Wednesday, September 30, 2009

At Last: I Reveal My Secret

I eat a little ice cream every night -- Caramel Delight, these days. I hereby record the following apparent benefits:

FACT: I am well-like by some of my friends.

FACT: I seem to avoid nearly all illnesses.

FACT: I meticulously obey traffic laws.

FACT: I can usually remember where I left my keys and wallet.

FACT: I just celebrated my 33rd anniversary with Robin.

FACT: I have traveled to several foreign countries.

The amazing evidence that eating ice cream has, without a doubt, resulted in these and other benefits is indisputable. I'm sure there are others, too. I commend ice cream to all my readers!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Death By Sermon, Part One

*** Sermons. I got a crate full of 'em -- mostly my own. Some are on tapes (remember them?) and in digital file. I'll give you as many as you want -- free!! Just take your pick. Not that excited? Me either -- as in I don't even want to listen to me! Makes me wonder about the value of all these sermons after all. Do we really know why we sermonize or trust so much in sermons to produce growing Christians? Some thoughts follow...

* * * *

If he is like I once was, your pastor probably spends a large amount of time preparing a sermon for delivery each week. It's likely to be high up in the job description: "must be able to 'preach' (that is, to sermonize). Each week he or she must design sermons that are engaging, biblically sound, stimulating, well-illustrated and, hopefully, applicable to the real lives of their audience. To borrow a phrase from a friend, they must somehow pump out a continous stream of "new" (if not necessarily fresh) material.

Maybe this is one reason why good sermon-givers can be well paid. Those who sermonize well may have a lot to do with attracting a bigger audience to the church -- a phenomenon known, in some circles, as "church growth".

For reasons like these, sermons tend to be delivered by pros -- or at least people who are supposed to be pros. Our job is to listen to the pros and then critique them over a ham sandwich after church is over. While listening to the 1/2 hour to hour of "preaching", we aren't supposed to think about ham sandwichs or other lunch meats, or whether the Dodgers will go all the way in the post-season, or a host of other mind-occupying distractions. We are supposed to be listening to "the word" and "the word" is supposed to have impact. This impact is measured differently in various church cultures. A "good" sermon can get people to lift their hand while "every eye is closed and every head bowed". A really good sermon will actually get people to leave their seats and come to the "altar" (i.e. front of the church where the sermonizer is standing) or to go on their knees or to otherwise become available to the "ministry time" that follows the message.

Most of you will never really understand what the sermon-deliverer (usually the pastor) goes through every week once they have left the building. They know that a room full of people just surrendered a whole bunch of their precious weekend time and attention to them. They know that either they were "on" or not-so-on that particular day and that getting people to return and keep returning requires lots of "on" days. I mean, think of what the sermonizer is up against. It is, after all, exceedingly uncommon these days for people to sit still and listen to anyone speak -- especially when the sermon or teaching may require a half hour or more to deliver. Now multiply this week after week over a number of years. Now add in the fact that your intention is to ellicit deep and enduring spiritual and practical responses in your audience. Yikes! It's easy to see why "special music", videos, dramas and other sermon-boosters are put into the mix. It's also easy to see why excellent sermonizers are like rock stars with a rare and dazzling talent.

Excellent or not, the fact is that in most of our evangelical church services the sermon is the centerpiece of the worship service as in: "come for the sermon - stay for the worship". Sermons are centered on the Bible but, even so, a lot of believers don't even bother to bring their Bibles to church. They have often been trained not to do so by the "preachers". In many cases, the pastor or speaker has presumably gone through serious effort to prepare a fine feast for their audience so that their main duty is to sit back, relax, and enjoy the fruits of the sermonizer's labor! This is why many church services are not so much "worship" services as much as they are "sermon delivery systems". The musical worship before the message is often keyed to the sermon and the follow up worship music is meant to extend the emotional and spiritual impact of the spoken message, too. Man, we put a lot of stock in sermonizing! Man, we expect a lot from these messages! So why is their "shelf life" so seemingly short?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

House Church Worship Art?

You know how it's become kind of trendy for churches to release visual artists to paint during the worship set these days? I believe it is tied to the notion that the spirit of worship is alive in the congregation and is presumably inspiring the artistic expressions of praise and devotion created by the painters and artists. Makes sense to me...

Well, last weekend at our house church, we experienced a different sort of worship art (you might say) while we were gathered together in the livning room lifting our hearts to the Lord. Right in our midst, the children were singing and praising God while quietly playing with their blocks on the floor (I like this about house church: that the kids are "in" with the grownups during worship -- as kids -- and not as mini-adults).

I had been leading worship on the guitar with my eyes closed. It was after the third song or so that I opened my eyes to see the image you are now viewing in the photo posted here. She was right at my feet and in the middle of our assembled group.

I instantly felt it was not only "worship art" of a different kind, but also a sort of prophetic word from the Lord to our small assembly. See what you think...

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

"In Treatment": Crack For Students of the Human Condition

Sorry if I've been a little hard to find, lately. See, we were in the Seattle area for a week and, while there, I happened upon a box of DVDs from Season One of the HBO series "In Treatment". Since then, I've been obsessively spying on a number of psychotherapy sessions involving a middle aged therapist and an array of his fascinating patients. Don't worry -- they have no idea I'm watching them or that I can hear EVERYTHING they say. And get this: I have even been tagging along with the good Doctor as he shows up for sessions with his former supervisor. You should see him engage in battle with her (played very believably by Diane Wiest) as he wrestles through his own issues. Pretty delicious stuff, you say? Yes, indeed. But, don't be jealous. There's a seat behind the one way mirror for you, too!

"In Treatment" began life as an award-winning Israeli production called "BeTipul". This HBO production features the character of Doctor Paul Weston who is played by the excellent Gabriel Byrne (The Usual Suspects, etc). In Season One, his patients include an admiring, unpredictable and beautiful 30-year-old anesthesiologist, a grounded military jet pilot with an attitude the size of Texas, a troubled young gymnast and a couple who are as volatile as a Molotov Cocktail. Meanwhile, the ever-cool, ever-focused Doctor Westin has troulbes of his own. His marriage to Kate is on the brink and his kids seem to get the leftovers of his time and attention. Sure, each episode pretty much consists of a small number of people sitting in a room, talking. However, there are plenty of ingredients here for a spicy, spicy stew.

As a Pastoral Counselor who works with Marriage and Family Therapists and Interns in a professional environment, there is plenty in "In Treatment" that I can relate to. In fact, I can't recall a more true-to-life dramatic portrayal of the powerful and mysterious aspects of the counseling or psychotherapeutic process: the mystery, the edginess, the raw honesty, the doubts, the risks, joys, intimacy, pains and triumphs. And as someone who has been on "the other side of the couch" as a client, I totally get Paul's desire to lash himself to someone he can trust in search of his own answers.

"In Treatment" is not perfect and a binge can be exhausting. There are things that are definitley amped up for dramatic effect. The language and subject matter definitely earn a strong "R" rating -- this is NOT kid stuff. Still, I find the series to be riveting, educational, bittersweet and even a little depressing (I'd like to conclude on this last point).

"In Treatment" for all its considerable benefits, reminds me of how blessed and fortunate I am to live, practice counseling, and work in an environment that honors Jesus Christ, respects the notion of "truth" and employs (where appropriate) things like prayer, Scripture and other gifts of the Holy Spirit. Over and over, the powerful moments portrayed on the screen remind me that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom".

It is not religiosity that helps in this regard, but what the Bible refers to as "the light". I love the way counseling / psychotherpay can invite brute honesty, self-awareness and even a very unique and beautiful form of love. But when the Holy Spirit is honored, one's own sinfulness is accounted for, and an atmosphere of total regard and service is supplied, counseling provides a unique opportunity for two or more to "walk in the light as He is in the light" (and, according to I John) "have fellowship with one another".

I'm gonna keep hangin' with the Doc and his crew throughout the rest of Season One's unviewed discs. Furthermore, Season Two is now up and running and, as I understand it, there are plenty of new adventures to go on. But even as I feed my appetite for this portrayal of raw humanity, I will continue to miss and long for the things that only God can bring to the healing process and maybe, just maybe, I'll say a prayer for the Doctor Paul's of this world and their clients who, like me, need that mysterious thing called "grace" as they live their lives in a sharp-edged world.