The Willow Creek / Christmas Non-Issue

This hubbub over Willow Creek not holding a service on Sunday is really silly. It comes from people who don’t have a clue what Willow Creek does.

A couple of years ago, 20 of us from my church attended the Prevailing Church Conference at Willow. It was an incredible event, and we came back charged up. But I was also impressed with the persistent passion for lost souls that is so clearly evident at Willow. Most churches of Willow’s status would have long ago institutionalized themselves into the status quo with a self-congratulatory pat on the back for becoming so well-known. But Willow’s eyes remain firmly fixed on nonChristians. It’s an amazing example for the rest of us. The big believers’ services at Willow are held during the week (and those are extremely impressive). When Christmas falls on a Wednesday or Thursday, and they have to decide whether or not to cancel one of those services–now we’re talking apples to apples. Sunday is targeted at unbelievers.

Some churches in Fort Wayne have chosen to not hold Sunday services. Most are holding a Saturday nite service. My church always does a Christmas Eve service, but this year we opted for just a Sunday morning service (canceling our early service, and just coming at 10:30 for a 45-minute service). So I guess we’re compromising to an extent. It just didn’t make sense to hold a Christmas Eve service, then return within 12 hours for another service.

Anyways, it’s a non-issue to me. Just thought I’d weigh in. I know you were all waiting to get my opinion on this. So there.

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The Shrine for Pampered Americans

Pam and I just got back from Glenbrook Mall. I hadn’t been there since last Christmas, and I probably won’t return for another year. Not that I dislike shopping. I actually enjoy shopping. Pretty much. But it’s just too crowded up there at Glenbrook. Crowds didn’t used to bother me. But I’m getting old, and I’m convinced that crowd-aversion is one of the symptoms.

One of the booths in the middle of the walking area had little furry cats and dogs, curled up as cute as could be. And BREATHING. That’s right. As they lay their fake-sleeping, you could see their lung area contracting gently, just like a sleeping cat or dog.

There are many signs of an overly-pampered, self-indulgent society with too much disposable income to dispose for the sake of Persons Who Have Everything. This is yet another such sign.

We were also looking for gifts for kids in our church’s neighborhood, kids who may have very little and may plod through an uneventful Christmas. Someone at Anchor put together a list with a whole bunch of kids, along with things they would like for Christmas. Pam agreed to take one particular kid (who we don’t know), and other church people are doing the same for similarly disadvantaged kids.

Glenbrook doesn’t yield much for people with real needs. This is where the pampered go. And I’m glad I don’t enjoy it anymore.

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Trends in Spiritual Formation

Some years ago, I heard Keith Drury speak. It was at a singles group meeting in Marion, Ind., and I’ve been married since 1989, so this goes back a ways. But I absolutely loved hearing the guy speak. Over the years, I’ve come across articles by him, and he always has insightful stuff to share.

I recently stumbled upon Keith’s website, and a wonderful piece called “15 Current Trends in Spiritual Formation.” Two of the trends dealt with the internet. I quote:

The Internet Spirituality Trend. With so many innovatively produced web-sites out there, many Christians are now going online for their primary spiritual formation journey. Many of these are very individualistic efforts with a few exceptions that actually attempt to “create community” online. Some web-sites are even advertising themselves as more than just supplemental to church. One Christian web-site here in West Michigan is advertising on the radio that they provide people with information and learning from the Bible that they just can’t get at Church. For examples: Google the word “spiritual growth online.
The Spiritual Walk Blog Trend. In a similar vein to the internet spiritual formation trend, many people are using their online web-logs or “blogs” as a personal spiritual formation instrument. There are two primary ways this is happening: 1) some treat their blog as a public form of spiritual journaling. These personalized accounts turn what has been a long held private discipline into a very public confession. Also, some use their blog to 2) ask deeper spiritual questions and invite others to comment on them, thereby creating a spiritual growth community with one person submitting the “articles” and moderating the discussion. Blogs are such a recent phenomenon that there is a lot of uncharted territory here. Community blogs have taken off in just the last 6 months, for instance, where multiple people join together to create a topical blog on spiritual growth issues.”

You can read the whole piece here.

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Rockin’ with the Pops

I guess I’m not an orchestra fan. This afternoon, as part of the United Brethren Headquarters Christmas party, I attended the annual performance of the “Holiday Pops” at Huntington University. This was done by the Fort Wayne Philharmonic. They were good, if you like that kind of music, which lots of people do. But give me a lead guitar with some distortion, a bass, a drummer, and someone who can half-way sing, and I’m happier.

I’m not criticizing this type of music. It’s just not my thing. I’m a rock & roll guy. I like blues. I like most of country. I even enjoy the Gaither reunion specials which I stumble across on TV and which magnetically capture my interest for some reason known but to God. I don’t like rap (with a few songs exception, usually by Eminem), and I don’t care for jazz, which always surprises people, since I’m a piano player. I like some New Age music, which gets into orchestration, though I’m usually attracted by the use of piano. I don’t like punk, I’m indifferent toward disco. Don’t even think about taking me to a classical concert.

There are occasions when I like orchestra music. Like in Sheryl Crow’s version of “Sweet Child of Mine,” where they use an orchestra in place of Slash’s superb guitar solo–a compliment to Slash, a way of saying “it takes a whole orchestra to replace you.” I love the strings in Verve Pipe’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” and can’t imagine the song without it. Coolio’s “Gangster Paradise” is superb with the strings in the background. But in both cases, the orchestration is a complement to more traditional rock.

It’s not that I disliked the Holiday Pops. I just wasn’t all that crazy about it (plus, I had to miss the Colts vs. Jacksonville game). Give me the MercyMe Christmas album (which I highly recommend, especially their incredible version of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”). Or the Lynyrd Skynyrd Christmas album (which has the prettiest version of Greensleeves I’ve heard–Skynyrd’s keyboard player is outstanding). Or my favorite, the Tractors Christmas album (with “Santa Claus is coming in a Boogie Woogie Choo-choo Train”). That’s my style. Call me uncultured, if you want. I can live with it.

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The Campfire Service

Campfire Service
Yesterday, we held our church services around a campfire. Inside. We built the campfire on the sanctuary floor. It was cool. Or warm. Intimate, at any rate.

Pastor Tim used the campfire theme with his sermon from Romans, drawing out themes regarding intimate fellowship and being open with each other. Chris, our worship leader, used a yellow light and one of our two fog machines, surrounding them with real logs, to create a realistic looking campfire. We rearranged the chairs in the sanctuary to face the middle–three rows on each side, curved inward. Every so often, a little bit of fog would squirt up, like smoke. My fear was that it would cause people to bolt for the door, thinking the place was going up in flames, but nothing of the sort happened.

The attendance was down from our usual 140-some, thanks to snow the night before. But that just made it a little bit more intimate. I found a Quicktime video clip of a flame, which looped continuously behind Pastor Tim as he preached. Another nice little touch.

Music Team
The music team went unplugged. The three guitarists used their acoustic guitars, and sat on stools. I gave the keyboard a week off, opting for egg shakers and a tambourine instead. Larry, our drummer, sat on a white plastic bucket and drummed on two other buckets. For the closing number, the three guitarists sat crosslegged on the floor around the campfire as they played.

After the service, people came up around the campfire to see how it worked. In my home group that night, people talked about it more. It was a very effective service.

Communion was also part of the service. And here’s where we did something that I thought some people might have trouble with. We set up tables around the periphery where people could go for the elements. There was grapejuice and crackers for people who preferred that. But people could also take communion with hot chocolate and pumpkin bread, if they desired. I didn’t hear anyone question that idea. Since we’re a fairly new church (7 years), there’s a lot of stuff we can get away with that you wouldn’t want to even think about in an established church.

I initially thought the hot chocolate and pumpkin bread was a bad idea, a bit too risky. But as we talked about it at music practice, I realized that these are just symbols. Already, by using grapejuice and (sometimes) pieces of crackers, we’re using food items that Jesus didn’t use. These are just symbols. And since I don’t want to discourage my pastor from thinking out of the box, I gladly signed off on the idea (not that I needed to).

I don’t know how the hot chocolate would have gone down. The music team took communion early that morning as part of our practice, and we used grapejuice and crackers. I played the piano throughout the communion time, so I didn’t get a chance to partake of this experiment. I would like to have given it a try.

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Learning Scripture in Code

Pam’s radio goes off at 6 am every morning, and we lay in bed listening to WBCL, one of the local Christian radio stations. Today, the morning DJs invited people to call in and tell about their favorite teacher, or a teacher who had been meaningful to them. Something like that. I was only half awake.

But it got me thinking about teachers I’ve had. There was Mrs. Yeager, 4th grade, who let me write funny stories and read them to the class; I credit her with creating my interest in writing (which blossomed into a career). Mrs. Runo and Mrs. Harbour, in high school, further fueled that interest by letting me do an independent study; I went to the library for one period during the day, wrote stories, and submitted the stories to them for critiquing when they were finished. That was important.

But the best teacher I ever had was in Sunday school, 6th grade, in Harrisburg, Pa. Dick Zimmerman. He designed a big posterboard type thing with a huge grid, like a spreadsheet. There was a line for each kid in the class, and little boxes where he would put stars for such things as attendance, bringing your Bible, bringing friends, and for memorizing a host of different Scripture verses and passages. That doesn’t sound anything special, does it?

But here’s the thing: it was all in CODE. Our names, the verses, everything. And he gave each of us a “code book” to decipher what was on the chart. It was SO cool. Other people, adults, could walk into the class and look at this big board, admire it all they want, but they wouldn’t understand it. Only us kids, with our code books, had the answers.

I memorized everything he offered in that book and filled my line up with numerous stars. It motivated me like crazy. I’m sure many of the verses which remain fresh in my mind were first memorized in Mr. Zimmerman’s class. But another lasting legacy of Mr. Zimmerman is his example–a guy who expended a great deal of creativity and time into motivating a bunch of 6th graders. When it comes to teaching Sunday school, Dick Zimmerman is my gold standard. Always has been.

Years later–in fact, my first year out of college–I was asked to teach a group of 4th to 6th graders on Wednesday nights. I duplicated the whole thing–the board, the code books. The kids seemed to enjoy it. But not as much as I did with Mr. Zimmerman.

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Random Thanksgiving Musings

We planned to spend Thanksgiving at my parents’ place just south of South Bend, about two hours away from Fort Wayne. That’s where we go every Thanksgiving. But the weather forcast was pretty bad this year, with up to a foot of snow predicted, much of it coming on Thanksgiving day itself. I called Mom on Wednesday night and warned her that we might just stay home, which is what she suggested before I even got out my warning. Then I called again on Thanksgiving morning. The wind was blowing real strong. There was some minor snow action, but not much. However, the forcasts continued being ominous. Mom said, “If I were you, I would hunker down with a blanket and stay warm.” So that’s what we did.

Now I’m sitting beside the patio door, watching Jordi as he stalks mice out on the hill in back of our property. I don’t see a bit of snow. Thanksgiving turned out to be a blustery day, but with practically no snow accumulation. Same Friday, yesterday, which turned out to be a very nice day with the absence of Thursday’s high wind.

So we missed Mom’s noodles this year. The first in many years. She used to do a turkey until a few years ago, but our main interest has been her homemade noodles, and I think that’s all she was fixing this year (as far as main course). I mourn missing the noodles. And her homemade rolls. And the fellowship with my parents, who could be around for many years yet…or not. Like the weather, you can’t predict some things.

I used the days wisely, making enormous headway on a major writing project. It was great fun, very satisfying. I’ll finish it up today, and then print everything out for Pam to read. She’ll like it. I know.

Jordi is being good, staying right out on the boundary line. Two lines, in fact, since he’s perched at the southwest corner of our lot, like there’s a big star there. Of course, he’s looking across the boundary, wanting what is on the other side, and he’ll eventually meander over. He’s got a big yard to enjoy, but instead, he sits on the edge, gazing over, wanting what is forbidden. He’s a guy, after all. Curses upon us!

Okay, Pam’s getting up now. My battery is down to 27%, and anytime now, I’ll need to go fetch Jordi as he wanders into the next yard. I’ve said nothing here that would be of particular interest to visiting readers, and for that, I apologize. On the other hand, you probably have leftover turkey to snack on, while Pam and I have nothing but the usual frozen stuff to get us through the day. So while I’ve given you nothing worth nibbling on, you’ll be fine.

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The Needy and the Unneedy

A new couple have been checking out our church. And other churches. They recently moved from Texas, where they were involved in a dynamic church. They’ve been very deliberate about selecting a new church. They’re the type of people who, once they decide on a church, will probably throw themselves into it. There are lots of really good churches here in Fort Wayne, which is sometimes called “The City of Churches.” I’m sure they’ve attended some churches, during their search, that do some awesome things (because of their larger size and resources) that Anchor can’t touch. But they’ve been drawn to Anchor.

Last week, they were back in Texas dealing with a death in the family. But they sent an email back to Pastor Tim, giving him an update. And at the end, they tacked on, “Thanks for your open arms during this time, and I want you to know, that we’re blessed to have found Anchor!”

My goodness, that’s good to hear!

Starting a new church is difficult. Some of us have been working very hard since October 1998, seven years ago, when Anchor began. And lots of good things have happened. But some of us are getting a bit tired, too. So it’s nice when God sends reinforcements, which is how I view people like this new couple.

There have been others. The Herrolds and Benders and Bards came in 2004, and they’ve been wonderful workers. Much needed. If they attended a larger church, they would probably be under-used. But being “under-used” is not an issue at Anchor. If you’re willing to work, we have ways to use you.

The problem is that we have more “needy” people than we have strong, stable workers. That’s the type of neighborhood we live in. It’s a challenge figuring out how to help some of these people, especially considering some of the difficult family situations we encounter. I don’t think we’re doing all that great a job. I don’t think any of us feel we’re doing enough. And yet, we’re working hard. We really are. And more importantly: we care. After seven years, we still care deeply.

Anyway, we can always use new couples whose main interest is ministering to other people’s needs, rather than finding a place that will minister to their own needs. Come to Anchor. We’ll put you to work, and it’ll be invigorating.

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Of Lost Cats and Men

Jordi in the GrassWe have a screened patio in the back of our house, and Jordi spends a lot of time there. But what he really likes is to go clear outside into our unfenced yard. That’s what he lives for. And when it’s a nice day and I’m home, he’ll cry and cry and cry at me until he wears me down, and I take him out.

I can’t just let him out by himself, because he’ll wander off. I have to watch him. And even that doesn’t always work.

Like today. I was standing out on the porch reading the latest BusinessWeek, shivering for the sake of my little golden boy. He was out on the ridge at the back of our lot, looking for mice, his favorite pastime. He wandered a bit behind the neighbor’s property, in a little thicket area, but I was watching. Then, suddenly, as I looked up from my magazine (how long had I been reading that particular article?), he wasn’t there. No problem. He was probably in the little dip behind the ridge. I went out to make sure that’s where he was. And he wasn’t there.

Hmmm. I roamed all around the area, looking. No luck. Pam saw me searching. “Did you lose Jordi again?” she asked. Because this wasn’t the first time. “I did, and I was even keeping a close eye on him.” Pam got her coat and joined the search.

It’s awful when this happens. The thought of not finding Jordi creeps into my mind, and I can’t imagine that. We’ve done this search-and-locate thing many times, because he can take off in a blink, lured by a mouse or rabbit, or maybe just because he was zoning out and he wandered along and we weren’t paying close enough attention. But it hadn’t happened in a while. And after 15 minutes of looking, I was getting pretty worried. What if Jordi was gone for good?

Well, of course I prayed. “Lord, help us find Jordi.” I’ve prayed far more about finding Jordi than I have for the salvation of my neighbors or relatives. And Jordi’s eternity is no doubt predetermined–he ain’t goin’ anywhere. At least, I’m not one of those people who think our pets will be in heaven. If I had to live with all of the pets I’ve had during my lifetime, that would be one crowded heavenly mansion. But still, I pray more for Jordi’s whereabouts than I do for my neighbors’ eternal whereabouts. Perhaps that’s normal for us devout pet owners sans kids.

I could say that Pam found Jordi. Or I could say that God led Pam to where Jordi was. I prefer the latter. He was two houses down, hiding in some bushes. When Pam rattled a container of treats, he moved enough to ring the bell on his collar, and he was busted. And tonight, all is well in the Dennie household. One happy family. I can’t tell you the situation in my neighbors’ homes. Maybe that should concern me a little more.

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I stumbled across the Dilbert blog the other day. He was talking about “Unfair Stereotypes,” and relating it to the bombings in Jordan. He wrote, “The one woman in the group apparently couldn’t figure out how to operate her suicide belt. I’m just wondering, how many women heard that story on the news and thought ‘Crap. Why did it have to be the woman who couldn’t blow herself up?'”

I just got a kick out of that. If it had been me, I would have been the one who couldn’t figure it out (I’m a software guy, not a hardware guy), but Pam wouldn’t have had any trouble.

My goodness, this is morbid. I’m gonna stop right now.

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