Monthly Archives: February 2005

Altar Call Encounters

I grew up seeing God reach down into the pews during services, grab hold of someone, and propel them to the altar. That’s basically what happens during altar calls. Maybe nothing in the sermon grabbed me, but come time for the altar call, I would discover that God was, indeed, at work. Someone would get out of a pew and walk to the altar, sometimes with tears. Every once in a while, I made the trek for a need in my own life.

I miss that. Churches shy away from altar calls nowadays, because it’s not considered visitor-friendly or culturally-sensitive or whatever. Maybe God is still moving, but I don’t see it. And I miss that. As I’ve already said.

Yesterday, we had an altar call–not for salvation, but for other needs. Six people came up while the worship team played “Breathe.” Two young women, probably in their late 30s, knelt down just in front of where I was playing the keyboard. Both were in tears. One elder fellow in the church talked and prayed with one of the ladies, but nobody came to pray with the other one. So I left the keyboard and knelt down in front of her. I didn’t know her very well, but she poured out some deep hurts, relationship things. And I prayed with her, feeling totally inadequate to provide any real counsel. Relationships can be so complicated. They defy simple answers, so I didn’t try to provide any. My prayer just affirmed her and asked for guidance and wisdom for her.

The other lady, and the man counseling her, finished up. But I knelt down with her quickly, asking if she was okay. This was someone I didn’t know at all. She poured out her story quickly. Another women with deep hurts. More relationship things. Issues beyond her control.

I had grown up seeing people like this come to the altar, and seeing them kneel with the pastor or a mature Christian to talk and pray. Now I got a good glimpse of what some of those altar-call needs were all about.

I’ve been thinking about those two ladies all day, and the depth of their pain. Can’t get them off my mind.

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Al Gore Speaks

In the 1980s, I interviewed Paul Rees, the evangelical leader who has since passed on. One of my questions was simply, “What magazines do you read.” He mentioned several which I expected, and added, “The Christian Century.” That surprised me, it being a mainstream Protestant publication. He noted my surprise, and said, “I don’t agree with much of what they say, but I want to know what they’re saying.”

That’s been my attitude toward many things. And it’s why I read a lengthy profile of Al Gore in the New Yorker a few months ago. I would never vote for the guy for President, but he’s a good thinker (with a different view of the world than me, and therefore different conclusions) and a good writer. The profile was excellent, one of the best articles I’ve read during the past year. It focused on showing what Gore’s life is like now after his disappointment in the 2001 election.

I was weeding out old magazines this morning, and came across that article. I reread some parts I had highlighted. I thought I’d print some of what Gore had to say about George Bush, because I found it quite fascinating. Gore said:

“The real distinction of this Presidency is that, at its core, he is a very weak man. He projects himself as incredibly strong, but behind closed doors he is incapable of saying no to his biggest financial supporters and his coalition in the Oval Office. He’s been shockingly malleable to Cheney and Rumsfield and Wolfowitz…. He was rolled in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. He was too weak to resist it.

“I’m not of the school that questions his intelligence. There are different kinds of intelligence, and it’s arrogant for a person with one kind of intelligence to question someone with another kind. He certainly is a master at some things, and he has a following. He seeks strength in simplicity. But, in today’s world, that’s often a problem. I don’t think that he’s weak intellectually. I think that he is incurious.

“I think his weakness is a moral weakness. I think he is a bully, and like all bullies, he’s a coward when confronted with a force that he’s fearful of. His reactions to the extravagant and unbelievably selfish wish lists of the wealthy interest groups that put him in the White House is obsequious. The degree of obsequiousness that is involved in saying ‚Äòyes, yes, yes, yes yes’ to whatever these people want, no matter the damage and harm done to the nation as a whole‚Äîthat can only come from genuine moral cowardice. I don’t see any other explanation for it.”

I’m not printing this because I agree with it. But I do find it interesting.

I’m also conscious of the fact that in my circles–working for a conservative evangelical denomination that skews very heavily toward the Republican Party–printing anything negative about George Bush is almost heresy. I know way to many people who give Bush a pass on just about anything he does. That frightens me. Though I voted for Bush twice, without regrets, and will admit that he had some shining moments after 9/11, I’m not a big fan and I don’t think history will treat him very well. But that’s something I can tackle later, if I dare.

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Musings on Sunbeams

Last Thursday at music practice, we did Todd Agnew’s “Grace Like Rain.” We then played it on Sunday as the offertory, just to introduce it to the congregation. It’s a great song, and we’ll be making it part of our regular reportoire.

I struggled to find the right sound to use on the keyboard. For kicks, I finally tried a French Accordion sound from my QSR sound module. I’ve used it on “Shout to the North” and a few other songs, but it’s not something I use much. Just doesn’t fit a band’s sound. But in this case, it worked. Nothing in Agnew’s recording even hints at an accordion, but we liked the sound. It gave the song an Anchor twist.

Our backup drummer, who graduated from high school last May, was there. He wasn’t playing that week, but was at practice just to hang around. He got a kick out of the French Accordion sound. I told him it reminded me of Nirvana’s “Jesus Don’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” song from the MTV Unplugged album. (The bass player also plays accordion. Who knew?) First of all, he was impressed that an Old Guy knew anything about Nirvana. Then we wracked our brains trying to remember how the accordion part went. It wouldn’t come to us.

When I got home, I called up the song on my iTunes, and then hacked out the accordion part on the piano. It was quite easy. Maybe someday I’ll play that part as the intro to some other worship song. We’ve done the Doobie Brothers “China Grove” opening to the Maranatha version of “Rock of Ages,” and the “Smoke on the Water” opening to lead into “The Name of the Lord.” That’s always fun. We’re trying to figure out how to use the Free Bird intro–the guitarists have the part down, and have messed around with using it with “Power of Your Love,” but it’s still in the experimental stage. I’m sure if I did a Nirvana intro to a worship song, it would freak out our college students.

Anyway, all of this prompted me to wonder more about the lyrics. The lyrics were actually written by The Vaselines, a group I’m not familiar with. The writer obviously knew the song “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam,” which indicates he had some kind of church background of the Bible-believing variety. The song itself speaks of some kind of inner spiritual battle which was definitely headed in the wrong direction. There is what appears to be an allusion to dying to self, and in singing it, Kurt Cobain is basically saying he’s not interested in doing that.

Anyway, here are the lyrics:

Jesus don’t want me for a sunbeam
Sunbeams are never made like me

Don’t expect me to cry,
For all the reasons you had to die
Don’t ever ask your love of me

Don’t expect me to cry
Don’t expect me to lie
Don’t expect me to die for me

I find all of this fascinating. Why did Cobain choose to perform this song? What resonated with him? Was there some kind of spiritual battle being waged–and lost–in Kurt Cobain? The fact that he committed suicide not all that long after the Unplugged concert speaks of something happening internally.

Anyway, just some musings on a guy I’ve come to appreciate as a truly ground-breaking musical artist who, on the inside, most definitely didn’t have things together.

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The Web — Where Revival Begins?

I was on the Christianity Today website and noticed a little ad about a tool for creating websites for churches. The text said: “Church revival? It begins with your website!”

Isn’t that precious?

I could go on at length being sarcastic about “Is that what our denomination needs–better websites?”, and comments about the inadequacy of prayer, vision, leadership, etc. All to poke fun at this ad. But I think the joke is clear. No need for me to elaborate.

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Searching, Grasping, Leaping

My denomination’s National Board met last Monday and Tuesday, and they were in the mood to do something drastic. I must commend them for leaping to some significant changes. I’m skeptical, but then, I’m still in the frame of mind that any “solution” we devise will be a very distant second-best to the humongous opportunities and synergies which we would have enjoyed by combining into the Missionary Church. But that’s not gonna happen, so I need to get over it. No sense continuing to wallow in sour grapes.

So, what is the United Brethren Church gonna do?

The initiative to join the Missionary Church emerged from a full-day long-range planning session by a group of a dozen thoughtful leaders. Last summer, I was privileged to eavesdrop on a two-day Missionary Church denominational planning meeting with about 50 people from across the country. I was impressed with the thoughtful, thorough way they approached things.

I wasn’t impressed with how we did it. I would have preferred that we start by determining such things as purpose, who we want to be, what we want to live and die for, what we want to excel at. Then structure around that. We just talked about those things, a scattershot approach, without settling on anything. Then we jumped right to structure. The first motion, the one that got the ball rolling, was to do away with the annual conference structure we’ve had for about 200 years. Whatever structure we ended up with, it would start with that building block. Like saying, “Let’s design a new car, but no matter what else it includes, it must have a V-6 engine.” My goodness that’s a stupid analogy, but my brain’s analogy-coming-up-with engine isn’t working real well right now.

Anyway, we’ll do away with conferences, group all 250 churches across the country into “cluster groups” of 5-7 churches, and let the bishop appoint all of the cluster group leaders. Interaction, accountability, pastoral development‚Äîmost things will occur within the cluster group context. Are we going to be a top-down organization, or a grassroots organization? We heard two proposals early in the meeting, and they were at odds on that point. But from the looks of it, we’re going to be top-down, which means we need to make sure we have the leadership that can make this radically-different structure work, and which can instill in our ministerial ranks the mindset needed to make it click. No matter how you look at it, a huge amount of leadership energy over the next 6-10 years will go into getting this structure in place and working out the bugs. It won’t be easy.

“Okay, Steve, rather than just gripe, give us an alternative.” That’s fair. But I’m sorry, I don’t have one. This may, indeed, be the best option out there. I’m cynical about how we got there, just as some people were disturbed with the process which led to the recommendation to join the Missionary Church. But I always say that process is an easy target; if you don’t like something, you can always find fault with the process–it’s not something that requires significant brainpower. Regardless of the process, if a solution is the best solution, then admit it. All things considered, I may need to do that in this case.

That’s all I’m gonna say for now. It’s enough.

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16 Years

Last night, Pam and I celebrated the 16th year of our engagement. There’s nothing special about “16,” of course, except that it’s one more than 15. I remember when Mary Miller, the wife of my previous pastor, died very unexpectedly in 1989. Not long after I proposed to Pam. Mary and Denny had been married for 15 years. I thought that was such an incredibly long time.

But now, I’ve been married for longer than that, and Denny has been remarried (to Karin) longer than he was married to Mary.

In December, my brother Stu celebrated his 25th year with Joyce. This summer, my parents celebrate their 50th.

I proposed to Pam on the day after Valentines Day, because I refused to be traditional or predictable or clicheish. I was ready on Valentines Day, but intentionally waited until that day had passed.

Last night Pam and I went to our favorite restaurant, Red River Steakhouse, then came home and watched the previous night’s episode of “24,” our favorite show. I think only one person was killed on screen, which may be a record for that show. Of course, a nuclear reactor is in melt-down, with many people destined to die horribly of radiation poisoning, but that’s all off-screen. In the video age, if it doesn’t happen on screen, it doesn’t happen.

Alas, I have drifted morbidly away from the romantic theme of this post. Fortunately, Pam enjoys the mayhem as much as I do. Just one of those things that keep us together, I suppose.

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What Do We Really Really Care About?

Back in early December, a friend and I discussed the question, “What does the United Brethren Church really care about?” This was after we learned that the constituency had definitely voted down the idea of combining our denomination into the Missionary Church. We felt that as a denomination, we needed to decide what it was we really really really cared about. What it was we would emphasize, put our energy behind.

We settled on a couple of things that we do, indeed, care about. We treasure our focus on biblical absolutes, while remaining open on theological and behavioral practices on which the Bible doesn’t clearly take a stand. As our documents say, “The church’s historic position has been to stand firm on biblical absolutes, allow freedom where the Bible allows freedom, and maintain unity when disagreements arise.” I’m a huge supporter of that statement. It very much defines who I am. In the debate over joining the Missionary Church, this principle was regularly emphasized (with some ridiculous insinuations that the Missionary Church is legalistic). But is that statement enough identity to justify our existance?

We’re also proud of our heritage. We haven’t done anything particularly noteworthy since 1889, when we split off from the main body, but our heritage prior to that point is pretty impressive. That, too, is something we care about. But is that enough?

I’ve been pondering this further the past few weeks, as I’ve been redesigning the denominational website. It’s due for an upgrade. In designing the homepage, I dearly wanted a tagline which would sum up the essense of who we are as United Brethren in Christ. “A church committed to….” But we have no such statement, nothing which says, “This is what we care about.” The Missionary Church has a great statement, which is prominent on their website: “An evangelical denomination committed to church planting and world missions.” Their actions prove that that’s more than just a statement. They truly care about church planting and world missions, and excel in carrying out those agendas.

We believe in church planting and missions; we know they are important and we make efforts. But I can’t say those are things we deeply care about, because you just can’t find the evidence. Sure, there are individuals and whole churches that can correctly claim to care deeply about church planting and/or missions. But we don’t as a denomination. And I can’t point to anything else. Evangelism? Growing healthy churches? Meaningful worship? More things we merely think are important–not things that in any way define us.

So, I resigned myself to designing the site without any catch-phrase or slogan.

Next Monday and Tuesday, our National Board will hold a special meeting to begin addressing the question, “Where do we go from here?” To answer that question, we need to decide, “What do we really really really care about?” Not, “What are we interested in or believe is important?”, but, “What do we want to be known for? What do we want to excel at? And what are we willing to put our sustained attention behind?”

I’m anxious to see how the delegates tackle such questions.

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Max is Back. For How Long?

Just got back from playing ping pong. Max, our 82-year-old leader, was in the hospital for three weeks. He has a tumor, his kidneys got infected and nearly shut down, things don’t look good. But he was playing, and could still whip me. We played for a while before he lifted up his parka and showed me the colostomy bag. Hmmm. I felt guilty hitting balls past him, because it was painful watching him slowly amble to retrieve balls. But at the table, his reflexes are plenty good. “I’m still as good as anyone in Fort Wayne, any age,” he told me.

I’m not sure of that. I’ve been going to a well-developed table tennis club on the other side of town. Lots of really good players there. There are a few that I think could beat Max–not in his prime, but now. Which shouldn’t seem like such a big deal–young guys ganging up on an 82-year-old with cancer and a colostomy bag. But there are some.

After the others left, I hung around to talk to Max. It’s the first time I’ve seen him since before he entered the hospital. He said he hasn’t been in the hospital since World War 2. Pretty fortunate. Now a bunch of things are hitting all at once. I sense that he’s lonely. I know he has at least one son in town, but I don’t know if he’s close to anyone. He just seems alone. If he didn’t have an athletic outlet, I get the impression he would just shrivel up and be gone. I asked him if his hospital stay went well, if they accomplished what they wanted to accomplish. He just smiled and said, “Oh no. This thing isn’t going away.”

How do you live with that?

On the way home, I pondered on whether I should have had prayer with him. Just say a little prayer on his behalf, him and me, the only ones left in the church. That’s what a minister would do. It doesn’t really fit me–it’s not something I would normally do, just have spontaneous prayer with someone who needs it. But maybe I should. Whether or not it “fits” me is irrelevant.

Maybe next week. He needs to feel less alone. I think the fact that I, at last, hung around and inquired–with genuine concern–about his condition at least counted for something in his mind. Probably most people don ‘t know what to say, figuring his days are numbered. And they are. But he needs people to come alongside him. I’ll give it a try.

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Super Bowl Recap

So New England won. I guess it was an exciting game, for people who care about either the Patriots or Eagles, but I’m not in either of those categories. I watched dispassionately, not caring who one.

I did, however, care about the commercials. As always. Not a great year for commercials either, for that matter, but there were still some good ones. I liked the beer commercial, where the pilot jumps out of the plane. And the mistaken robbery and cat-murder ads (by Ameriquest). But my favorite was the one involving US troops returning from Iraq, and being applauded as they go through the airport. That was a truly moving ad. I heard today that that is the only time the ad will air; Annheuser Busch won’t be airing it again. Kind of like Apple’s famous “1984” ad, which also aired only once (though I saw it several times in a Master’s course on advertising at Ball State; we spent considerable time studying that ad).

Then there was Paul McCartney. It was simply a fun half-time show. Those old Beatles tunes really hold up well. I hoped he would end with “Freedom,” but I suspect he didn’t want to appear to be endorsing US and Brit military action in Iraq. Maybe. But that’s okay. I loved the songs he did.

So much for today’s deep spiritual insights.

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When Songs Retire

Our worship band practices on Thursday nights. This week, though, we devoted the time to hearing ideas for new songs. I’m of the opinion that we’re in a golden time of songwriting. Lots of great stuff is being written, at least in terms of worship music. When Anchor started in 1998, we were fully into the Maranatha stuff, a carry-over from our previous church. Then we discovered the Passion movement and fell in love with those great new songs, like “We Fall Down,” “Once Again,” “You are My King,” “We Wanna See Jesus Lifted High,” and so many others. We still do many of them. The Passion music fits our style–live, guitar-driven, as opposed to the studio-composed and brass-section-enhanced stuff from Maranatha and elsewhere.

Wonderful new music continues arriving from various directions, including from several members of our own worship team, who have been writing superb stuff for the past couple of years. I’m a professional writer, but I can’t get the hang of writing music. But our two guitarists and worship leader have “it.” Our previous worship leader wrote a song called “Great Faith” which we still do; people have asked us, “Who performs that song? I really like it.”

Our repertoire of songs has grown very large, and my master notebook–the biggest notebook I could find, a black monster–is beyond full. So in preparation for Thursday, I not only brought several new songs to the group. I also compiled a list of 25 songs I thought we should retire. Maybe we just don’t do them much anymore. Maybe they no longer fit our style. Or maybe I just don’t, personally, like them. Anyway, they approved the whole list. Rather enthusiastically, in fact. And now I can remove them from my notebook.

My list included these songs: “Above All,” “Almighty,” ” “Awesome God,” “Beyond Belief,” “The Cross has said it all,” “God is the strength of my heart,” “Happy Song,” ” I will sing of the mercies of the Lord,” ” Lord Reign in Me,” “Prepare the Way,” “There’s a Place,” “”You are the fire,” and various others. Including six songs with a Jewish beat that, only a few years ago, were fun to do, but which no longer fit our style. Songs like “I will celebrate,” “Jehovah Jireh,” and “The God of Israel is Mighty.”

Lots of still-good songs there. But we’d rather move on to new stuff.

It makes me think of all the songs from previous eras of my life that have been “retired,” so to speak. That I no longer hear in ANY context. In junior high, I thought “He’s Everything to Me” was just the coolest song ever. I think we could pull it out and do it, and it would still work well. But we won’t. That song is history. In high school, I had a book–just cord charts–of a whole bunch of Ralph Carmichael songs. I played those all the time. Can’t even remember the titles off-hand, now, but we used to sing many of them in our youth group.

Then there’s “Pass It On,” kind of a legendary song. I wonder if it could be revived? You really need to sing it around a campfire, I guess. That’s the perfect environment for it. “Soon and Very Soon,” “Greater is He that is In Me, “Because He lives”–those are a few others from my earlier eras.

Of course, we pretty much retired our whole hymnal. We still do hymns occasionally, but not very often. We should probably do them more. But frankly, the world has moved on. Yes, they are good songs. But I’m sure those hymns are contemporaries of lots of other great songs that never got put in the hymnal, and therefore faded into oblivion. Just because a song got put in a hymnal doesn’t make it extra spiritual or enduring.

As for new songs: we compiled a list of about 20. Good songs. I contributed two Newsboys titles: “Presence,” and “It is You.” I love the Newsboys. We practiced four new songs that night, just to give them a try. “Presence” and “It is You” were two of them, since I had developed cord charts for them. Then we did “Grace Like Rain” (Todd Agnew?) and one other song whose title escapes me right now. I played it by ear. It was fairly easy, and fun to do. We’ll work those four songs in over the next couple of months, I imagine.

The world moves on. Songs get left behind. Such is life.

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