Tag Archives: priorities

The Tragedy of Michael Jackson

Like so many today, I was shocked and saddened at the sudden death of pop icon and superstar Michael Jackson. As a Gen-Xer I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t know his name or hear his music. Michael’s death reminded me that the first album I ever owned was a tape of Thriller. My mother bought it for me along with my very own walkman. (Do you remember those?) With my headphones on, I listened to that tape over and over again, non-stop. And when I wasn’t listening to the tape, I had the radio on, cruising from station to station to hear “Thriller”, “Beat It”, and “Billy Jean”. I don’t recall any other performer who held his kind of superstar power. He and his music riveted my imagination. When Michael Jackson came to town on his Thriller tour, the Washington Post had a full-page autographed insert picture of him which hung on my bedroom wall for several years.

Michael’s good friend Elizabeth Taylor rightly dubbed him “The King of Pop,” and that he was. His music and artistry captured the adoration and respect of a whole generation of young people. And I was one of them.
But then, right at the crest of his powerful career, the magic of Michael Jackson began to ebb away. His inwardly-focused, unusually exotic, outlandish lifestyle seemed to take a strange twist. We heard tales of amusement parks, zoos and other lavish attractions at his Neverland mansion. Then we began to see odd changes to his face– Michael’s infamous plastic surgeries. Speculations about his health and behavior covered the tabloids. We saw images of Michael dangling one of his children outside a window balcony. The stories of lawsuits over child molestation, breaches of contact, and his marriages flashed across the headlines. And it went on and on and on…

Only God knows the inner workings of Michael Jackson’s soul and the things in his mind that led him to the decisions he made over the course of his life. I’m sure the speculations about the kind of man he was will dominate entertainment shows and documentary specials for years to come. Frankly, I think it’s all pretty pointless. He was who he was.

The real tragedy of Michael Jackson, however, is not any of this, but rather the neglected opportunity he had to rally his massive influence to benefit the world who made him famous. When I was a preteen fan of Michael Jackson, anything he might have said or done would have motivated me to be a better person. Even his reclusive, quiet voice could have commanded so much in the lives of people who adored every aspect of his being. And yet, for whatever reason, he turned most of what he had onto himself. And that’s the true tragedy of Michael Jackson: he failed to use the influence he had to make more positive, lasting impacts on the world.
michael_jackson07Yet Michael Jackson doesn’t stand alone in this failure. I think of others like Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin, and others who died far too soon without living up to their full potential in using their gifts to accomplish untold amounts of  good. It makes their deaths all the more painful.

Looking at Michael Jackson’s death, I’m also deeply challenged to examine my own life. If I were to suddenly die today or tomorrow, could I honestly say that I used every gift of influence and ability God has given me to accomplish the most good? It’s easy to pounce on a fallen giant, but do I stop to look at my own life with the same kind scrutiny? My former hero’s death has me thinking again. I hope he has even gotten you to think of your own legacy, too. Perhaps then, the ongoing influence of Michael Jackson, even in his death, could spur on some lasting good.

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Filed under Cultural Quakes, Music

Beginning with New Questions for a Church in Decline, Part 1

Jabbing and slinging mud at the mainline church has become a new intellectual sport among church leaders, and at first glance, this blog may be yet another fruitless contribution to the worn out question, “Why is the mainline church dying?” It is not. I’m moving on from mudslinging to asking questions that might lead us into resurrection. How can the mainline church enter into Christ’s resurrection, and what does that resurrection look like?

What few church leaders seem to understand is how the negative bantering back and forth has contributed virtually nothing towards the church’s health. My attempts to sound more dire and apocalyptic than you don’t revive a thing. Besides, we’ve all seen the statistics: steep declines in membership and money, aging buildings and church members, ineffective programs and initiatives, an irrelevant vestige of religion from a bygone era, yada, yada, yada, etc, etc, etc… While we must confront the truth head on, break the denial, and accept that Church in the 21st Century takes on a shape markedly different than before, we’re still left asking, “Now what?”. Suddenly the room grows eerily silent. We then realize that those who complain but offer nothing substantive to mediate the problem are the problem.

So, beginning from my little island in the blogosphere, I’d like to offer a new set of questions for the mainline church which I will address over time. (I’m doing so as loudly as I can to anyone who will listen!) My bishop once wisely said that we don’t arrive at the truth by offering answers but by asking good questions. In other words, the mainline church finds itself retreading the same debates over its decline because it begins the conversation with inadequate questions. Let’s take a look at some of those questions and then reword them to be more authentic, biblical, and Christ-like.

Question #1: How can we get our churches growing again?

There are two major faults with this question. First, the question preoccupies the mainline church with institutional survival. Let’s face it, the mainline church, especially my own United Methodist tribe, loves to crunch numbers. We count numbers like worship attendance, the number of new members, numbers of people in classes and activities, how much money is brought in and spent, and on and on.We love it when the numbers project upward because that means the institution is thriving. We worry when the numbers spiral downward because that means the institution is in jeopardy.  But there’s a major problem with this kind of focus: individual souls are just another number which props up the legitimacy of the institution. At the end of the day, what the institution values most is its own viability, not the viability of each person the blood of God was spilled to save.

The second fault is in the word “again.” That presupposes that the same construction and configuration of church we’ve inherited will be an effective means for today and the future. It is not. Pioneering books like George Barna’s Revolution warn us that congregational styles of church may have a limited shelf life, and that we need to rethink what Church is, how it gathers, how it disciples people into the likeness of Jesus, and how it spreads the good news of Jesus to the world. So can we see growth, absolutely! But… not by pouring new wine into old wineskins.

Question #1 Rephrased: How can we build the kingdom of God with new disciples of Jesus?

Notice that the emphasis is no longer on us or on our survival, but on the survival of a lost world. It heals us from our addiction to numbers and moves the growth from institutional growth to kingdom growth, the latter encompassing every local church, every denomination, and indeed our whole world. It mobilizes us outward, looking towards the reign of God and the healing of our world by the blood of Jesus, one person, one family, one community at a time.

Please note that I’m not trying to dismantle or disregard the mainline church. I love my heritage as a United Methodist, and in fact, the kind of thinking that I’m suggesting is more in keeping with John Wesley’s vision than the dead form of religion he feared we would fall into and have indeed become. If there is any hope for United Methodism, we must once again rekindle our love for Jesus Christ, his gospel, and people who have yet to be born again into a new life with Christ and his Church.

Along these lines, I believe the answers to this question make themselves clearly apparent when we simply shift our focus from ourselves to Jesus and the world he died to save. When we do that, we find ourselves simplifying how we carry on as a Church– our worship, study, and engagements with the world around us. We find ourselves gathering together in the outside world where people normally live, work, and play. We realize that we captivate people not with pizazz but with authenticity. We move from being clever, cute, and flashy to being transparent, honest and profound. We see that the world has already heard about God so many times before. They’re not standing around waiting for us to say it again, this time with PowerPoint and a band. If they gives us a chance at all, it will happen when they see us doing what we say we believe and then speaking a message that points straight to Jesus.

To be continued…

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Filed under Church Culture and Leadership, The United Methodist Church

An Act of Intentional Obedience

Changed PrioritiesThe older I get, the more I realize that my life is pulled along by the currents of priorities. Those priorities are either set by God, set by others, or set by whatever personal desires seize the moment. And sadly enough, most of us don’t even realize it. Our day’s events are rarely intentionally determined by a guiding list of principles. Rather, we respond to the immediate needs of others or the most recent, loudest demands. Then, to shut out all the voices and neediness around us, we crawl into our personal escapes, justifying that we need the rest or need to “get away.”

All too often, I’ve found that as busy as I get doing all the work that has been given me to do, I can still feel empty, like I haven’t accomplished anything of real worth or value. Why? It’s simple enough. I’ve allowed other people and other things and those fruitless desires within me to divert me from the work that matters most. I’ve heard people say that the things which matter the most don’t shout at us; they whisper. So, it’s all too easy to confuse the crass, bossy voices of the immediate for the calm, patient invitation of the most valuable.

So, why the philosophical foray?

For too long, Jesus has been after me to focus on two things: listening and writing. I love to listen, yes! But I wonder if I spend my time listening to the best things… For me, reading and praying are far better ways to listen than just keeping up with the latest Facebook updates or news stories. After listening comes the act of writing in a way that moves others to think, act, and move towards the God who made them.

As an act of intentional obedience to God, I’m keeping a blog. I’ve tried blogging in the past, but eventually lesser things would creep in and smother away the time it takes. So, I’ll be posting a blog at least three times a week. Hold me accountable for it! I invite you to be in conversation with me as well.

At the same time, let me ask you: what are a few essential, valuable things that have gone neglected? Will you join me in picking up and keeping only the very best??

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Filed under Spiritual Growth and Practice