Saturday, March 31, 2007

MRI Churches

One last (maybe) post on Leonard Sweet and the Zoe Leadership Conference. After describing the perfect storm facing churches today, Sweet talked about the need to transition from what he called APC churches to what he called MRI churches. Neither type is inherantly good or bad, right or wrong - that's not the point. The APC church was effective in its time, but its time was not post modern, post christendom, post scale.

A quick aside here - In any discussion involving change there is often a tendancy to disparage the new and defend the old or to disregard the old and embrace the new. It is important to recognize that people do not deliberately choose to be 'mistaken' - we come to the positions we hold with the best intentions, making the best use we can of the information and understanding at our disposal, within the context of our time and place. It is incumbant upon us to respect and honor those who have long ago gone before us as well as those with whom we differ today - probably a topic to address more fully at another time.

Back to the APC/MRI comparison, keeping in mind that the APC model grew out of a time when the church had a different place in mainstream culture than it does today.

APC ------------- vs ---------- MRI

Attractional ----vs--- Missional
Propositional --vs--- Relational
Colonial --vs--- Incarnational

Attractional - fundamental focus is getting people to come to and stay with the church. Programs and decisions are implemented in an attempt to satisfy people's needs and preferences - whether children's programs, worship styles, color of the paint in the auditorium - the focus is on what will get, and retain, people into the church building.

Propositional - fundamental focus is on being right or correct. Not a recent phenomenon - the pharisees were a prime example - there is the belief that there is a correct position or answer that can logically or rationally be found for any issue, and the goal is to convince ourselves and others that our position is the correct one.

Colonial - fundamental focus is on reproducing the pattern that is attractionally successful and propositionally correct. A franchise model - the McDonald's philosophy - the goal is to reproduce clones or semi-clones that are modeled after the right pattern.

This model is very much a part of my heritage and still very prevalent today. It is a heritage that I value and I love those who are a part of it, but I believe that the model is one that will not work in the context of a postmodern, post christendom world. Sweet says that the model that more nearly reflects the model in Acts, and that has a chance of reaching people in today's world is...

Missional - the focus is on going out - among the community, among the people, among the world - and 'as you are going make disciples'; there is an attractional aspect, but the attraction is to Jesus, not to the church and its building, programs, etc. The mission statement is the great commission.

Relational - the focus is on bringing people into relationship with God by building relationships rather than by convincing them of the correctness of our doctrine. There is a focus on learning to love our neighbor rather than being able to debate them.

Incarnational - the focus is on living in a way that reflects Jesus, on becoming the gospel, to be good news to a lost world. There is an emphasis on living among people and treating them as Jesus did those he lived among, addressing the needs that Jesus was concerned with.

Friday, March 30, 2007

March Madness Continues...

WVU got no respect from the tournament selection committee, but vindicated itself with the NIT championship. Not that I believe they would be in the final four, but they did beat UCLA a few weeks ago...the final shot in the semifinals should be in highlight reels for some time to come...

I still have 3 of 4 teams in my bracket, and stand by my prediction of Florida over Ohio State in the finals....

Thursday, March 29, 2007

What I've Learned Through the Suffering of Another

Last night Ray Thompson shared this testimony with the Rotunda class. I asked his permission to post it here. Because of the public nature of the internet, I am removing the last names.
I found particularly insightful Ray's expressing that "giving money is a crutch I've often used to show "sympathy," without the "empathy" that comes from being involved in someone's life," and that "I saw myself as the giver, not God."

What I've Learned Through the Suffering of Another

I think we are often reluctant to share our spiritual journeys and experiences with one another because we think it is sort of “patting ourselves on the back,” OK? But I know this class will not judge my words in this way tonight….

I’ve written my thoughts and will read them….so I won’t ramble…

How many of you remember Kent ----? Several of you, especially Bill & Mary, helped him directly and a number of you gave him money. Kent is a man about in his 30's who came to Dallas from California. He suffers from schizophrenia and qualifies for federal and state assistance as a mentally ill person; he also has severe asthma. He receives free medications for these conditions.

Months ago, Bill & Mary found him at the MHMR housing facility, near Skillman and Abrams, and brought him to church. Kent was raised in the church; his dad was a minister at one time but his parents have been divorced for many years. Their differing views of Kent and his problems, as well as their age and resources, have not provided any support for Kent in recent years. He attended ACU and studied Bible, Greek, and Hebrew. He has proved to be a very moral person, who tries to live as a Christian.

In his 20's, Kent married a girl and they have two children. She is from a prominent family in the Broadway Church in Lubbock, who Avalyn and I knew. However, when mental illness overtook Kent, he abandoned his wife and children, and began moving around the country. He ended up in California, where he finally received good treatment for his mental condition. Such treatment is free in California.

Although we didn't know it at first, Kent came back to Texas because he thought he could control his mental illness (with proper medication), and he wanted to try and reconciled with his wife and children, who live in Ft. Worth.

I entered Kent's life when Bill told me that Kent wanted to get on the Internet to apply for job interviews. You know me, I'm always interested in sharing my computer skills, so I invited Kent to my house one Sunday afternoon, beginning an association with Kent that was to last for many months, and is still on-going. During this time I was to learn a lot about Kent, but even more about myself and about God's will in my life.

At that time I can say that my feelings about Kent went something like this:
  • Helping him get on the Internet was easy and fun for me. I did not expect to do more than this.
  • When he began to ask for other assistance I could hardly refuse, but I didn't volunteer for anything he didn't ask.
  • I was wary of him "working me" with words of appreciation, while I really had no way to know if things were the way they appeared on the surface.
  • I was reluctant to ask the hard questions to really know what was happening in Kent's life, for that would really get me "involved" with him.
  • The money spent was not a problem for me, and I felt good about offering material help. I've come to realize that giving money is a crutch I've often used to show "sympathy," without the "empathy" that comes from being involved in someone's life.
  • Perhaps most telling, I saw myself as the giver, not God. Yes, I prayed for Kent, but mostly that he would find a job, become self-supporting, and relieve me of his support.

In the months that have followed, I've come to realize that God brought Kent into my life to teach me about real compassion and to trust in Him instead of myself.

As God began to guide me (without me realizing it), things got worse instead of better. I offered Kent advice and wise council, but he didn't always take it. From time to time Kent's mental problems worsened and I had no idea how to help him. When these episodes occurred, Kent was often angry about the minimal care available from our Texas mental health department. At times just talking to him was really scary. I discussed this with Charme and Dwight, but we concluded the Church really has no resources for helping people with mental problems.

For the first time, the thought crept into my mind that we were going to have to depend on God to help Kent...but it was scary trying to understand how and when this would happen. I began to pray in a different way.

The saga of Kent is ongoing, and it is not a happy one. It's still not clear what the Lord's plan is for him, but there have been some signs along the way that God is caring for him…Kent's six months at the MHMR apartments expired, and he decided to move to Irving and go on the streets. We didn't know what else to do, so Bill moved him and his few possessions to Irving. Kent found the MacArthur Street Church, and made friends there. This was a relief, and I lost track of Kent and his troubled life...

Months later, I had a gathering at my house of some old friends from the Tech Bible Chair, where Avalyn and I met and married. One of the couples who came, Dale and Kathy, are members at MacArthur and I asked them if they knew Kent. It turned out that Kathy had taken up where we had left off! She was taking him to his MHMR appointments, to church, etc. We shared our experiences and frustrations with Kent and pledged to stay in touch. I wondered, "Did the Lord make this connection between Kent's caregivers?" Now I know He did…

Dale and Kathy were equally perplexed about how to help Kent, and soon another crisis was brewing… In spite of our advice against it, Kent finally made a move to be with his wife, Shelley… He found her in a small apartment with her children, barely getting by. She had a part-time job but could not support her family and pay her rent. Kent contacted several at Skillman and Bill and others helped find furniture for them. Kent carried a huge load of guilt about abandoning his family, and Shelley played on this guilt to gain his financial support. Kathy reported that they were having serious troubles, financially and with their relationship. Shelley soon kicked him out on the street. We had no solution for Kent…

One day, Kathy called to say that Kent had been able to get a part-time job at Target in Arlington and finally was able to rent a small apartment of his own, within walking distance of his job. Was this part of the plan we were waiting on the Lord to show us? More and more, I was learning to wait for God to help Kent... Things seemed to be looking up.

Several months passed with no news from Kent or Kathy; I continued to pray for the Lord to watch over him and to support Dale and Kathy. One morning Kathy called to say that Kent was missing. She had not been able to contact him by phone he had not been to work, and no one answered the door at the apartment…at first. A day later she tried the apartment again and was surprised when Shelly answered the door! Shelly said that Kent had had a seizure and she had called 911 and they had taken him away in an ambulance! She had no idea where he was, and didn't seem to care.

I live in Richardson…a long way from Arlington, but the next morning I got a call from a mental health social worker at the Richardson hospital, telling me that Kent was there and had given her my name. I still have no idea how Kent ended up six blocks from my house, but I don't think it was a coincidence... I called Kathy and we gave thanks that he was OK.

The hospital was treating Kent for severe depression and they were glad to get background information that I could supply. Kent's story was a sad one, "Ray I thought that Shelley loved me and I let her move in with me when they kicked her out of her apartment. But, she has just taken over my life! I have asked her to move but she has delayed for weeks. I guess I just blacked out; I don't remember what happened or how I got here." I called Target to let them know Kent was in the hospital, took him some clothes, and Kathy and I talked about what to do about getting him back in his apartment. The doctor treating Kent said that under no circumstances was he to be with Shelley again. Kent stayed with me for a week, to avoid Shelley and so he could get back to work. Kathy came and picked him up at the start of his shift and I picked him up at 10pm to bring him home.

How did we get Shelley out of his apartment? We had no leverage, as Kent had not told the apartment manager she was there and might lose his apartment or have to pay more rent if we pursued eviction. I talked to Shelley but she was not about to move, "until I can talk to Kent!" she said. But…one morning she was gone…

Things were sort of back to normal when Kent developed a very severe toothache. I contacted my dentist, Richard ---- (they were members at Skillman years ago), Kathy brought him over, and the tooth was fixed. Thank you Lord!

However, in the past week Kent had to go to the emergency room for another mental breakdown, and our journey together continues….

At this point in our journey my feelings about our relationship are something like this:

  • I have come to really care about Kent as a person, and to appreciate the despair he deals with because of his mental illness.
  • I'm shocked at what I've learned about the plight of the mentally ill in our society, and the minimal resources our state provides.
  • Although it's still scary, I've learned something about how to "help" when you have no answers, and must wait on God and his timetable.
  • I have no idea what the Lord has in mind for Kent, but I'm sure He cares for him, and I hope I can continue to see and do His will.
  • My life has been blessed, and changed, by Kent's suffering.

Pray for Kent…thank you.

Ray Thompson

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Missional in the Hood

Last year about this time I wrote about having had a St. Patrick's day party for our neighborhood, and commented that I was embarrassed because that was the first time in over 15 years that many of them had been invited into our home. Particularly, I was convicted as we had been talking about becoming more missional.

Since then, we have had multiple occasions of neighborhood get-togethers, and have gotten to know many of our neighbors. We have another one scheduled for next week, and I thought I would share with you the email I sent this evening. Not trying to pat myself on the back, but hoping that it might be an encouragement to you...

Our next neighborhood meeting will be Tuesday, Apr. 3 at our house (1427 Stagecoach). At 7 pm, for those who are comfortable doing so, we will gather for a short neighborhood blessing for Simon and Job Smith, who will be leaving for a mission trip to Uganda within the next couple of weeks. At 7:15 we will begin our normal discussion of neighborhood news and concerns. Please feel welcome to come at either 7 or 7:15, as you prefer. We will not be able to deliver the notices to each house this weekend, so please let your neighbor know, if you don't see them on the email list.


I recently read the following news account and was reminded of my own responsibility to you, my neighbors, and of how blessed we are to have you all as neighbors...

Larry's remains were recently found in his house in a skeletal, mummified condition. No one had seen him since Hurricane Rita that had devastated Beaumont, Texas, nearly 18 months ago. The body was found on top of the bed, just like he had gone in to take a nap and never awakened. They are not sure if Larry expired shortly before the hurricane's arrival or shortly afterward. His house had not been severely damaged, so no one had actually gone inside to check on him and most folks just felt he had left before the approaching hurricane and never returned. A prospective buyer for the house found Larry's body. The house was put up for auction because of unpaid taxes.

Sadly, no one had really missed Larry. Although he had family in the city, he didn't want to see them. His neighbors made assumptions about his absence. Who knows, if someone had been more aware of his status, he might have been found before he died!


Some of you asked about the Easter Cross we had in the yard last year. I have about 1/2 dozen of them - if anyone wants one, please let me know; first come, first served.

Sunday, March 25, 2007


Read the following set of belief statements and 1) think about whether you fundamentally agree or disagree with them, and 2) picture in your mind the church that has published them.

We believe that Jesus is the absolute Son of God and the only way to the Father.

We believe that his sacrifice on the cross is the perfect atonement and only atonement for the sins of mankind.

We believe that to receive this atonement or salvation from the penalty of our personal sins, each person must acknowledge their sins, repent and turn from their sins, and place their entire life in the hands of God through Jesus.

We believe that although we do take part in some basic Christian sacraments (water baptism, communion) these are not in themselves salvation from our sins, but merely physical expressions of an inward experience and relationship with God.

We believe that God's word, the Bible, is inspired directly from God and that although it was written down by men, these men were moved by God's Holy Spirit and with his words.

We believe the word of God, the Bible, is correct and historically accurate and without error.

I might not phrase everything exactly the same, but I don't really find anything to disagree with. When I read these, I could easily picture them coming from Skillman or any number of churches, and could imagine feeling pretty much at home there. They actually come from the Deliverance Bible Church, which was featured in a front page article in the Morning News this morning.

The Deliverance Bible Church is among a small but growing group of churches across the country whose focus is ministry to the "outcast" - the tatooed, pierced, dressed in black, body artists with strange hair and heavy music. The church hosts a weekly Bible study, regular street preaching, periodic 24-hour prayers and a children's church. The members have evangelized to the homeless in Los Angeles and are raising money for clean-water systems in the Sudan.

Frankly, they are people who would probably not feel comfortable at Skillman, and I'm pretty sure I would be uncomfortable at one of their services. I think that may be an indication that I've still got a ways to go in learning to see people through God's eyes.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Legalism or Grace

I've mentioned previously that one of my regular devotional resources is Max Lucado's Grace for the Moment, which is a collection of 365 excerpts from his books in the form of a daily devotional guide. I was getting caught up this week after having been gone, and was particularly struck by the comment on March 20...
All the world religions can be placed in one of two camps: legalism or grace. Humankind does it or God does it. Salvation is a wage based on deeds done or salvation is a gift based on Christ's death.

A legalist believes the supreme force behind salvation is you. If you look right, speak right, and belong to the right segment of the right group, you will be saved. The brunt of the responsibility doesn't lie within God; it lies within you.

The result? The outside sparkles. The talk is good and the step is true. But look closely. Listen carefully. Something is missing. What is it? Joy. What's there? Fear. (That you won't do enough) Arrogance. (That you have done enough) Failure. (That you have made a mistake)...

Friday, March 23, 2007

It Was NOT A Traveling Violation

Like most sports fans, there are certain announcers I like, some I tolerate, and some I turn the volume way down on. The guys doing the tournament generally rate higher than tolerable for me, although they do get quite a few things wrong over the course of several games.

The finish of the Georgetown - Vanderbilt game this evening produced one of those announcer moments that just irritate me - getting the rules wrong and then criticizing the officials who applied the rule correctly. I can tolerate the questioning of the officials' judgement, although rarely do I see a replay where even judgement calls look bad. But it is inexcusable for announcers on site or in studio to not know the rule, and then question "how could they make/miss that call?"

The specific play was the game winning shot by Georgetown. The player received the ball, pivoted a couple of times without ever lifting/moving the pivot foot, stepped through 2 players while lifting his pivot foot, released the ball for the shot, and returned his pivot foot to the floor.

Both of the studio announcers went off on the officials for not calling a travel on the play, showing the replay repeatedly, which clearly showed that he did lift his pivot foot and then released the shot prior to returning to the floor, and stating that lifting his pivot foot before the shot should have been called a travel.

Dudes! That is NOT a travelling violation. If you couldn't lift your pivot foot before releasing the ball on the shot you could never shoot a jump shot, a layup, a dunk - you would always have to have at least one foot on the floor when shooting or passing the ball! In fairness, I must point out that the rules state that it is a traveling violation to lift the pivot foot prior to starting a dribble, or to lift the pivot foot and return it to the floor without releasing the ball for a shot or a pass. But these guys were embarrassingly wrong tonight.

Thus endeth the rant.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

I'm Back...

Barbara is at a Nurse Practitioners conference in Orlando. We left last Friday morning to spend a few days at the beach before her conference started, and did not have internet access. Her conference started yesterday, and I came home Tuesday night.

The bad part about being gone is that work doesn't stop while you are away, it just piles up. Yesterday I left the house at 6:15 am and didn't get home until after 9:30 pm and was too tired to blog. So, it has been a week since my last post...


Going into the Sweet 16, all of my Final 4 and Elite 8 teams were still playing. So far tonight, I am 0 for 2, and as I write, Ohio State is getting blown out....WVU however, is rolling through the NIT...

We had an early morning flight last Friday from DFW to Orlando - at least it was scheduled for early in the morning. We left the house at 5 am to get to the airport in plenty of time for our 6:30 flight, which ended up being delayed for over 3 hours. Our plan had been to get to the beach in Bradenton a little after noon, but it was not to be.

We finally got to Orlinedo at about 12:45 pm and stepped off the plane into what looked like a refugee camp. There were so many people waiting at the gate, sitting on the floor or wherever they could find a space, that they had to clear a lane for us to walk through.

It was probably a combination of our delayed flight and the fact that we were arriving on the weekend of Spring Break at one of the world's biggest tourist destinations, but it took another 2 hours to get our luggage, get our rental car, and get on the road towards the beach. At least I hoped we could find the road towards the beach - the car rental place was out of maps.

We eventually found our way, via a busy toll road - again long lines to pay for the privelege of driving on the highway that led towards our destination - to Interstate 4. It just happens that Disney World and Universal Studios both have multiple exits from I4 and we had the opportunity to spend more time with a few hundred of our newest 'friends' as they lined up to get into the resorts.

Eventually, we got past the resorts and headed down the road, and finally got to Bradenton a little before 6. Bradenton Beach is on Anna Maria Island, on the Gulf Coast, and is not a big Spring Break destination. It was a really relaxing long weekend and a great place for a belated anniversary celebration.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Central Dallas Ministries Tour

Central Dallas Ministries began as a modest food pantry nearly 20 years ago. During that time CDM has developed into a multi-faceted agency as it recognized needs and organized to serve the community. Monday, several Skillman members joined a few folks from a couple of other churches for a tour of their programs, followed by discussion over lunch.

Our tour began with the Emergency Food and Resource Center, which has grown into the single largest distributor of food to the poor in Dallas County. They distribute over 20,000 lbs. of food each week, and are staffed mainly be volunteers who are or have been clients. In 2006 they served 48,000 visitors - mostly poor working people whose circumstances created a temporary need for assistance to get through the month. The resource center also is a referral center, helping people access other resources to address their needs or improve their situation.

Next we visited the Legal Action Works (L.A.W.) Center, which has served over 1,800 low-income people since opening in 1999 and closed over 1,200 cases. L.A.W. has four full time attorneys and three legal assistants representing Dallas County residents who cannot afford traditional legal services. L.A.W. charges based on one's ability to pay and does not charge those making less than 150% of the Federal Poverty Level. Using that standard, about 80% of L.A.W.'s work is performed free of charge.

The next stop on our tour was Community Health Services, which includes primary care medical services, dental services, a Class D pharmacy, and community-based care coordination, through the strength of collaborative partnerships with Baylor Health Care System, Inc., Texas Tech School of Pharmacy, Parkland Health and Hospital System, the Dallas County Medical Society and several other community organizations, churches, and non-profits.

Other programs include Diabetes Education; WorkPaths(Employment Training); Nurture, Knowledge and Nutrition(summer lunch program); Children's Education and After School Care; TRAC Foster Care Transition Services; Ransom Technology Learning Center; Community Life Center at Roseland Homes; The Institute for Faith Health Research; Project Access; and the Urban Engagement Book Club. All of these developed in response to specific needs within the community.

Central Dallas Ministries does a marvelous job of ministering to people where they are and where they hurt, but even more impressive to me is the way that they engage the people they serve and foster partnerships with them to serve others. True grass roots evangelism - not geared to getting people in pews, but to transforming lives.

I was recently in a discussion where the statement was made that Central Dallas Ministries does not resemble our fellowship much anymore. Although I understood the comment to be critical of CDM, I think that instead it is an indictment of our fellowship. Perhaps if we were less concerned with preserving church as we know it - holding fast to the harbor during the storm - we would have more of an impact in the world around us.

March Madness

I haven't gotten too excited this year about the tournament; when WVU was left out, a bit of my interest left also. And this is the first year that Taylor is not around to share the experience with. But, this morning at 11:15 - 15 minutes prior to tipoff of the first game - I filled out my bracket with no real conscious consideration of records, conferences, coaches, or other factors. For what it's worth, here is my final four:

Southern Illinois, Ohio State, Georgetown, and Florida, with Florida repeating over Ohio State in the finals.


Happy birthday, Mom. I love you.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Ben Stein's Last Column

George Dishman sent this to me, and I thought it was worth passing on...

Ben Stein's Last Column...For many years Ben Stein has written a biweekly column called "Monday Night At Morton's." (Morton's is a famous chain of Steakhouses known to be frequented by movie stars and famous people from around the globe.) Now, Ben is terminating the column to move on to other things in his life. Reading his final column is worth a few minutes of your time. Ben Stein's Last Column... ============================================
How Can Someone Who Lives in Insane Luxury Be a Star in Today's World?

As I begin to write this, I "slug" it, as we writers say, which means I put a heading on top of the document to identify it. This heading is "eonlineFINAL," and it gives me a shiver to write it. I have been doing this column for so long that I cannot even recall when I started. I loved writing this column so much for so long I came to believe it would never end..

It worked well for a long time, but gradually, my changing as a person and the world's change have overtaken it. On a small scale, Morton's, while better than ever, no longer attracts as many stars as it used to. It still brings in the rich people in droves and definitely some stars. I saw Samuel L. Jackson there a few days ago, and we had a nice visit, and right before that, I saw and had a splendid talk with Warren Beatty in an elevator, in which we agreed that Splendor in the Grass was a super movie. But Morton's is not the star galaxy it once was, though it probably will be again.

Beyond that, a bigger change has happened. I no longer think Hollywood stars are terribly important. They are uniformly pleasant, friendly people, and they treat me better than I deserve to be treated. But a man or woman who makes a huge wage for memorizing lines and reciting them in front of a camera is no longer my idea of a shining star we should all look up to.

How can a man or woman who makes an eight-figure wage and lives in insane luxury really be a star in today's world, if by a "star" we mean someone bright and powerful and attractive as a role model? Real stars are not riding around in the backs of limousines or in Porsches or getting trained in yoga or Pilates and eating only raw fruit while they have Vietnamese girls do their nails.

They can be interesting, nice people, but they are not heroes to me any longer. A real star is the soldier of the 4th Infantry Division who poked his head into a hole on a farm near Tikrit , Iraq . He could have been met by a bomb or a hail of AK-47 bullets. Instead, he faced an abject Saddam Hussein and the gratitude of all of the decent people of the world.

A real star is the U.S. soldier who was sent to disarm a bomb next to a road north of Baghdad. He approached it, and the bomb went off and killed him.

A real star, the kind who haunts my memory night and day, is the U.S. soldier in Baghdad who saw a little girl playing with a piece of unexploded ordnance on a street near where he was guarding a station. He pushed her aside and threw himself on it just as it exploded. He left a family desolate in California and a little girl alive in Baghdad.

The stars who deserve media attention are not the ones who have lavish weddings on TV but the ones who patrol the streets of Mosul even after two of their buddies were murdered and their bodies battered and stripped for the sin of trying to protect Iraqis from terrorists.

We put couples with incomes of $100 million a year on the covers of our magazines. The noncoms and officers who barely scrape by on military pay but stand on guard in Afghanistan and Iraq and on ships and in submarines and near the Arctic Circle are anonymous as they live and die.

I am no longer comfortable being a part of the system that has such poor values, and I do not want to perpetuate those values by pretending that who is eating at Morton's is a big subject.

There are plenty of other stars in the American firmament...the policemen and women who go off on patrol in South Central and have no idea if they will return alive; the orderlies and paramedics who bring in people who have been in terrible accidents and prepare them for surgery; the teachers and nurses who throw their whole spirits into caring for autistic children; the kind men and women who work in hospices and in cancer wards.

Think of each and every fireman who was running up the stairs at the World Trade Center as the towers began to collapse. Now you have my idea of a real hero.

I came to realize that life lived to help others is the only one that matters. This is my highest and best use as a human. I can put it another way. Years ago, I realized I could never be as great an actor as Olivier or as good a comic as Steve Martin...or Martin Mull or Fred Willard--or as good an economist as Samuelson or Friedman or as good a writer as Fitzgerald. Or even remotely close to any of them.

But I could be a devoted father to my son, husband to my wife and, above all, a good son to the parents who had done so much for me. This came to be my main task in life. I did it moderately well with my son, pretty well with my wife and well indeed with my parents (with my sister's help). I cared for and paid attention to them in their declining years. I stayed with my father as he got sick, went into extremis and then into a coma and then entered immortality with my sister and me reading him the Psalms.

This was the only point at which my life touched the lives of the soldiers in Iraq or the firefighters in New York . I came to realize that life lived to help others is the only one that matters and that it is my duty, in return for the lavish life God has devolved upon me, to help others He has placed in my path. This is my highest and best use as a human.

Faith is not believing that God can. It is knowing that God will. By Ben Stein

Monday, March 12, 2007

From Please, God to Please God

There are still a number of phrases incubating in my head from the Zoe Conference. One of these concerns the need to transform my prayers from please, God to please God. With the comma, I am constantly asking for something - please, God, help me with this; please, God, give me that; please, God, please, please, please...Without the comma I am expressing my desire to live according to God's will, not my own. Augustine put it like this - love God, live as you please; meaning that if you truly love God, reflecting that love will be the way you want to live.

Another phrase that resonated with me is that the church is not the dispenser of God. We don't take God out into the world - He is already there. Our job is to go out and join him.

Neither is it our mission to get people to come to church. Our mission is to go and lift up Jesus. "And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men to myself."

Every Christian has a ministry to the body and a mission to the world. Baptism is our ordination to ministry and our commission as missionary.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

What's Right With This Picture?

Larry James' post today is disturbing, no matter what one's thoughts are regarding immigration in the U.S. today. I don't pretend to have the answers to all the questions arising from the various issues related to immigration, but I do recognize injustice when it occurs.

It Is Well - Blessed Be Your Name

Not too long ago, Nathan asked me to give him a list of my favorite songs to work into the worship orders at Skillman. That got me to thinking about how many different songs might be the favorites of different people, and why they might be among their favorites. One result of those thoughts is that we are putting together a bulletin board - Songs of Skillman - where members can post an index card listing 3 - 5 of their favorite songs on one side and the story or reason why they selected what they did on the other. Feel free to post a comment with your own favorites.

I have so many songs that narrowing down to a top 3, top 5, or even a top 10 list would be extremely difficult, and the list would probably change from week to week, but 2 songs would almost assuredly be on my list. While from different eras and somewhat different in musical style, they are very similar in the stories behind them and the thought they express.
Note the parallels in the beginning verse of each...
Blessed be your name in a land that is plentiful,
Where your streams in abundance flow, blessed be your name.
Blessed be your name when I'm found in the desert place,
Though I walk through the wilderness, blessed be your name.

When peace like a river attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

The music to Blessed Be Your Name is very much contemporary, written in 2002; the text and the story prompting it is ancient, coming from Job. Hear these words from the chorus...
You give and take away.
My heart will choose to say,
"Lord, Blessed be your name."

The story behind It Is Well with My Soul, written in the latter part of the 19th century is very similar to that of Job. H. G. Spafford was a wealthy, successful Chicago businessman who lost his home and his business in the great Chicago fire. A few weeks later, his four children died when the ship on which they were crossing the Atlantic sank. Sometime later, he was on a ship to join his wife, who had survived the sinking of the ship that took his children, and as he passed near the spot where the ship had sunk, he penned the words that so many have come to love.

It Is Well With My Soul - Blessed Be the Name of the Lord.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Body Worlds

Yesterday afternoon as Taylor's spring break drew to a close and mine began, we went to see the Body Worlds exhibit at Fair Park. Body Worlds is a touring exhibit of the human body and its various internal systems. It is incredible.

The exhibit consists of several bodies that were donated to science and underwent a process to plasticize the systems that are the focus of each gallery. There were galleries focused on the body's structure - bones, joints, muscles, ligaments, cartilege, etc.; on the circulatory system - the heart, the arteries and blood vessels; the digestive and respiratory systems, the reproductive system, and the brain and nervous system.

I'm not close to doing the exhibit justice with this description, but it vividly reinforces that the human body is an incredibly complex and amazing design. It will be in Dallas through May and is well worth the time and cost to see it.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Navigating the Perfect Storm

Leonard Sweet described the perfect storm facing churches today - the Tsunami of Postmodernity, the Hurricane of Post Christendom, and the Global Warming of Post Scale. He gave five principles for steering through the perfect storm.

1. Lift anchor and launch into the deep. While it seems counterintuitive, in a storm, the most dangerous place for a boat is to be tied to the dock.

2. Steer into the storm. Again, counterintuitive - the natural inclination is to try to outflank or outrun the storm. An example he gave was a comparison of a herd of cattle and a herd of buffalo. When a storm approaches a herd of buffalo will gather tightly together and face directly into the storm, where a herd of cattle will bolt and scatter. Much more damage is done to the cattle than to the buffalo.

3. Get rid of excess cargo. A timeless adage among sailors - remember Jonah? To survive a perfect storm we will not be able to carry excess baggage. In the following breakout session John York wondered if at times we haven't redefined the baggage as the boat. Clinging to the baggage is not the way to face a storm.

4. Lash ourselves to the mast. The mast represents the Master - we can survive any storm if we are lashed tightly to the master and let go of everything else.

5. Enjoy the ride.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

An Overview of Child Well-being in Rich Countries

I interrupt the series of postings on the Zoe Conference to return briefly to the topics of poor children, schools, and testing. Actually, it is not really an interruption so much as an expansion. Jesus' interest in the well-being of children in this world cannot be compartmentalized as 'separate and apart from' the gospel.

Joshua Benton had a column last week in the Dallas Morning News that ties some of my recent thoughts together...

As I type these words, I have an excruciating toothache. And it's made me realize that we blame schools too much for our children's problems.

(Keep reading. That'll make sense eventually.)

Earlier this month, a research arm of UNICEF issued a report dryly titled, "An Overview of Child Well-being in Rich Countries." Its goal was to measure how children in 21 well-off nations – mostly the U.S., plus much of Europe – compared with one another. It took dozens of measures from each of the countries and compiled them into a series of ratings.

The results were pretty miserable for fans of the Stars and Stripes.
Overall, children in the United States finished 20th, beating out only Great Britain. Gather the torches and pitchforks, right? That sort of pathetic showing surely must be the fault of lazy teachers, incompetent principals and administration bureaucrats!
Not quite. Actually, in the one UNICEF rating that schools have some impact on – what the study calls "educational well-being" – America does OK. Not great, mind you, but our 12th-place showing in schooling was easily the best we did in any category.

Our test scores are below average, and we have more dropouts than we should. But according to UNICEF, our schools are earning a solid C-minus. It's the rest of society that's dragging down our grade point average.

How about "material well-being," a measure the richest country in human history should fare well in? We finished 17th. We have more of our kids living in poverty than any other rich country. We're near the bottom in how many books our kids have in their homes.

How about "health and safety"? We all care about protecting our kids, right? Then why do we have the second highest rate of infant mortality in the study, barely edging out Hungary? Why are we second from the bottom in the percentage of our kids who die from accidents or violence? Why does UNICEF rate us dead last out of 21 nations overall?

Maybe you think we'll do better in "family and peer relationships." Sorry – try 20th place. We have more of our kids living in single-parent homes than anywhere else. We're near the bottom in how often kids eat dinner with their parents and in how many of our kids rate their friends as "kind and helpful."

The final category the United States was rated in was "behaviors and risks." (Or, as those Euro-loving UNICEF types spell it, "behaviours.") Again, we finished second to last. Our kids lead the most unhealthy lifestyles, eating more and junkier food. They also smoke more pot and, by far, have the most babies of their own.

I'm sure there are ways to quibble with UNICEF's numbers. (And I'm sure the tinfoil-hat-wearing portion of our readership won't believe anything that comes from the U.N.) But the story line is clear: Our kids are in trouble, and for reasons that have nothing to do with schools and teachers and superintendents. By the time a kid turns 18, she's only spent about one-eighth of her life on a school campus. The rest of the time, she's at home, at the mall, with her friends – places a teacher can't easily reach.

As the Texas Legislature meets in Austin, they're considering a number of changes to the state's school rating system. The assumption behind some of the proposals is that schools need more pressure to perform well. Set higher standards on the TAKS test, the argument goes, and schools will find a way to meet them.

The testing and ratings systems of the past decade have led to student gains and helped in some ways. But I wonder if we're hitting the ceiling for how much good more pressure can do. There have been any number of studies showing that between 70 and 80 percent of a school's academic performance is based solely on the socioeconomic background of its students – whether it's handed poor kids, middle-class kids, or rich kids.

Let's say the quality of a child's parenting takes up another 10 or 15 percent. That doesn't leave much space for schools to maneuver in.

So what does all this have to do with my tooth? (My left maxillary second molar, if you must know.) Because of a poorly done root canal six years ago – finally come home to roost – I've spent much of the last week in various states of agony, shuffling
back and forth to the dentist's office. I tried to work on a few stories I'm writing, but the persistent firebombing in my mouth kept distracting me. Then I remembered reading a study a couple of years ago that found access to dental care was a small but significant factor in how kids did in school. If a family can't afford regular trips to the dentist, there's a good chance their kid will have toothaches. A federal study found that poor children are three times more likely to have an untreated cavity than middle-class children. And a kid with a toothache is going to have more trouble concentrating in class than his pain-free neighbor.

Would universal dental care boost our test scores? Maybe a little, but that's not the point. The point is that there's not that much teachers can do, on any sort of scale, about their students' teeth – or any of the other factors that keep kids from being teen Einsteins.

Blaming schools for problems beyond their control doesn't help. And putting more pressure on schools to solve them won't, either.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Perfect Storm

At the Zoe Leadership Conference Leonard Sweet described what he called a perfect storm facing churches in today's world. A perfect storm occurs with the confluence of two or more major storms. Sweet described the Tsunami of Postmodernity, the Hurricane of Post Christendom, and the Global Warming of Post Scale. Each of these has the potential to significantly impact today's church; together some effect is inevitable.

The postmodern world values community, authenticity, and experience; it is a digital, connected, electronic world; it is a world that views truth as relative.

The post Christendom is one where the traditional view/role of the church in the community is no longer the common view/role. The church is no longer at the center of a community, but has moved to the margins of society.

The post scale world is one that has reached a tipping point, where the next incremental step results in disproportionate change far greater than the previous increments. One example Sweet used was the development of hunting tools: the bow and arrow was an improvement over the club; the gun an improvement over the bow and arrow; they each make hunting incrementally easier and more efficient. The bomb however, destroys the food.

We can recognize and prepare for the approaching storm or we can maintain status quo as though it doesn't exist; either way, the storm is approaching.

27 years ago today, at the Downtown church in Searcy, Dr. Kenneth Davis, Jr. (Uncle Bud for any readers with Harding connections) performed the wedding ceremony that united me with the love of my life. This evening we celebrated by having our kids join us in watching the Mavericks win their 16th straight. Taylor is home for Spring Break this week, and Lauren took a short break from studying, riding the train from Ft. Worth to meet us at the American Airlines Center. How pleasant to be able to share important occasions and simple good times with your kids.

Lest you be concerned that going to a basketball game is not exactly the most romantic of anniversary celebrations, I can share with you that Barbara and I do have a long weekend trip planned overlapping our spring breaks. And the day also included 27 roses. But I can also share with you that just doing the smaller things together is a large part of the joy and depth of a mutually satisfying marriage relationship.

Looking back over these 27 years I am amazed at how I have been blessed by life with Barbara; I can hardly wait to see what the next 27 bring.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Vampire Christians

One phrase that caught my attention at the Zoe Conference was attributed to Dallas Willard - Many Christians today are vampire christians - they want the blood of Jesus, but are not so interested in the lordship of Jesus.

Lanny's Covenant Class devotional the other day expressed the same idea...

Saul's conversion teaches us:
(1) conversion is always the result of divine initiative - God seeks us;
(2) in conversion, there must be a personal encounter with Christ - salvation is not about faith in everlasting life - it is about a personal, intimate faithwalk with the Everlasting One;
(3) conversion involves surrendering to Christ - too many people "decide about" or "commit to join" - yet surrender is the only way to truly know Him. And
(4) conversion means more than a "get out of jail free" pass - many people think that conversion is an individualistic thing - just between God and me. "Isn't it wonderful? God saved me." And although they live the rest of their life in appreciation - they miss out on why God saved them: to bear His image by reconciling fallen man.

We were not saved to go to church and sing "hallelujahs" over our own redemption. Saul understood that God sought him - and saved him - for more than personal reasons. He was not converted to simply savor the experience, but in order to witness to others the saving grace he now understood.

Be an example in spirit. Always cherish a meek, gentle, and quiet spirit-a humble, loving, heavenly, and praying spirit. Such a spirit will almost silence the tongue of slander, or cause its poisoned darts to fall harmless at the feet. Barton W. Stone, Christian Messenger (1843)

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Zoe Conference Highlights

Barbara and I left Thursday evening to go to Lubbuck for the Zoe Leadership and Worship Conferences. Besides being a welcome and refreshing time of worship and fellowship it was a virtual feast of healthy, nutritious insight mixed with the rich dessert of discussion.

Leonard Sweet is one of the most profound thinkers I have encountered; Jeff Walling continues to be a 'master' communicator - both in terms of his ability and in terms of his content. The breakout session topics and leaders were relevant and well prepared.

It was good spending some time with Nathan. And I got to say hello to one of my students from my first year of teaching - Steven Bailey is a worship minister in the Fort Worth area now.

One of the most moving and memorable aspects of the Saturday morning worship time was Jack and Jill Maxwell painting on a mural-sized canvas a depiction of Jacob wrestling with God as the story unfolded. As Jeff Walling told the story, mixing in testimonies, prayer, and singing, the blank canvas behind the stage transformed into outlines of shape, bits of color, and eventually an amazing picture depicting Jacob refusing to let go of his opponent - God. What an image that was...

More to come...