Friday, November 06, 2009

Celebration Church

The night of November 11th, 1989 was one of the longest in my life. Twice in the night, I had to get up and run to the local YMCA to hit the over-ride switch on the heating system. As I would lie in bed, sleepless, I worried about the events of the next day.

  • Would anybody come?
  • Would anybody stay?
  • What in the world had Nancy and I (and one year old Jessica) gotten ourselves into?
My clearest memory of that weekend, however is not about the smelly tarp the Y made us put down to protect their gym floor; nor about the people we met on the phone who volunteered to help that first Sunday by bringing cookies or helping welcome people or work in the nursery. My clearest memory is of leaving the Y, the evening of the 11th, after a downpour and seeing in the sky a beautiful rainbow. It was if God was saying; quit worrying, everything is going to be OK.

We made lots of mistakes right off the bat, but somehow, we eventually got it right. We stopped trying to be “a traditional church that reached young people,” and instead, for United Methodists at the time, became a rather unique church. So much so, that Church Growth Expert Lyle Schaller came to visit, and wrote about Celebration Church in one of his books. Divorce Recovery Workshops, Rock and Roll music, and a weird Coffee Break, all became signature items at Celebration Church.

It is interesting to look back 14 years removed from the experience. Without a doubt, the experience of starting Celebration Church transformed me, and began the journey that continues to this day of experiencing and sharing a God who is not only there, but a God who is real.

It was at Celebration Church that I began allowing my “progressive theology” to openly come to the surface. It was through leading dozens of divorce recovery workshops, that I was forced to wrestle with much of the traditional theology of Christianity regarding broken people. And I will never forget, when we made the transition from being a “traditional” church to a more progressive one, and we used a modern version of the Lord’s Prayer and someone complained by saying to me: “If it, (the King James Version of the prayer) was good enough for Jesus, it was good enough for her.” I hadn’t realized that Jesus spoke King James English!

I learned quickly, that I could not please everyone, and that the vision, was what had to be held at the center --- not our own individual desires or wishes. That was a tough lesson, but one that has served me well over the years. As I have often said: “It’s not about you,” I learned that it also was “Not about me!” I may have been responsible for the vision, but it could never be my vision, it had to be God’s!

Creating a church that spoke to “young people”, and remain in the rubric of the United Methodist Church was a challenge in 1989 (it still is today), but I am proud when I think of all the young lives that came to know God through the experience of Celebration Church.

I have come a long way since those heady days of my youth. My children are mostly grown and soon will be on their own. I have learned to be even more comfortable in my skin and with my relationship with God. I am more passionate about the radical love that Jesus modeled for the world, and well aware of the costs of following that radical love.

As Celebration Church celebrates their 20th birthday this weekend, I wish them well, and pray for continued success in the future.

Earning the Award

A few weeks ago, President Barak Obama was awarded one of the highest honors that can be given to a person. He was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. This is an honor that only three other United States Presidents have ever won. Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter have all been honored by the committee.

The Nobel Peace Prize was created by the will of Alfred Nobel, best known at the time of his death as the inventor of dynamite. Nobel, in his will created five awards that are to be given out annually: Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature and Peace, the first one was awarded in 1901. In 1969 an award for Economics was added as an associated award.

What has been interesting is the flap over President Obama winning the award. Rush Limbaugh called it a joke, former Vice President Cheney’s daughter Liz Cheney suggested that Obama should send a message to the Nobel Committee at the Dec. 10 awards ceremony in Oslo, by skipping the ceremony and sending the mother of a fallen soldier to show the importance of the Afghanistan war efforts, and Michael Steele (chairman of the Republican National Committee) suggested that Obama won because of his "star power" rather than meaningful accomplishments.

We can all debate the merits of the honor. Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, who won the prize in 1984, may have put it best when he said the decision showed that great things are expected from Obama and "wonderful recognition" of his effort to reach out to the Arab world after years of hostility.

I guess that is my hope. That this is the beginning of a new way of looking at the world, and hopefully of the world looking at the United States. But one other thought comes to mind.

On January 27th, 2007, at the Annual Ball of the Munster Chamber of Commerce I was bestowed with the honor of “Citizen of the Year.” The requirements for this honor are: participate in civic activities which do the greatest good for the largest number of people, and be engaged in service and leadership which exemplifies the Chamber’s role in the community.

I hate to say this – I didn’t deserve the reward. I had not met those requirements. But, starting September 15th, 2008 I did. Ever since receiving that honor, I have felt like I needed to do something to “earn it” (I know, bad theology). But it is true. I wonder sometimes if winning that award, prepared me to take a leadership role following the historic floods.

And I wonder, if we can’t all hope and pray for the same thing for Barak Obama. I don’t want him to fail – too much is at stake. Maybe this honor will spur him on to make the USA the leader in a new era, and era of peace and cooperation in the world.


It has been interesting processing all of the comments that I received following the recent series that I did on “End of Life Issues.” Not surprisingly, your comments ran the gamut from --- “I don’t come to church to hear about those kinds of things,” to “thanks, that was the most significant series of sermons you have ever preached.” For me personally, this was a foundational sermon series, one that is essential so that we can build on top of it. But before I can move beyond it, I want to share a little bit more. What follows are my guidelines for Funeral and Memorial Services.

As soon as possible, please notify the church and/or one of the pastor’s of your loved one’s death. We hopefully have already been in dialog with you as you have journeyed down this difficult road, but we want to make sure that we can be ministering with you during this time of loss.

Hopefully, your loved one will have already thought about their funeral/memorial service and the church will have a copy of their desires on file. But if not, you will have a few decisions to make. First, do you want a funeral or a memorial service?

Through the centuries, Christians have marked the end of life with a service of worship; three kinds are offered. FUNERAL SERVICE is a worship service that is held in the church or elsewhere in which the body of the deceased is present. A COMMITTAL SERVICE is held at the graveside, or a crematorium immediately preceding burial or cremation. A committal service typically follows a funeral service, but it can be the only service celebrating the life of the deceased. A MEMORIAL SERVICE is a worship service held at anytime and anyplace, after the body has been disposed of.

Secondly, who do you want to preside over the service? In our Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, it is the policy that the appointed pastor preside over all weddings and funerals, and that only with their consent may another pastor participate in these types of events. I want to state emphatically, that I have no problem if you would like someone else to preside at your funeral (or wedding) – I will be happy to share the service with them, or step out of the way. While I say that, please be aware that not all pastors would agree with me, and they are within their rights to not allow a former pastor to participate in a funeral (or wedding) service.

One other note, I will preside over anyone’s funeral if I can fit it into my schedule, regardless if they are affiliated with the church or not. I believe that this is one of the most important opportunities that we have to live out the love that Jesus demonstrated to us through his life. Please be aware that there may be times when I am unable to officiate even though that is your desire, please know that I grieve that I am not able to be there with you as well.

No two funeral services should be exactly alike. Each service should exemplify the deceased faith. Whether it should be held in the church or a funeral home or some location really depends on the family. I know that for many to hold a funeral in the church and then to have to return for worship on Sunday is difficult.

The service itself consists of prayers, scripture and celebrations of our loved one’s life. Some traditions discourage Eulogies, I do not. I believe that there is no greater testimonial than when a loved one shares some of the joy that their deceased friend brought to their life.

The committal service is a very brief service often held in a chapel at the cemetery, but occasionally (and I prefer) at the graveside. It generally consists of a few passages of scripture, prayers and a benediction. The committal service can be included in the funeral service so there is not a need to travel to the cemetery.

A memorial service is virtually the same as a funeral, the only difference is the body is not present and it can be held at the family’s convenience, often days or weeks later.

A word about music. I know that many will disagree with me, but I believe that any music that was appropriate for the deceased is appropriate in the service. That is because I do not believe that there is a difference between sacred and secular. In my worldview everything is sacred. Music can be played on cd’s or it can be live. If your service is being held at the church, there will be a fee for the organist.

Remember, you will not be attending your own funeral. Nevertheless, you can help ensure that your service is a moving, comforting witness to your relationship with God and your family and friends. Take time to fill out a LIFE INVENTORY so that the service will really reflect your beliefs (and update it often).

One final word, remember, these are my guidelines, and not all pastors may agree with them, keep that in mind as you plan for the future.


Every morning as I go on my 1-4 mile walk (depending on the weather and how much time I have), I listen to a book on my I-Pod. It has proven to be a great use of my time, plus it makes the time go so much faster and my dog (Zeke) doesn’t seem to mind.

I finally got around to listening to John Grogan’s huge hit Marley and Me. Once I got over the reader of the book, whom I could not stand (which happened to be John Grogan himself), I loved the book.

If you are not familiar with the book, or the movie, Marley and Me is a “true” story of Grogan and his family pet, a very large, very neurotic Labrador Retriever. At times you think that the family is as crazy as the dog because the put up with his behavior. But overall it was a powerful book.

As I walked an cried, listening to the story of having to put Marley “to sleep,” my mind couldn’t help wander back to Nahum and Zephie, the two dogs that nancy and I have had the privilege of sharing our home with and had to make the horrible choice of putting to sleep.

Nahum (named after the Biblical prophet – find out what the word means in Hebrew and you will know why I chose it!) was the first dog I had as an adult. I got him from a pound in Stanley County, NC while I was a student pastor attending Duke Divinity School. I would drive the 100 miles into Durham and drop Nahum off at the apartment of a beautiful young woman that I happened to be dating. While I was in class he would chew up whatever he could find, including the vanity in her bathroom. What is amazing is that a little less than a year later she decided to become my wife and accepted my wayward dog as well. When the girls were all young (Haley was just a baby) we had to put him down, and buried him with my childhood dog Zorro at my parent’s lake cottage in North Webster.

It took almost five years before the girls and I could convince Nancy that we needed a dog (You have to understand that Nancy is/was a cat person). Finally, once cold spring morning we came home with a Shitzu of questionable parentage and home life from the South Suburban Humane shelter in Chicago Heights. In keeping with our biblical theme we named him Zephaniah, or Zephie for short.

Zephie was the most wonderful dog I have ever owned (not counting Zeke, of course). Zephie would greet me at the door, and was known to run at me and jump into my arms. There is no greater joy that to be greeted with unconditional love when you come home. We had no idea where he had come from, other than he had some weird quirks about him. But he loved people (and unfortunately loved joggers and bicycles), and was a great companion. The only thing I knew about him was that he had a heart murmur. Doc Matthews (the greatest vet I know!), would tell me every now and again, “you know he has a heart murmur”, and I would say, “sure I know.” But I never understood what he was trying to tell me.

Suddenly, Zephie became sick and when I took him to see Doc Matthews he said to me, “You remember how he has a heart murmur, well it is catching up with him.” Our wonderful boy was suffering from congestive heart failure. We did everything we could to help with the problem, but finally it was just too much.

I will never forget that last day, September 24th 2007, when I took him for one last walk, (and had to carry him back home), his last ride in the car to Doc Matthew’s clinic in Cal City, or the ride to Crown Point and Burns Funeral home and animal crematory. I carried him all the way. And like Marley, he will never be forgotten!

Animals bring such joy to our lives. This time it wasn’t as hard to convince Nancy that we needed a new puppy in our lives, and with a little help from Laura Cyrus, Ezekiel (Zeke for short) came into our home and into our hearts. Every day, Zeke and I enjoy God’s great creation together. No he doesn’t jump into my arms, but as soon as I sit down at home, he is in my lap. He is, truly, my best friend!