Friday, March 28, 2008

Heavy Metal

Looks like we’ll be talking about piercings and tattoos for a while longer.

In the news today, an article reports that a woman from Texas was trying to fly home when she set off the airport metal detector. A hand-held detector confirmed that she was harboring something metallic in her bra. She tried to explain, but without success. So Transportation Security Administration agents took her to a back room and she showed them the metal studs piercing her nipples.

Okay, I don’t see the attraction, but she has a right to have them.

Not satisfied with just a peek, the TSA agents required her to remove the studs, which proved to be a very painful process as she had allowed the skin to heal around the metal.

A spokesman for the TSA defended the action, insisting that if an alarm does sound, "until that is resolved, we're not going to let them go through the checkpoint, no matter what they're wearing or where they're wearing it.”

I appreciate the concerns for keeping the flying public safe. I fly three or four times a year, and I like to arrive intact. But I can’t recall the last time a plane was knocked out of the sky by nipple rings!

In my judgment, the situation was “resolved” when the woman showed the TSA agents the piercings. So either the TSA agents were just getting their perverted jollies watching a woman remove her piercings, or we’ve gone WA-A-A-A-Y too far with this whole national security fear-mongering.

The woman wants an apology; I think she could also file a lawsuit. Either way, you can bet she’ll show up soon on NBC’s TODAY show.

(For the complete story, see USATODAY, March 28, “Flier angry after TSA makes her remove nipple ring”.)

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Open Hearts? Open Minds? Open Doors???

A young man at my church recently reached the age of consent and immediately set about covering his body with tattoo art and metal. It came as no surprise to me – he had talked about it for several years, in the same way most teens talk about getting their driver’s license. In fact, when I first met J.D., he had a Mohawk haircut, so I knew it was coming.

[The photo to the left is not J.D. by the way... yet!]

But J.D. is a good kid. He was raised in the church, loved by his peers and doted on by the adults. They realized his hair was always cut funny, but “kids will be kids”.

J.D. moved out of his parents’ house at 18 and disappeared from church for a few months – not unusual for teenagers who have just tasted freedom. And when he showed up at church again, the transformation had begun – multiple facial piercings, gauged studs enlarging his ear lobes, and tattoos.

Much to my disappointment, the congregation visibly recoiled in horror.

I knew it was just wishful thinking when, eight years ago the United Methodist Church adopted the advertising campaign “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors”. Nonetheless, I embraced it. And for the last two years I have tried to convince this congregation that the Church should be a place for all people. That is our mission statement, by the way – “a place for all people” – which I imposed on them.

You see, we are a mostly Anglo congregation sitting in the middle of a neighborhood that has recently transitioned to an overwhelming African-American majority. Hispanics and Asians have also found the neighborhood to their liking. And the economic level of the population has dipped in the process.

But I have consistently insisted that rather than being a country club for “people like us”, the Church must be a safe place for all people to come to experience the love of Christ through human beings. Oh, they pride themselves on having a small international sampling in the midst of the congregation, but these people are more or less “normal” by their standards.

I recently read Rudy Rasmus’ new book, “Touch”, which records his path to success at St. John’s Church in Houston by loving everybody. Rudy has transformed a dying downtown congregation into a mega-church mixture of homeless and affluent. Beyonce’ is a member there.

Rudy writes, “Here at St. John’s, rejects feel accepted, outcasts feel included, and the shamed feel loved.” (p. 45)

His approach to ministry is simple. If you are not welcoming to all God’s children, you need to go somewhere else.

Rudy writes, “At the end of the day, people want to know that God is big enough and loving enough to reach into their deepest needs and change their lives. My whole theology boils down to the greatness and the grace of God.” (p. 167)

And so my heart was broken as my congregation responded this way to one of their own who has chosen a different path. I fear how others – whom we don’t know, who dare to be “different” or who just can’t be “normal” – will be received. Will they be able to find the love of Christ at our church?

How about at your church? Would J.D. fare any better? Just for fun, imagine the guy in the picture above coming into your church and sitting on the pew next to you. How would your congregation respond? How would you respond?

Maybe my congregation is not so unusual... (deep sigh!)

But next year I hope to write that things here have changed.

Stay tuned.

Saturday, March 22, 2008


Happy Easter!


Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1311

Friday, March 21, 2008


Salvador Dali (1951), Kelvingrove Art Gallery, Glasgow

Thursday, March 20, 2008


Jacopo Bassano, (1542), Galleria Borghese, Rome

Monday, March 17, 2008


This one was too good to resist.

A friend sent the following picture

in an email entitled, "PEEP SHOW".

Of course, I "peeped"...

...and I wasn't disappointed!

Thursday, March 13, 2008


I have a few rituals to mark the changing of the seasons. For example, every fall as the football season starts, I feel the need to get out and watch my worn VHS copy of “The Big Chill” (1983). It’s a movie about a small group of University of Michigan grads who reunite several years later for the funeral of another friend.

The movie has an all-star cast – Kevin Cline, William Hurt, Glenn Close, Meg Tilly, Jeff Goldblum… Even Kevin Costner played Alex, the deceased friend, whom we never see in the movie.

I suppose what makes this a “football movie” is that the weekend of the funeral also happens to be the weekend for the Michigan vs. Ohio State game.

Another film I watch annually, is “Jesus Christ Superstar”. Originally a stage production, it was immortalized on film in 1973. It recounts the last weeks of Jesus’ life on earth, so I like to watch it as we approach Easter.

It is a classic, although it lacks the big name actors. Ted Neely, who carried the title role, has made a career of performing “Superstar” on stage.

I guess it's hard to find other work after being cast as the savior of the world!

About the closest to stardom any of the original cast has achieved would be Carl Anderson, who portrayed Judas. Anderson actually replaced Ben Vereen in the Los Angeles stage production and was then cast for the film.

Although nominated for an Oscar, the film was not without controversy. When it came out, some thought reducing the gospel to a “rock opera” was profane. A good friend back then told me he gave his life to Christ because of “Superstar” – because he was so offended by it he wanted to try to counter the film’s influence.

Keep in mind that the Revised Standard Version of the Bible was first published in 1952, but by then still had not been widely accepted.

The only problem I have with the rock opera is that it ends with the death of Jesus. We are left to draw our own conclusions as the final scene shows the cast members getting back onto the bus that brought them to the film location… without Ted Neely (“Jesus”).

Without the resurrection, the whole story is meaningless.

But I love the concept of the movie -- the cast shows up on location in an old bus, unloads costumes and props -- including a large wooden cross on top of the bus, and performs the story as if they were really there.

And I love the music. I love the clueless disciples wandering around the Judean hillsides asking, “What’s the buzz,/ Tell me what’s a happening”. I love the presumed prostitute Mary Magdalene singing, “I don’t know how to love him.” I love the scene with the over-indulged Herod judging Jesus from his swimming pool.

I found the scene of the 39 lashes in “Superstar” much more emotionally moving that the graphic beating of Jesus in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of Christ”.

Mel, what were you thinking?!?

And I love the concept of portraying the life of Jesus in a manner that speaks to a generation – as “Superstar” did in the 1970’s. Isn’t that what we preachers are called to do – to tell a 2,000 year old story in such a way as to be releveant in 2008? to introduce a timeless Gospel to the contemporary world?

As you approach Easter next week, I encourage you to find a copy of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and watch it again. If you get the chance, look for the London stage version of “Superstar” that was filmed in 2000. The music is the same, but it definitely has an updated feel… and a blond Jesus!

Maybe you will be inspired to go beyond the traditional feel-good Easter homily and really speak to your congregation about who Jesus was… and is!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Spring Break 2008!

While I am sitting in my office composing this article, I know that thousands of college students are flocking to the beaches of Miami, Daytona and Cancun for the annual ritual of youth: Spring Break. After a week of relaxation in a quiet, idyllic beach setting, the students will return to their respective campuses refreshed and ready to knuckle down to some serious studying.


Spring Break has become an excuse to cut loose and do all those things you wouldn’t normally do. While one might compare it to the Amish rite of “rum springa” (running around”), Dr. Joe Wittmer notes, “rum springa, in the Amish sense, is a time when their youth become adults, "put away the things of a child" and become of dating age (16).” (See his Q&A at

Yeah, that’s not it!

No, far from being ready to embrace adulthood, our “best and brightest” come home exhausted after a week of non-stop partying, nursing a sunburn in parts that shouldn’t have been exposed, a hang-over that will take at least a week to get over, a question of who/how many they slept with, and a tattoo (which Jimmy Buffett calls “a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling”; more on tats in a later blog.).

I don’t intend to be judgmental here. If I were young and stupid again, I might be right there with them.

So much of this is blamed on drinking, of which a lot occurs during Spring Break. But an interesting article appeared on AOL recently. Written by Benedict Carey (“When People Drink Themselves Silly, and Why”, 03/04/08), the article reviews recent research into binge drinking.

[Point of information: The Journal of Studies on Alcohol defines binge drinking as an extended period, typically at least two days, during which time a person repeatedly becomes intoxicated and gives up usual activities and obligations in order to be intoxicated. One of the commonly used thresholds for 'binge' drinking is 5 or more drinks for men and 4 or more for women per occasion. I thought you’d want to know.]

Carey suggests that the alcohol may not be completely to blame for all this. The research indicates that there is a cultural aspect to drinking. For example, the Yurana Indians in Brazil become exceptionally reserved when binging. The Camba in Bolivia, on the other hand, sit around in a circle and toast one another as they drink. In the Japanese village of Takashima, drinking to excess brings about singing and even… oh my goodness… dancing! But none of this was found to be sexual or aggressive.

Think back to scenes from “Archie Bunker”, a period of history when grown men sat at the bar in a neighborhood pub and drank until they fell off the barstool. Then they staggered home – no car wrecks because the bar was just down the street.

Studies at the University of Washington in the 70’s and 80’s put college students in a bar-like setting and served one group icy vodka tonics and another group just icy tonic water; the appearance and taste is the same [so I am told!]. The studies found that those who were drinking the non-alcohol drinks behaved just as aggressively as those drinking the vodka, leaving Alan Marlett, senior researcher, to conclude, “Their behavior was totally determined by their expectations of how they would behave.”

The problem with Spring Break in the American culture is that we have allowed MTV to set that level of expectation. In the minds of too many, Spring Break is all about alcohol and sex. Think about it: the MTV-type events are sponsored by Corona (“La Cerveza Mas Fin”) and Trojan brand condoms (“Evolve.”).

Do you know where your children are?

My point is not to be a party pooper or to spoil the fun. Go and have a good time. I wish I was there with you. But when you show up in the next installment of “Girls Gone Wild”, don’t try to convince me, “It was the beer…” The research is against you.

As Comedian Margaret Cho said she learned at the knee of her Korean-American father, “You are the otter of your own fat”.

You figure it out.

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Right Place, The Right Time, part 2

Okay, now that you’ve had a day to sober up from your weekend of tequila shots, let’s talk about what we can learn from the story of Sammy Hagar’s success.

[By the way, don’t “shoot” Cabo Wabo Tequila – it’s meant to be savored. Serious. Any ASS can get drunk; some things are meant to be enjoyed.]

First, the obvious lesson is that often success is simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time. The stars definitely converged over Cabo Wabo. This is often true for ministry as well. The challenge the Bishop and Cabinet face each spring is to pair the gifts of a pastor with the needs of a congregation.

And you thought they just drew names out of a hat!

When a match is made, a church can do amazing things. But when something is not quite right, even the most gifted pastors can fail. Michael Slaughter readily admits he probably could not duplicate the success of Ginghamsburg Church… something which all those trying to copy him should hear.

Of course, being at the right place at the right time is relative. Our first appointment was not so successful for the two churches we served – that is, we didn’t foment tremendous growth; but for Karen and me personally, it was indeed the right place at the right time.

God works in mysterious ways.

But being at the right place at the right time is not all there is to it. And Sammy Hagar would probably be angered by this over simplification. In fact, it is obvious he worked hard for the success of Cabo Wabo.

This brings us to my second point. When Cabo San Lucas became a popular port of call for the cruise industry, Sammy was ready for them. There were enough tables, enough waitresses and enough tequila to meet the need of the new-found client stream. And Sammy was actually ahead of the curve bottling and distributing his premium tequila.

So look out your window. Have you noticed the ships pulling into your port? Or businesses? Or moving vans? Maybe your largest growth potential has been there all along but you just haven’t seen them. Or maybe they come in the form of a new highway. I have seen numerous churches left isolated and empty when a new highway bypasses the town. Why didn’t they relocate to the highway?

Oh yeah, I forgot. They love their buildings more than they love the lost.

And what are the trends on the horizon? Or have you noticed? We tend to hang portraits of the old preachers on the wall… the old building… defunct Sunday School classes… even former members… to the point that we have turned our churches into museums, storehouses of the past. In fact, we spend so much time looking to the past that we never notice what’s coming around the bend toward us.

Folks, it’s time to wake up and smell the latte.

The days of having a piano in the parlor are long gone… and who today even has a parlor?!? To prove my point, take a survey of your membership. Go through their home music collections and count how many albums of organ music you find there. [Go ahead, I’ll wait…] I’m guessing the number will be low. Yet, when I had the privilege of serving a church while they built a new sanctuary in 1997, influential members of the congregation insisted on paying $350,000 for a pipe organ – the installation of which obliterated the chance of hanging video screens in the not-so-distant future.

I know some will debate it, but why can’t the church be contemporary and relevant? Why must we sit on uncomfortable benches instead of upholstered chairs? Why won’t we update the paint colors? Why must our 21st century worship still involve candles and incense? Why do we still approach microphones like they are snakes about to strike?

What are we really afraid of?

The final – and most important – lesson I want us to learn from Sammy Hagar’s journey to Cabo Wabo is one near and dear to my heart: Follow your heart. Sammy’s reason for buying Cabo Wabo was so he would have a place to eat, drink tequila, and play guitar. His dream was not to build a multi-million dollar industry. His goal was simple. Reduced to a “mission statement” (as churches are so fond of writing these days), it would be: Eat, Drink, Play. I can dig that!

To the preachers out there who have found my blog, I ask: where is your heart leading you? Think back to when you were a candidate for ministry. What did you feel God calling you to do back then? Is that what you are doing now?

So many times we get side-tracked and allow money, power, and prestige to lead us astray. Yet, the simple truth is, if we are not doing what God called us to do, we will never be able to accomplish what God put us here to accomplish. Thus, we will never be successful.

The true measure of success is doing what God calls us to do. Whether our “mission” is “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors”, “Eat, Drink, Play” or “Paper or Plastic?”, we must constantly be asking ourselves, “Am I doing what God wants?”