Monday, November 7, 2011

Star Trek Never Seemed So Possible (or, “A Very Geeky Blog Post”)

In regards to the title of this blog episode, I should perhaps clarify. I’m not a “trekkie.” I like the television series in all its many forms. I’m just not a fanatic. I felt this fact needed to be stated for my own integrity and reputation as a serious person. That said, Star Trek is on my mind a lot lately. Let me explain.

I do not know if all of the amazing things in the world of Star Trek will ever become reality. Transporters, really? Maybe. The food replicaters would be nice, but come on! Who would give up grill’n burgers and brats over open coals? And in what reality would William Shatner ever be taken seriously enough to become a captain?

There is, however, at least one piece of trek-oligy that is not only likely to become a reality, it already is! In the show they had to come up with a way to easily allow for all of these crazy alien types to communicate with each other without an endless scroll of subtitles. No one would tolerate a show that required more reading than listening. Let’s face it, we are too couch-potato-ified for subtitles! On the other had, it wouldn’t seem very likely that everyone in the future simply learned every possible language in the science fiction universe. The solution, a universal translator of course!

The show’s universal translator allows people to simply speak their own native language, while it is instantly translated into the ear of the listener. Amazing! Impossible? Believe it or not, we are already moving in that direction. I use the web based program Google Translate every day here in Germany. I can type in any letter, any email, or even Wilson’s homework assignments, and presto change-o, it is instantly transformed into English. It’s not perfect, but it is workable. Even my web browser automatically translates webpages that use foreign languages. Some people actually have an app on their mobile phone that allows them to speak into the phone, and then play back an audio of the proper translation. This feature recently saved a pastor friend of mine a great deal of frustration in an Italian taxi!

Now, here is why this fascinates me. What is one of the greatest obstacles in missions? Even beyond culture, it is language.  Trust me, I know. As I fumble through conversations in German, I am constantly reminded of the enormous missional and evangelistic potential of these emerging communication aids. Imagine your church is going on a two week mission trip to Romania. One problem, no one speaks Romanian. No problem! You have a handy little universal translator! The potential to share the gospel becomes limitless. The confidence alone that a mission team would gain would by itself make their mission efforts more productive.

It will be exciting to see how technology advances into the future, and how Christians might use that technology for the Kingdom. As our world becomes more and more connected, and as internationals continue to cluster everywhere from Wiesbaden, Germany to Raleigh, North Carolina, these kinds of tools will certainly play a vital role in ministry. Just imagine a day of technological Pentecost in which believers from all parts of the world could listen to the same sermon, in the same room, yet hear it in the language of their hearts! What a day of rejoicing that will be!      

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Thursday, September 15, 2011

"Like A Hungry Man to A French Fry"

When in Europe, why not travel? Why not see it all?

The family and I do most of our sightseeing pretty locally. This is mostly due to financial constraints and ministry commitments. However, it is also somewhat by choice. There are so many amazing things to experience right around the corner from our house. We know others in the Wiesbaden area who are able to do a lot more of what you might call “serious travel,” going to all sorts of distant lands, from Athens to Budapest. Yet we are happily perfecting the so called day trip. It is typically quick, fun, and cheap!

I love seeing castles and ruins, vast forests, and medieval towns. Something strange is happening, however. Something is shifting in the way I experience these sights. More and more I find myself listening for that familiar ring of the English language. At first I gave little thought to the sound of fellow tourists speaking my native tongue. Now, I zero in on it like a hungry man on a french fry!
 
If I can, if the opportunity seems natural and not forced, I increasingly approach these English chatterers to strike up a little conversation. When I say hello and ask if they are American, the reaction is typically one of shock and joy. This is especially true if they turn out to be someone living and working here in Germany for a long period of time.

Most of these conversations simply cannot last very long. These people are, after all, on tour. Time is precious. Yet it is often just enough of a moment to do a touch of ministry and encouragement. Sometimes I glean a bit of information that I can offer up in prayer latter on. At other moments it seems the real ministry was to merely offer a brief taste of the familiar.

These encounters teach me two powerful lessons. They certainly teach me over and over again why Immanuel Baptist Church, where I serve as pastor, is so vital here in Germany. We do offer English speakers a consistent taste of the familiar. We communicate hope and healing in a language that is understood. We connect with people who may frequently feel adrift in a strange and uncharted sea.

More deeply, I am learning that I can never be just a tourist. This is not true because I am an ordained minister. This is true because I am a follower of Jesus, a minister in the very sense that all believers are ministers. As disciples, there is no off switch for our responsibilities to our fellow human beings. Our ears should be open at all times to the voice of the other, to connect, to heal, to offer hope, and to point the way to God. We need not do this in forced or superficial ways. All of us have had our door bells rung by someone, track or pamphlet in hand, claiming they “want to get to know us better.” It is nauseating! We should, rather, stay alert for those “natural” moments that only the Spirit can create. Then, act in genuine and loving ways to simply reach out.

Whether on vacation or at the mall, whether in the shopping mart or the sports field, we are on call to humanity. We need only look and listen.  

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Have You Seen My Goat?

You know you live in a village when…

You know you live in a village when you see your farmer neighbor driving a horse drawn wagon more often than a tractor.

You know you live in a village when someone comes up to you on the street and frantically asks, “Have you seen my goat? I’ve lost my goat!”

You know you live in a village when the air smells of strawberries one day and of cow manure the next.

Finally, you know you live in a village when a herd, sixty or seventy strong, of sheep come screaming past your house—blocking all traffic and filling the air with the sound of “Baaaaaahhhhhh!”

Yes, I live in a village. It is not a small village by any means. In fact there is even a Real (pronounced Ree All), which is a bit like a K-Mart. The town of Nordenstadt is about half the size of my hometown of Whiteville, NC. So, there are certainly smaller and more rural locations in the Wiesbaden area. I mean, it’s no Kloppenheim! It is, none the less, a village by American standards. And, in a village life is different, slower, quieter.  

In small towns and villages, neighbors still hold neighbors to the cultural expectations that are rapidly lost in larger German cities. We are, for example, expected to refrain from outdoor work or boisterous play during quite hours, which run from 1:00 to 3:00 pm every day. Saturday is for mowing the grass. Mow your grass! Everyone must work together to keep the common areas clean and free of snow and leaves. Speak! Never simply ignore a neighbor. Say “Hallo, guten tag.” Anything less is just rude. And, of course, help each other. If your neighbor has a need, seek to meet that need. People are obligated to people in small town Germany.

So, I ask you, is our little German village all that different from small town USA? Not really. They still know the value of a good neighbor. A good and respectable neighbor, who helps and supports the neighborhood, who works with and not against the community, and who tries to follow the social customs—this is valued just about anywhere.

I am trying hard to keep this in mind. All disciples should strive to witness to God’s love through neighborliness. After all, being a good neighbor us just the Christian thing to do. 


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Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Children's Sermon

“And now, I’d like to invite all of the children to join me on the steps for the children’s sermon.”  I say those words almost every Sunday.  They are followed by the mad rush of hurried little feet making their way past me onto the top step of the chancel.  I then sit down with all those beaming faces in a Mr. Rogers styled flop, followed by a loud and hearty welcome.  Then, week after week, I make my feeble attempt, as quickly as possible, before I’ve totally lost their attention, with as much creativity as I can possibly muster, to teach them something.

But what can you really teach a child in 2-3 minutes?  An even bigger question is what can you possibly say that will actually make sense to a child?  Ever since my wife presented a research paper at the Carolina Psychology Conference on children’s ability to understand religious metaphors I have been crystal clear on the fact that young children are totally literal thinkers.  When you say, “Give your heart to Jesus,” they think you mean your actual, physical heart.  Or, perhaps they think you mean give him a valentine.  They do not really get it!  Other studies confirm this truth.  Now, considering the fact that most of the really fun children’s sermon ideas rely almost totally on metaphorical language, this is a problem for me!  Ugh!  

While I certainly think that Sunday School teachers and parents should set out in plain, literal language the truth of scripture in the most understandable, clear, and non-metaphorical ways, I’m not so sure if that really works for a children’s sermon.  Besides, I just can’t resist using props, doing tricks, and finding an excuse to throw a paper airplane in church!  But, are they getting any real message?  Hmmmm…

Now, added to the literal thinking problem is the fact that several of the children who come forward, and stare at me with those wide eyes, and giggle when I act like a clown… actually have no idea what I am saying.  Some speak no English at all!  Others only have a limited understanding of the language.  What could they possibility get from my so called children’s sermon?

I have received, however, a modest revelation.  As I look into their faces, and they look into mine, as we connect and enjoy each other’s company, as we have a roaring good time in the middle of a worship service, they are actually learning everything they need to know in that moment.  They may not understand the message.  It is even less likely they would remember it, even if they got it!  Here is what they do know. Their pastor loves them.  They hold a central place in the life and worship of their church.  They matter.  Church is actually a pretty fun place to be.  And, most importantly, God really is love after all!  Those are lessons they will always remember.

I think it is important for all Christians, not just the pastors, to find ways to communicate the love of God to children, and to show them just how important they are within the church.  You don’t have to use clever tricks or tricky metaphors either.  Just pay attention to them.  Speak to them.  Love them.  It will make a lifetime of differences.  I promise. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Salt & Bread

“In Germany,” explained a German member of our congregation, “it is traditional to give as housewarming gifts bread and salt… you know, so that they will always have bread and salt. Get it?” I didn’t get it. Was there something lost in translation?

We were helping one of our dear sisters move into a safer apartment across town. As we worked we frequently shared cultural differences and similarities relating to hospitality, welcome, and friendship. In the southern states of America, we give casseroles when people are moving in. Come to think of it, we give casseroles for just about every occasion in the south. What’s up with that? In addition to a casserole you might also get a pounding—a scary sounding possibility when you first hear of it! Just to clarify, a pounding has nothing to do with the infliction of physical violence. Rather, it involves friends and neighbors bringing you a pound of various staples, such as flour, sugar, and, hmmmnnn…. bread and salt. Maybe the bread and salt thing is not so different after all.

There is, however, no special meaning to these items when given in the US, other than filling your pantry with possibilities for cooking. With the bread and salt in Germany, I would soon learn, there was more to it—something symbolic. When pressed for clarity, my German friends explained bread symbolizes basic sustenance for life. You give bread as a symbol of the hope that this house will never be without food. Salt is flavor. To give salt is an expression of the prayer that those dwelling in this new home will ever have lives full of flavor, fully lived, full of life. Beautiful! What a grand symbol of hope and hospitality, of desiring the best for someone else’s life!    

This also explains why the parsonage pantry was stocked so full of bread and salt when first we moved in! I mean, MAN that was a lot of bread!

While this practice is rapidly dying out on the younger generations, I deeply hope its spirit will endure. At its heart, the bread and salt are about offering blessings. When do we ever say a blessing over another’s life? Symbols or not, most of us living within western culture no longer actively speak blessing on others. Why did this practice ever fade away? Why did a behavior so detailed, called for, and exemplified in numerous biblical stories just up and move away from mainstream culture?

Some may not be into casseroles, shame on you for that by the way. We may not want to vex our friends and neighbors with bread and salt. We may not want to utter some religious sounding “bless you brother” over those we love. We can, however, bless. I think that blessing boils down to speaking words of lavish and idealistic hope into the lives of others. Blessing is when, for no reason and for no occasion, we simply speak words of encouragement and well wishes for a person’s life and future. These good words are good for the soul—both ours and theirs. They remind all of us that part of being human is fearlessly hoping the best for our fellow creatures—for the person beside you in the checkout line, the neighbor, the soul in the next pew, the drunk begging for change on the corner of First and Main.         

Monday, March 21, 2011

Of Schnitzels and Country Hams

It is funny the things you miss when you are living abroad. I haven’t really been away from the States long enough to miss very much, but there are some things. I don’t miss a lot of American junk food and fast food joints. After all, there are plenty of McDonald’s around Germany, but I haven’t waltzed into nary a one. I do go to the Taco Bell on the military base, but that is more for the fellowship than for the joy of eating a really bad burrito. There are a lot of products and foods common in the U.S. that I can’t find here either—like Gatorade, butter beans, cream of chicken and mushroom soup, and, of course, Sundrop. But I can’t say I long for those things. A lot of people tell me they miss their favorite American TV shows. Not me! I catch some shows on the Armed Forces Network and Hulu, but it’s not a big deal to me.

Do you want to know what I REALLY miss? Smoked, salt cured, country ham from Laden’s General store in Belvedere, North Carolina!

Oh! Uhm… and family! Yes, I definitely miss family (they’re probably reading this).     

If you asked me, however, before I would even have a chance to think about it, I’d probably tell you it is the ham! That’s bad, isn’t it? It is also weird, because I didn’t really eat all that much ham back in the States. At about $45.00 a ham, you can imagine why! Yet, maybe two or three times a year, I would drive out to Belvedere and buy a ham. I guess it is more just the idea that I couldn’t get one, even if I wanted to.

They are perfect. Mr. Laden smokes them himself, just behind the store. The store itself is perfect, a one room country store that sells everything from homemade chocolate covered peanuts to collards. In the back is the amazing little meat market, with the cured hams and side meat just hanging right there on the wall like brown and black Christmas ornaments of pure melt in your mouth joy to the world! Cut the hams in half to reveal a work of art colored in ruby red and pink with stunning marbling of smoky fat. I always had Mr. Laden cut off the hock end and quarter it for dropping in as seasoning for green beans and the like. Mmmmmmmmmmm, Good.

I am so blessed with amazing and diverse food choices here in Germany. This is why I find it so strange that I have craved one of these hams for several weeks now. I think it hit me today. No matter what it is, TV shows, fast food, or country hams, my reasons for missing what I miss are the same as they are for anyone else missing what they miss. It is part of human nature to want most what we know we cannot have.

Think about it! We torture ourselves over the trifling things we lack, in spite of all of the wonderful things that we have. One of the many things that Germany is teaching me is to become content. I don’t know if I’ll ever find country ham over here. It probably exists. Even so, it wont be Laden’s. What I do have, however, is some awesome bratwurst and amazing schnitzel!

Yet, contentment goes deeper than appreciating one’s food choices. Contentment comes in enjoying true life in the surprises and mysteries of the every day patterns and the common occurrences. If all we ever live for is the big moments, are we truly living? What about the normal moments? They are more frequent I think. Learning to live in every moment and appreciate every common option is a part of the life to the full. I am learning this. I am learning that God gives life and joy in the things that are available to us far more deeply than in the things we do not have. God does normal more than the miraculous. Seeing this makes all the difference.      

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Trashy Topic

I really can’t remember who said it now, maybe Mark Twain, “If you got rid of all the preachers and all the garbage collectors at the same time, who do you think you would miss first?”

There is no question that in Germany it is the garbage collectors we would first long for! Germany is a nation that takes trash, trash collection, trash disposal, and trash classification very seriously! In every German home you will find not one, but four trash cans. There is one for all recyclable paper. A separate recycling container is for materials like plastic, foil, and packaging. Another can exists, with a tightly sealed lid, for “bio.” Bio is all food scraps, coffee grounds, tea bags, and plant material. Finally, there is a can for plain old junk. Oh, and glass? That's a whole "nother" topic! 

Failure to properly sort and deposit refuse is a serious offense. If nothing else, your neighbors will glare at you and speak angry words that I simply cannot understand! Trust me, I know! Just the other day my wife accidentally left the bio in a plastic bag, which deeply offended our neighbors, to the point that they left us a nasty note! I know, I know… we are stupid foreigners! We simply cannot apologize enough that fact!

We don’t take trash separation quite so seriously in the states. Maybe we should. The fact is, however, we don’t really care where it goes so long as it goes! In this sentiment, we are probably united with all modernized cultures. Few families would stand for allowing the trash to simply build up at the roadside. I mean, seriously, my trash reeks! Carrying my junk to the common trash bins is always a walk of shame! Did I mention it stinks?

We get rid of trash because it is an awful thing to keep around. What about spiritual trash? Are we as quick and desperate about cleaning that out? I think the opening quote about garbage collectors and preachers is really, more than anything, an indictment against bad preachers, spewing out bad theology, to a very sick people who allow the spiritual garbage to pile up at the door.

We carry around junk like the gospel of prosperity, that if I just have enough faith and give enough to the preacher, I’ll be blessed with wealth and success. Junk! We often view God as either a cosmic Santa who grants all our wishes if we are good little boys and girls, or as a Zeus-like tyrant throwing lightning bolts at all who displease him! Junk and junk! We put up with trashy ideas about church governance, giving all too much authority to those preachers—the good ones and the bad! Smelly junk! We subscribe to the attendance view of being a Christian, that as long as I show up at church and get counted, I’m somehow magically a disciple. That is not magically delicious, it is junk!

I could go on. You could fill in your own observations about junk. There are no shortages of examples of trashy theology. In fact, there is a gross pile of it that most of us allow in great heaps. We hang on to it and live with it, even though it stinks. It makes us sick, but we keep it right next to our precious and priceless treasures. We feel in our gut that it is not good for us, not right for us. Trust me, I know. I have my own little pile of filth! Maybe we all just need a well intentioned German neighbor to yell at us!