Bowling and Church

Ordinarily this Sunday I would be writing with regards to the lectionary and what it means to me. But this is the one weekend that I am not physically in church. For the past twenty-nine years I have participated in what is now called the USBC Open tournament. It started rather inconsequentially when I bowled in the 1978 tournament in St. Louis as a last minute substitute. The next year I bowled as a member of a team from Chillicothe, Missouri. Then in 1980 I obtained a spot for a team of my own and brought my own team. Over the years, this has expanded to where I am bringing four teams to the tournament in Corpus Christi.

These twenty people are a rather diverse group of individuals with only the common goal of bowling in this tournament. I know most of them and asked them to come. Others have asked friends of theirs and thus we have the twenty people who make up the four teams.

This year is rather special in that one of the twenty, Ken Baker, is receiving his twenty-five year plaque. This plaque is given to a bowler after twenty five tournament appearances. He joins Sam Howell and me in this “club”. Sam received his 25th two years ago and I will receive my 30th next year (if God is willing and the creek doesn’t rise). And all of this occurred because we wanted to bowl in the 1982 tournament in Baltimore.

What does bowling have to do with religion? It has been suggested that the Egyptians bowled; we know that Martin Luther bowled. Bowlers are often called “keglers”; kegler is derived from the phrase “to beat the devil.”

It has been said that the bowling was a part of the Reformation Age church. There was a lane in the center aisle of the sanctuary and worshippers would throw a ball down this lane towards the pins (generally a nine-pin setup, not the ten-pin set up of today). If they got a strike, it was sign that they had led a righteous life during the past week; if they didn’t strike, it was a sign that something was lacking.

It should be noted that the lane that one rolled the ball down was much narrower than the lanes of today. The ball was smaller and did not have the thumb and finger holes of today’s equipment. Unless you really worked at, the ball was going to go into the gutter many more times than it was going to hit the pins. So getting a strike was far more difficult than it is today.

But I suppose that doesn’t change the idea behind the weekly tournament. Unless you work at your game, you are not going to be successful. If you do not work on your spiritual life, then you are not going to be successful in that regard as well.

We may not all be good bowlers. After twenty-nine years, I still am working on the nature of the game. But we can work hard on our lives and our relationship with God; we do not need a weekly session on the lanes to do that.

Opening The Circle

This is my regular post for the 6th Sunday of Easter. Next weekend I will be in Corpus Christi, Texas, for my annual trip to the USBC Open tournament. Hopefully, I will able to post something related to the history of bowling and the church. But for now, here are my thoughts for today.

I have a friend who I am concerned about; he has said some things that are very questionable, at least in terms of where he said them and his current position. What he said was not derogatory or anything of that nature but it brings to question his value system and how it has changed over the almost forty years that I have known him. I suppose what bothers me more than anything else is that he is probably going to ignore my comments and keep moving in the direction that he has been headed for some time. It is as if he drew a circle around himself in order to shut out others. His actions remind me of a poem that has lurked in the back of my mind for many years:

He drew a circle that shut me out–
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win.
We drew a circle that took him in! (1)

I always thought that this was a Robert Frost poem but I discovered that it was by Edwin Markham, an American poet who died in 1940. From the cursory information that I found on him, it seems that he was considered a poet of consciousness’ and social justice. Perhaps his words about the drawing of circles and the consideration of social justice should be considered more today. It seems that the church is drawing a circle around itself and not letting others in.

How do you see the church today? Is it open to all who seek to find Christ? Or is it closed, both in spirit and in mind, to those whose lives or attitudes are different from ours? Is the church capable of absorbing the trials of society and still remaining the source of hope, justice, and righteousness that were the promise of the Gospel message some two thousand years ago? Or is the church a rigid and inflexible relic that refuses change and challenges any threats to its existence?

As I am writing this, the DaVinci Code is opening across the United States. Much has been said and written about the book and, now, the movie. I have read the book and found it to be fascinating; it was a good novel. But too many people see it as real and it doesn’t help that churches, both Catholic and Protestant, see it as a threat to their existence. Just as I have written and said in the past with regards to the teaching of evolution and the battle to include intelligent design in the science curriculum, if your faith cannot stand scrutiny under pressure, then perhaps you need to look at your faith before you make changes in the system. This is exactly what is happening with the DaVinci Code and the assorted other books that have come out lately, all with the notion that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, had a child, and lived happily ever after. Some people cannot accept the Crucifixion for what it is and what it means; they have to have a conspiracy theory to explain the unexplainable. You believe in the resurrection of Christ or you do not; there is no middle ground. If your faith is strong, you will be able to withstand the pressure put on you by those whose faith is weak. It seems to me that those whose faith is weak often times try to keep others from questioning faith and belief so as to avoid the testing and questioning of faith.

The church today must be open; it cannot close the circle and not let others in. This is not to say that our basic beliefs and the foundation of our faith changes with the whims of society. It does say that we are open to all whose expression of love for each other expresses the meaning of the Gospel. This was the dilemma of the early church as expressed in the reading from Acts for this morning. (2)

The context for this reading is the question as to whether early Christians had to first be Jewish. Did a Gentile have to first convert to or accept the notion of Judaism before he or she could become a Christian? One of the things that came out of the Book of Acts was that it was not necessary; our reading for today shows us that anyone who accepts the Holy Spirit in their life is welcome in the church.

This merely reinforces what Jesus told the disciples in the Gospel reading for today. (3) When we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, our relationship with Him changes. We change from servants, tied to the world, into friends. And just as Jesus laid down His life for us, so too must we also act towards our friends and neighbors.

How we act towards each other, as friends and neighbors in the community of God, or individuals gathered together for one brief moment every Sunday morning, will determine the growth of the church. There are present three current models for church growth; one based on the megachurches like Willow Creek and Resurrection UMC, one based on a conservative, “evangelistic” approach, and one more “diagnostic” in nature.

The megachurch approach minimizes distinctiveness and gives those seeking a church home an anonymous, symbolically neutral, user-friendly church. But how can you be friends in a place where you are one of thousands and there is no immediate evidence of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit?

The “evangelistic” approach is based on a conservative theology. Even though evangelism implies taking the Gospel out into the world, most people today equate evangelism and its accompanying approach as closed to the world and exclusive in nature. If you are different from the others in the congregation, it will be very difficult to be a part of the congregation.

The third approach starts off with the assumption that there are systematic problems within the body of the church. Neither the traditions of the church or the theology that the church embraces hinder the growth of the church; rather, the institution itself is broken. It must be fixed or repaired before the church can grow.

There is, fortunately, a fourth style slowly appearing in churches today. It is characterized by a blend of local vision, denominational identity, and Christian practice. Congregations that choose this style embrace or recreate practices that bind them together and connect them with older patterns of living as was to relate to each other in today’s society.

This is a style developed by choice and through reflective engagement, both individually and communally. It is not based on some business model or with a political agenda in mind. It is a style that uses the traditions of the Christian church to move forward. It does require a commitment, it requires nurturing and a willingness to change as God’s spirit directs. (4)

One way is to pay attention to what visitors to this or any church experience on Sunday morning. Will they experience warm hospitality? Will they get a palpable sense of the presence of God? Christopher Schwartz has stated that this is the single most powerful evangelistic outreach possible and through it church growth is possible without the presence or plan of an evangelism program. He concluded his discussion about church growth by noting that all growing congregations have eight traits in common:

  1. Leaders who empower others to do ministry;
  2. Ministry tasks distributed according to the gifts of the members;
  3. A passionate spirituality marked by prayer and putting faith into practice;
  4. Organizational structures that promote ministry;
  5. Inspiring worship services;
  6. Small groups in which the loving and healing power of fellowship is experienced;
  7. Need-oriented evangelism that meets the needs of the people the church is trying to reach;
  8. And loving relationships among the members of the church.

Schwartz maintains that if all eight of these characteristics are present, congregations will grow naturally and organically, without the need for an evangelist program.

This can be quite a challenge for many people. Some people think that the task of sharing the Gospel is harder than it actually is. It would seem that, as the humorist Dave Barry once wrote, the people who are the most interested in telling you about their religion don’t want to hear about yours.

Ben Campbell Johnson, of Columbia Theological Seminary, suggests that you ask people outside church “When has God seemed near to you?” There is nothing judgmental about this approach; it starts with where people are and it takes their experience seriously.

If you cannot or will not share your faith with others, it may be that you are in the midst of a crisis of your own. Often times, people use aggressive tactics because they themselves are insecure about their own faith and are anxious for others to believe and behave in the manner that they do so as to make their own faith more plausible.

There are people who will use whatever means possible to draw a circle around them and shut others out. But it is the church which must draw a circle around all the people and bring them in. We often think that this is either impossible to do or at least rather difficult. We make it seem that God’s commandments are burdensome and difficult; but John, in his letter to the congregation (5) pointed out that it was just the opposite. God’s commandments are not burdensome and those who chose to follow God through Christ will find such commandments easier to hold and follow.

We are told by Jesus that we have been called, not as servants but as friends. We are called together by the love that God has for each of us and we are commanded to follow Christ with the love of God in our hearts, our minds, and our souls. We are not to close the circle of love to keep people out but rather open the circle and draw everyone in. Let us leave this place today with the plan on drawing a big circle around those we met so that they are here in the company of friends and neighbors. Let us leave this place opening the circle of fellowship so that all can be a part.

(1)  “Outwitted” by Edwin Markham

(2)  Acts 10: 44 – 48

(3)  John 15: 9 – 17

(4)  Adapted from “The road to vital churches is paved with good intentions”, printed in Context (January 2004, part B; volume 36, number 1).

(5)  1 John 5: 1 – 6

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

This is my post for Mother’s Day – we had computer problems and could get the piece up in time. Hope that it is still meaningful.

When I first read the Gospel reading for today (1) in preparation to write this piece, my thoughts turned to my Grandmother and her house on Union Road in St. Louis, Missouri. With my father in the Air Force and duty stations changing almost year to year, this house in the southern portion of St. Louis County was the central focus of our lives; it was a place that we came to almost yearly. When I was in college in Missouri and during the early years of my professional career, it was a place where I could stay for the weekend when I wanted to get away. It was a place that I could bring my family so that they could share the same things that I had shared when I was growing up. My two daughters were able to share time with their great-grandmother.

The one thing that I remember more than anything else, especially when I was definitely old enough to remember, was the garden that my grandmother began when she and my grandfather moved into the house back around 1947. This was a flower garden that extended along both sides of the yard. When you see pictures of the yard, you are looking at least ½ of an acre of land, so this was not just a garden but rather “A Garden”. Along the back line of the property were a line of trees and a grape arbor. While I never recall enjoying any grapes from these vines, I have been told that my grandmother used to make her own grape jelly with the fruit of her vineyard. What I do remember is the adventures one could have hiding and walking about the trees that make up the dividing line between her house and the neighbor behind her.

My memories are also from the later days, when I was old enough to do the yard work on those summer days when I would come to visit. My parents were always reminding me to help my grandmother and make sure that I, rather than she, cut the grass for that large lawn. But many times, when I would prepare to do just that, she would have already been out in the yard cutting the grass. Before anyone gets upset, if I was there I would finish the task. But my grandmother lived alone and if neither of her grandsons or granddaughters were available she would cut the grass herself; she just wouldn’t do it all in one setting. Normally, she would start the grass cutting about 6 or 7 in the morning and cut the grass for about one hour, stopping before the heat and humidity of the St. Louis summer began to make their presence known. In four or five days, she would have the yard cut and it would be okay for a couple of weeks. The rest of the time was focused on the care of the flowers in her garden.

What I came to know from that house on Union Road in St. Louis and the times we spent there was that love came in many forms. There was the love that existed between a grandmother and her sons, her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren. There was also the love that a grandmother had for her garden and the enjoyment that she gained from the work and labor that was put into the garden.

The house is no longer ours, though the garden still remains. The trees planted many years ago were still there the last time I visited St. Louis, though, of course, much taller and more mature than the little saplings that were planted when I was two and the area around the house was still rural in nature. The love that grew in that house is still around as well, as plants from my grandmother’s garden have been transplanted to gardens in Memphis, Tennessee, and Atlanta, Georgia. We remember the love that our grandmother gave us every time we see and smell the flowers and plants that came from that garden in St. Louis.

The problem for many people today is that they do not have such memories. And without such memories, it is very difficult to understand what love is or about. Now, I am not going to get into some sort of philosophical discussion on the nature of love and the three types of love. Too many people do that and one should be able to find such discussions.

It seems to me that the meaning of love, in whatever form you wish to discuss, has become trivialized. When one speaks of the love of one’s country, it is assumed that you will blindly follow the dictates of the country’s leaders and not question their actions or thoughts. But to love one’s country also means to fight for what the country should be, not what it has become. During my college days and the trips to the house on Union Road, the “battle cry” of the political right was always “my country, right or wrong.” But those who so loudly claimed this as their motto and claimed to love their country forgot that this quote also held that if my country was wrong, then I should endeavor to make it right.

In this time, when this country is engaged in a questionable war that was started under questionable circumstances, there are those who criticize and vilify a mother who only wants to know why her son died in Iraq. Many of these critics claim that she, a mother, has no right to question why her child died because her child choose that path that lead to his death in Iraq. But are not parents entitled to know why their children die, even if they did not want them to.

And while we vilify and criticize those who ask why, we see others who fight about the proper expression of how one memorializes the loss of a love one. We have trivialized the love for lost loved ones in the pursuit of the proper memorial. And we confuse love with sex, not understanding either one of them. And those who don’t seem to understand either love or sex have sought to criminalize love or at least try to control who may love whom. As Tina Turner once sang, we have made love “a second-hand emotion.”

We walk by the homeless and needy of our cities and countryside, hoping that we do not have to look into their eyes. We allow our representatives in state legislatures and the Congress to pass budgets that ignore the needy, the homeless, the sick, and those forgotten by society. We allow corporate interests, the rich and powerful to dictate the outcome of legislation. We allow the rich to get richer in hopes that the poor will go away.

What does love have to do with it? As John wrote in his first letter (2), it is all about love, for love comes from God. God’s love was revealed to us through his Son, Jesus Christ. If we say that we have accepted Christ as our Lord and Savior, then our actions will reflect the love that God has for us, for we will have that love in us.

Our problem is like that of the Ethiopian who Philip encountered that day described in Acts. (3) In a world where love is trivialized and diminished, we cannot understand the ultimate act of love, the death of Christ on the Cross so that we can live. We cannot understand that when we say that we love Christ, we are expected to give that love away. John wrote in his letter that because love has been perfected in us we have the boldness to act in this world. If we say that we love God but act against our brothers and sisters in this world, we are liars.

In the Gospel reading for today, we are reminded that we are branches of the vine that starts with Christ. But some branches of the vine do not produce fruit and are cut away, in order that the other branches, the ones that produce fruit, can grow.

Love must be more than a second hand emotion; it must be the basis for our actions, our thoughts, and our deeds. When we go out into the world outside the church, we must be prepared to act in ways that reflect the love that was first expressed with the birth of Christ some two thousand years ago and which was maximized with His death on the Cross so that we may live. What does love have to do with it? It has everything to do with it because it is the love from God that allows us to live today and it is our love through Christ that will allow others to come and know Christ in this world.


John 15: 1 – 8

(2) 1 John 4: 7 – 21

(3) Acts 8: 26 – 40

To Search for Excellence

Here are my thoughts for the 4th Sunday of Easter.

Back in 1994 I took a seminar entitled “Quest for Quality”.When the seminar began, I thought that I would gain an understanding of the “TQM” process and its application to church management.

It was a time when the “search for excellence” was being applied to every process one could imagine, from standard business processes to educational processes.

While I was working on my doctorate at the University of Iowa, I was aware of the national study that produced indicators of excellence in science education. (Penick, J. E., Yager, R. E., and Bonnstetter, R. (October, 1986). Teachers make exemplary programs. Educational Leadership, 44(2), 14-20.)

So I saw this seminar as a chance to improve my own skills and become more knowledgeable about the quality process.

But by the middle of the second day of this three-day seminar, I was convinced that something was not quite what it seemed.

And as we were wrapping up the seminar that third day, it occurred to me that I had learned nothing new.

In a flash of insight, much like the noted Yankee philosopher Yogi Berra once noted, it was “déjà vu all over again”.

What I thought was to be a new an exciting venture was nothing more than a rephrasing of the statistical quality control methods that my father had used throughout his career in the Air Force and work in the private sector at McDonnell Aircraft and RCA.

I spent three days relearning what I already knew and what had essentially “paid” for my undergraduate college education.

I also never did get an appreciation for why or how this approach, which focuses on the “bottom line” of manufacturing processes, could be applied to church management.

And today, some twelve years after this seminar, I am not sure that businesses or individuals understand what quality or excellence mean.

Even the term “TQM” has been replaced by the terms “Six Sigma” or “ISO 9001”.

But though the names change, the processes remain the same.

But “reinventing” statistical quality control does not mean that a business or organization understands the basic premise of the process; that for the method to be successful, everyone, from the top management positions to the last person on the assembly line, must be involved.

Management cannot simply state that the company is going to invest in quality processes or be an excellence-oriented company; they must demonstrate the application of the process in what they do as well.

It is probably a big leap to say so but the differential between executive pay and employee pay, which has been increasing over the past few years, should be an indication that upper level management practices a “do what I say, not what I do” type of management.

Such a management process can never result in excellence or quality for it shows that management does not care for the worker.

Now, I am not saying that an approach seeking excellence or quality control is not appropriate for church operations and/or management.

What does the Gospel reading for today (John 10: 11 – 18) say?

Does not Jesus indicate that He is the Shepherd and that He is willing to look for the single lost sheep?

In how many of the parables that we learned as children do we not see God as the “manager or CEO” who has an interest in what is happening in vineyard or plant?

It is clear that with Jesus, God decided to change the way in which He managed his enterprises.

Within the framework of the Old Testament, God had used the prophets to communicate and he had used the religious hierarchy to maintain society.

But the people did not listen to the prophets and the hierarchy seemed only interested in maintaining their positions of power and privilege.

It was clearly a time for change in management style.

To me, the Gospel reading for today indicates that God was not happy with those who had been appointed with looking out for the flock.

Does not Jesus say in today’s Gospel reading that those who were supposed to look after the flock left at the first sign of trouble, abandoning the flock to the dangers of the world?

How are we to understand this paragraph except in terms of a religious establishment that failed the people they were supposed to lead and protect?

The other management principle that I learned from quality control was that everyone was to be involved.

It is clear from the reading of John’s letter to the people (1 John 3: 16 – 24) that we, the people of the church, are also responsible for the work of the church, “Let us love, not in word or speech but in truth and action” wrote John; later, he wrote “we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he commanded us.” Peter, when asked by what authority he was able to do his ministry, replied that it was through Christ.

Again, what we have is the essence of quality and excellence passing from the top of the management all the way to the lowest member of the church.

Churches should be looking more at what they can do in their neighborhoods and communities, not trying to see if they can be the biggest group in their neighborhood or community.

Instead of looking at the statistical norm in a group, churches need to focus on those on the outer edges of the group.

These are the ones that Jesus referred to as the lost sheep, the ones the shepherd went out to find.

There is a need for specialization within any organization; we would not expect the regular parishioners of any church to be experts in theology, nor would we want the pastor to be the “on-call expert” in case the air conditioning system breaks down.

But what we do want is everyone to realize what the mission of the church and how each member of the church can meet the mission of the church.

Today, we know, as Peter told the crowds, the cornerstone of our faith is Jesus. In this day and age where we hear a cry for quality in our lives, where we seek excellence at all levels, perhaps we should look to how Jesus conducted his ministry and how it represented what true excellence in an organization was achieved.

We are asked to carry the quality of the mission through what we do, what we say, and how we act.

In doing so, we will strive and achieve excellence.