Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Developing Risk-Taking Mission & Service Ministries

Risk-taking mission and service ministries bring nothing to the church. Humanitarian projects after a national disaster will not bring new people into the church. Feeding people who live with food instability does not do something for the church. Partnering with a church in Haiti will not necessarily bring in new members. Each of these activities do, however, mirror living out our calling in Jesus Christ. 

Many churches are program-driven. They have activities and events. Each one has a clear objective. For example, a new study of Genesis focuses on discipleship and applying the Bible to daily living. Each program fits with the life of the church. And, programs can dovetail with the mission of the church. In the example of a new Bible study, the program will (a) draw inactive members to greater involvement, (b) attract new members, and/or (c) teach a valuable lesson for the church, like stewardship or commitment. 

Programs are not bad. In fact, they can be unequivocally good. Yet, programs are not inherently connected with the mission of the church. Drawing inactive members to greater activity is good. Attracting new members is good. Teaching valuable lessons is good. Each case is a bit self-serving. The church benefits when new people start coming or inactive people get more active. 

Risk-taking mission activities are different than the sorts of programs described above. Risk-taking mission means listening to God and going where God leads. In some ways, something only qualifies as a risk-taking mission if we gain nothing in return. We do it because we feel God calling us to do it. 

Mark 7:24-30 tells the story of the Syrophoenician woman’s faith. She found Jesus and asked him to heal her daughter. He had no incentive to do so. Healing the woman’s daughter would have cost him some credibility because she was not part of his tribe. He responded with a metaphor for the Jewish Messianic theology. “Let the children be fed first. Don’t take their food away and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus implied she was a dog. 

The Syrophoenician woman’s pithy response changed Jesus’ mind. “Even the dogs under the table get the children’s scraps.” Jesus healed her daughter. His action was a risk-taking mission. The Bible is full of these kinds of risky ministries. Jesus took so many risks that he upset the social norm and ended up on a cross. The one thing the Bible lacks is a clear program designed to grow the fledgling church. 

What risk-taking mission and service ministry is God calling you to do? What is God calling University Baptist to do? How does God want us to step away from concern about our own future and to move in faith? 

Monday, August 6, 2018

What is our church designed to produce?

Edwards Deming was an electrical engineer who became a pioneer in systems management. He developed sampling techniques still used by the U.S. Department of the Census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In his book The New Economics, he introduces systems as “a network of interdependent components that work together to try and accomplish the aim of the system” (p. 50). 

Systems have a purpose. Without it, there is no system. The aim of the system should be obvious to everyone in it. The system should have plans for the future, although the aim and the plans might not be clearly articulated by everyone in the system. Some people just go through the motions in a system. But, there is an interrelationship between the aim, the plans for the future, and the purpose of the system. Everyone in the system is part of it.
Hopefully, it is obvious that the church is a system—it is different than a corporation, club, or nonprofit. The church is God’s presence in the world. Yet, when we look hard at the church, we can see that it produces what it was designed to produce. This is why different churches experience different results. Some churches are vibrant. They grow disciples, embark on mission projects, and produce ministers. Other churches are stagnant. They plod along. Still, others are in decline and waiting for an inevitable funeral. These latter churches even practice the eulogy, saying, “Remember how good it used to be?”
What is University Baptist designed to produce? Do we live out the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20)? Are we the embodiment of a Micah 6:8-inspired faith? Do we follow the repeated biblical edict of engaging with our world and loving people where they are? 
Ideally, we want to say ‘yes’ to the questions in the previous paragraph. Before we can answer in the affirmative, let us analyze the system of University Baptist Church. Let us look at how we exemplify ‘making disciples’ or ‘loving justice’. What, in our system, produces these results? A system will produce what it is designed to produce. 
Many years ago, a minister asked an organist if she would leave her church to come and play at his. He tried to sell her on the idea: “If you come here, it’s easy. We don’t do much. We have one service on Sunday and choir practice before church. That’s it! You’ll have it good!” The organist viewed her playing as part of the system of the music ministry at her church as part of the wider system of carrying out God’s mission. She wanted to keep fulfilling what she understood to be God’s calling on her life. She did not want it easy.
An easy life is alluring. The Beach Boys sang, “Wouldn’t it be nice,” imagining an idealized future of wedded bliss. No married couple lives out a Beach Boys song. Instead, I pray, they enjoy the good times while building a healthy family system. They can learn from the struggles along the way. The church has good times, a need for healthy systems, and opportunities to learn. 
Is University Baptist Church’s system producing the results God is calling us to achieve? Deming writes, “A system must be managed. It will not manage itself… The secret is cooperation between components toward the aim of the [church].”[1]When we work together, we can make changes to the system to redefine what it is designed to produce. If we want disciples, let us explore ways to make disciples. If we want God’s justice, let us design the system to produce God’s justice. 
This is an exciting time to be God’s church. 
[This post comes from my University Baptist Church newsletter column]

[1]Deming ended the sentence with the word “organization,” but “church” fits our purpose much better. Page 50.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Practicing Discomfort

Being uncomfortable does not come naturally. We tend to avoid it. If a chair is wobbly or has a lumpy seat, we move to another seat, or we try to replace it. When it is cold, we wear coats. When it is hot, we seek shade or air conditioning. No one likes to be uncomfortable.
A 1916 brochure said, “It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.” Little discomforts can distract us from the bigger picture. Many years ago, I was hiking in Isle Royale National Park. The friction between my heels and a new pair of boots wore debilitating blisters on the back of each foot. At the end of a long day of hiking, when I saw the blisters, I could think of nothing else. The park has wolves and moose. It feels like one of those thin places where the veil between earth and heaven lifts slightly. Instead of seeing God in a wilderness that exceeds superlatives, I could only think of my feet. 
In church, we are no different. Anything that disrupts our expectations can create discomfort. A new song begs the question, “What is wrong with the good old hymns?” After reading a new translation of scripture in worship, someone says, “I like the King James Version. That’s the way I learned it.” New worship arrangements, unusual subjects, artistic displays, modern composers, incorporating things in church that we have never used before—all of these things create discomfort. 
Lumpy seats and foot blisters are discomforts to avoid. New worship, art, translations, composers, and cultural artifacts are not. Do something new just to do something new rarely leads to spiritual growth. Being constrained by the fear of discomfort does not yield growth either. As followers of Christ, we must fearlessly go where God leads. 
How do we prepare to go where God leads? One step on this path is to practice discomfort. We can try new things, introduce new elements, seek new opportunities, and leave our comfort zones. As we do, we enter into a Land of Discomfort. We do not live there. We do not have to stay there. The act of entering into the Land of Discomfort prepares us for future opportunities. 
For many people, talking to a homeless person is a new experience. It can be jarring because we do not have a frame of reference for that person’s daily existence. I remember when I was volunteering at the Roanoke Rescue Mission in the early 1990s. My background in Roanoke County did not prepare me for working with homeless men. I did not know what to say. So, I said, “Hi. My name is Matt.” 
John Sylvester-Johnson invited me to work with some men in a long-term recovery program. Over several months, I began to build relationships with some of the men. One week, I invited several of the men who I had been getting to know to go sailing with me. We drove to Smith Mountain Lake and enjoyed a day on the water. 
By the time we left the dock, I could not remember any feelings of discomfort. I was simply going sailing with some friends. As I think back on it, Jesus’ words recounted in John 15:15 come to my mind. “I no longer call you [recipients of ministry-to]. Instead, I call you friends.”
Practicing discomfort prepares us for God’s opportunities.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Ch-ch-ch-changes… Summer Sailing Trip, Part 2

We had tentatively planned to circumnavigate the Delmarva Peninsula. 

We knew these plans could change. Weather, mechanical trouble, and scheduling are just a few of the potential delays. This year, weather was the culprit. One day, there was so little wind, the entire Bay was glassy as far as we could see. 

So, instead of trudging onward and struggling to make the necessary miles to complete our circumnavigation, we changed our plans. Melanie looked through William Shellenberger’s Cruising the Chesapeake. She found several new places to explore. 

Our first night was in familiar territory. Bells Creek, off Indian Creek, is a great anchorage and a creek that we have been sailing for nearly a decade. Both boys learned to sail their optis on Bells Creek. Anchoring there brought back wonderful memories. When we weighed anchor at 6:15 AM, our plan was to reach Annapolis, but there was no wind. 

Some sailboats are motor-sailors. They happily motor or sail. Generally, they do not do either as well as a motorboat or sailboat. Ours is not a motor-sailor. The Beneteau First 29 is a sailboat. It is happiest in 10-30 knots of wind. Over 30 knots of wind is heavy weather, but the boat can easily handle it. Under 10, it light wind and slower going. 

No wind means relying on a little Volvo diesel motor. It can push the boat along at 5 knots. However, riding at 5 knots in 90˚ with 95% humidity and no appreciable shade is uncomfortable. We motored all day on Sunday, June 17, my birthday and Father’s Day. We tried to catch any whisper of breeze. A falling tide meant fighting a current, so we rarely made more than 4.5-5 knots. It was clearly time to change our plans.

Melanie pointed out the Little Choptank River on the chart. We considered going up Slaughters Creek to a small town called Taylors Island, MD. We opted, instead, to anchor in the mouth of the Little Choptank River. There was a pleasant evening breeze. Melanie made a salad for dinner. And, we all went to sleep early. 

On Monday, June 18, we went swimming. 

With predicted light wind days and microbursts in the afternoon, we decided to sail north to the Choptank River and explore Oxford, MD. We rented a slip at Bachelor Point. The marina had bikes so we rode around Oxford. We ate lunch at a restaurant called Capsize and swam in the marina pool all afternoon. We went out to Sunset Grill for dinner. Turtles swam all around our boat.

On Tuesday, June 19, we headed south toward the Patuxent River. We found a few light breezes along the way. 

We found a slip and ate lunch at Pier before a little thunderstorm blew through. 

Again, we borrowed bikes from the marina. After the storm, we explored Solomons Island, MD.

We left Solomons Island early and headed south. Riding a falling tide, we motored at 6.5+ knots for much of Wednesday, June 20. We saw another incredible sunrise. 

We passed Point No Point Lighthouse. 

And, we passed Smith Point Lighthouse.

The tiny breezes diminished and more thunderheads lined the horizon. 

As we reached the familiar waters around the Northern Neck, a pelican welcomed us back. 

We reached Stingray Point in Deltaville at 3:00 PM. After five days and four nights, our family summer sailing trip was over. We set the dock lines, unpacked the boat, put everything away, closed the seacocks, and washed the deck. Our boat is a magic carpet. It takes us new places, delivers us safely, and provides a home for the journey.  

Every trip is an adventure. We never know exactly what will happen when we cast off the dock lines. Sometimes things work perfectly and we follow our plans exactly. Other times, various factors require us to change our plans. In either case, every trip on the boat enriches each of our lives. I am thankful for every opportunity to set sail with my family. 

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Our 2018 Sailing Adventure Begins…

At 4:30 AM, my alarm sounded. It did not wake me to begin my family sailing trip. It went off so that I could begin my trip from Texas to Virginia. I attended the 2018 Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in Dallas. It was very good. But, my return travel date coincided with the first day of my family vacation. 

My traveling companion and fellow minister Will Brown and I rode took a flight to Charlottesville, connecting through Atlanta. Each flight was uneventful—as is ideal. When we reached Charlottesville, my vacation began! 

Melanie, Dean, and Eddy picked me up from the Charlottesville airport in the early afternoon, and our fraternity of four was off! We drove to Deltaville. Our boat is a 1985 Beneteau First 29. It is 29.67’ long and 9.75’ wide. It has two cabins, a v-berth forward where one of my sons sleeps. The other is an aft-cabin with a large berth for Melanie and me. My other son sleeps in the main saloon where there are two settees, a small galley, and a navigation table. There is also a small head. We named the boat Life on Mars and it is configured as a masthead sloop. There is a mainsail and genoa. In light wind, we fly an asymmetrical spinnaker. 

Boats like to sail. They do not like to be left alone at the dock or in dry storage. Using them means they are ready to be used. Over the last four years, we have undertaken project after project to repair or improve the boat. Throughout it all, we sailed the boat. That informed each project or improvement. For example, when we considered where to put a cup holder, we knew from experience where we wanted one. 

After moving to Charlottesville in 2017, we left Life on Mars in dry storage while we acclimated to our new life. In early 2018, we began getting the boat ready for the next sailing season. We attacked any deferred maintenance (fuel and oil filters, bottom paint, new zinc, and more). We repaired a de-zincified stern tube. Melanie installed a new headliner. She also recovered the cushions in the cabin. We put in a new chartplotter and two sets of rope clutches and deck organizers. 

In May, the boat seemed ready! One Friday, I tested its readiness by showing up, shoving off, and sailing to Tangier Island. Everything worked! The boat was amazing. So, when June 16 arrived and my family picked me up from the airport, we slipped our dock lines within an hour of reaching the boat. 

The sun set today at 8:30 PM, so we planned a conservative first day’s run. We left Deltaville and have the intention of circumnavigating the Delmarva Peninsula. Even though it would be great to complete the circumnavigation, we are prepared to enjoy wherever the winds take us this week. We could encounter weather or mechanical delays. If so, we are fine. We are here for the adventure. 

We left Deltaville and sailed out the mouth of the Rappahannock River. We turned northward in 18 knots of SSE wind. Under mainsail alone, we made over 6 knots as we rounded Windmill Point. We knew sunset was approaching, so we turned slightly westward and headed to Indian Creek. Eight years ago, we kept the Tortoise Revenge, a boat we lived on in Puerto Rico, at Dick O’Neil’s house on Bells Creek, off Indian Creek. When we first moved to Kilmarnock, we sailed often from Dick’s house. When Dean started sailing an opti, we taught him to sail on Bells Creek. He would sail out to the red number “6” marker on Indian Creek. Later, we had a Flying Scot and sailed it regularly in these waters. 

Tonight, Life on Mars rides gently at her anchor in Bells Creek. She is protected from the SSE breeze. Melanie made a wonderful salad for dinner. We have our supplies stowed. And, we are ready for what the week holds. Life is an adventure. Each day is a gift. 

Friday, June 15, 2018

CBF General Assembly 2018

I am attending my first Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) General Assembly. It is 2018 and CBF has had me on their mailing list since 1992. Over the years, I have attended state Baptist gatherings and recently went to my first Alliance of Baptist gathering. But, I have never been to the big, annual meeting of the CBF before. 

There are booths representing fair trade coffee, Baptist Women in Ministry, the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, seminaries and divinity schools, church-related services, and more. There are sessions covering a wide variety of contemporary issues. Some sound useful; others do not. Some are well-planned and well-executed; others are not. Worship is a significant part of the event. And, the worship is fantastic. Before the official events started, the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists held a worship Service. It was fantastic. 

Seeing old friends and making new ones plays a significant role in gatherings like this. These friendships are part of the richness of being in the family of Christ. Over the years, annual gatherings provide an opportunity to check-in on one another’s lives. Social media makes it easier to keep track of where friends live and what they are doing. But, being in one another’s physical presence deepens the relationships. 

When we gather as a diverse group of Baptists, we can learn about what Baptist-oriented Christians are doing in different places. What music are they using? Are there new hymns? If my church has one style of worship, a gathering like this allows me to experience other styles of worship. What liturgies do people use? Some are good and worth taking home. Others might have sounded good in someone’s mind but did not feel right in worship. Being together and worshiping allows for experimentation and sharing. 

One new experience for me was a story slam sponsored by Baptist News Global. The event highlighted empowering women. Six women told stories in the vein of The Moth Radio Hour—a storytelling show on NPR. The women’s stories were funny, heartbreaking, and powerful. They helped me better understand the experience of women in ministry. One woman told about the gut-wrenching time her boss told her to “smile more” after making an off-color, slightly misogynistic comment. She shared about what was going through her mind—lunch. She was trying to decide what to have for lunch. Instead of confronting the micro-aggression, she decided to have a hamburger for lunch. It was a strong choice to ignore the negative and focus on what was positive and good. 

What am I taking away from my first CBF General Assembly? This is a group of my friends, and they love Jesus. They do not have a more genuine affection for God than other Christian groups, but this is my group. We share ideas and that helps me see my own church with fresh eyes. We worship together. We encourage one another. We partner together to do God’s work. And, in a year, we will get together again. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Getting Ready for Summer

Each season brings new challenges and opportunities. As May winds to a close, we move closer to summer. What will the next season hold for you? What challenges lie ahead? What opportunities? Will there be vacations, or will a lack of time or money stand in the way of respite? Regardless of what the summer brings, each of us must get ready for it.
Getting ready for something is a shared experience. Everyone has to get ready for something. Many people get ready for work or school each day. Others get ready to go out, or to stay in. When preparing to take a summer vacation, we do various things to prepare. For example, it might involve a reservation and it requires packing a bag. 
In each case, getting ready means thinking ahead. To pack for a trip means thinking about what will happen. What is the weather where you are going? It might be warm at home, but if the destination is cooler, a light jacket would be nice. What is the dress code? What are the activities? The answers to these questions determine whether a suit, a bathing suit, or golf clubs are appropriate. 
We get ready for summer or for a trip by thinking ahead. What about the bigger picture? What about life at University Baptist? How do we prepare the church for 5, 10, or 20 years in the future? What are we doing today to get ready? Are we adjusting the way we function as a church to get ready for what is next? JARC is considering how the church’s constitution and bylaws reflect who we are. But, each of us can take part in this kind of thinking ahead. 
Philippians 3:20 reminds us that our “citizenship is in heaven,” but we do not stop life while we wait for eternity. Each day is a gift and an opportunity to get ready for what is next. Where will the church be in the future? If you do not imagine that you will still be around in 20-30 years, are you making provisions for the church in your will? 
The decisions we make today will have an enormous impact on the future. We can make decisions to prepare the way for what God has in store for Charlottesville. How will discipleship, faith formation, worship, music, and multigenerational ministry look in the future? Dreaming about what is to come and listening to God in prayer can open us to the work of the Holy Spirit. Then, we get to experience the joy of being part of God’s work. 

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Review: A Plastic Ocean (2016)

The world faces peril and needs heroes. It does not need the Avengers or some other superhero. Plastic spreads like an insidious virus over the planet. In the ocean, the waves, sunlight, and wind break plastics into smaller and smaller pieces. Then, the tiny pieces act as magnets for harmful chemicals. Tiny fish eat the bits of plastic and it moves up the food chain. 
A Plastic Ocean (Dir. Craig Leeson, 2016) introduces Craig Leeson and Tanya Streeter. The two hosts of this documentary take viewers on a world tour of the impact of plastic. It’s everywhere. And, it feels overwhelming. They showed how plastic works its way into the digestive systems of fish, birds, mammals, and humans. The negative impact is incredible.
Why? This is a question a bit beyond the scope of the documentary. They focus on the science. They provide ample evidence to support their argument that plastics are ruining the planet. In one scene, Craig Leeson visits a variety of restaurants around Austin, TX. He asks for packaging that does not contain plastic. As expected, the wage-workers are mostly unable to comply. There are a few exceptions. The video is a bit unfair to the workers who are just trying to do their job. His point is well-made. The reason there is so much plastic in the ocean is the lack of available alternatives. Hence, when everything we buy is wrapped in plastic, the plastic has to go somewhere. 
In Germany, through a combination of government intervention and enterprise, turning waste to energy is economically viable. On U.S. aircraft carriers, a Canadian company called PyroGenesis uses a plasma torch to turn waste to its base elements. The byproduct is inert and the waste generates the energy needed to power the torch. 
Watching these examples gave me hope. I started imagining a ship sifting through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to collect resources for some future plastic-hungry technology. Jürgen Moltmann said, “Faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience.” As I felt hopeful, my restlessness increased. Why can’t we get started?!? I do not know. 
Precious Plastic provides instructions for micro-plastic recycling plants. Think garage-sized. It is a network of plastic activists who fight to take plastic out of landfills (& oceans!!!) and recycle it for future use. A French company called Brikawooddesigned a Lego-style wood-brick house. Now, if we combine Precious Plastic and Brikawood, we get a plastic home. (Do you see where I am going?) Using 3D printing, making plastic bricks, waste plastic could solve homelessness. If this were successful, then there would be a new plastic-hungry business, and maybe there will be ships jockeying for space in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. 
The documentary ends with the challenge to “Think reusable, not disposable” and “Refuse single-use plastics.” The first is easier than the second. We went to the grocery store this afternoon. We took our own bags with us. However, most of the products include plastic. In this review, I have not addressed the chemicals (e.g. BPA) that seep into food or beverages. The two final challenges are aspirational. When we begin demanding that stores provide plastic-free packaging options, they will exist. Stores respond to market demands.  
A Plastic Ocean was an inspirational and encouraging documentary. I recommend everyone watch it and think about all the plastic in our lives. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Significant Things

[This is from The Word--the weekly newseltter at University Baptist Church]
Last week, in this column, I asked, “What is the most important question in the world today?” The point of the question is to stimulate our thought. We can explore questions like these together. As we explore, we can invite other people to join the voyage of discovery with us.  
The church is a place of significant things. We come to church at important times of life. We come for weddings and funerals. We experience baptism and celebrations. And, if we open our hearts, we can find God at church.
So, what is the most important question? How can we transcend those significant events (i.e. baptism or funerals) and experience transformation? This is a quest for meaning and relevance. What means the most to the most people? What question challenges everyone? What question has universal implications?
Ecclesiastes 5:1 says, “To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools.” Richard Foster talks about this “sacrifice of fools” in Celebrating Discipline. He writes, “The sacrifice of fools is humanly initiated religious talk” (p. 99). Instead of making a sacrifice of fools, we can seek true faith in God. Instead of human-focused religion, we can look for transformation. Asking about important questions and significant things is part of the journey toward transformation.
We are blessed and cursed with activities. In the last four weeks, we have hosted an academic lecture series and held multiple Holy Week worship services. There was a family work day. The first pre-OIAM event went wonderfully at Community Bikes (and provided a witness for Christ in an unlikely place). We joined together for a world trade simulation to experience social (in)justice. Jubilate performed a homecoming concert, and we are only days from the 45th Jubilate Reunion Weekend!
Are all of these activities life-giving? Or, do we succumb to the temptation of organized religion? Do we veer dangerously close to a sacrifice of fools? The youth are planning an upcoming worship service and told me that they want something meaningful. I do too! Every week, worship should be meaningful and life-giving. Each activity should celebrate our risen savior and reflect God’s light in the world.
Let us continue exploring significant things. Let us create a safe place to pursue these important questions, other people will join us in our pursuit. Let us make an honest assessment of our activities. If we find one that is not life-giving or transformative, let us seek to recreate it or let it go. These are exciting times to join God’s work in Charlottesville! I cannot wait to see where God leads us!