Sunday, January 27, 2008

Let the Good Times Roll!

Wishing you a festive and fun Mardi Gras!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Change is good!

This is neither an advertisement nor an endorsement, but I was impressed with my recent visit to our local Ruby Tuesday's restaurant. It took me a moment to realize it, but the menu, the decor, the service and the total atmosphere has gone upscale.

Gone are the sports and movie memorabilia that cluttered the walls and defined restaurants like Ruby's and TGIFridays during the 80s and 90s. The new look (see photo above) is calm and sophisticated, a mood complimented by the choice of music (think Nora Jones) played quietly overhead. Even the wait-staff is more refined -- we are no longer greeted with the annoying, "Hey, guys, what can I getcha?" The food was not quite up to the level of "Folks' Folly", but it showed a dramatic departure from the "Oh-My-God" portions they used to serve.

Kudos to the people who effected the change.

As I approach my 45th birthday, I have realized how many of the institutions I grew up with have changed. I have watched McDonald's go through several changes -- from the clown spokesperson and the bright red and yellow decorating scheme (if you can call that decorating) to a more upscale look, including tile floors, comfortable seating, and flat-panel monitors set to CNN. Even Wal-Mart has evolved through several different color schemes; they even installed vinyl floors that look like hardwood.

And I don't miss the old look. Life is about change. We grow older (and hopefully wiser). Our hair turns a distinguished gray and acne is replaced by wrinkles. During my life, the leisure suit was replaced by the 3-piece suit which was replaced by khaki slacks and navy blazers which was replaced by casual Fridays (on which most anything goes now -- a topic for another day). I only wear a tie on Sundays (and to weddings and funerals), and I am usually overdressed.

Change is good.

So why don't church folks like change? You know the old joke: How many Christians does it take to change a lightbulb? -- Change? What do you mean change? My grandmother donated that lightbulb to the church!!!

In almost every congregation I have served, when it comes time to do a renovation, everyone wants it to look "exactly like it used to". We recently replaced carpet that had been on the floor for 20 years -- 20 years! -- and the first reaction of the Trustees was to find carpet of identical color and texture.

Fortunately, nobody makes that color anymore.

This year, in an effort to attract new people to the church, I proposed an alternative-style worship service. Since I don't expect a large crowd at first, I decided the original church sanctuary would be the best place for this new venture.

You see, when the new sanctuary was built, a half-hearted attempt was made to turn the old sanctuary into a "family life center". It has since become an eyesore: the original 1/4" paneling is faded and buckling and the plexiglass panels protecting the stained glass windows have clouded over. The corners of the room have become collection points for broken furniture and other cast-offs that the church couldn't find a place to store. And the youth attempting to play basketball with portable backboards have busted light fixtures and ceiling tiles that have be left unrepaired.

So I was not expecting opposition when I proposed to launch a renovation of the space. Yet I was not greeted with gratitude and support. "You're not going to paint the paneling, are you?" "You're not going to put carpet on the floor, are you?" "You have to make it look like it did in 1964."

Did I mention that I want to do an alternative-style worship service in the space?

I know churches have struggled throughout the centuries with issues such as this. For example, the pipe organ, which was once a "must-have" in many churches, was originally opposed for worship use because it was a profane instrument used only by circuses! Electricity, air conditioning and padded seats have all created divisions in the body of Christ.

My friends, the gospel message remains unchanged, even after 2,000 years: "He is risen indeed!" The rest we just have to work out.

So as we "work it out", look around. What other entity in the world looks exactly the same as it did 20-, 30-, 40-, even 50-years ago? I'm guessing not many. So why must we confine the church to a previous era?

Isn't the church for the generation of today as well as for those of yesterday?

Monday, January 14, 2008

I'm Not Making This Stuff Up!

[The following article was reported in the LA Times on January 7, 2008, written by Richard Abowitz. It was forwarded to me by my brother-in-law, thinking I might want to comment on it here. As you can see, there's not much more I can add...]

-I met Heather Veitch and Annie Lobert at the Cheesecake Factory, across from the Green Valley Ranch casino.
-We had to wait for a booth because Lobert's stories about her years working as an escort in the Vegas resort corridor can get graphic.
-Many years ago Veitch used to be a stripper in Vegas. Now both women are Christian activists trying to reach out to women in the Las Vegas adult industry.
-They are in the midst of gearing up for Adult Entertainment Expo, the biggest adult industry convention in the country, which takes place in Vegas every January. This convention includes the adult movie version of the Oscars, the AVN Awards.
-I discovered the duo through a series of popular YouTube videos they did called "Saving Sex City." Episode 3 features the two walking the Strip as showgirls carrying placards with Christian messages.
-Even before uniting for the video series, Veitch received a lot of media attention. She thinks it is because she doesn't look like your typical Christian preacher. In fact, her look has been a major factor, she says, in the Christian community being slower than the worldly people of Vegas to accept her.
-One Vegas topless bar allows Veitch to come at night to buy lap dances and use the time to talk to the dancers about Jesus. I have been invited along for a future trip and am very curious to see how that works out. Veitch says she has received almost no hostility from the people she is trying to reach in Vegas, even those not at all interested in her message.
-On the other hand, selling her fellow Christians on her project has been difficult. Veitch has found that some churches are not interested in populating congregations with strippers she has invited to services. And then it always comes back to her look. Veitch says, "The Christian community can be very judgmental. But we think our look lets girls in the industry identify with us."
-For the upcoming 40,000-strong Adult Entertainment Expo, Veitch and Lobert will be working the convention floor, handing out cards and delivering their message to whoever will listen.
-Veitch's current boyfriend is not happy because this means she will be among all the male fans of porn at the convention as well as the men who work in that industry. The boyfriend called during our lunch to make that point again. Veitch was not convinced. She still will be at Adult Entertainment Expo, working with Lobert.
-To Veitch, her need to be at the huge porn convention is clear. She explained after getting off the phone with her boyfriend: "To me, I am used to the attention because I come from that industry. For him, it is hard because I have had several guy porn stars who are attractive come up to me and want to make films. But I am the untouchable one there. I look like those girls, but they can't see me naked. Now I am using my body to advertise for God. So to me it is not bad."
-And it is instructive to note that the media love Veitch's look as well. Even before the "Saving Sex City" videos, Veitch had already become a media magnet, having done every show from "Geraldo" to "The 700 Club." A documentary on Veitch, "Pussycat Preacher," became available for free download last week. Lobert's media profile before the "Saving Sex City" videos had been slightly lower. But by calling the church group she formed "Hookers for Jesus," Lobert admits she pretty much guaranteed that everyone who hears the name remembers it. Lobert says:
-"I picked that name because it is catchy. Most Christians might think I am selling my body. But I say that because I am trying to hook people on Jesus. I hook them for Jesus. I go into the casinos and I sit at the bar while the girls are selling their bodies and I talk to them."
-Asked how she can tell the hookers from the tourists, Lobert says, "I know. I just watch and I know. I know because I have been there. I share my story with them and give them my card and invite them to church."
-(Annie Lobert and Heather Veitch photo by Sarah Gerke)

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Guitar Hero

Karen and I enjoyed our annual trip to California for the Christmas break. We spent a lot of time with family and friends, visited some old stomping grounds, and discovered some new ones. Although it was too cold to sit on the beach, we ate at Ruby’s on the Huntington Beach Pier, and I located the cameras that broadcast the real-time beach images to Hollister & Co. stores around the world.

And we played “Guitar Hero”.

Karen and I discovered “Guitar Hero” in a Best Buy store a couple years ago. It is a video game in which you play a fake Gibson SG electric guitar to the beat of some of the great rock and roll classics; points are scored for hitting the correct notes. “Guitar Hero” was rated the “Best Game of 2005”, has sold millions of copies, and has been followed up with two additional versions.

It was fun to play in the store, but the price tag was outside our range for entertainment. So we were thrilled when we discovered that Karen’s nephew, Josh, had received “Guitar Hero” for Christmas. He picked it up quickly – as most teenage boys do, advancing from “beginner” to “hard” in just the week between Christmas and New Year. We were a little slower, but I attempted several songs at the “medium” level with some success.

The genius behind the game is three-fold: it incorporates 1) the flashing lights and sounds of an electronic game with 2) a dexterity/skills challenge – which most youth today enjoy, 3) to the tunes their parents grew up with – everything from the electric beach sounds of Dick Dale’s “Miserlou” to the Lynyrd Skynyrd classic “Freebird” to Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper”… which means that parents, who grew up listening to these same songs, will be less likely to bang on the ceiling and yell, “You kids turn down that noise!”

Which brings me to my point: if a video game creator has figured out how to bridge the generation gap, why can’t the Church?

Think about it for a moment. From our buildings to our budgets to our staffing, we segregate the children and youth from the adults. Yet as we learned in previous generations (especially in Memphis), segregation does not work. As we grow separate we grow apart. If we continue down this erroneous path, our youth will never learn to appreciate our traditions, and we, in turn, will fail to understand their culture.
Installing a basketball goal in the fellowship hall is not the answer... unless we are willing to get in there and shoot hoops with them. Building a skate park in the parking lot would be awesome, but ineffective unless we are willing to get out there and grind some rails along with them.

Playing “Guitar Hero” with Josh gave me the opportunity to share with him the music of my generation using the tools of his generation. He now knows who Dick Dale is – “King of the Surf Guitar”, who, at age 70, still puts on an energetic show. And I, at the far end of 44 years old, scored 49,000 points playing the Stray Cats’ “Rock This Town”!

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

California Christmas

We just returned from our annual Christmas vacation to California, where we spent a week with my wife’s family. Good folks. I have a lot for which to be thankful.

Looking back on the trip, my mind fondly recalls Amy Grant’s Christmas jingle, “Tennessee Christmas”, especially the line, “Well the say in L.A. it’s a warm holiday…”


I thought maybe this year Amy would be right, but no – the weatherman saw us coming! The day we flew into LAX the high temperature was 74 degrees. Then it began to drop, plummeting to the low 50s mid-week. It began to warm again on New Year’s Day as we were packing to leave.

What the h*** happened to Global Warming!?!

Of course, I can’t complain. When we landed in Memphis last night, the temp here had dropped to a bitter 30 degrees! I should have appreciated 55 more!

But I am not writing to complain about the weather. I want to muse for a brief moment about air travel. Traveling by air has always raised my anxiety level, and as we made the four hour trip last night, I began to ask myself, “Why?”

I am not afraid to fly. Even though the thought of strapping myself into the allotted 20 inches of seat space inside a large aluminum bird that shouldn’t be able to get off the ground is truly daunting, I completely trust the airplane. Yes, I know they fall out of the sky from time to time, but I’ve never worried about that.

And I’ve ridden out some pretty turbulent flights. Once while in seminary I was returning to Paducah. That was in the day when they only flew itty-bitty planes into Paducah [International] Airport – the kind where a person dressed like a flight attendant gets on the plane and asks people to shift from one side of the plane to the other “in order to balance out the load”… then she gets off and locks the door behind her. On that particular flight, I was the only passenger on the leg from Evansville to Paducah and sat right behind the pilots, with a full view out the front window. As we approached the airport, the tiny plane bounced and jerked violently. And as we skidded sideways toward the runway, the co-pilot suddenly reached behind him and pulled closed the curtain that separated us. (Maybe at that point I should have been afraid!)

On another flight, we were inbound from Cancun on the tail of a hurricane on a dilapidated Air Mexico plane full of people nursing tequila hangovers. The only thing I was afraid of on that flight was that someone might vomit on me!

And, no, I am not afraid of snakes on the plane either… ‘nuf said.

But then it struck me. What really makes me anxious is sitting next to a stranger for four hours. By nature I am an introvert… that is, I don’t like people! Yes, my wife sits on one side of me, but that leaves the other side open. Who will it be? As passengers board the plane, I size them up – ‘No, please God, not that one!’… ‘No, he’s too tall!’… ‘No, she’s too old.’… ‘No, she’ll want to talk the whole flight.’… ‘No, he’s too wide!’ (Seriously, seated behind us on yesterday’s flight was a husband and wife who by themselves filled up all three seats to capacity!)

I think my phobia of strangers on the plane goes back again to my seminary days. On one particular flight home, I had the good fortune of being seated next to a real babe! (This was while I was still single.) On the other side of me was a strange-looking fellow with a scraggly beard and holding an eagle’s feather; all he was missing was lederhosen and a herd of goats! My heart leaped for joy as the “babe” directed her attention to me: “So, what do you do?” I explained that I was a seminary student, studying to be a United Methodist pastor. There was a brief, uncomfortable pause, then she turned to the guy on the other side of me: “…And what do you do?” He was a PhD student studying the aerodynamics of the dragonfly. And she talked to him for the rest of the flight.


Some fellow fliers who find out I am a pastor recoil with horror, assuming I will try to convert them during the flight; others want to talk about the vision of the BVM they once saw in the ring around their bath tub.

Now I just tell people I do social work.

Despite the anxiety it raises within me, I still fly. As my father-in-law has grown fond of saying, “It sure beats the covered wagon!” [To which I responded, “I’ve never ridden in a covered wagon so I can’t say that for sure!”]

And if you ever have the misfortune of sitting beside me on the plane, know that I will try my best to be courteous. Even though I don’t like you, you are still a child of God.