Sep 25, 2009

Darwin Awards

The Darwin Awards are a chronicle of enterprising demises honoring those who improve the species by accidentally removing themselves from it! One must be slightly sick (in the best possible sense of the word) to enjoy these, but some of them are downright hilarious. There is even a web site that offers at least a hundred such stories (

One of my favorites from several years ago tells this story:

A man walked into a Louisiana Circle-K, put a $20 bill on the counter, and asked for change. When the clerk opened the cash drawer, the man pulled a gun and asked for all the cash in the register, which the clerk promptly provided. The man took the cash from the clerk and fled, leaving the $20 bill on the counter. The total amount of cash he got from the drawer...$15.

If someone points a gun at you and gives you money, is a crime committed?

Sep 18, 2009

Caught in the Middle

Someone near Detroit, Michigan, called and asked: “Do you know that poor guy, Jerry McCullough, the school superintendent in Arlington? I said “Yes, as a matter of fact I was at a breakfast meeting with him on Wednesday and had lunch with him on Thursday.” Why would anyone from Michigan call a Texan about a local news story concerning a church and public school? Below is a story that that has disturbed far too many.

Six days after drawing fire for not showing President Barack Obama’s speech to schoolchildren, Arlington Superintendent Jerry McCullough announced Monday that he also will not be allowing 600 fifth-graders to attend a Super Bowl event next week featuring former President George W. Bush.

McCullough made national headlines – and issued an apology - last week after it was discovered that he didn’t allow students to watch Obama's speech live, but that the district had previously approved a fifth-grade field trip to the new Cowboys Stadium on Sept. 21, where Bush is scheduled to speak during a Super Bowl XLV kickoff event.

For those of you who do not know Jerry McCullough he is the fellow who has managed to unite each extreme wing of American politics. Dwight and Mrs. Vera McKissic who on the one side graciously said, “we accept the apology of AISD School Superintendent, Jerry McCullough” after demanding an apology and Mark Davis who opined: “Under absurd pressure that should have been dismissed with ease, Superintendent Jerry McCullough buckled, yanking this opportunity [to hear former President and Mrs. Bush] from hundreds of kids to appease the gods of political correctness” at least agree on this much: Jerry is an futile leader.

Where is the sanity? Circumstances put Jerry McCullough in the position of an umpire in a pressure packed game—whatever call he makes the other team thinks, conspiracy, incompetence, or bungling. Jerry never had a chance.

I know Jerry McCullough and he is a good and kind human being who is taking a public beating for decisions that scores of other people no doubt made. I am not sure what the answer is or could have been, but I find it ironic that when we involve our children, adults and their desires/demands can look so childish.

I like what the prophet suggests when he tells us what the Lord says, “Come now, and let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18, KJV). Perhaps this might be an example from which school children could learn.

Sep 11, 2009

A Short Word about Preaching

For years I have had a running debate first with myself and then others about the value of doing sermon series as an alternative to preaching texts from The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). Some homiletic evaluators suggest that sermon series engage people for a time of say, four to six weeks. Others declare sermon series are a way to make the Bible “useful to modern people” (O Lord, please forgive me for typing that sacrilege). Others suggest people in our culture are accustomed to series as in a football season or a series of TV episodes like “The Closer” or “Monk: The Final Season.”

Whatever the ultimate purpose of preaching is, I do know that I have been alternating in a random way for a time between pure “lectionary” and some sermon series. Currently we at FUMC, Arlington have been preaching a five week series on Bishop Robert Schnase’s best-selling book Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations.

This little book describes what the Bishop sees as the five core practices of effective (fruitful) congregations. The chapters cover: Radical Hospitality, Passionate Worship, Intentional Faith Development, Risk-taking Mission and Service, and Extravagant Generosity.

One quandary I have encountered preaching this particular series is the person (several) who says “everyone already knows this” (the content of the practices). Because this statement “everyone already knows this” is more or less true, on my last Sunday in the series I am going to sub-title my sermon: "The Five Practices as Flat or Round Characters."

On that final Sunday I will express an idea of E.M. Forster in his book Aspects of the Novel (1927). Forster describes authors using two kinds of characters as portrayed in a work of literature. Flat characters are two-dimensional and are rather straightforward. They rarely change throughout a novel or short story. On the other hand, a round character is far more multifaceted and undergoes growth throughout the story—often surprising readers. Round characters are the main object of our attention; flat characters are like grooms at a wedding—mostly used as props.

The point I want to make about the relative simplicity of the Five Practices is simply that when we actually engage these practices, then we take them from being “flat” theological principles to “round” ones. This is the point of the gospel. When we move our actions from flat to round gospel principles then we produce fruit.

Sep 5, 2009

Lincoln on Leadership

Last Sunday (30 August 2009) as I was safely tucked into the pulpit someone put in my mailbox a photocopy of the following quotation attributed to Abraham Lincoln:

You cannot bring prosperity by discouraging thrift.
You cannot help small men by tearing down big men.
You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.
You cannot lift the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer.
You cannot help the poor man by destroying the rich.
You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than your income.
You cannot further brotherhood of men by inciting class hatred.
You cannot establish security on borrowed money.
You cannot build character and courage by taking away man's initiative and independence.
You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves.

After reading it with interest, I did some research and found the following explanation about this particular quotation on website dedicated to Lincoln. It said (see: creative/lincoln/speeches/cannot.htm):

These sentiments were created by the Rev. William J. H. Boetcker, who lectured around the United States about industrial relations at the turn of the twentieth century. There is no evidence linking them to Lincoln as the author.

At one time President Ronald Reagan used them in a speech, wrongly attributing them to Lincoln. Those who are familiar with Lincoln's writings, recognize that these statements do not reflect Lincoln's "voice," nor can they be found in any authentic Lincoln literature.

In any event, the quotation reminded me of something that I read about a decade ago. The book was insightful in terms of dealing with people. What follows is a laundry list of chapters in Donald T. Phillips’ 1993 book titled Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times.

Most of these items are pretty practical and those who have read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, (she was at UTA last year) know how winsome and engaging Lincoln could be. Here is a list of Phillip’s chapters:

1. Get out of the office and circulate among the troops
2. Build strong alliances
3. Persuade rather than coerce
4. Honesty and integrity are the best policies
5. Never act out of vengeance or spite
6. Have the courage to handle unjust criticism
7. Be a master of paradox
8. Exercise a strong hand - be decisive
9. Lead by being led
10. Set goals and be results oriented
11. Keep searching until you find your "Grant"
12. Encourage innovation
13. Master the art of public speaking
14. Influence people through conversation and storytelling
15. Preach a vision and continually reaffirm it

Some of my students say that history is boring and what counts is only what is happening right now. Yet I would like to suggest if you can handle people and circumstances with the poise and integrity that Lincoln did, then maybe we won’t flush our historic opportunities down the drain with the rest of civilization.

Sep 2, 2009

When Does an Idol Assume Deity?

As a pastor of a relatively large and diversified urban church reality forces me to address various “crisis” quandaries in which our congregation and members find themselves. The latest is, of course, the so-called “economic crisis.” It is crisis that began in earnest about a year ago and has affected virtually every person in our culture regardless of where he or she falls on the social/economic continuum.

One question we might focus on is how and what Christians might learn from this particular crisis. In fact, we can all learn at least one thing from all crises. That is we can learn whether or not, and to what degree, we as believers trust God. Whether our culture sets up a particular political agenda, a style of national security, or an economy as an object of worship, when these bits and pieces of false devotion crumble all is not lost. As believers we place our faith and hope in God who helps navigate us through all such calamities.

This latest “crisis” is merely an opportunity to share the gospel’s good news that nothing can “separate us from the love of God”—not even Bernie Madoff or Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. In fact, as people live in a panic state whipped up by a constant harangue concerning the state of the economy from television, newspaper, and other media outlets we can test our faith as we move along. This way of testing our faith as we go (is there any other kind?) reminds me of a title of Robert Quinn’s book: Building the Bridge As You Walk On It.

Talk about the state of the economy from television, newspaper, and other media outlets twenty-four hours a day provides the church an anxious and attentive audience it has lacked for some time. We can now address greed, speed, incompetence, and other “sins” that have created our crisis. As a church we can help people cope with their fretful angst and help them re-discover things of eternal value and meaning. I suggest that this is a rare teachable moment for people in our culture. We see crises each day, but the economic crisis is long-lasting and affects everyone. Therefore it offers us a singular prospect to edify in a redemptive way.

Maybe you can help me identify some very good hands-on-stories that illustrate our “idol making” tendency as a 21st century American culture. As we all know our economy only scratches the surface.

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