Tuesday, July 29, 2014

AN OPEN LETTER TO CARTOON NETWORK

Dear Cartoon Network:

Many years ago, I heard that one of the perks of basic cable was this channel that ran many of the classic cartoons I grew up with. Sadly, by the time I joined the 21st century and got hooked up, many of the "oldies but goodies" had been replaced with more modern stories and original programming. My visits to Cartoon Network became very scarce. Then came the programming block known as "Adult Swim." My periodic visits to CN slowed to none.

So imagine my surprise--well, not "surprise", more like "oh really?"--when I heard about Black Jesus, described as a hard drinking, weed smoking, obscenity spewing take on the Savior of the world.  I watched the trailer for the series, complete with bleeped parts, and wondered, "did anybody at Cartoon Network think this through?"

I mean, seriously!  After my initial revulsion, and after reading some articles and comments about the show, I understand the premise.  The title character is not intended to be the real Jesus (as if anybody would mistake him for the genuine article). Instead, he is a crazy homeless man who thinks he's Jesus.  I get it.  The plot line of someone thinking he is the Son of God has been done in books, plays, tvs, and movies.  When done well, the device can call attention to the role of religion and identity, the plights of the mentally ill, and society's reactions to those who are different.  But based on the trailer, I feel as though Black Jesus totally misses the opportunity to explore these weightier issues.

I haven't seen every representation of "disturbed man thinks he's Jesus," but in the ones I have seen and remember, the deluded individuals tend to almost out-Jesus Jesus. In other words, they take the meek, quiet, loving stereotype of Jesus to the nth degree, making him almost super meek, super quiet, super loving and gentle, with pious platitudes and all.   Black Jesus, on the other hand, is crude and foul mouthed and violent.  Aside from self-identifying himself as "Jesus," there is nothing in his actions, attitudes, or speech that would identify him as Jesus. Little kids certainly are not going to want to be around him. He is a stereotype, not of the Lord, but of a hardened gang banger or street thug. The opportunity to comment on bigger issues is lost.

Is Black Jesus satire or parody?  I don't know. I have seen some excellent and amusing sketches about Christians, Christianity, and even Jesus. I've also seen a lot that fall flat with Christian audiences. Why? Because the writers of these comedies go for the quick laugh by trying to make fun of a caricature.  They rely on exaggerated claims, half-truths, and prejudices and play these things for chuckles.  It works for audiences who don't really know the subject of the parody, but comes across as cheap and even mean to those who do. You may have the noble goal of lampooning society's attitude toward those who are different.  You may even believe that your interpretation of Jesus sticks it to church hypocrites. But unless you make it very clear that the "Jesus" of this show is a crazy, homeless man, it's just going to fall flat as "cutting edge" social satire or parody or even plain comedy.

Why use Jesus? My sneaking suspicion is that the writers and producers got together and somebody meekly raised his hand and asked, "Excuse me, but won't this offend Christians?" To which the head echelon chuckled and said, "Golly, gosh, yeah it will." I've already seen comments from supporters of the series lauding the show and chiding the faithful for their objections.  Cartoon Network appears to say, "Yeah, we're taking potshots at your Lord and Savior.  You got a problem with that?"

So, Cartoon Network, here's the thing: based on the trailer and the initial comments, I think Black Jesus fails as social commentary, fails as satire, and only succeeds in being deliberately offensive to the Christian community. I don't know your demographics to know how many evangelical, Bible-believing Christians tune in to Adult Swim. I'm sure the born again market won't be watching Black Jesus. I will not be watching and I will not recommend it to my friends. There will be an audience, but I doubt you will win any converts.

Sincerely,

Timotheous

Monday, June 02, 2014

RETRO: SIX SONGS AND A TAPE RECORDER

(Disclaimer: this post is just for fun).

Before file sharing, I-Tunes, YouTube, and the greater world of digital recording, my little reel-to-reel tape recorder was also the means by which I could record my favorite songs.  My sister handed it down to me when I was a kid. With this device, I produced five minute shows featuring audio skits, impersonations, and variety programs. I captured sound effects and theme songs in order to produce my own parodies and spin-offs of Star Trek, Emergency!, Adam-12, and more. It was a fun time. But I also tried to capture my favorite tunes. For hours, I would listen on my trusty transistor radio to my favorite station (KDZA, for all you southern Colorado natives old enough to remember).  My microphone would rest in front of the speakers, the tape reel cued up and ready.  As soon as the opening notes of a "must capture" tune would start playing, I hit record and remained absolutely silent while my electronic marvel recorded a song I would then be able to play and enjoy whenever I wanted.

The following are the top six songs that I attempted to record.  This list doesn't mean there weren't other songs I enjoyed.  It was tough to narrow down the favorites.  It also doesn't mean I necessarily succeeded in producing a recording for each song.  But for me, and perhaps for some of you, these songs will bring back memories.

My Eyes Adored You (Frankie Valli). 
Some of the best stories start with "There was this girl..." In second grade, that girl was Ida.  My crush on her wasn't so serious as to be debilitating, but when I moved to a different town, I found myself missing her.  And then I heard this song and it seemed to sum up all those feelings.

Ida and I later reconnected via snail mail and continued a friendly correspondence through junior high and high school, until some misunderstanding ended the communication. Yes, kids, before Facebook, there was still....drama!

How Do You Do (Mouth and MacNeal)
With most songs, I didn't stop to ponder the lyrics.  I can't even say I knew most of the lyrics. But my connection with How Do You Do is that my sister and I made up our own parody about two monkeys meeting each other.

      How do you do, uh, huh (shaking hands in rhythm to the song)
      I thought I saw na-na-na-na
     Just me and you
     And then we eat bananas (peeling bananas)
     Just like before... (I don't remember the rest)

What can I say...I was a bit of a dork back then.

The Night Chicago Died (Paper Lace)
As I said before, I wasn't always aware of the lyrics of each song.  But this one is special, in that I actually memorized the words.  And while I enjoyed the song on its own merits, I also had fun imagining the sound effects that could applied.

     I heard my momma cry (uncontrollable sobbing)....
     There was no sound at all, but the clock upon the wall (loud ticking sounds)....
     And the door burst open wide (loud crashing)....

Yeah, fun times

Old Black Water (Doobie Brothers)
Yes, poor innocent me didn't know what a "doobie" was until a few years later. But I enjoyed this song, with its easy going melody, harmony, and amazing acapella part.  C'mon, you know you want to hear some funky Dixieland, pretty mama gonna take me by the hand....by the hand (hand), take me by the hand (pretty mama).....

Frankenstein (Edgar Winter Group)
Even if you don't know the title of this instrumental, you would probably recognize some of the portions.  This song had hard driving guitars, drum duos, and special effects with synthesizers and amplifiers.  As I listened to it on the radio, I waited for the end part where it sounded like a UFO was about to land.

When I rediscovered the performance on YouTube, I found out the radio version was an abbreviated version of the song.  The original was 9-12 minutes (depending on the performance). And whenever I watch it, it seems as if Mr. Winter throws in something different each time.  That's talent.

Long Tall Glasses (Leo Sayer)
This was another song whose lyrics I remembered.  It was just a fun song about a guy who finds himself at a fancy dinner with only one requirement: you've got to dance like Fred Astaire.  As I sang along with my best voice, my family's attention was quickly diverted from my dancing skills.


What were your favorite songs growing up?  Did you try to capture a song off the radio?  Share in the comments below.
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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

IS GOD TRYING TO TELL YOU SOMETHING?

Have you ever had a series of mishaps which have prompted a friend to sagely declare, "Maybe God is trying to tell you something?"

It's true that God can use our circumstances to "steer" us in the right direction. But being somewhat over-analytical, I find myself falling into the trap of picking apart the events of life and wondering if that was the sign, if that was the wake-up call, if that was the turning point I ignored.  Or to quote the illustrious philosopher Bugs Bunny, "I knew I should have taken that left turn in Albuquerque!"

I believe part of the problem I face is trying to zero in on what God is trying to tell me through the circumstances. Consider these two verses from the book of Acts:
  • Acts 9:7 And the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no one.
  • Acts 22:9  And those who were with me indeed saw the light and were afraid, but they did not hear the voice of Him who spoke to me.
The context is Paul's conversion. He and his SWAT team were heading to Damascus to arrest some Christians, when Jesus spoke to him out of a bright light.  As described in Acts 9, the men heard a voice. But when Paul gives his testimony in Acts 22, he says the men did not hear the voice.

But what seems like an apparent contradiction actually sums up the way I feel at times.  I know my Greek scholar colleagues could break it down in far more technical detail, but in Acts 9, the men heard the sound of a voice, but in Acts 22, they didn't hear what the voice was saying.  Have you ever heard people talking, but couldn't make out what they were saying?  You heard the words, but couldn't discern the meaning.  If you're a parent, you've probably exclaimed, "Didn't you hear a word I said?" Yeah, mom and dad, sound waves entered my ears, vibrated, and created the sensation of hearing.  But I was tuned out at the time.

Last night, I was at a meeting and at several points, I felt like I was "hearing a voice" of direction for ministry.  But like the men traveling with Paul, I couldn't seem to zero in on what the voice was saying. It wasn't anything weird like, "go down the road and buy pepperoni pizza for the board." (come to think of it, maybe the chairman was whispering to me to do that!). I told my wife about it and she asked (like she does so many times when I talk about life strategy), "So what are you going to do about it?"  And my reply was something like, "I don't know...I'm still missing some pieces."  I'm hearing the voice, but there are some pretty huge gaps in my understanding of what the voice is telling me.

So....what am I going to do about it?  In my younger days, I would have said, "Come on honey, I believe God is telling me to move to the Yukon.  Let's list the house, pack up the U-Haul, and head north to Alaska.  Yeah, we're going north, the rush is on."  But now I'm a little more cautious.  I sense and even desire a new adventure in faith, but I want to make sure that it's God directing the adventure.  I don't want to be the guy who is asked later, "Were you sent, or did you just went?"

I realize this post doesn't have a lot of answers. If you are looking for a bullet list of pointers,  just google "how to find God's will for your life" and you'll find a plethora of advice (I mean that sincerely...there is a lot of helpful info out there).  But sometimes, we just need to be honest with our questions.

Hmmmm..I think God is trying to tell me something.  What is it?

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Monday, February 10, 2014

THREE ADJUSTMENTS TO THE CULTURE OF CHANGE

Inauguration of the President. 
Passing of the Olympic Torch. 
Jay Leno's Tonight Show farewell. 
Ministries with staying power.

What do all these have in common?  They highlight the power of transition, the strength of tradition, and the importance of continuity.

As a children's pastor (and before that, a senior pastor), I knew that change was good.  Mix things up from time to time, add surprises, don't succumb to what Ronnie Caldwell termed "routine ruts."  I believed that then and I still believe it.  The church simply cannot lock itself into the past with a "we've never done it that way before" mentality.  Modern children's ministries get this, unleashing programs and curriculum that are far different from even the time I started in kidmin.  And while some churches and their programs may be stuck in ritualistic gridlock, I do know many, many churches that are experiencing the joy and freedom that comes from not doing it the same way over and over again.

But if I may add a corrective adjustment to the ongoing dialogue on change, I believe ministries that make an impact in families over a long term need to have the elements listed above: transition, tradition, and continuity.

Continuity.  Jay Leno may have been host of The Tonight Show for 22 years, but the show itself has been an institution on late night TV for 60-something years.  Although showcasing vastly different talents from its hosts, it's still The Tonight Show.

Although I loved to shake things up and bring wonder and surprise with the kids, I always made sure the basic core of our program ("Sunday Morning Celebration") was the same every week.  Kids took comfort in the fact that, even though there was something different happening (rearranging chairs, changing the set, lining up tables differently, special surprises), it was still their children's program.  They could count on it.  What we did 15 years ago was different than what we did in the present, but it was still "Sunday Morning Celebration."

Tradition.  Contrary to popular belief, "tradition" is not a dirty word.  The Bible is full of examples of ritual and repetition done for the express purpose of remembrance and teaching. I think there is a value in tradition that we often overlook.

Sometimes we have traditions that have lost their meaning or intent.  But other traditions serve as reminders of great spiritual victories, important lessons, or rich history.  Take weddings for instance.  I've seen some strange nuptials,  but for the most part, weddings have the same basic format.  As the couple exchange vows and the music plays, the couples in the audience lean a little closer together.  Why? Because whether they are consciously aware of it or not, they are remembering and reaffirming their own wedding day.  It's a powerful jump start to their memories.

Whether it is a nightly routine at home or a weekly routine at church, it is worth examining the traditions and rituals we have: what they represent and what they are trying to teach us.

Transition.  This is where continuity meets tradition.  Presidential inaugurations are a great example of this.  Every four years, there is a ceremony in which there is a peaceful transfer of power, often between staunch political adversaries.  This transition, with all its accompanying ritual, is important to show transition.

A sense of transition is important.  Barring matters of moral or doctrinal deviation, there should be a smooth transition when a volunteer or staff member leaves. A recognition, an opportunity to say farewell, and some kind of announcement is in order.  This not only provides a sense of closure, but a sense of assurance that, even though there is a change, the ministry goes on.  Some of the longest running, most stable churches with which I am familiar have a strong sense of transition.   Retiring volunteers are celebrated, memories made in an older part of the building are treasured before the building is renovated, and a major change in program is looked back upon fondly, even as the new program is anticipated with excitement.

What does your ministry do to provide for transitions? What traditions do you hold in your family and church? What kind of continuity do you have in your programs and departments.  I'd love to hear your comments below.

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Friday, January 17, 2014

RAMBLING THOUGHTS ON THE HAM / NYE DEBATE

With the upcoming debate between creation scientist Ken Ham and evolution scientist Bill Nye, I thought I'd share a few thoughts and opinions.  Just a couple of disclaimers before we begin: these are working opinions, "thinking through my keyboard" if you will. I'm always asking questions and pointing out things in an effort to get everyone to think, so before either side blasts away at what I say here, just calm down, read carefully, and respond constructively. Second, I am neither a professional scientist, nor a professional theologian, but I admit I've spent more time in the latter field than the former. If you want to parse Hebrew verbs and ancient Semitic literature types at me or you want to pick apart a cell or DNA strand, I'll need a bit of time to look it all up.

The debate has been heavily reported as a contest between "science" and "religion."  I think that is misleading for a couple of reasons.  First of all, this is hardly the first epic debate on this topic.  I had the privilege of attending a college that shared the campus with a prominent creationist organization.  We had a front row seat to see the so-called "creationist movement" in the early 80's, when names like Morris, Gish, and yes, even Ham were engaged in debates with evolutionary scientists. At first, the evolution profs would try to debate the merits of the Scripture, laying out alleged Bible contradictions and seeming moral inconsistencies, while the creationist profs would carefully bring out their arguments from biology and geology to show the inconsistencies of evolution and the strength of the creationist model.  After a short time (and widespread public response), the universities quit sending their scientists. 

Phase two (which I look upon as the golden era of debates) was when the scientists decided to get serious about debating science and not the integrity of the Bible.  These were great evenings of direct clashes between the champions of evolution and the champions of creation. And using the criteria of formal debate, I have to honestly say that sometimes, the evolutionists did a better job presenting their case.  But at some point, the evolutionary scientists decided that creation was only about religion and debating creationists about science was as absurd as an aardvark playing in the NBA.  Since then, the mantra of evolutionary scientists has been "science equals evolution. If it isn't evolution, it isn't science." Case closed.  So the reason the Ham/Nye (Hy? Nyam?) debate is getting so much attention is that we've forgotten the good old days.

The second reason the "science vs religion" moniker is misleading is because it suggests that science and religion are incompatible. They're not incompatible, they simply deal with two different world views.  Trying to line up the two to compare is well nigh impossible (no pun intended).  If Ham sticks to the articulation and examination of verifiable scientific facts and if Nye does the same, we're going to have a good debate.  If Nye trots out a list of Bible difficulties and how Christians are responsible for war, slavery, and the Tea Party movement, it will end, at best, as an exercise in condescension, and, at worst, a total confirmation of what the press is calling it: "science vs religion." If you want a good debate, it has to be "science vs. science" or "religion vs. religion."

While I feel the hype between "science and religion" is misleading, I think there is a more fundamental point that is being overlooked in this great, grand event.  You see, Ken Ham is what is known as a "young earth creationist." But as other Christian pundits have pointed out, there are other models of creationism besides "young earth." Theistic evolution, progressive creationism, day-age, gap--all of these are touted by some pretty knowledgeable people who maintain that evolution and the Bible are not in conflict.  Would not a debate between Bill Nye and a creationist scientist who is actually trying to make peace with evolution be a more interesting discussion? Maybe, but it ignores a pretty big difference.

Aside from the young earth model, most of the other theories of creation tend to focus on how to explain evolution in the context of the Bible.  It's almost as if the scientists who are Christians woke up in a cold sweat exclaiming, "the fact of evolution is so overwhelming, how can we possibly accommodate it?"  Solution: God used evolution to bring the universe into existence. Whew...problem solved! Yes, I'm grossly oversimplifying and I intend no disrespect to those scientists who hold to these models, but all of them, to one degree or another, inject an evolution element into their view.

The problem I see is that committed evolutionists are not as accommodating with creation. I can almost guarantee that the evolution scientist is not sitting up in bed saying, "the Bible is so compelling, how can we fit it into evolution?" To put it even more simply, evolution does not need God.  There is no mechanism of evolution that requires a Divine Being. You can assert that "God used evolution to create the world," but a committed evolutionist will just nod and smile and think, "evolution did just fine on its own." Even the hint of God is rejected, as we saw in the whole "Intelligent Design" debate  a few years ago. A theory as innocuous and watered-down and generic as I.D. was still soundly rejected because it included somebody bigger than you and I.  Evolution works just fine without any intelligent Maker, thank you very much.

Just for the record, I believe in an actual 6 day creation and world-wide flood (I no longer hold the view, however, that a young earth is the dogmatic essential to Christian faith. I may lean toward it, but I don't think it's a hill on which I want to do battle). And I am convinced, that even though evolutionism doesn't need God, so too God doesn't need evolution.  And maybe, in the long run, the debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye isn't so much about science, but about competing world views: one in which God is irrelevant in life, the universe, and everything, and one in which He is central and supreme.






Thursday, January 16, 2014

WHAT TO DO WHEN LEADERSHIP DOESN'T BACK YOU

The category is Hard Lessons to Learn.  The final answer is, "Without this element, your children's ministry will likely go downhill."

What is, "The Support and Backing of the Church Leadership."

It's true.  You can attend all the classes and conferences to learn all the latest techniques, you can have a blast with the kids, you can be well loved and well admired by parents, and you can have the best, most dazzling program that the church has ever seen.  But if the elders, deacons, pastoral staff, or other governing body isn't behind the work, you will face a tough road.

When you sense that maybe you are not getting the support of the church leadership, what can you do?  Here are a few suggestions:

1Be the best.  It's tempting when you learn that the board doesn't back you to respond by cutting back your efforts.  Don't.  Your job is to glorify God and reach kids and that requires our very best, no matter who notices, doesn't notice, or even works against it.

2.  Make sure your program lines up with the church's mission.  It's important that your pastor and leaders know that the children's department is a vital part of the church, not a competitor.

3.  Share the wins with the leadership.  A testimony of how little Toby trusted Jesus in Sunday School, or how five pre-teens expressed interest in the mission field will often encourage the board as the vitality of the work.

4.  Meet regularly with your pastor. Make it a part of your schedule. If you can turn your pastor into a raving fan, he can become the biggest cheerleader before the board.

5Be willing to change. Read between the lines of the comments and mine the beneficial nuggets that will help propel your ministry further.

6.  Ask.  The apparent lack of support could be a matter of misunderstanding or lack of communication.  You may just have to lay your concerns before the board and trust for a turnaround.

7.  Be prepared for rejection.  Sometimes, a lack of support is just that: the board doesn't support you. It could be driven by church politics or marketing, or it could be a lack of understanding about what children's ministries is all about.  Sometimes you can't do anything.  It may be that the Lord is directing you into another area of ministry at your church or another church.  Be ready.

Above all, throughout all, pray.  Keep your eyes on Jesus.  Sometimes it sounds trite, especially when you hear the whisperings from the leadership about what you're doing.  But the Lord's peace will embrace you through the difficult decisions.

Lack of support from the church leadership is a hard lesson to figure out.  But even when your ministry appears to be in jeopardy, you can always lean on the Lord as you go through the storm.
    

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

PREPARATION TIPS FOR YOUR LESSONS

It's that time again.  You've received your copy of the teacher's manual.  There is the passage of Scripture and several pages of teaching notes, object lessons, life application stories, and maybe a craft or two.  What do you do next?

Sadly, there are teachers who pick up "easy to prepare" lesson manuals and read them over on Saturday night during commercials.  After all, it's all laid out so the teacher doesn't have to "do" anything, right? I once observed a teacher reading the lesson right out of the teacher's book! She only paused long enough to pick up the prop that the book indicated (at least she didn't actually read the words, "pick up prop").

 There is a lot of hard work and preparation that goes into writing these manuals and I appreciate the role they play in children's ministries. But it has been my observation that some teachers are intent on "teaching the curriculum" instead of actually teaching the Bible. I believe if the publisher's lesson is the sum total of preparation and presentation, it is actually shortchanging the kids in the class.

Assuming you've picked up the lesson guide in plenty of time to prepare, what is a good way to approach the upcoming lesson, to take advantage of the work of the experts, but not rely on that work as the final answer on how you do your class? Here are some steps that may help:

  • Read your lesson book through once, making note of the main passage of Scripture
  • Read the main passage of Scripture repeatedly in different translations. If it is only a verse or two, read the verses surrounding it to get the context.  This allows you to be comfortable and knowledgeable about what the passage says.
  • Seek to understand what the passage means and how it connects to the whole of Scripture.  There is a plethora of commentaries, study guides, printed, audio, and video sermons available to aid you in your study.
  • Ask yourself the point of the passage for your life today. Does the passage command something, give you an example to follow (or avoid), or teach you an attitude to emulate?
  • If you had no other resources, how would you present this passage to the children in your class?
  • Open your lesson book and see how the publisher does it.  Go over it until the lesson is not only familiar to  you, but actually "fits" the personality of your class.
  • And then, if possible, leave your teacher's manual at home! Nothing brings more energy to a classroom than the teacher directly interacting with the students instead of reading them a lesson.  The only book you should actually be reading from is the Bible.
I'm not suggesting you have to be a Bible scholar, conjugating Greek verbs and looking up comments from the anti-Nicene fathers.  Nor am I suggesting reinventing the proverbial wheel: if the manual has a great illustration, activity, or turn-of-phrase, by all means use it.  But in the end, remember, you are not teaching a curriculum, you are teaching the Scripture.  The lesson guide is a tool to help you do it.

What kind of methods do you use to prepare your lessons? I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments section.