Archive for the ‘Faith’ category

What I Like About Church

March 18, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                         March 18, 2019

                                 

I admit that it’s ingrained in me. Sunday mornings have always meant one word: Church! And since our family attended Central Baptist Church in Winchester, Kentucky, it meant Sunday morning and Sunday evening. 

I was always a bit jealous of the kids at the Methodist church across the street from Central Baptist. They didn’t have Sunday evening services and, therefore, got to stay home and watch “Walt Disney” on TV. For my two siblings and me, our exposure to Walt Disney had to happen at Leed’s Theatre in downtown Winchester. That’s where we discovered “Old Yeller” and “Big Red”, not on TV!

But I liked church! It was like a warm blanket on a blizzard night. It felt good and right. 

And now 55 years since Central Baptist, and a career as an American Baptist pastor, I still feel right when I sit in a pew, or a sanctuary chair. It makes me wonder though…why? It’s got to be more than just the mark made by a family tradition. Why do I think about being a part of a worship service when Sunday morning rolls around?

I could get all spiritual on you and say right away that it’s because of the grace of God for such a sinner as me, and the forgiveness of Christ exacted by the shedding of his blood…and that’s true! The foundation for being a life-long church participant IS rooted in the gospel of Christ, but that’s not what gets me out of bed on Sunday morning.

It’s not the lure of donuts and Danish’s either, or weak coffee brewed by someone who’s taste was destroyed by drinking watered-down Maxwell House.

I like church because of the intimacy and the memories of intimacy. Not the youth group hay rides we used to go on…not that kind of intimacy, although the memories of them still bring a smile to my face!

The intimacy I’m thinking of was being able to lean up against my mom or dad’s arm and know that neither or them was going anywhere for the next hour or so. There was a closeness to family in those moments. 

A few weeks ago a picture popped up on my Facebook page from seven years ago. It was from Christmas Day, 2011. I stood in the aisle of the sanctuary with a dear man named Rex Davis. I had my arm around his shoulders and he had his arm around my waist. Rex was around 90 at the time. I like church because of moments like that, when the bond of Christ draws us together in an embrace of deep love and connected humanity. 

I like church because of the moments of revelation. Once again, I need to clarify about that term, because it’s been associated with suspect snake oil salesmen. For me, the moments of revelation come as I sit in silence and ponder, or as a scripture verse is read for the umpteenth time, or as I gaze at a stained glass window. Things get revealed to me about myself, or about the One I’m encountering. I live in a world that is so noisy I’m blasted with false revelations every day. I’m told my life needs certain things- products and services and such. Snake oil now comes in a variety of cultural flavors. In church, true revelation is hinted at if I desire to follow its path.

I like the hope of church and the hope experienced in church. Weary souls stumble through the doors and then a short while later leave rested and reassured. The hurting share their wounds and are carried back to healing. The lonely and broken-hearted are able to be embraced and held in place. A world of trouble is put into perspective by the message of the God who draws near.

I don’t go to church to be impressed by the perfection of the pastor, or the performance of the participants. There’s something that leaves a bad taste in my mouth- like sweet cream gone bad- when church tries to outdo the other places of worship in the same zip code, something fake and foreign to my senses.

And so I go each Sunday, ready to receive and willing to give. I’ve long since stopped using my mom and dad’s arms as a pillow for my head, but I still have others who I know I can lean on, if and when I need them!

The Rigid New Worship

March 12, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                         March 12, 2019

                                  

A few months ago my wife and I attended a mega-church that had grown incredibly fast…numbers-wise! It wasn’t my cup of tea. The pastor’s message was okay, although it had a not-so-subtle hint of “Look at us now!” to it! But the striking…er, deafening aspect was the performance upfront that was referred to as “worship music.” I usually enjoy singing, but since I couldn’t hear my own voice I closed my mouth. Obviously, where I was in my parameters of worship was different than the masses.

Back in the 1980’s and 90’s there were battles in churches across the country that were known as “the worship wars.” Some churches had broken away from hymns and began singing praise music. Others put one foot in the hymnbook and one foot on the praise choruses sheet music. Generally speaking, the elder generation saw praise music as a step away from Jesus and a step closer to fallenness. The younger generation wanted the parking brake taken off of the organ! Few were happy. The Deceiver used music about Jesus to bring division into the church.

I was an “in-betweener”, singing “The Old Rugged Cross” in morning worship and then “Pass It On” at youth group that night. We never sang “Pass It On” in the church service, but, of course, we never sang “The Old Rugged Cross” in youth group.

And then when I was a student at Judson College things started changing. Keith Green came to campus and did a concert and I was “wowed” by the depth of the lyrics and the sound of the music. And then there was a lady known as “Honeytree”, and Rich Mullins, and a three siblings group known as The Second  Chapter of Acts. I still remember when our hymns-only church sang “Easter Song” by Second Chapter…but it was deemed okay since it was about Jesus, the resurrection, and it was Easter Sunday!

I remember the consternation about having someone play the drums in church, let alone the bass and electric guitars. Gradually, there was a softening of the hearts, or, perhaps, a turning down of the hearing aids, and we trudged to a worship wars truce. A suspicious spirit, however, emerged in a number of churches. I remember a man in my church who would leave the sanctuary every time a praise song was sung. If an organ was good enough for Jesus it was good enough for him. Anyone who liked those new praise songs was suspect in his mind, and, on the other hand, other people were suspicious of him!

But now we’ve come to a new day where the worship wars have ended…sorta’! Congregations were seeing their young people leaving the church and using adjectives such as “irrelevant” and “boring” to describe it. So…they surrendered to contemporary Christian music!

Once in a while they still sing a hymn…a revised, updated, hymn that is! One that has the same words, but a better beat in case anyone wants to dance in the aisles!

It’s amazing the flip that has happened! Just as there was a rigid loyalty in the older generation to singing the old familiar hymns, it seems there is now a rigidity in the new worship about not just singing the new music, but to making worship into a performance. The voice of the lead singer needs to be so amazing that the congregation thinks they are in the “American Idol” audience. The lyrics, more often than not, have to be so simple that the audience doesn’t even need to look at the mega-sized screen up front. The music so moving or soothing that it causes the audience to either jump or sway. 

Just as our old traditional congregations were steadfast about having the hymnal in hand the new worship is uncompromising about having the audience’s hands free.

I don’t believe we are headed back to the worship wars again, and that’s a good thing! But we do have a new crisis that we’re walking through. I’ll call it “The Worship Wows!”

Baptist Pastor (Retired) Confessional

March 9, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                        March 9, 2019

                       

Last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, that day where the sign of the cross marked up the forehead of a number of folk. It also marked the beginning of the Season of Lent, a journey that takes the Christ-follower to the cross of Christ. 

Many a Christ-follower give up something for Lent. My friend, Ron McKinney, gave up meat for Lent one time and overloaded his bean consumption. A wise person stayed upwind from him until Easter Sunday. I was confined in a small space with him one afternoon and my nasal hairs were pulverized!

Confession is something that happens often during Lent. People seem to be more willing to have “Come to Jesus” moments where they admit their shortcomings and temptations, kind of like Peter’s sobbing after he denied Jesus three times!

Since I retired from pastoring three years ago the focus of my confessions has changed somewhat. I no longer have to repent of thoughts of certain “thorny people” from my church being duct-taped to one of the sanctuary walls, or wanting words of correction to come to my mind to convince a couple of folk that “bitchiness” is not a spiritual gift.

My confessions are usually now uncovered from any churchiness, and more connected to typical daily life patterns.

For example, I love John Sanford novels, especially one of his main characters, Virgil Flowers. They are laced with Minnesota law enforcement humor…and a few “f-bombs!” One day this week I was reading my daily passage in the “One Year Bible” about Peter denying Jesus and then picked up the latest Sanford novel where a man vehemently is denying he killed someone…complete with profanity! I felt the Baptist guilt coming my way! I confess, but it’s due back at the library so I’ve got to finish it.

I confess that I’ve avoided the supermarket recently until after 8 P.M. so I can miss the Girl Scouts selling their cookies. The sale ends tomorrow so, beginning Monday, I can shop earlier. 

I confess that I love fried foods. After all, I was born in Kentucky, where the common cuisine understanding is “If you can eat it, we can fry it!” I’m specifically drawn towards fried fish, about the worst thing, health wise, you can eat, but ummm-ummm-ummm!

I confess that I’m prone to using the same facial tissue to blow my nose more than once…okay, more than twice! It’s disgusting, but I justify it by saying I’m being “cost conscious!”

I confess that I wasn’t chagrined by the fact that we cancelled Sunday morning worship last week due to the weather. I was almost giddy! I’m not sure what that says, but please do not feel that you need to analyze me…or judge me!

I confess that I’ve recently been using sermons that I preached 25 years ago. The theology hasn’t changed, but I’ve had to revise some of the illustrations and references like “visiting the Oldsmobile dealer, K-Mart, and the latest cassette tape I purchased.” 

I confess that I often dream of slam-dunking, being the author of a best-seller, and fried scallops! 

I confess that I had planned on giving up putting sugar in my coffee for Lent. I got through the first day…and then backslid to the sweetening! 

And finally, I confess that I so often take the blessings of God for granted, the grace of God as a given, and the love of Christ as an assumed right! I fall short in reaching my God-given potential and habitually forget that he walks closely by my side!

That Judgmental Evangelical Church!

March 4, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                     March 4, 2019

                      

Carol and I sat back and watched an episode of Criminal Minds last night. We can’t keep up with all the recorded episodes we have on our DVR, thus the episode we watched was from last October.

Without going into the plot too much, a woman is killed and the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) team is sent to investigate. In looking at the way the woman has been murdered, investigating who her friends are, and her routines, they summarize that there is some connection between what has happened and the church she attends.

That’s when the term “evangelical” gets used! She was involved in an EVANGELICAL church. The way it’s said you could almost put in parentheses after it “You know…one of those!” as the person turned to the side and spat!

The next scene has the team interviewing the pastor. His character comes off as self-righteous and judgmental. Envision a pastor with a whip! The viewer immediately does not like him and, after all, he’s the pastor of one of those EVANGELICAL churches! You are given the impression that “fun” is a four letter word for him.

Several other indicators are that he and his church are narrow-minded, critical, ready to shun sinners, and legalistic. They probably don’t even drink root beer!

Such is the general public’s, or at least those in the entertainment world, view of evangelicals! I wouldn’t have been as bothered by the episode if they would have just said “church”, but those who produce the show probably don’t understand what evangelical means.

The term “evangelical” comes from the Greek word “euangelion”, meaning “the good news” or the “gospel.” Thus, an evangelical church focuses on the GOOD NEWS of Jesus Christ.

That good news includes the grace of God, forgiveness, love, acceptance, hope, and peace. 

Some evangelicals, rightfully so, have made a mess of evangelicalism! They’ve reversed the mirror of Jesus. Instead of people seeing the image of Christ in his church they see a bunch of people who seem to have been sucking on lemons too long! I’ll be honest! There are a number of people in churches I’ve served who are about as pleasant as hemorrhoids!

It should not be! “Good News” has become religious rhetoric, and grace has been replaced with guilt. 

One of my closest friends in ministry, Rev. Tom Bayes, recently urged me to write a book about “church stuff”. Tom and I, along with our other clergy friend, Rev. Chuck Moore, spent years serving churches in the Lansing, Michigan area and sharing stories over lunches. There was a lot of laughter in the midst of our burger-munching. I think I’ll take him up on his request. The book, however, will revolve around a pastor who laughs, jokes around with the people of his congregation, enjoys life, and exhibits the Joy of life. AND he will be a pastor who firmly holds to the belief that Jesus is “Good News”!

Maybe I’ll even make him…you know…one of those Baptist pastors!

Remodeling Starbucks and Un-remodeling Church

February 16, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                            February 16, 2019

                   

I arrived at MY Starbucks this morning to find a trash haul-away and a Mobile Mini storage unit. In fact, they were flanking my usual parking spot. I had to park three spaces over! Very inconvenient!

I didn’t think the haul-away was for coffee grounds, so I asked Megan, the barista, what was going on.

“We’re going to have a remodel starting next week.”

Michael, one of the regulars like me, then told me. “This is the third remodel since I’ve been coming here. Not fun! Although they are putting in a nitro cold brewing system.”

“What’s that?” I asked, and he explained it to me…and I still was wondering what it meant!

New furniture, new brewing system, lower serving counter for the increasing number of people who do mobile orders…same coffee!

Three remodels in about six years! Hmmm! I remember the struggle to get the last church I pastored to remodel the sanctuary. The dark wood that covered the walls resembled a scene from the old TV sitcom “Happy Days”. I think it actually pre-dated “Happy Days”! We went round and round about the need to update, replace the lights that I referred to as “the celestial balls”, and change the seating pattern. Finally, enough people supported the idea and we used volunteer labor to do most of the work. It had been transformed into a place that was appealing to walk into…not depressing, or as if you entered a time warp. 

And here’s Starbucks remodeling for the third time in six years! BUT same coffee!

I sense a lesson there, more for the church than Starbucks! Hold firm to the purpose of your existence, navigate the best way to present it, and negotiate about the packaging. 

In my growing up years our family would travel to Kentucky on Christmas Day to see our relatives. Our first stop would be in Wittensville to see Granny Wolfe and my Great Aunt Lizzie. I still remember Aunt Lizzie looking at the wrapped package sitting in her lap and saying- every year, mind you- “This package is to pretty to open!” We’d coax her into breaking the ribbon and actually seeing the contents inside the package.

There’s been a few times when the church I pastored became a little too enamored with the packaging at the price of never seeing the contents. That is, the wrappings around Jesus, but not Jesus; the wrappings of the church at the expense of the purpose of the church.

On the other hand, the church has sometimes used the excuse of not changing the packaging because it’s about Christ, when it actually is about not changing anything! 

Starbucks has its deficiencies, but if you stripped everything away from it you’d still find that coffee is at its core. 

In like manner the church has it’s sore spots. The question is if everything was stripped away would the core be the gospel of Christ?

The Young Life Ministry

February 12, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                  February 12, 2019

                            

This past Sunday night Carol and I attended the banquet sponsored by Young Life of North Colorado Springs. Young Life is a long established ministry to young people. It was started in 1941 by a guy named Jim Rayburn in Gainesville, Texas, and has been going ever since. 

Young Life is significant for us in that it was how Carol and I met! We were both working with Young Life high school clubs in the western suburbs of Chicago…she at Elmhurst York and me at Hinsdale Central, and then Downers Grove North. Hinsdale Central was the school she had graduated from and one of the other club leaders, Jeff Slaga, had invited her to come to a summer evening gathering of students who had been to one of Young Life’s summer camps. He knew that I was going to be there and was trying to be the matchmaker. 

So, it was at a Young Life event that we first met! The next March we went on a Young Life spring break ski trip to Colorado with a couple of busloads of students. The summer after that I took a van load of students from First Presbyterian Church of Arlington Heights, Illinois to Silver Cliff, a Young Life camp at that time in Colorado. It was a life-changing experience for some of the students. Three years ago when I was back in the Chicago area I met one of those students, now in her fifties, for dinner and she told me that it was during that camp week that she became a follower of Jesus. 

Now, forty years after we had been Young Life leaders, we were back at a banquet to hear the Young Life story again. It’s different today, and yet the same! The gospel is still the center of the ministry, but some of the dynamics of youth ministry are different than they used to be. Forty years ago we didn’t have to deal with a sense of hopelessness in some young people’s lives that made suicide a final solution for several. We didn’t have cyber-bullying or as many split family units. There were different kinds of teen pressure that we dealt with, but nothing like vaping and gender confusion. 

As Carol and I entered the place for the banquet I was manhandled by five of my current basketball players who were a part of the cheering group of greeters. 

“Coach Wolfe! Coach Wolfe!” they shouted as they jostled me back and forth. They were surprised to see me and even more surprised when I told them that Carol and I had been Young Life leaders. 

The evening was a revisiting of part of our life stories, a confirmation of a ministry we had once invested in and will now come back to in support of. 

As I’ve coached and substitute taught I’ve seen and heard some of the heart cries of today’s teens. They’re confused and yet knowledgeable; depressed and yet smiling. Young Life offers an invitation to a relational road that they need not walk alone.

Christianized Swearing

January 22, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                  January 22, 2019

                               

I was raised in a household where swearing didn’t happen. About once every five or ten years my dad would be on opposite from  my mom on some issue or situation that he would clench his teeth and say “Shit! Virginia!” Like I said, about once every five or ten years. Other than that no one cussed…ever! 

Perhaps they did behind closed doors or in other places, but I highly doubt it!

I think my Uncle George did because he also drank alcohol. Growing up Southern Baptist I got the feeling that swearing was linked to alcohol…kinda’ like peanut butter and jelly!

So we christianized our swearing. We didn’t say “Oh, my God!” That was like fingernails scratching a chalkboard! We said the accepted “Oh, my gosh!” Gosh did not raise eyebrows, but gosh was simply the bleached out form of God!

My exclamation of choice these days is “Goooodddd Lorrdddd!”, extending the pronunciation of each letter as much as possible. When I’m really upset I shout, “Crap!”

Growing up instead of saying “Jesus” or “Jesus Christ” we said “Geez!” and “Geez Louise!” like it needed a partner!” We only said “Jesus” when our Sunday School teacher was looking for an answer to a question…no matter what the question was! (“What river did the Israelites cross as they were entering the Promised Land? Yes, Bill!” “I think it was Jesus!”)

The words we used to express our disbelief, dismay, or anger were indications of our sanctified walk with the Lord. Those “other people” let the devil guide their tongue in speaking the forbidden utterances. 

We took the James 1:26 words to heart. “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.”

Saying “Oh, my gosh!” was our own sign that we had a tight grip on the reins. It gave us the false illusion of being aligned with Christ. We were maturing in Christ as we exclaimed “Oh, my word!” 

We were easily fooled. We thought we were saved by using the right words rather than saved by grace. Slowly it would become apparent that people at church who didn’t swear DID DO other things, like gossip, keep a tight rein on their money, and chastise anyone who recommended any kind of change. We discovered that the spoken words were purified but there were bitter spirits and jealous hearts.

We were a bit like the Pharisees. We had tamed tongues and twisted spirits, the right words but the wrong motives. 

I still don’t swear- once again, a byproduct of a household where it was not welcome- but I recognize that it doesn’t make me saint-worthy. Each day I am thankful for the grace of God more and more. My prayer is that He makes me more like a  Mother Teresa and less like that other name that begins with Mother and continues with an “F”!