Sunday, November 30, 2008

Merry Christmas!

Last year, around the Christmas Season, a mosque on the Northside had a sign that said, "Allah neither begets nor is begotten."

This seems like an appropriate time to say, "Merry Christmas, and Mohammad was a liar."

Friday, November 21, 2008

Nascent Fables

If I had more time, I’d write these fables myself. As it is, I can only give you the outline.

First fable. There’s a shepherd who listens to his sheep and lets them head into dangerous places, because it’s just what they want to do.

Second fable. There’s a wolf who had been busted for wearing sheep's clothing. But he goes to the shepherd who lets the wolf move in with the flock because the wolf assures him that he has had an “experience” and no longer has a taste for mutton.

Maybe they are the same fable. Maybe the shepherd just wants to be cool. Maybe the shepherd went to one of those shepherd schools where they teach you that to be a successful shepherd you must, at all costs, be liked.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

So I am taking a few looks at The Rock La Roca. Wild stuff happening. From the important, basic things like we have a handle on our administration. Martina Ockerman has brought efficiency and professionalism to the church. We have detailed budgets and accounts, things we’ve never had before. I guess the thing Martina has brought to us is a real gift: we are all very ministry-oriented. That is, I have a staff that flat-out gets after it. We’re never in the office, a value I have pushed on them. Get on the street. Meet the people. Meet the needs. Come up with new ministries, plans. I tell them that I won’t get mad if they do something and it flops. Better to do something than do nothing. But since we’re always out there on the front, we’re not quite as good at taking care of the business side of things. Martina has set us free to get after the work. And Martina herself gets on the street, too!

And then there’s the stuff we’re set free for! This huge Monday night ministry—a meal, food bank, and service.

After school music program for kids, with a meal.

A church plant.

70 kids at the Wednesday night program. If you’re a kid, you can eat three nights a week at the church. Good food.

Maybe 10% of our worshipers are African-American. I think this happened without trying. I mean, I have been wondering how to reach out, worrying if we could make the shifts necessary. But apparently, if you flow out of the love of Jesus, you can be as white as you want to be and still reach everyone!

I am probably missing something.

I don’t know what else will happen, but I can’t wait to see.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

Ica and I just closed down Third Street. We got a wild hair that we’d walk down there. It was cold and a light mist blew on us, so the cafĂ© au lait sure hit the spot. We found Jim Embry there, fresh back from his trip to the Slow Food Movement’s Conference, Terra Madre. We had a good hour long talk about where we can go after the information and contacts he gleaned over there in Torino. I have to say, we are a bit jealous of his trip!

We walked back home under a moon playing hide-and-seek with us. We have been talking a bit lately about how there is a lack of “conversation.” That is, most folks don’t have much to say. There’s not much room for serious engagement of ideas. As we walked home, we wondered how it is that most of our best conversations happen outside of the church. I mean, that’s good because we’re engaging with non-believers. But it’s also sad, because if people could get past having their ideas under scrutiny, we could all learn a lot and have a great time.

Any time you talk to Jim, you come back pumped up for gardening. I hope the idea of our garden can get bigger. Quickly. I don’t want to just grow stuff. I want to find better ways to draw growing and eating together. How can we share in the growing and the eating? How can we work in the dirt and sit around the table? This is where real, life-changing fellowship will grow. I wish I had a monastery, a place where I could take some of our hurting kids, put them down in a safe place where they could rest and flourish. In the meantime, the garden will have to do. But it will have to do better.

That was last night. Worship this morning was awesome. Rosario preached and knocked it out of the park. Lots of people at the altar. A few months ago I told Ica that this church plant thing was going to happen and then Roz would be preaching there every Sunday. I have mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, you have to admire the heck out of a dude who does not juts go to the Bishop and say “I am ready for a church,” and then he gets sent to a place with a building and a budget. Instead, he goes and starts the whole thing. That’s what the church desperately needs. There was a time when guys like Roz needed to be sealed in glass, with a sign on it that says, “Break only in case of emergency.” You can’t train Rambo and expect him not to kill. The church needs it desperately. Anyhow, the other part of my feelings about Roz going on is that he has preached once a month for about a year now. It is really good for me to have the chance to hear the Word, because he always brings it.

Well, after the sermon, John went up to the altar. His first time. I asked him why he went up. He said, “I was praying for Joe-Joe.”

“What did you pray for?”

“That he would remember something about Mommy.”

A few weeks ago, Joe woke up crying in the middle of the night, missing Melissa. I held him and told him stories about Melissa, things he might remember. But he was just so little in all this. John was laying in the bed, not sure what to do or say. I guess he knew what to do this morning.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Holler in the City

On my end of Clark County, there was a holler. Well, there were a few, but this one was easy to miss. I did not pay much attention to it until one evening the fire trucks rolled in there. They came back out pretty quick, so I figured there was no huge emergency. But I resolved to head back up in there.

I found the usual: a canyon, we’d call it out west, a draw that ended with a hill surrounding three sides of it. Some trailers and a lot of scrap metal around. Not much grows in such places because the trees on top of the hill shade the floor below.

I was met at the trailer at the head of the holler by the patriarch, and old man with a beard down to his waist. My kind of guy! He listened with interest to who I was and then commented, “I knew you had to be someone special. You’re the only stranger that dog has never tried to eat,” and he pointed to a mean-looking dog I had not even noticed, curled up in a corner outside the house.

I have long said that the best preparation for urban ministry is rural ministry. They share the same problems, but rural ministry is usually a little friendlier, so you get broken in a bit more gently. Rural and urban areas suffer from isolation, despondency, lack of opportunity, being forgotten by the rest of the society. When they are remembered, it’s to be made fun of, if not completely degraded. “Trailer trash” are the new “niggers.”

This is all to say that I ended up in a holler on the Northside of Lexington on Thursday. Jessie and I were out doing pastoral visits, and we came to a very small dead-end street that is less a street and more the pattern of a holler—houses strewn about. It’s an enclave. Even tho no real geographic barrier prevents you from going down the street, why would you?

But these are some of my newest people, so I go.

I think that the isolation of this street, right in the middle of thousands of people, is a refuge. The folks who are on the street are on it out of social ties; that is where, a holler in Eastern Kentucky might be built on families, this is built on people who have a kinship forced on them. They are the poor who are most on display. White, uneducated, disabled, some facing mental handicaps, sweet, devoted to each other.

I wish you could have been there with me, to be invited in, to have a chance to read 1 Peter 1:1-9 to them (words that 2000 years are re-filled up with meaning for this flock), to get to pray, to hear the devotion of a husband to his sick wife.

Have you ever seen ‘em pack the kids in the car after work on a Friday night,

Pull up in the holler ‘round three a.m. lights still burning bright?

Those mountain folk stayed up all night

Just to hold those little grandkids in their arms.

I’m proud to say I’ve been blessed by their sweet hillbilly charm.

--Dwight Yoakam, “Readin’, Writin’, Route 23”



We’ve been doing some family devotions out of a Veggie Tales book, and then we have prayer and communion together, before bed time. For some reason, the past two nights, we have read out of a child’s bible that John has. Last night, it was really wonderful.

John read the story, about Jacob and Esau. I was not sure if Joe was going to follow it because John was reading at his pace (but I guess children know exactly how to follow along with that!) At the end of the story, just when Jessie and I were about to start off some discussion, John did! He asked what we thought was the point of the story. Joe raised his hand and said, “it’s because the two brothers were fighting about the blessing.”

“So it’s in the category of jealousy?” John asked. I was wondering where he got the words, “category of jealousy…”

It was a sweet, wonderful, telling moment: the boys are perfectly capable of reading and understanding the Scriptures. In fact, you have to wait for the time when they are going to see more clearly than we do, what the point is.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Why I Did Not Vote

I did not vote in this last election. I noticed that my last post on Wal-Mart had some friends howling at me, tho I have not seen any comments. I suppose what I’ll say here will seem the same. I guess I should also say that I like to debate, and so if I’m wrong here, let me know. But I probably won’t think so without some real help!

The reasons why I did not vote go back a bit. Well, there is only one reason, really. I don’t want to be involved in what is going to happen over the next few years. So I was not going to give a vote one way or the other. Here’s how I came to that conclusion.

I had voted in every election since 1988. But I only voted for a major party candidate once. I voted Libertarian every other time.

The proximate cause for my decision came a little over a year ago at a fund-raising banquet. A speaker, by way of talking about inspiration in his life, praised Eisenhower. Now, Eisenhower was a great man and president. But in other spheres, I am not sure he can be accepted that way. I am a Methodist pastor. And one of my pastor-brothers is a man from Congo, Jonathan Lumumba. His father, Patrice, was the first democratically elected leader of Zaire. The Belgian secret service with U.S. help or perhaps U.S. apathy, assassinated Mr. Lumumba. Eisenhower was briefed on all this.

Then, Sojourners had an editorial on Robert Kennedy and how his assassination crushed the dreams of a generation. That was a bit much, given that we should not put our hope in men or kings. There was also something in praise of JFK. All of which is fine. Great men. And yet, I began to think we should not be surprised they were assassinated. I know it is a deep wound in the country’s history, but they were involved in assassinations of other world leaders, and best I can tell, you live by the sword, you die by it as well. It seems to me that if the Book of Kings were written today, and we were looking at, for example, the Kennedys, they would be in the categories of Ahab and Omri, with touches of Josiah and Hezekiah.

So, basically, that night at the banquet I was sad. What if Rev. Lumumba were there to hear praise for the man who either had his father killed or could have saved him? How can I praise Obama? He will be part of shady dealings in his administration. And clearly, unborn people are in more danger than they have been in years. Bloody years ahead: on the battlefield, in hidden places around the world, and in the womb. I simply did not want to have my name attached to any of it.

But I take a second look. Peter Storey preached a sermon on the eve of elections in South Africa. He said that because his church was integrated, the whites were going to have to look the blacks in the eyes after they voted. Would they vote to keep them subjugated? Or would they vote with an eye to casting a vote that would give the voiceless a voice?

I think this is the only thing I have heard about Christian politics that makes any sense.

Then there’s this. If we’re so much in an “empire” as is fashionable to say now, then why do we not act like Christians in the Empire? This has been a question I have been asking for about 5 years—not because I believe we’re in anything like Babylon or Rome (you’re going to have to do more than say so to make me believe we are) but because we’re not. Peter and John did not have a vote. And so I wonder—would they do anything differently? That is, they did not seem to give a rip what the Romans did. They did not lead protest marches. They did not crave audience with power to bring about justice. Rather, they invited people into the Kingdom life and rejected this disgusting and dying world in favor of life. Vultures live on a carcass, my friends.

But was this the Apostles’ way because they were disenfranchised? Would they vote if they could? Would they care to?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Wal-Mart Church

If you watch the stock market reports, there’s something you should pay attention to. The big number, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, is a composite of the top companies on the stock exchange. So while that number has been in free-fall (it was about 14,000 a year ago, just above 8000 now), a company on that list has not only not collapsed, but has gained, showing a 10% growth in profits: Wal-Mart.

Now, it’s fashionable to hate Wal-Mart, to cry about mom-and-pop stores on Main Street run out of business (no one asked who mom-and-pop ran out of business), to fuss about what the workers are paid or how good their insurance is (would they have any job or any insurance from mom-and-pop?). There is a disturbing side to hating Wal-Mart. It is, at base, a form of class-warfare, class- and even race-hatred hiding behind some kind of enlightened plan for the proletariat.

Wal-Mart has a business model that has been my model for church growth. I don’t mean selling stuff at low prices (although I suppose that if you compared my salary to any other United Methodist pastor, I am definitely underselling them. The Rock is the only church with 300 people that no one wants!) Wal-Mart’s core commitment is to families making less than $30,000 a year.

You laugh and think, how many people is that? Even if it’s not a huge number of people, it’s a population no one else works with, markets to (except Rent-A-Center and Check Exchange places—now those are evil industries all you cool people need to jump on, not Wal-Mart). So Wal-Mart has an edge over other companies who think that they need to market their business to the folks with money, disposable income, so to speak. It’s working, obviously. I know people who gripe about Wal-Mart and all they can do is be ashamed when I catch them there.

Back in the day, I was tired of working for the Man. A bud and I decided we were going to go into business together, mostly because we thought if we had our own business we could write off some bad-boy Dodge trucks (I was riding a bike at the time; I was desperate). We never did go for it (I sometimes regret it; I would have like to have tried), but we became intrigued by some business ideas we studied. There are a number of restaurant/food franchises available that cater to very small towns (we were in Mississippi, so that was only making sense), towns that did not and would not have a McDonald’s or any other restaurants. You could buy a series of franchises and be set up in a bunch of towns and make it work. Things like Broaster Chicken that you see in country stores, and stores here on the Northside where people walk.

So for a few years I have had it in my head that apparently anyone can put up a warehouse in the burbs, plug in some amps and video screens and fail miserably. They’re even failing miserably when they pack the place, but that’s another story. But what kind of fool plants a church downtown? Um, that would be Rosario. What kind of lunatic pushes a church to let go of the many people coming from far away (who because of distance and lack of commitment come only on Sunday) and instead focuses on a neighborhood of poor people, the very neighborhood churches left behind to move to the warehouses in the burbs?

But it’s not lunacy. Wal-Mart is making a killing. Maybe we’ll be able to, as well.

Finally, tho, the issue of hating Wal-Mart rears its head in many ways. Do we hate Wal-Mart for imagined oppression of its workers, or because if Wal-Mart succeeds, the poor will be able to break out of our last hold on them: the display we make of them. The fundamental feature of poverty is being on display. They don’t look like us, talk like us, smell like us… but many more of them now can break out of the display we would make of them—because of Wal-Mart.

A Wal-Mart church ought to be no surprise. Wal-Mart has said, “Comprehension of the market is upon me, and the inevitable conclusion is that we must bring low prices to the poor.” I wonder if the Church can get this? I mean, can the United Methodist Church understand this? That there are more than enough poor and hungry and disabled and uneducated (stop me if this is sounding too much like the Acts of the Apostles or the early Methodists) to fill more churches than we can build?

The place where we diverge from Wal-Mart is in profit. We’re not going to make much money. In fact, it may cost us some money. That is, we might have to act like Christians. We will no longer be able to say that a church has to be a self-funded entity. We will say that if there is anyone hungry the rest of us will fast until there is enough to eat. We will pay for and send out apostles where the people are and set up not just missions or stopping points for our motorcades of generosity that swoop in and leave, but we will set up churches, where the Word is preached and spirit and stomach is filled with the goodness of the Lord. This is hard because we are tight-fisted. It’s one thing that in our school system we don’t support the poor kids; it is another entirely, one certainly for judgment, when the church will not provide worship for the poor. It is hard, but our Bishop has said we must be willing to afford the poor.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Somebody named Prue tried to comment on an entry. Somehow, the comment was lost... sorry!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Sunday Dinner

It seems that a lot of good things happen in the kitchen. I find myself wishing that I had paid more attention to my mom in the kitchen. For starters, I would not be playing catch-up so much on cooking. For another, I would have noticed how much love starts there. It’s not just Kim Newman saying “sex starts in the kitchen.” It’s more the simple things. One evening, I made some fried potatoes to go with pork chops. I suppose I diced them up because the boys like them small and it cooks all the way through—seems to taste better. Ica said that it was very sweet that I took the time to do that. I never gave it much thought, but it did make me remember all the small things my mom did to feed us, and it was always just there so I did not know what to say, not even thank you.

Sundays we relax after church and do a bit of cooking for a good Sunday meal that will give us some leftovers. Most times it’s roast chicken. The stray cat (ok, so he’s not stray anymore. Jessie set him up a pallet in a big plastic bin turned to the house so he is out of the wind and getting some warmth from the walls. And Joe has trimmed the cat’s whiskers—the cat sat there in his lap while he did it. The cat loves Joseph. Now there’s talk of getting him a flea collar); anyway, the stray cat eats the heart and liver they put in the chicken.

Tonight it’s roast. Sara will eat with us and so will Leo, and if we’re lucky, Leo will spend the night and there will be coffee drunk and Jesus spoken of. There’s an added treat. The carrots are coming on, and so I got to go out in the front yard and pull up three turnips and some of my Half-long carrots. The kitchen smells like dirt, carrots, and garlic.

And if you’re lucky, or maybe just really good, the conversation can be deep and good. I am longing for the kinds of discussion that are not trite or simple, that touch on deep stuff we may not agree on. And even if opinions are strong and points heated, goodwill still prevails. It seems this is lost in America.


Speaking of having strong opinions, Sara Smith caught the tail-end of Shane Claiborne’s talk at Asbury. She ran into him just after and asked him point-blank, “What do you think of the exclusivity of Christ?” He knew it is a deep and divisive topic. He took a step back and said that he did not think it was clear from the Bible—that is, what about the Hebrews in the Old Testament? He said judgment comes from Matthew 25, if we love our neighbor.

Sara said, “Why do you accept some words of Jesus, but not when He says, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life, and no one [Sara’s emphasis] comes to the Father except through me’?”

Claiborne answered, “it’s just not clear from the bible.”

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Eat Your Vegetables

So there's John and Joe, miserable. A plate of mixed veggies before them. Sure, there's taters and pork chops, too. But it's the corn, green beans and carrots killing them.

I tell them that I, too, hated vegetables as a boy. I gave them my strategies: eat a bite, add the pork chop, swig of milk, gut it out.

I tell them about veggies being good for them. I tell them I want them to eat them, to be healthy, because I love them.

John says, "I wish you loved me less."

We all lose it.

With John, it's like this. First thing in the morning, he'll just launch into something. I was snuggling with him the next morning, after the veggie incident. He is not awake yet. Then, his little eyes pop open and he says, "When I was in Mommy's belly, there was a cord. She ate stuff and it went thru that cord. Why don't you have a cord for me and Joe and then you can eat the vegetables?"

Sunday, November 2, 2008

There's A Real Question at The End

I have hit the point where I recognize that I am going to have undo and then redo my seminary education. What happened is this: last night, I finished reading Shane Claiborne’s Jesus for President. I found, as has been brewing in my mind, that too much of my seminary education either leads to his conclusions or is the groundwork for his book, and I don’t like that.

I am appalled—no, that’s not right. I am… what? Frustrated? That my seminary education, Master of DIVINITY, for crying out loud, could be so contextualized.

Of course, some of you who know me well are thinking, “Well, Aaron, you are the very person who has been saying you don’t read much written after the fourth century. So you should not be surprised at this turn of events. It’s not Shane Claiborne’s fault. He’s just the guy who pushed you over the edge.” And that’s right. I respect his book and like a lot of it. It’s tropes are what bother me, too much to go into because they’re not the point.

I have been watching for a while, I guess. I sense that theologians understand their irrelevance. They do not drive discourse in ethics or philosophy the way they once did. In fact, theologians are derivative nowadays—they glom off the trends of secular academia. Feminism, queer theory, whatever is hot in academia will be hot in seminaries ten years later, complete with the rock star profs.

In 1989, I took a class at little ole Southern Miss, “Post-Modernism and Political Theory.” Even we were a little late getting to Foucault and Derrida, Habermas and Fish. So when I see religious books trying to explain post-modernism, I think back to some words spoken by a literary theorist to me in 1995, “Post-modernism has ceased to be instructive. We’re moving on.”

I went to Asbury. And really, what I am talking about here—a seminary education based on fads-- is the bigger problem at Asbury, not the cabal to oust Jeff Greenway and the faculty blood-letting that followed, or the cult of personality around former President Maxie Dunnam. It’s so Soviet at the seminary that about all you can hope for is that there will be a 20th Party Congress to denounce the excesses of the past, and some of the exiles can come home.

When I was in seminary, “Servant Leadership” was all the rage. The idea of servant leadership summed up all of ministry, theory and practice. Our core courses were “Servant as Liturgist” or “Servant as Liberator,” and other such high-sounding names. Now it seems to focus on “community.” No one knows what “community” is, but if you say the word, especially in a breathy way, and add the adjective “beloved,” everyone will swoon and attest to the truth of anything you say after that. In a year or two, there will be a new theme that sums up all of ministry and if your lay people will just drink the kool-aid, churches will grow and the kingdom will come.

So how can we resist? How do we undo and then redo? Part of the problem lies within academia and an academic model for seminaries. To make it in the academic world, you have to publish, and to publish you have to have something new to say. And the problem there is that when you are talking about orthodoxy, there is nothing new to say. Nothing. The prime value in seminary is on having something new, different. What if it is heretical? You’ll never know until many years later, perhaps not even in your lifetime. But there is so much insistence to jump on some new thing, some cool thing. Do you know where it leads? What it’s logical conclusions and/or practical outworkings are?

I suppose that many of you know that I do not hold on to things just cuz.

We have become prosperous and self-absorbed. When the ancient church speaks to us, we get edgy. We’ll take their mojo but not their substance. Candles and incense, cool. Fasting and study of doctrine, not so much. We think Third World Christians are on fire. Quaint, but on fire. If we could just get them over here, teach them some Form Criticism and get them to back off condemning abortion and homosexuality, we could harness their fire.

I don’t have anything more to say at least not that will make sense on this topic (and I have not made much of that here). So how do we rebuild our seminary, our theological, education?

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Joy and Pain

So, Friday night was a night Jesus was very happy about.

First, I married Robert Isaacs and Tina Wilson. They have been coming on Monday night, and have decided to commit their lives to Jesus. It was a small wedding in the chapel. I keep finding out that the folks from the neighborhood don’t have big weddings. They don’t have the big web of relationships that so many of us have. They don’t send out wedding invitations—it’s word of mouth and sometimes if the person you ask to ask so-and-so is feuding with so-and-so, there won’t be no invite!

A couple from the church who could not come sent some beautiful flowers.

Jessie and I had a good time meeting the families and eating cake. As everyone filed out after the reception, I was greeted with a handshake and a sly smile and the cryptic, “M.O.G.” I asked Michael Keaton what that was and he said that as they were talking, they decided to call me the “Man of God,” or “M.O.G.” I pray to live up to that.

Then the youth had a surprise party for Michael Mazariegos. The place was packed. Video games, Twister, general merriment. What a youth group: black, white, African, Hispanic. How is any of this happening? We don’t have any money. There’s nothing remarkable about us. We have nothing to offer in the way of the world. We just love Jesus. We want to know Him well and make Him well-known, as Becky Pippert says. It happens up and down the line. You really should come to our children’s ministry on Wednesday night. And the next Wednesday, hang with the youth. And the Wednesday after that, come to prayer meeting, in English, Spanish, Lingala, and French. And come on any Monday evening and see 100 people, brand new to the church.

This summer was hard. We had to root out some junk in the church. When we did, I kind of thought, “ok, we passed through that. Let’s move on.” I am ashamed to say that it took me awhile to realize that when you clear the paths, blessing comes.

But it’s not all joy today.

One boy, a boy on my heart, just lost it over nothing late last night. Freaked completely, and did his best to tear down everything good in his life.

And another girl, with a lot on her plate—her dad is in jail on her birthday.

It would be a lot easier to not care. To do something else. Being a pastor sucks. You’re in a fish bowl. There’s people in your own congregation who would love nothing more than to tear you down. They’ll go after your wife. And if they did not know that you would tear their lungs out, they’d hit your kids, too. And then, the devil is busy kicking all your little flock’s asses. So, sure, some days you think, “I’ll get a regular job. Home in the evening, on weekends. Come home, watch tv, hide out and don’t give a rip about what’s going on.” That’s the American Dream anyway. But you know why I can’t do that. There’s weddings and birthday parties!

If I can paraphrase Patton. I don’t want to change the world. It’s the devil who changed it. I just want to go back to when it was a cool garden and at the end of the day you waited to hear God’s footsteps, knowing He was coming for supper.