others wanted traditional worship. I made all sorts of bad assumptions about what that meant. I operated under those assumptions until one day when Charles Taber (man ... I miss Charles Taber!) told me the following story. The story came at me from left field when I was asking his opinion on the worship issues. I wish I had followed up on the conversation with him. I have since learned more about it from his wife, Betty.

“There was a time when this church fell into a leadership crisis,” Charles told me one day, “they needed leaders and they asked some of us from Milligan and Emmanuel to step into leadership. We did ... and we stole their church.”

If you’re like me, you just did a double take.

That’s when I began to realize that some people at Grandview weren’t interested in the grand hymns or the contemporary choruses. They were pining for Fanny Crosby songs. I discovered that even though I was trying to respect Grandview’s worshiping past, I was unaware of the fullness of that past; mostly because the ones who wanted to sing “those” kinds of songs kept their preferences to themselves. They quietly endured songs they didn’t enjoy.

And now the issue gets trickier. If changes to worship style were made without due consensus, then the people who made those changes might be at least a little bit fearful that other people who want to make changes will do so without due consensus. That fearfulness is, I think, at the heart of the angst surrounding the worship.

Want to make the problem trickier? If those leaders had not “stolen” the church then Grandview would most likely still be Virginia Street Church of Christ and most of you would be worshiping somewhere else--and I wouldn’t be the minister. The decisions we make today send ripples into our future as a church.

My personal goal for worship, though, is not tied to any one style. Ephesians 5:19-21 says the following:

“Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

I’ve asked people I trust about the difference between a psalm, a hymn and a spiritual song. I’m not aware of anybody who has answered that question (Isaac Schade is thinking of making this his thesis topic in completion of his M.Div.--go Isaac!!!). I assume, though, that the Apostle Paul sang at least three distinctly styles (types?) of songs.

Back to our theme: how do we use our past in service of the Kingdom of God? How do we move BEYOND where we’ve been? For me the lesson is clear. If worship is an offering from us to God then it will need to reflect the gifts God has given us. God has given us a wide range of musical talents and tastes and we need to use them in worship. This means our worship should be less centered on a specific style and more centered on using the gifts of the people who are here. If we (as Ephesians 5:21 suggests) submit to one another out of reverence for Christ then we will value each others' gifts and celebrate those gifts with them in worship.

Only when we love each other more than we love our preferences will worship become what God intends it to be. Are you seeing a theme? Yesterday’s post wasn’t meant to be anti-intellectual, it was meant to point out that regardless of our intellectual standing God calls us to love those who aren’t like us. The same is true for worship styles. Worshiping well is important, but we need to express love to people whose gifts in worship don’t match our tastes.

In Luke 1:68-79, Zechariah bursts forth in song because of the gift of a son named John (the immerser!). He sings out “This was the oath God swore to our father Abraham, to set us free from the hands of our enemies, free to worship without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life.” Our worship should be holy. Our worship should be righteous (right). And our worship should express the freedom God has given us to proclaim God’s greatness.

That doesn’t mean we need to be oblivious to the differences between appropriate and inappropriate worship. I believe the fear some of us feel is simply that our style will be lost if we give an inch. This post is a call to trust each other enough to sing each others' songs--together.

Tomorrow's Post: Aspect #3
A Surprising Willingness to Change

Monday, January 04, 2010

Aspect #1: The Church of the Brainiacs?

Aspect #1: The Church of the Brainiacs?

"How do you preach to all of those doctorates?" This is the first thing I hear when people familiar with Grandview discover that I'm the minister. I understand the question because I used to wonder about that very same thing when I was a student at Emmanuel. Grandview is envied by some and scorned by others as a church for people who value (or over value) the intellect. People make all sorts of assumptions about us. Some believe that our Sunday School classes must turn the theology knobs to "11" and that we just wander the hallways contemplating the ontological implications of our ecclessiological disserata (I just threw those words together, they don’t really mean anything in this context).

I have two reactions to this broadly held perception.

Yes. The life of the mind is important to the people of Grandview and you can find big words being spoken in some of the adult Sunday School classes. It’s nothing to fear. You can siphon something from it or sneer at it. It’s up to you. I know some people find it annoying. I understand that. However, there is much to be gleaned from people who have studied a topic to the point of exhausting it.

My other reaction, though, is that we aren't who they think we are. Grandview is not just a bunch of intellectuals. In fact, we have some folks in our church who bristle around anything that strikes them as intellectual priggery (priggery! a priggish word if ever there was one!). If you're a non-Ph.D. type (and, remember, you far outnumber the Ph.D. types at Grandview), then be careful not to assume that our church revolves around the word "Doctor."

Education is a great gift. I'm reminded of how nice it is to serve Grandview when I remember that I never get asked some of the bizarre questions that other ministers get asked ("Do you think the locust in the book of Revelation are really black helicopters?).

I'm insulated from that.

Therein lies the rub. Too often Grandview's level of intelligence (real or perceived) has been a mechanism that has isolated us from the community around us. This, my friends, is a huge weakness. The Old Testament is replete with criticism against those who would receive a gift from God without sharing it with others. God blessed Abraham so that Abraham could bless the world. We sin greatly if we allow our gift of education to isolate ourselves from the uneducated.

The burden for coming together with others is on us, not them. The Great Commission is not, “Let the world wander into your building and become disciples.” The commission has the word “Go” for a reason--because the burden is on the disciples.

The Apostle Paul warns us that knowledge puffs up but love builds up. If we have intellectual resources at Grandview, but we don't have enough love to get out of our building and share with others, then our intellect becomes a burden. Knowledge without love is worse than ignorance.

I invite you to contemplate how Grandview can use this gift to bless others. I tried to facilitate that process a couple of years ago by proposing that we become actively involved as tutors in the Johnson City Adult Education program. Many of you were willing to do that, but the administration of that program was more involved than I anticipated. I found out why big churches have staff members dedicated to the planning and administrating these kinds of programs.

If you choose to contemplate how we can do this, remember that you don’t need church structures to volunteer at Mountainview Elementary School (where they need volunteers and where our own Jason Bembry volunteers on a weekly basis--yes, Harvard educated, Ph.D. in Old Testament, Jason Bembry). You don’t have to have a church invitation to volunteer with the Johnson City Adult Education tutoring program. You can just do it (I would love for you to volunteer to tutor with somebody else from the church... but doing it alone is better than not doing it all). If you want to know how, then I’ll be happy to direct you. I know that not everybody is called to tutor other people. But I want you to know that everybody is called to serve.

If we, as a church, spread out into the community and serve, then the question I get from outsiders will change from “How do you preach to those doctorates?” to “Isn’t that the church where they love people so much?”

Tomorrow's Post: Aspect #2:
The Church that Scrutinizes Worship

Aspects of Grandview: The Disclaimer

I open this series of posts with a disclaimer. When I determined to examine and then report the strengths and weaknesses of the church I serve I was immediately beset by two difficulties. The first being that honest critique will come across to some readers as disenchantment and frustration on my part. Or, worse yet, I may be perceived as trying to attack the church I serve.

I can only hope that you will trust me when I tell you that I write out of a desire to take due diligence to cultivate a shared vision of the church so that we will better know where we should spend our time, our money, and our energy. I am not exaggerating when I say that Grandview is the healthiest, most outward focused, most generous church I have either attended or served. I can pay high compliments to the body of Christ that gathers at 300 University Parkway, and I'm not the only one who feels that way.

Back in 2006, when you granted me a Sabbatical, I noticed something interesting. There were a couple of ministers circling my office, sniffing for blood, asking my friends if I was leaving Grandview. They wanted in. Likewise, when a Methodist minister friend of mine visited Grandview on a Sunday morning, he later told me that if Grandview were a Methodist church I would have to be careful about other ministers wanting my job. I share these things with you because I want you to know that I am well aware that I am blessed to be a servant of Christ at Grandview Christian Church.

The second difficulty is simply rooted in the fact that I have been the minister at Grandview for over eleven years now. Like it or not, Grandview is who she is partly because of me. The great thing about beginning a new ministry in a new church is that none of the problems are your fault. When you've been there over a decade you can't say that.

I promise to keep these posts as short as possible. Nobody likes long blogs. What I ask of you is that you come to this space prepared to think about how Grandview can use your gifts to promote justice, peace, charity, and love in our communities. If we are going to go BEYOND where we've been as a church, we should be willing to do something different than what we're doing now.

You can be one of the people who leads us to become more like Jesus of Nazareth.

Tomorrow's Post: Aspect #1:
The Church of the Brainiacs

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Tomorrow's Offering and a Nice Wedding

Tomorrow is the first Sunday in a new year and the beginning of a new series called "Beyond." The series is meant to connect us with the theme for the 2010 North American Christian Convention. The arrangement is the brain child of the staff of Mountain Christian Church. We've altered it some ... but then ... you would expect nothing less (at least, I hope you would expect nothing less!).

Tomorrow's sermon is "Beyond the Stuck Life" and I mean for it to be a chance to for us to think of ways God can use our current and past experience in the Kingdom of God. I don't want us to settle, though for thinking about that question on an individual basis. I want us to think through that question as a church as well.

I'm planning to include a blog a day (M-F) this coming week for those who are interested in thinking about some of the issues involved in moving forward into the Kingdom with the strengths and weaknesses that arise from our past as a church.

Tomorrow's prayer in the 11am sanctuary service will be led by Bob Hall. He is kind enough to post them in advance for those of you who are interested (and there plenty who are). Here's the link.

Meanwhile, I leave you with some pics from Jennifer and Russ' wedding this afternoon (I said "this morning" throughout the wedding ... apparently I'm not too old for rookie mistakes). The wedding itself, though, seemed quite nice. The couple was wonderful and their families were very gracious on a day that had some bitter-sweet themes at work.

Congratulations to the handsome new couple! Blessings, blessings, blessings!

The first dance.
Still ... the first dance.

Drew and Jared are now brothers ... and handsome ones at that.

Photo time after the wedding.

The whole clan.

The amateur and the professional shutter bugs. The photographer seemed familiar to me but I couldn't place him. At the reception, though, he and his wife told me they were students of mine when I taught at Milligan. Thankfully, they both did well in the class.