Mike Cope's blog

Friday, December 30, 2005

By a 2-1 vote, we give "King Kong" a thumbs up. Diane, who isn't that crazy about seeing people pursued and eaten by bugs, dinosaurs, and gorillas, couldn't really get into it. I think she described it as three of the longer hours of her life. However, Chris and I loved it. Chris loved it because he's a seventh grade boy; I loved it because I was sitting next to him and he loved it. (Plus, there is still a little bit of seventh grade boy in me.) Afterward, he said, "You know, I've never seen Jurassic Park." So the last couple nights, he and I watched it together. Near the end last night he said, "I think this is about the best movie I've ever seen." (The ABOUT is important, of course, because of the privileged place given to all three LOTR movies.) He'll become more and more independent, I know. But for now this is one of my life's great joys: he loves to play catch with me, to play one-on-one with me, to watch movies with me, to ride bikes with me, and to wrestle with me. Glory days that I'll always cherish (even as I still cherish the same days in the past with his brother--who starts his rotations at Baylor next week).

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Ten years ago (January 1996) a woman at Peter Scazzero's church told him she was leaving. The conversation, as he remembers it, went like this: "'Pete . . . I'm leaving the church,' she summarized very calmly. 'I no longer respect your leadership.' "I was visibly shaken and didn't know what to say or do. I felt shamed, alone, and angry. "But she calmly continued, 'It's not that simple. You don't have the guts to lead--to confront the people who need to be confronted. You don't lead. You're too afraid that people will leave the church. You're too afraid of what they'll think about you.' "I was outraged. "'I'm getting to it!' I yelled defensively. 'I'm working on it.' (For the last two years, I really had been trying, but somehow still wasn't up to it.) "'Good for you, but I can't wait any more,' she replied. Ouch. That conversation would hurt from anyone when you've poured your heart and soul into building a church, right? But get this: the woman who wanted to leave because she didn't respect his leadership was his wife of nine years. Scazzero's book The Emotionally Healthy Church may not have been the best book I read in 2005, but it feels like the most important to my life. He knew that despite all the flurry of religious activity in his life, despite the growth of his church, and despite his ongoing spiritual checkups, he was suffering from lack of joy. But what seemed like a crisis -- his wife's desire to leave the church -- was the beginning of healing for him, for it forced Scazzero to look at the root issues and to see the link between emotional issues and discipleship. He describes it as exploring the part of the iceberg that is below the surface. Here is a bit of what he found in his inner journey. "Something is desperately wrong with most churches today. We have many people who are passionate for God and his work, yet who are unconnected to their own emotions or those around them. The combination is deadly, both for the church and the leader's personal life." "It is not possible for a Christian to be spiritually mature while remaining emotionally immature. For some reason, however, the vast majority of Christians today live as if the two concepts have no intersection. Our standards of what it means to be 'spiritual' totally bypass many glaring inconsistencies. We have learned to accept that: -You can be a dynamic, gifted speaker for God in public and be an unloving spouse and parent at home. -You can function as a church board member or pastor and be unteachable, insecure, and defensive. -You can memorize entire books of the New Testament and still be unaware of your depression and anger, even displacing it on other people. -You can fast and pray a half-day a week for years as a spiritual discipline and constantly be critical of others, justifying it as discernment. -You can lead hundreds of people in a Christian ministry while driven by a deep personal need to compensate for a nagging sense of failure. -You can pray for deliverance from the demonic realm when in reality you are simply avoiding conflict, repeating an unhealthy pattern of behavior traced back to the home in which you grew up. -You can be outwardly cooperative at church but unconsciously try to undercut or defeat your supervisor by coming habitually late, constantly forgetting meetings, withdrawing and become apathetic, or ignoring the real issue behind why you are hurt and angry." We've all been able to see this incongruency with others, haven't we? One of the most angry people I've ever met in my life is especially angry when he talks about the immature anger of others. One of the most toxic persons I've ever known is a therapist who probably has helped people in her office but leaves bodies along the road in her out-of-the-office life. But what this book does is help you (me!) look inward, rather than just nod in recognition of others. Scazzero focuses on these principles of emotionally healthy leaders and churches: (1) look beneath the iceberg; (2) break the power of the past; (3) live in brokenness and vulnerability; (4) receive the gift of limits; (5) embrace grieving and loss; and (6) make incarnation your model for loving well. Only the books with the greatest insight and impact get read a second time. But I'm already starting back through this one as we head into 2006.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

We'll be home by noon. We've had a wonderful ride in the car -- all five of us -- despite all the smoke from out-of-control fires in Oklahoma and Texas, the traditional traffic delays in Oklahoma City, and the quest for a decent radio station. Once you get within range of DFW, you can get 98.7, which plays the best of the oldies (compared to other oldies stations we can find which tend to play the worst of the oldies). My FM transmiter for my IPOD does make the quest for good music a bit easier. One week from today is the big game. Texas hasn't won a national championship since 1970. With the best QB in college foot ball, this could be the year. Maybe my blogging will be more substantial when I get back to OUR house and MY office. Or not.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

It's not so much that I actually stayed up and WATCHED all those ABC Monday Night Football games. But I did watch the first hour or so of a bunch of them. Then the voices of Howard Cosell, Don Meredith, Al Michaels, and Frank Gifford lulled me to sleep. Nothing like sleeping on the floor with a good game in the background. It was a good three-and-a-half-decade run. Now it's on ESPN, probably an inevitable transition in the age of five zillion cable stations. - - - - Yesterday I got to whisk three little nieces (ages 5, 6 [the one from Vietnam], and 12) and my youngest female first cousin (age 14) around in a golf cart. What a blast! Missouri reunions don't come often enough.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Missouri is still my home in some ways. Here is where I've lived: July 1956 - August 1957 - Neosho, MO August 1957 - June 1959 - Austin, TX June 1959 - August 1974 - Neosho, MO August 1974 - May 1978 - Searcy, AR (Harding) May 1978 - July 1979 - Neosho, MO (one year internship) July 1979 - May 1982 - Memphis, TN (HGSR) May 1982 - October 1984 - Wilmington, NC (Pine Valley Church) October 1984 - July 1991 - Searcy, AR (College Church) July 1991 - December 2005 - Abilene, TX (Highland) So I've lived in these five states: Missouri - 17 years Texas - 16 years Arkansas -11 years Tennessee - 3 years North Carolina - 2 years Nine "homes" probably isn't many for someone who's 49--especially when there are only a total of six places involved. I just realized that sometime next fall I'll have lived in Abilene longer than I lived in Neosho at one stretch (because of the two years we were in Austin for my parents to finish college at UT). I know I wrote about this a while back, but there is still a bit of "home" in most of these places--all except Austin, I guess (since I was just a toddler). For isn't home where our loved ones and our cherished memories are? My brother and I took a ride around Neosho to most of the old places that were important to me as a kid. We drove by the two houses we lived in before my junior year of high school--when we moved into the house my parents are still in. What struck us--again!--is how small the houses were. In our memories they were so huge.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Quarter of Remembrance by Mike Cope I actually got to meet Dr. Channing Barrett, though I don't remember the meeting because I was too young. But that doesn't change my picture of him as a young man walking a marathon of miles every weekend. In my mind, I see him returning home to Blissfield, Michigan around the turn of the century. Channing Barrett was one of eight boys and was the first ever in the Barrett family to go to college. From his medical school, he walked twenty-five miles home each weekend, always returning a couple days later with clean clothes, a food packet, and a dollar. Dr. Barrett became one of the first ob-gyns in Chicago, practicing at Cook County Hospital. He was known widely both for his innovative surgical techniques and for his ambidextrous skills that allowed him to change hands during long procedures. There was no patient whom he wouldn't accept. He delivered many "tenement babies" for fifty cents and many babies for the wives of Mafia dons for a good bit more! With a growing, respected medical practice, a wonderful wife, and three children, this young physician seemed to be living the idyllic life. He enjoyed riding horses and lifting weights, and was an early member of the Polar Bear Society--that "unique" group that takes to the chilly waters of Lake Michigan in January each year to prove--well, who knows what they're trying to prove? And then World War I interrupted this Norman Rockwell life. Dr. Barrett left Chicago to run a field hospital in France, followed shortly by his 17-year-old son, who fought in the trenches. As long as he could, Barrett sent money back to his wife and daughters. But by the last year of the war, his funds were nearly exhausted. He had no more to mail home. Mrs. Barrett sold most of what they owned, trying desperately to keep her daughters fed and clothed without having to lose their house. By the time Christmas rolled around in 1918, there were no presents to place under the tree. They were lucky to have a place to live. But Mrs. Barrett had managed, despite all the financial scrimping, to save two quarters. So on Christmas morning, when the girls emptied their stockings, under the paper dolls their mother had cut out for them and under a couple pieces of candy, they each found a coin. Previous Christmas mornings had been more lavish, filled with frilly dresses and expensive toys. And there would be more such mornings in the future. But this was the Christmas the family would always remember. In the future, even during the years of plenty, when the girls emptied their stockings, they always found--under the apples, oranges, nuts, and candy--a quarter. It was a reminder--a reminder that some years are good while others aren't too good. Some years deliver new babies, promotions, raises, and great promises. Other years offer sickness, failure, death, and deep disappointment. The quarter reminded them about both possibilities. It warned them not to write off all the pain of the past as if it didn't exist. It taught them that the sorrows and wounds of their lives had shaped their characters as much as their joys and accomplishments. Anyone who takes seriously the Christmas stories of scripture knows that the first Christmas had more than angels, shepherds, wise men, and a mother nursing her baby. There was also the anguish of childbirth. There were the pungent, impolite odors of an animal pen. There was an old man who held the baby and told his mother, "A sword will pierce your own soul too." There were the voices of many mothers screaming for their baby boys being slaughtered by a demented ruler named Herod. There was a breathless escape to Egypt. The entrance of God's Son into the world meant peace--but it didn't assure that people would get along. It meant great joy--but it didn't mean we'd always be happy. And it meant unconditional love--though it never implied that everyone would act lovingly. And so one family, year after year, continued dropping a quarter of remembrance into the bottom of each child's stocking. At least one of Channing Barrett's children picked up that tradition. Every year through the '30s, '40s, and '50s, her five children, Dr. Barrett's grandchildren, pulled their stockings off the chimney on Christmas morning to find quarters buried under fruit, nuts, and candy. And at least one of those five passed it on to her four children. And at least one of those four is passing it on to his children. The quarter has mysteriously tied this family together--binding even generations who never met. Together they have remembered that bad year in 1918 and other bad years since. - One year brought the safe birth of a new nephew; another brought the self-inflicted death of a relative who couldn't keep fighting the demons of his life; - One year brought the thrilling news from the gynecologist that a baby was on the way; another brought the news from the pediatrician that the baby wasn't developing right; - Some years brought joy; others brought deep, deep pain. The quarter is a remembrance that the meaning of Christmas is deeper than our triumphs and sorrows. It is a joy that can't fully be expressed, a peace that passes understanding. For years my children have followed this tradition started by their Great, Great Grandmother Barrett. Together, we've experienced the love of God, woven through the fabric of good days and dark days. Eleven Christmases ago the quarter represented a burden that was crushing our hearts. Not long before Christmas of 1994 our ten-year-old daughter, Megan, took her last breath in the pediatric ICU at Hendrick. Her death was surely the darkest moment in our lives. We felt very connected to Matthew’s Christmas story, the one that tells of “Rachel weeping for her children” (Matthew 2:17). And then five Christmases later, our family returned to that grief, for in June of 1999 my brother’s son, Jantsen BARRETT Cope, died suddenly and unexpectedly after lifting weights with his high school football team. We barely survived as we gathered in my parents’ living room that Christmas without my nephew’s big, joyful laughs. Fifteen is too young to die. Our quarters were quarters of grief. But by God’s grace, we have survived. We’re still together, we still love, we still hope, we still believe in that one who was born in Bethlehem. This Christmas there is still that gaping hole of absence. And yet our quarters will also represent joy. For when people gave money as a memorial to Jantsen, my brother and sister-in-law prayed about a place to let that money be used in the name of Christ. Through a ministry of their church, they traveled to Vietnam to visit an orphanage. They only went intending to give money. But there in a foreign country, across an ocean, on soil where American and Vietnamese soldiers had died, my brother looked into the eyes of a little guy whose name was Vihn, but is now Van – Van Cope. A year later in the same place they looked into the eyes of a sweet Vietnamese girl who is now Tatum Cope. As Randall Frame has written, “Christmas does not deny sorrow its place in the world. But the message of Christmas is that joy is bigger than despair, that peace will outlast turmoil, that love has crushed all the evil, hatred, and pain the world at its worst can muster.” That’s why this Christmas Eve, late in the evening, my wife and I will slip a quarter into the bottom of the stockings of our boys and our daughter-in-law. The quarter will always remind them of a story that is truer than life: that God so loved the world he gave his only begotten Son. There in that simple manger in Bethlehem, “the hopes and fears of all the years” found their fulfillment. God had broken into a world of great darkness with the light of his Son. And yet while the Kingdom of God came in Jesus Christ, we haven’t yet experienced it fully. That’s why the church has continued to pray for 2000 years, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In the meantime, in the words of scripture, we groan, we long, we wait, we hope. We live in the belief that our simple acts of kindness and giving are not without meaning because Christ has come. And we live in hope that one day the Lord Jesus will come again and all tears will be wiped from our eyes. That’s the story of Christmas. I know it’s true. I’d bet you a quarter!

Monday, December 19, 2005

As a full-time minister since 1982, I've had a front row seat to see lots of nurturing families and lots of enmeshed families. What's strange is that they often look alike -- at least on the surface. But they are very different. A nurturing family is one that empowers family members to have a strong sense of self. Children are loved and drawn into the nurturing center of the family--but without losing their sense of self and outward mission. In an enmeshed family, children are loved and drawn into the center--but often at the expense of their sense of self and outward mission. Sound like gobbledygook? All right. Here it is. In an enmeshed family system (which is more common than you might imagine), parents are dependent on each other and/or their children to make them whole, happy, and loved. In biblical terms, it's a form of idolatry: trying to find life in someone or something other than God. When a family is always together, that can be because they are a source of great nurturing and love. But often it's because a system of enmeshment has been formed where family members are discouraged from having other relationships, from expressing their individuality, and from expressing their missional instincts outside the family. They would never say that, of course, and almost surely don't know it. But the parents need-to-be-needed and love-to-be-loved to an extent that they keep their children corralled emotionally and/or physically. Have you ever been around a family where no one else (no Bible school teacher, no coach, etc.) is trusted enough to help guide? Have you ever seen a family where the children are made to feel guilty when they aren't around for birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, or other special occasions? Have you seen a family implode because grown children decided to attend another church? Have you ever heard sound waves of guilt because a child (or parent) didn't write enough, call enough, visit enough, or perform well enough? Sometimes those families that seem the strongest to us because they're so close or always together are the ones that are sickest. (Not always, of course.) Families where people are made to feel guilty when they don't follow unwritten behaviors can be the most damaging of all. It's a sign of health when children form other relationships, when they start to make decisions for themselves, when they don't have to be home to be happy. As parents, we have the important job of nurturing our children--pouring love into deep places of their hearts--while allowing them to be individuals who turn themselves to God alone for life. Differentiation is such a wonderful word. We do our best job as parents when we teach kids to "hold onto themselves" in this world -- to live before God as the source of real life while being in community with others without being enmeshed in those relationships. If you were nurtured by parents who always let you be you; if you are able to miss family members when you're apart without feeling endlessly homesick; and if you are able to connect without being made to feel guilty about failures to connect enough --GIVE THANKS! A nurturing family is a wonderful gift.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Don't miss the speech Larry James includes in his 12/16/05 blog. - - - - Last night Diane and I went to "Walk the Line." Wow. Hand over the Academy Awards now for lead actor and actress. It took Diane back to her childhood. Her dad, Joe McKee, was a hardcore Johnny Cash fan. She remembers every one of those songs filling their living room. "Walk the Line," "Ring of Fire," "I've been Everywhere" -- that gravelly voice takes her back a few decades. - - - - Someone wrote me earlier this week asking about the meaning of 1 Corinthians 15:29: “Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?" Here’s my response: There are lots of attempts to interpret this passage in a way that gets around vicarious baptism on behalf of those who have died. I've tried hard to buy some of them. But honestly, as difficult as it is, that’s the most straight-forward interpretation. The one attempt to go another direction that I think holds some possibility is the one that suggests that the Greek preposition HUPER (as in baptized FOR the dead) should be translated "FOR THE SAKE OF" -- referring to the decision of someone who asks to be baptized because they want to be reunited with a relative who was a Christian who has died. This may not strike you as the purest motive for being immersed -- but pastorally speaking, it happens all the time. E.g., when my nephew died, there were several people who made dramatic decisions to turn their lives around . . . or start going to church . . . or (probably) be baptized. In the early stages this might have been sparked in part by a desire to see him again. I'm not saying this is the best interp -- the other is still a more simple reading -- but it's the best of the other options. It certainly sounds like some believers were being baptized on behalf of people who had died. The fact that the Mormons do this and we don't like the practice doesn't change this! So . . . a few comments: 1. There is no indication of whether Paul approves or disapproves of what they're doing. His concern right here is to press the case for the resurrection, not straighten out sacramental practices. However, it's strange that he didn't give SOME indication that it bothered him. 2. The reason people have searched for other interpretations is that (1) there is no other evidence in the first century of Christians being baptized vicariously, and (2) this doesn't fit what we learn about faith, baptism, salvation, etc. 3. Part of our difficultly may be that we think in very individualistic ways about salvation and faith. It’s hard for us to even imagine that someone in the community can do something like this on behalf of others. (And part of the reason for this difficultly is that it quickly leans toward magic and superstition.) 4. Whatever this DOES mean, it's much clearer what Paul is trying to accomplish. Here's a quote from Richard Hays, one of my favorite scholars: "In verses 29-34 . . . Paul gives some specific examples of practices that would make no sense in a resurrectionless world (vv. 29-32a) and concludes with a word of warning suggesting that the Corinthians' abandonment of belief in the resurrection has led the community into sin (vv. 32b-34). "The specific examples are given in the form of rhetorical questions that allude briefly to matters well known to his original readers but almost completely opaque to us. Rather than getting bogged down in speculative attempts to explain the details of these obscure references, the preacher working with this text should supply some analogous contemporary examples of activities in the life of our congregations that make no sense if the dead are not to be raised; for example, 'If the dead are not raised, why do we sacrifice our time and resources in running a soup kitchen for the homeless?' The examples that Paul gives are of two sorts: baptism on behalf of the dead (v. 29) and the danger and suffering of his own apostolic labors (vv. 30-32a)."

Friday, December 16, 2005

Another amazing chapter in Hero Mama is near the end of the book when Karen Spears Zacharias tells about her journey to Vietnam to visit the place where her father died when she was just nine. "I've walked the streets where my father roamed as a boy. I've sat in the pews of the church where he was baptized. Over the years, I've made several trips to my father's grave at Andrew Johnson National Cemetery in Tennessee. And trips to the Vietnam Veterans memorial in Washington, D. C. But I've never felt my father's presence more strongly than I did there in that dusty red-dirt gully at the base of Dragon Mountain, in a land full of people whose language I couldn't speak and whose customs I didn't know. Finally I knew what it felt like to come home. This was the place where my father had been waiting for me all these years." As she neared the site of her dad's death with a couple other women who had lost dads in the war, walking through the village of Plei Me she heard music coming from a hut. It was the Beatles: "Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away." She writes, "We burst out in laughter. Was it possible our fathers were serenading us from the heavens above?" Then at the end of the chapter: "The pain of war does not end when the bombing stops. . . . There is no getting over the Vietnam War for those families. Not for any of us, really. The Vietnam War, as all wars do, forever altered the landscape of our nation and our families, causing us to fight our way through some tough terrain. "I have come to terms with a harsh history, as a daughter and as a citizen of a free nation. I don't miss my father any less with each passing year. I am simply more aware of all the life he's missed. I did not go to Vietnam seeking closure. Grief is a journey with a beginning, but it does not have an end, not in this life anyway. . . . "Moments before we'd boarded a plan in Singapore, bound for Los Angeles, our group gathered around big-screen televisions and listened as President Bush announced that American troops would soon invade Iraq. My heart sank into my gut. I said a prayer for the families that would soon be thrust into an inevitable lifelong journey of grief and reconciliation. . . . "Our journey [to Vietnam] allowed us sons and daughters the chance to ransom the sacred moments of our fathers' lives so we can carry them to eternity's shores. We're sure our soldier fathers will have camp set up by the time we arrive."

Thursday, December 15, 2005

I'm not sure I even planned to read Hero Mama by Karen Spears Zacharias. I read a raving review of it somewhere and decided to order it for a good friend whose father died in Vietnam when he was just a boy. My buddy was leaving for a trip to South America, and I thought I'd give it to him to read on the way. But the book arrived a day after he left . . . so I read it first. This is a wonderful, poignant book. The subtitle is "A Daughter Remembers the Father She Lost in Vietnam--and the Mother Who Held Her Family Together." On the day of my tenth birthday (July 25, 1966), a Western Union telegram was sent to Zacharias's mother saying that the day before her husband, David Spears, had died in Vietnam while operating a 105 millimeter howitzer. This is a book of tragedy and loss. Everything changed with the death of her father, leaving her mom a widow with three children. She writes about how it nearly tore the family apart, about how she bore the shame in secret at times because of the hatred expressed toward soldiers who'd served in Vietnam, and about how angry she stayed at her father for dying and at God for letting him die. Nothing in her life was the same again. The ripples of the loss kept spreading in her life. Her mom sought refuge from her pain in alcohol and the arms of other men (loudly in their tiny trailer). Her brother got in trouble with the law and became a pothead. They kept moving from one trailer park to another, from Tennessee to Georgia. Her mom, lost in her own grief, was unable at the most needed times to hold her or tell her she loved her. It's also a book about poverty and prejudice. Trailer parks. Georgia. Late 60s and early 70s. Zacharias writes about not having any friends who still had both parents in their lives. And yet, it's a book about courage and hope. Her mother (the "hero Mama") pressed on for a nursing degree to make sure her three children were provided for. She did her best to keep the family together. And it's a book about community. Zacharias writes about other men and women who became life preservers to her, keeping her from drowning in the circumstances: an uncle, a teacher, a youth minister and pastor. Yes, a Baptist Church in rural Georgia becomes a true point of light in her life. Though her mom doesn't go with her, she is invited to a vacation Bible school and continues attending when she can get there. She finds friends -- true friends who love her no matter what -- and adults who pray for her and care for her. Some of my favorite parts of the book are about her description of the people from the Rose Hill Baptist Church. In one of the best chapters of the book she describes her decision to get an abortion her senior year in high school (which was also my senior year). "I hadn't told Karen anything about the abortion because her friendship was too valuable to me. I figured if her mama knew the mess I'd gotten myself into, she'd forbid Karen from ever hanging out with me again. Donna Mendenhall was a stern mother. She had a conniption fit when she learned that several of us kids in the youth group had been caught toilet-papering Pastor Smitty's yard. Smitty and Betty didn't seem to care; in fact, they had invited us all in for a cola, after we'd cleaned out the trees, of course. But Donna gave Karen and me such a lecture you would've thought we'd stolen a car or held up a 7-Eleven store. "Karen told me she found out about the abortion later, from Beth. She also told me that her mother was angry to arrive at the hospital and discover that I'd been stuck on the maternity ward. Donna, who'd quickly figured out why I was really in the hospital, worried about the emotional impact that would have on me. "She didn't come bearing flowers or candies, but Donna brought me a treasure that night that has lasted me a lifetime--the gift of grace. Her concern for me was only slightly veiled behind her dark eyes. She didn't mention the word abortion. And she didn't scold me for my folly the way she had the night I'd helped trash Pastor Smitty's yard. Instead, she reached out her tiny hand and patted mine. 'We love you, Karen,' she said. "And I knew that she did. I was never afraid of Donna Mendenhall after that visit. I knew that while her expectations for her daughter--for all us kids--were high, ultimately she wanted only what was best for us. Her wanting that for me made me want it for myself." I've wondered how, given all the things her mother did and all the ways she failed to nurture, Zacharias could describe her as a hero. But it's all found here (p. 263): "Forgiveness is something our family has learned to embrace. We've had to."

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Grades are in! What a great feeling for teachers. There are lots of wonderful moments in a semester for an adjunct professor, but that's one of the best ones. - - - - From N. T. Wright's book on Paul: "For some, alas, the very phrase 'second coming,' and even perhaps the word eschatology' itself, conjures up visions of the 'rapture' as understood within some branches of (mostly North American) fundamentalist or evangelical Christianity, and as set out, as a popular level in the 'Left Behind' series of novels by Tim F. Lahaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, and the theology, if you can call it that, which those books embody. That scheme of thought, ironically considering its fanatical though bizarre support for the present state of Israel, is actually deeply un-Jewish, collapsing into a dualism in which the present wicked world is left to stew in its own juice while the saints are snatched up to heaven to watch Armageddon from a ringside seat. This is massively different from anything we find in Paul . . . ." - - - - So have others seen "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" by now? What did you think? - - - - My positions on pertinent things: peanut brittle: pro fruit cake: con (unless it's 99% bread and nuts and 1% fruit) shopping online: pro shopping at the mall: con (however I DO like supporting local merchants, so I'll usually do it anyway) being at Grandma and Pa-Pa's house: pro traveling up I-35 with half a million other cars and semis: con

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Rarely do I sign up for Amazon's SEND-ME-THIS-BOOK-AS-SOON-AS-IT-COMES-OUT list. But with N. T. Wright's new book on Paul -- well, that's different. For those who don't know, Wright is a leading New Testament scholar. To get a feel for the breadth of his writing, check here. The book continues his ground-breaking work on Paul, offering fresh insight into the way in which his letters seek to form a people in the Way of the Messiah. Have you ever come across the phrase "the new perspective on Paul"? Most haven't, I'm sure. But here's a bit of a summary. The "old perspective" on Paul reflected the anxiety of Martin Luther over salvation. This view heavily impacted NT studies for centuries. It says that Paul was writing because of the problem of legalism: people trying to earn salvation by their works. So he writes about "the righteousness from God" that is given "by faith in Jesus." The "new perspective" goes a different direction, though--one that I think better reflects Paul's concern in his letters. This says that those concerns about legalism were Martin Luther's in the sixteenth century, but not Paul's in the first century. They involve a stereotype of Jewish religion that just doesn't fit. Of course every religion has some who seek to earn salvation, but that's not the view of the Old Testament nor of the best part of the Jewish heritage. What Paul was primarily dealing with wasn't legalism but inclusion of the Gentiles into the people of God. His questions (especially in Romans/Galatians) were more like these: Has God been faithful to his promises to Israel? Will Israel's faithlessness nullify the promises? Can Gentiles be included? If they can, how can Jews and Gentiles be one? If the Jews have rejected the Messiah, is there any hope for them? Part of the problem comes in translations that reflect the Lutheran perspective (like the old NIV, though there are significant improvements in the Today's NIV). E.g., rather than translating a Greek phrase as "the righteousness from God" it should likely be "the righteousness of God"--referring not to the way people become Christians but to God's covenant faithfulness. And rather than translating another Greek phrase as "by faith in Jesus" it probably should be (at least most of the time) "by the faithfulness of Jesus." (A good place to see the difference this makes is in Romans 3:21-25.) I.e., the Messiah is the faithful one who has made it possible through his life and obedience to death for the promises of God to be kept. In other words, the central issue isn't, How does one become a Christian? (Answer: by faith rather than works.) Rather, the central theme is, How has God been faithful to his covenant in bringing together one people in the Messiah? Sorry, this is shorthand. The book is brilliant. If you haven't done much work in this area, it will be slow, slow sledding. But there are pay-offs on nearly every page. By the way the full title is Paul: A Fresh Perspective. I doubt that the subtitle is an accident. In other words, it isn't the "old perspective," for sure. But not exactly the "new perspective" (as led by Sanders and Dunn). This is a "fresh perspective" in which he points to the missional impact of what God has done to bring together a people, the restored "Israel," through the Messiah. There are great sections on the Spirit, on the place of Israel today and in the future, and on the eschatology of the Left Behind books. I hope to get to those later. But honestly -- isn't this more than you want to know already? Whatever happened to guacamole recipes and how to teach a kid to throw a curve?

Monday, December 12, 2005

George Barna has documented this fact: the divorce rate in this country is the same for people who claim to be Christians as it is for people who don't claim to be Christians. (I just read a summary of a Barna report that now says it's higher for Christians, but I can't locate that report.) Without stomping on those who've already suffered through divorces, isn't there a way we can address this? Is there a disconnect between our calling to follow Jesus and the high failure rate of our marriages? Doesn't the demand for family-friendly legislation and family values lose some steam when the people who claim to be Christ-followers have a higher divorce rate than those who don't? How can the church be hard on divorce while being gentle with those who have suffered through divorces? (They don't need to suffer again, made to feel like second class citizens of the kingdom!) What's the disconnect here? And how do we help local church leaders who are forced to deal with these issues all the time? Honestly, it's one of the most difficult parts of being a leader. What I'm especially interested in is how the church, the community of believers, can be more helpful in supporting one another's marriages. These ten thoughts come to mind quickly: 1. By faithfully holding marriage in the realm of discipleship (i.e., we keep our vows as a part of living out the deep inner goodness that comes from following the Way of Christ -- Mt. 5:31-32); 2. By refusing to make marriage a place where all needs are supposed to be met (which is idolatrous and forces it to bear a load it can't); 3. By learning to be more open with one another -- confessing, sharing, and praying -- so that we aren't afraid to say "we need some help"; 4. By fostering a greater sense of "first family" where the church -- married, divorced, single, children -- is seen as our primarily relationship; 5. By reminding each other that we relate to each other in marriage as brother and sister in Christ as well as husband and wife; 6. By offering whatever resources are available for prevention and intervention: wise elders, insightful therapists, caring friends and guides; 7. By encouraging each other openly to resist materialism and out-of-control debt; 8. By opening ways for conflict and conflict resolution that involve true listening, affirming, exploring, and forgiving; 9. By helping people to pursue a path of spiritual formation, expecting people to change through time into the image of Christ; and 10. By keeping alive and open the stories of older believers who can share their journey, thereby offering hope and guidance for troubled times. What other suggestions do you have?

Sunday, December 11, 2005

This afternoon was a Christmas program I'll never forget. A child at our church who has Down's and is the embodiment of Christian love was in the musical. The whole thing. She sang, she signed, she invited us to the newborn King. As the father of a daughter who was mentally handicapped, I can't tell you what that means to me!

Saturday, December 10, 2005

We went to see "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" yesterday on the opening day. Good job, Grant, on grabbing those Fandango tickets ahead of time! It's amazing. Unbelievable. Not quite "Lord of the Rings," perhaps, but not far behind. It doesn't matter how many times you've read about Narnia; when Lucy backs into the land through the wardrobe, just see if you don't feel a surge of emotion. And it doesn't matter how many times you've imagined Aslan walking to the stone table; when he is mocked, tied down, and stabbed, just see if you don't wince with memories of the central story of Christianity. (Much more powerful to me than "The Passion of the Christ.") I'm so glad this wasn't made a decade ago when it might have seemed cartoonish. The technology is incredible.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Megan's grave. There is this wonderful country cemetery just outside Neosho, MO, where generations of my family are buried. But when my daughter died in November of 1994, we couldn't bury her there. It was just too far away. I know that may be hard for some to understand, because we couldn't visit her,anyway--at least not like when you visit someone in the hospital. But we still did need to visit her . . . to drive out to the little plot of ground where she was buried. It was/is holy ground. When my daughter's body was lowered in that spot (just outside Abilene on 277 -- Elmwood Cemetery), it was a cold, rainy day. I remember hating that it was so wet and cold. She liked being warm and snuggling. I wanted to put some plastic over the fresh dirt to keep the rain off (but didn't). For the first few months, we drove out there often. Nearly always we went separately, lost a bit from each other in our grief. Then as the months rolled into years, our visits were less seldom but still regular. Now, eleven years later, I rarely go to Megan's grave. There are the three regular dates, of course: Easter (most important), Valentine's Day (when I lay roses), and November 21 (the date of her death). There are other times, like when visitors come to town and want to drive out there. And usually when I'm doing a graveside service at the cemetery, I'll stop by on my way out. But for the most part, the need to visit has diminished through the years. It is still holy ground, however.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

All signals in my life have been pointing to one thing: that I need to go deeper. Deeper in prayer, deeper in scripture, deeper in heart, deeper in insights about my emotions (and why I do certain things), etc. In response to this, I just spent the last couple days at the Parish Hermitage. Eddie Parish is a dear friend and has been a trusted spiritual guide through the years. A Ph. D. in psychology from Florida State and a former faculty member in ACU's marriage and family program, he and Judy now run this retreat center between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. I couldn't have spent a couple better days. The hermitage is located on 24 wooded acres, nestled against a classic Louisiana bayou. The idea is to combine reflection and prayer with nature and relationship. People who go are invited into the Parishes' home each evening for dinner with them and their children. Though Eddie is a therapist, it doesn't feel like therapy. He and I sat a couple hours each day, visiting and praying while we looked out at the woods and the water. We just talked, tried to pay attention to clues, and sought to envision a future that is deeper. I had plenty of time to read, pray, think, and walk alone. I don't need to write here about all that came out. That's personal and it's still in process. But I'm very thankful for the experience. If you have any interest, you can read more here. Getting home yesterday was a bit of a challenge. All flights on AA out of New Orleans were cancelled, so I went standby on Continental to Houston and then snagged a flight home last night.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

I'd be embarrassed to tell you what we paid for tickets to see the Rockette's Christmas program at Radio City. But it really was wonderful. However, it isn't the best Christmas program I've seen this year. That would have to be the one performed this past Sunday by the children from our neighborhood. With a stage full of angels and shepherds, the children sang, prayed, and read scripture, powerfully telling the story of Jesus' birth. Sure there were a few unexpected moments -- like one of the angels bursting into tears for her mother -- but that was part of the power of the event. Hundreds (500? 600?) attended, about half Highland members and about half neighbors from the Colonial Apartments and Freedom Fellowship areas around our building. When Jayma sang the song about how children around the world imagine Jesus in different colors, I couldn't help but notice the great diversity in the audience (and the diversity with the dolls the younger angels were holding). We've watched Lindy grow up at Highland and when she sang "Welcome to our World," it was very moving. Later in the assembly her dad baptized someone from the neighborhood who's been coming for quite a while now. (And, of course, it was in her mom's heart that God placed much of this dream six years ago.) As I wrote recently, "location, location, location." What a joy to be in a spot where God wants us -- just to be able to see part of what he's up to!

Sunday, December 04, 2005

I am pumped about the plans a young Highland couple, Chrissy and Steve Holt, have in the near future. I'm going to include below some words they've written about "Harvest Boston," but you can read much more at www.harvestboston.blogspot.com Feel free to ask any follow-up questions. I'll ask Steve to check in with the comments and respond. When I hear them talk, I think I envision the future look of the church: small groups that leak into the crevices of our cities, participating in the work of God that's already breaking out. If the fact hasn’t been clear all along, it should be now: North America is a mission field. Some estimate that the number of un-churched in the United States and Canada exceeds 250 million people, which is now the third-largest un-churched population in the world. In a post-Christian society – which the West is quickly becoming, if it isn’t already – slow change in the church will spell almost certain death. Healthy and mission-centered communities of Christ need to begin forming and reproducing at an unprecedented rate just to keep up with the millions born, the millions immigrating, and the millions leaving Christian churches in the United States every year. New England is one of the most un-churched regions in the nation. Both hailing from the East Coast originally, Chrissy and I decided to join God’s work in Boston, Massachusetts, beginning in the summer of 2006. We believe God has set us aside for simple, relational evangelism and church planting in New England. Our hope is that the Lord will use the Holts to facilitate the planting of a vibrant family of Jesus Christ within close reach — culturally and geographically — of every Bostonian. That means every diverse neighborhood, people group, and family system has the opportunity not only to hear the gospel of Jesus, but to join a community of Christ-followers not unlike themselves and committed to Kingdom expansion. Is this a lofty goal? You bet. But so was Christ's commission to “…make disciples of all nations…” in Matthew 28. I think a more appropriate model for our ministry may be in Luke 10, however: "The Lord now chose seventy-two other disciples and sent them on ahead in pairs to all the towns and villages he planned to visit. These were his instructions to them: ‘The harvest is so great, but the workers are so few. Pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest, and ask him to send out more workers for his fields. Go now, and remember that I am sending you out as lambs among wolves. Don't take along any money, or a traveler’s bag, or even an extra pair of sandals. And don't stop to greet anyone on the road. Whenever you enter a home, give it your blessing. If those who live there are worthy, the blessing will stand; if they are not, the blessing will return to you. When you enter a town, don't move around from home to home. Stay in one place, eating and drinking what they provide you. Don't hesitate to accept hospitality, because those who work deserve their pay. If a town welcomes you, eat whatever is set before you and heal the sick. As you heal them, say, 'The Kingdom of God is near you now.’” Until God leads us in another direction, we believe we are being sent out like Jesus sent the seventy-two: as a pair. This does not weaken our team; instead, the smaller size strengthens our team, makes it more mobile, and fosters a united vision that is more difficult in larger teams. We are not going this alone, however. Edification and community are vital in the lives of missionaries, especially in large, unfamiliar cities. We were blessed to meet several other church planters on our research trip in April who are in the Boston metropolitan area, and have even become friends with a team of several Harding University students who will begin their ministry in Boston next summer. Our future Christian community and accountability network seems to grow each day as we learn of more and more that God is doing on the East Coast. Logistically, when we arrive in Boston I will work full-time and Chrissy will begin a MBA program in non-profit management at a local university. My undergraduate degree is in print journalism, so I am currently seeking writing or editing positions with companies or weekly publications. Chrissy’s heart is in managing an existing non-profit organization or helping to establish a new one. Because we do and will not separate our lives from ministry, we believe the evangelistic connections we make will come in the natural rhythms of our lives: in work, in study, and in play. For this reason, our church form will take a simple, relational structure. We believe “authentic faith communities” will pop up wherever we intentionally announce the kingdom of God, whether in our home, the home of a neighbor, on a lunch break at work, or in a local coffee shop. Our formal missions training has largely been in forming spiritual friendships that lead to the establishment, nurturing, and reproduction of house or “simple” churches. We believe this form is especially functional in a densely populated urban center of North America like Boston. Our ultimate aim is not to baptize as many people as we can or even to plant a single church, but to be a part of the in-breaking of the reign of God wherever we are — work, school, home. We want to serve people, declaring to them the coming of a “new order” — the reign of God — and invite them into the exciting existence of living in full participation with and submission to that reign. This is a kingdom life that values justice, service, sanity, spiritual disciplines, hospitality, community, non-violence, and mission, among many other things. We believe the kingdom life described above, the life described in the book of Acts, will be good news — “gospel” — to a widow neighbor, a newspaper editor, or maybe a MBA student in Boston.

Friday, December 02, 2005

I read about half of N. T. Wright's new book, Paul in Fresh Perspective, yesterday. Wow. The man is a force of nature when it comes to New Testament scholarship. More about it later. - - - - All right. Why I quit offering invitations years ago. Has it ever hit you that the early church very likely didn't end their house church gatherings with an altar call? As far as we know, no one came to the front, filled out a card, and said, "I haven't been the example I should be." The nature of their gatherings, however, offered ongoing chances to encourage each other, confess to each other, and pray for each other. And through the vast majority of church history, the assemblies didn't lead up to an invitation. It's tied into frontier revivalism. As the church pressed forward, the assemblies became focused on a time of response. Basically, worship gatherings became revivals or, as Churches of Christ have preferred, "Gospel Meetings." (By the way, here is a good time to say I get weary of the discussion of whether our assemblies are for worship or for encouragement. They're for both. Just because Paul points out that worship has broader implications in a Christian's life doesn't mean there isn't something called worship that focuses on adoration of God and re-formation of God's people.) To me, this is a cultural thing that just doesn't fit most of the time. It's not the big ending, the reason for gathering. In my mind, the big assembly isn't the best place -- most of the time -- for the kind of responses you occasionally hear. That's best made in smaller settings: with covenant groups, small groups, accountability groups, Bible classes, etc. Someplace where a group gathers around a person and commits to help them (and be helped by them) over the long haul. And baptism? We have lots of baptisms. But they aren't usually because people hear one message and walk to the front. It's because they are in the process of being formed in the Way of Jesus, and baptism becomes an obvious part of that journey. Were there ever baptisms-on-the-spot in the NT? Yes, but not in the gatherings of the churches in response to an "invitation" (as far as we know). The point of the sermon isn't to see how many can walk to the front. It's to continue moving people along into the story of Jesus, forming them into a Way that is counter-cultural. If you preach on "loving your enemies," e.g., the goal isn't to have people walk down the aisle, make a confession, and then dismiss. The goal is to rattle people, shake them, and immerse them again into cruciform living. Hopefully it sends them out into families, small groups, and Bible classes to be stirred by the implications. This isn't to say that I never offer invitations. And it isn't to say that my way is the right way. I have noticed that when you get outside of Churches of Christ and a few other revivalist-based denominations, you don't find many invitation songs. You do find constant invitations to continue pursuing the Way of Christ, however! I very much like the movement now toward offering times of prayer, where people can bring prayer concerns (for repentance, for healing, for intercession) to leaders of the church. We've found that to be a very valuable time on Wednesday evenings, especially those evenings when people are invited to be anointed with oil. (More on that some other time.) Again, this isn't me telling others how to do it. Just a bit of insight into what I've been thinking. - - - - Yesterday my friend Mel Hailey made his formal announcement that he's running for the state legislature. You can read about him at www.melhailey.com. He is chairman of the political science department at ACU, an elder at the University Church, and an incredible man. His wife, Jan, is a Bible faculty member at ACU and one of the best women you'll meet in your life. - - - - Now . . . back to soccer.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Congratulations to my buddy Rick Atchley for receiving the "Distinguished Alumnus" award last night from Abilene Christian University. There was a special presentation during the evening service at Richland Hills. Milt, Max, and I got to participate by sending video clips. Rick Atchley is one of the most consistent people I've ever met in my life--as a family guy, as a disciple, as a friend, and as a preacher. His life is a witness to the importance of prayer, of integrity, and of unity. - - - - Yesterday was the last day of my fall class at ACU on "The Life and Teachings of Jesus." This has been one of my favorite groups ever, full of eager students. And a few not-so-eager, of course. Yesterday to prepare for the final exam, I walked through our textbook with them: Lee Camp's Mere Discipleship. I was reminded of what an amazing book it is. - - - - Eight days until the opening of "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." We have our tickets. Do you have yours? - - - - This weekend we're traveling to Dallas for the Tournament of Champions (soccer). We've gotten to do that several times through the years -- with Coach Scott B. and The Burn and now with Coach Scott P. and The Raptors.