The Los Angeles Lakers and UMC Local Church

Los Angeles Lakers Wordmark

Los Angeles Lakers Wordmark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I’m writing this, the Lakers have yet to make their final pitch for coveted free agent Dwight Howard.

By the time this post goes live, there’s a great chance that Dwight will be playing for the Rockets.

I don’t think D12 is going to stay with the Lakers.
Why would he?
If everything goes right, people will give Kobe all the credit.
If things go wrong, people will be wondering why Dwight is struggling and not making a bigger impact, and blame him.

No matter what Kobe or the Lakers say, as long as 24 is on the court, it’s Kobe’s team.
Besides, the Rockets have the biggest audience due to their immense popularity in China thanks to Yao Ming and Jeremy Lin (though Lin is being shopped around.) Rockets can really help Dwight become a global icon.

But what interested me is the way journalists, sports talk radio, and the Laker fans were making their pitch to Dwight.

The pitch is along the lines of:
We’re the Lakers!
Look at what we’ve done!
This is a storied franchise!
We have a great history and tradition!

If I were Dwight, my response would be, “So?”
Sure, it’s a great franchise with a rich history.
But the future isn’t looking so great for them.
They have a point guard who’s 40 years old.
Their marquee player is coming off a serious injury and is old in NBA terms.
Ron Artest, or Metta World Peace, says he’ll return to the team which isn’t the best thing for the Lakers, skill wise and salary cap wise. They’ll most likely look to amnesty him if D12 comes back.
Gasol is softer than the Marshmallow Man.
And, Dwight did not like D’Antoni’s system.

Their future seems fairly strapped.
And the fans and folks of LA are saying Dwight would be an idiot to pass up playing for the Lakers because of all the things the Lakers have done in the past. 

What’s the point of playing for a storied franchise if you feel like you’re not going to be able to win championships?
Who can the Lakers beat with this current roster? Certainly not the Heat. They at best have a puncher’s chance to just make it to the Conference Finals.
And Kobe wants to play for 3 more years.
With Dwight’s contract and Kobe’s contract, the Lakers are strapped to make any big impact deals. Except for maybe a player who’s way past his prime. But that role is currently filled by Nash.

So, many are hoping that the allure of being a Laker and all the Lakers’ accomplishments of the past will entice Dwight to stay for the future.

It just seems to parallel many of the struggling congregation of our denomination and conference.
The past; the history; the tradition dictates too much of the direction the church is going. And because we are so embedded in the past, the direction the church is going is rarely forward.

A colleague, Kelvin Sauls, tweeted, “When you have more memories than dreams, your future is at risk.”

And many of us operate more out of memories than dreams. The past seems secure and safe; the future risky and scary and full of change. So we rely on memories more than dreams.

My friend and colleague Brent Ross said, “The church, perhaps more than anything else, are those unafraid of the future.”
That’s the way it should be. Because God is pulling us towards a brighter and greater future. Because God will always be with us and never forsake us.

But, many of us are afraid of the future, because we hold onto yesterdays rather than hold on to God’s promise of a greater future.

Look. As much as I dislike the Lakers, they always find a way to bounce back. A few years ago, when things looked really bad and Kobe was demanding to be traded to the Bulls (remember that?), they somehow landed Pau Gasol and made a run for 2 championships.
They have the money to find ways to bounce back.

Our churches, though, living on memories, and memories only, will handicap us and lead us nowhere.

The past, the history, and the tradition of the each local church are important.
They should be celebrated. They should be honored. They should be remembered.
But, we can’t linger there in the past.
Because God is nowhere near done with us.
Greater things are yet to come and greater things are still to be done.

And God can’t use us for the future, if our eyes are fixed on the past.
As Jesus said, “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for God’s kingdom.”

Dear Churches, Don’t Do This

photoThis was an Easter flyer that a church left on our door (on both doors — front door and the door to the family room) during Holy Week to announce their Easter Worship.

There is no way that was an accident. I’ve tried to see how it may have “accidentally” flew from the screen door handle to where you see it now. You can’t. And it was highly annoying to try to fish it out. Then to turn around and see that there’s another one of the same flyer on the other door.

Why the church would do that is beyond me. And they expect me to come to the church after that?

New Sermon Series: Jacob’s Ladder


This Sunday, we begin a new sermon series: Jacob’s Ladder: Surely the LORD was in this place & I did not know it!

We’re going to be spending 5 weeks on the same passage (Genesis 28:10-18), but really focus on verse 16: “Surely the Lord was in this place and I did not know it!” based on Lawrence Kushner’s book, God was in this Place & I, i did not know. 

Quite a few times, people have come up to me after church and say things like, “Boy, God was really here today!” (And I know I’m not the only pastor/church leader that gets that). Those thoughts always gets me thinking… Does that imply that God hasn’t been there the other times?
But those kind of thoughts happen outside of the church, too.

One day, after a long (long) hike, when I got to the top, I saw the beautiful surrounding site and I caught myself saying, “Wow. God’s really here at the top of this mountain!” Which made me pause and ask myself, “Wasn’t God with me on my hike up?”

So, for the next 5 weeks, we’ll be talking about what Jacob might’ve experienced that kept him from realizing God was in this place before he fell asleep and had his dream, and how we, as today’s readers of Jacob’s story, can learn from his experience and story. 

What is it that keeps us from being aware of God’s presence everywhere we go?

If you can’t join us at St. Mark on Sunday mornings in beautiful Santa Barbara, I invite you to come listen to us online on our website!

Joining a Church

Unfortunately, many of our churches still view success and health of a church by how many members they have in church.

I, personally, don’t like it when someone says, “Our church has a membership of 800. And an worship attendance of 200.”

Isn’t the 200 more accurate number of the church rather than 800?

Recently, I started wondering if it is important for a church goer to join the church they attend.

Is officially becoming a member of the church more important to the church or to the people joining?

Is joining a church — becoming a member — still an important part of church life and the lives of Christians today?

Being part of a church, a faith community, is a huge deal but does one feel, these days, that joining a church (going through its membership class) is an important part of their journey?

Does church membership benefit the church more or the new member?

Is becoming a member as important as it was 10, 15, 20 years ago?

If not, how does that change how we, as churches (particularly UMC’s) keep our records? Would it change how we would assess and evaluate a pastor and her/his ministry?

I have no idea what the answers to these questions are. And am in no way qualified to answer these questions.

I was just curious.

One of the Most Unwelcoming Moments I’ve Witnessed

On our way home from visiting my parents in Pomona, we stopped by Korea Town in Los Angeles to stock up on Korean groceries, since we now live 1.5 hours away from K-Town.

My wife was doing her thing and I was wandering around the grocery store trying to appease the ADD I always feel at grocery stores. Or, in shopping scenarios in general.

There was a Hispanic lady that was shopping with her young daughter at the store. In a sea of Koreans, it's easy to spot the non-Koreans.

She was shopping and trying some of the samples being offered at the store.

She and her daughter came up to the station that I was standing at wanting a sample of the udon the worker was offering. She went up to the worker and asked, “Can my daughter and I try some?”

The Korean worker, whether she really didn't know English or pretended that she didn't, shrugged and said, “Not ready now.”

The lady then asked, “Oh. Okay. How long until it's ready?”

The worker, now clearly annoyed, for reasons unknown, said sternly, “Not ready now.”

The lady replied, “Understood, but can you tell me how long? 3 minutes? 5 minutes? 10 minutes?”

Then the worker looked at the lady, threw her hands up in the air saying “I don't know” and walked away from her station leaving the lady, her daughter and myself in disbelief.

It was so rude and shocking, I felt myself turning red in shame.

I walked over to her and I said, “Hey, I saw that. So sorry what happened. That was messed up and rude.”

I don't know why I apologized, but I felt a real strong need to apologize on behalf of my people for this lack of hospitality.

The lady looked at me and said, “What can you do, eh? Guess we don't really belong here.”

Ugh. I mean, she said it with a smile, jokingly… but my shame turn to disgust which was made worse when the lady left the udon station, the worker returned to start making udon. Maybe it was coincidence, but the timing was too perfect.

I wanted to say something to her, but I was so annoyed and angry that I don't think it would've been a very productive conversation. If it was true that she didn't speak that much English, and with my Korean being so bad — what communication would there be?

When there were udon samples ready, I actually went looking around the store for the mother and her daughter, but couldn't find them.

But, Cmon! I mean, who treats their customers like that?

You can't expect that ALL your clientele will speak Korean. Heck– a lot of their workers aren't Korean.

But this incident got me thinking about how unwelcoming some churches are, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

I mean, just like the Korean grocery store can't expect all their clientele to be Korean, we can't expect that every Sunday will be filled with folks who've been long time members of our church or long time Christians.

Even if it's just from a psychological point. Once we think that there will no longer be guests/visitors/new folks then we'll probably never have guests/visitors/new folks in worship. Or at least that's how I tend to think.

I have heard of (horror) stories where churches come off as unwelcoming.

Like, when someone who's new sits in the “Johnson's” pew. And when the Johnsons arrive, the new comer is asked to move by the ushers to make way for the people who “rightfully own” that pew.

There have been churches I've stopped by where it was made apparent and known that I had worn the wrong attire to their church. You'd think that denim was from the devil himself.

Something I've been guilty of — assuming that people just know. That people know who I'm talking about when I say, “Go see so-and-so.”

Or when churches use overtly Christianese terminology or inside jokes.

While we may not be able to get rid of all the kinks, the point is that we should try to make our community of faith as welcoming and accessible as possible– for both long time members and first time guests.

We shouldn't foster an environment where people feel ashamed to ask the simplest of questions — “Where's the bathroom?” “Where's coffee fellowship?” “Who's the pastor?” “How long will the udon take?”

Churches, especially, should be a warm, welcoming place that embraces all people, regardless of what stage of life they may be in and/or where they may be in their faith journey.

No matter how different they may look or be from us.


If You’re Going to Assume, Just Assume They Don’t Know

So, Santa Barbara.
It’s a lovely city. Weather is fantastic, so far.
There’s are few things to get used to. The food here is far more expensive than Valencia. There’s just something wrong with paying $10 for some pho. (Google it, if you must).

Secondly, I’ve seen far more spiders in my two weeks here than in my two years in Valencia. I don’t really like that. Spiders are just… wrong, too.

Anyway, my wife was reading one of the local magazines and discovered this place where she could volunteer at.
She called and they wanted her to come in for an initial interview.
She tried to get the directions and the guy on the phone kept assuming we were locals. Or something. Even when she said, “We just moved here” he didn’t really clarify the directions.
He kept calling the street (a three word street) by it’s initials.
“Oh, it’s on ‘ABC’ street.”
Along with phrases like,
“Oh, you can’t miss it. It’s behind such-and-such. It’s a well known area. Everyone knows ABC street.”

Yea, maybe for the locals and the regular visitors.

So on the morning of our appointment, we asked Siri for directions and followed the google maps direction on my iPhone.
Guess what?
We couldn’t find it. Siri, my wife and I did not know the street that everyone knew about.

Now, I’m not the best with directions to begin with. I get lost easily. But even so, the ABC street that he was talking about, there were no street signs for it. It technically wasn’t even a street. It was like a private driveway. We circled around a bit, now running late. We finally called the place and the lady on the phone had to give us turn by turn directions on the phone. Without her help, I don’t think I would’ve ever found it.

The guy who we initially talked to knew the area well, because he lived here. It’s only natural to think that it’s easy for anyone to find, because it’s easy for him to find.

And we think like that in our churches. We’ve been at a church for so-and-so years, so it’s natural for us to think that everything we do is normal.

But, it’s not. Church isn’t really ‘normal’ for those who’ve never really been. And each church has its own quirks and traditions that are unique to their own setting.

A friend told me of a church who, when it came time to do the Lord’s Prayer, would stand up, turn around and recite the Prayer. The new pastor, after a few Sundays, could no longer contain his curiosity and began to ask parishioners why they would stand, turn around and then recite the Lord’s Prayer. After digging, he finally found the answer from one of the older members of the church. Years and years ago, the Lord’s Prayer was on a banner at the back of the church, so to make everyone feel welcome, they would all stand, turn around and read the Lord’s Prayer together, just in case someone didn’t know it. The banner had been long gone, but the tradition remained.

For long time members: normal. For new comers: “What is going on? Why are we standing up? Why are we turning around? What are we reciting?” (That’s the other thing, we assume that everyone knows the Lord’s Prayer… that may not be so true anymore…)

It’s natural for us to assume that people know what we know.
But I think it’s safer to assume that they may not know what we know.

Not everyone may know where the bathroom is located on your campus.
Not everyone may know where the coffee fellowship is (if there is one) and if everything is for free after worship.
Not everyone may know why people are furiously writing their information on pads, and if you’re supposed to do the same.

And they may have been attending your church for years…
For many of us, everything about church life is normal, because we’ve been at a church for a dominant period of our lives. In fact, we can still get the hang of the language and vibe when we switch churches or visit a church on vacations.

But there are many more people these days who haven’t grown up in church and are finding themselves inside a sanctuary for the first or second time in their lives. They probably have no idea of what is going on and their anxiety may be made worse when we assume they should just know everything.

So just be open to the idea that not everyone knows what you know.

Especially when it comes to giving directions…


Rumor Has It

I think some rumors are created/spread to help someone fill in between dots.

We have a staff. Someone leaves unexpectedly, and no one who knows the real story is talking. But, our desire to know — our curiosity– can’t leave it alone. Something happened. There is a reason. So we start filling in the blanks.

Sometimes, it’s innocent (or naive) guesstimating. “That person never really got along with the boss and his work was never really up to par with the rest of us. Even though he’s been here the longest, maybe the Powers to Be finally just grew tired of it.”

Other times, it’s malicious. Sometimes, born out of contempt of that person. Or, some people just like to watch the world burn. Or be stirrers of poo.

But rumors happen. It’s naive to think that your church is rumor free.

What’s the craziest rumor that you’ve heard about yourself or your family?

The craziest rumor I’ve heard about my family happened about a decade ago. In 2001, I went back to Korea to attend my cousin’s wedding, with my dad. During our stay at Korea, my dad took me to the town where I grew up. He was showing me the church, our old home and places where I would go and play. Some of the places I remembered, some were fuzzy memories, and others I had no recollection of. We ran into a couple of old church members here and there, all who were ecstatic to see my dad and to see how grown up I was (the last time they saw me, I was 6.) Or so I thought. Apparently, something about the people’s reaction left a bad taste in my dad’s mouth. He didn’t tell me about until a year later, after he and my mom visited Korea.

They also went to my hometown to visit the same people that my dad and I visited. They first stopped by the convenient store that my dad and I visited. When the owner saw my parents, she dropped everything she was doing and ran towards my mom with tears in her eyes. My mom was taken back by such a strong (and warm) greeting. Then the woman said, “You’re alive!” The same sentiment was shared with everyone that my parents visited. Apparently, after we moved to America, someone, somehow spread the rumor that my mom passed away in a car accident.

So, when I went to Korea to visit my hometown, they were pitying me, thinking, “He came to see where his mom gave birth to him” etc and since my dad had no idea about the rumor, the way they treated me and looked at me, he didn’t like it, but he couldn’t put a finger on such a reception towards me, until… you know, he found out that the people thought my mom was dead.

Why on earth such a rumor was started and spread, we have no idea. But, then again, trying to figure out why any rumor started and who started it is tiring business.

I can’t tell you what to do when you hear a rumor about yourself, as a pastor or leader of your church/organization. I do know that you have to really think and pray and discern and think and pray and pray about addressing them from the pulpit.

Unfortunately, rumors will always be part of human society, if anything, born out of our desire of always wanting to know the entire story. I guess we just have to hope that people, who are close to you, know you enough to not believe every story spread by the wind. And sometimes, the best option is to keep our eyes and hearts focused on Christ, allowing him to be our shield, shielding us from arrows of stray words that have no truth or basis in them, and continue to live out Christ’s mission in us.

Otherwise, if we try to keep correcting and fighting and addressing all the rumors we hear about us, we’ll be too tired to deal with the things that really matter.

At least, that’s what I’ve heard…


Not Alone (End of Lewis Fellows)

I don’t think the regular lay member or people outside of ministry understand just how lonely ministry can be. I don’t think some people realize how hard ministry is, either and how much a pastor has to endure. Every time a youth has come up to me inquiring about going into ministry, my initial response is to try to talk him or her out of it. Ministry isn’t a job. It’s a calling. And if you’re not called into ministry, when crap hits the fan you have nothing to ground you. When you’re called, there’s a deep sense of knowing that, despite all that stuff, God has called you.

I’m currently sitting at an empty gate in the Atlanta airport, waiting for my flight to Los Angeles, which won’t board for another hour or so. I just wrapped up my year as a Lewis Fellows. There are countless things I’ve learned through this program and am looking forward to the day when I can really start applying things I’ve learned here. But more than the workshops, what I truly value is the friendships that were formed throughout the year.

It’s nice and reassuring to know that there are other people crazy like me, serving in ministry, and more importantly, people who are my age. It’s not a secret that a lot of times, in UMC clergy gatherings, people have decades and decades on me (us).

Our last gathering in DC, we visited a baptist whose lead pastor is a female (and so is their associate). I know, right!? It was really cool to hear the journey that this church has been under her leadership. But things weren’t so easy. A huge conflict within her church ultimately put too much strain on her marriage. She endured through the conflict within the church, and she endured through her personal life’s situation. I can’t (and don’t really want to) imagine how painful and lonely ministry could’ve been for her.

And no one tells you that. Okay, no… people do tell you that ministry’s going to be hard. But you don’t quite understand how hard and how difficult it is until you go through it and experience firsthand how much joy and life ministry and Christ’s body can suck out of you.

That’s why it’s always important to remember that you’re never alone, and you shouldn’t be. The pastor of the Baptist church was a Lewis Fellow, and she said that the program saved her life. It’s good and important to have a group of friends who are not part of your local church. It’s important to have people in your life who you can just unload on, vent, and rant without the fear of somehow, someway this rant ends up in the ears of the people of your church.

I know that when things get rough, I’ll have people who I can call upon.

I think many clergy are eager and willing to drop everything to help someone in their congregation (or people in general) who is in need… but for some reason, we’re a bit more hesitant to ask for help, even when we know that we need help. We should give ourselves space to allow ourselves to receive the love and grace that we show others.

It’s thoroughly important to remember that God has called us into ministry, because that calling and God’s grace is the foundation of who we are as pastors and as persons. But, we’re created to be in relationships; to be in communion with other Images of God. We’re not meant to live alone and isolated. Therefore, we’re definitely not meant to live in ministry alone and isolated.


Church People Say the Darndest Things

There’s never really malice or harm intended in some of the things people say to you.
In fact, a lot of times, they say it because they feel really comfortable to say anything to you. I guess that should be flattering.

I stutter. It’s not like a heavy stutter… more like stumbling over words. I stutter a heckuva lot more when I speak Korean, which accompanies snickering and giggling. Thanks guys. :)

Sometimes, I feel like I may be a dyslexic speaker, because the words don’t come out in the order they were in my head. It drives my wife crazy. Crazy.

And it doesn’t really have to do with nervousness. It just has to do with finding the right combination of words floating in my mind… and sometimes they don’t come out quick enough or the right ones don’t come out.
And on Sunday mornings, it would make so much sense to write everything down that I say. May I should really start doing so and perhaps it has to do with ego that I don’t. But, I like to not be restrained to “reading” something. Even when I read the passage for Sunday morning, I almost am tempted to “tell” the passage than read it. But I don’t, because I get nervous that I won’t say it word for word or leave out a key word…
And with prayers, I’ve always felt at home letting the words come to me than writing them down the day before and reading it out loud.

So yesterday, after the third and final Easter Worship, I was on my way out, when someone (that I didn’t know) stopped me and said, “I really enjoyed your sermon a couple of weeks back. I just wanted to ask you something. Were you nervous today?”
“No… I wasn’t really nervous.”
“Oh, okay. No, I was just curious because you were stumbling over your words today and I thought maybe it was nerves.”
“Oh… yea. Er.. well.. uh… yea” (and hence triggered my stumbling and stuttering) “sorry about that, but… uh… thanks for letting me know.”

More than get annoyed or upset, I think perhaps, I really need to (humbly) visit this idea of writing down the morning prayers and anything else that I might be needed to say in Sunday worship. I don’t want to look like a bumbling idiot or someone who is woefully underprepared. Because that’s not the case. I just stumble and stutter over my words… and at times, even when I’m reading something.

On the bright side, he could’ve been real mean or just plainly critical with what he was going to say.

But that doesn’t change the fact that sometimes, church people say the darndest things.

What Do People Know About Your Church?

When the men came to Jesus, they said, “John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’”
So he replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”

When John’s disciples came to ask Jesus if he was the Messiah, Jesus could’ve easily responded with loud rhetoric proving who he is. After all, that’s the style of argument that many use today: the louder you are, the more arguments you’re likely to win.
Or he could’ve come up with a systematic theological statement that we seminary students would dissect and argue over the smallest of words until our face turned a shade of blue mixed with purple and black. (“Well, you’d have to look at the word ‘a’ in its Hebrew and Greek… you know, the original context. Just because the English language uses ‘a’ to describe one thing, that doesn’t mean Jesus would’ve used ‘a’ to describe one thing. Besides, this is 2012 where we use ‘a’ to describe almost everything that is singular. During Jesus’ time, they probably didn’t have an ‘a’ to describe things with.”)

But, Jesus simply told John’s followers to, “Go tell John what you’ve seen and what you’ve heard.” Jesus let his actions do his proving. His work with the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead and the poor was his answer to John’s question.

I’ve always been amused by how people (non-church goers and non-believers) describe a church in their community.

(these are actual things I’ve heard people say)
Oh, that’s the real big church with the new fancy building.
Oh, that’s the weird church that meets over there.
Oh, that’s the church that basically hates anyone who’s not a Republican.
Oh, that’s the church that welcomes gay people.
Oh, that’s the church that’s suing the other church that uses the same building.
Oh, that’s the church where all the socialists go to.
Oh, that’s the church where kids go after school to fight, because the parking lot is hidden from the main street.

I’ve heard church members describe their churches in various ways, too (again, actual things people’ve said).
Oh, we’re a family church.
Oh, we’re a Biblically based church.
Oh, we’re a church with the most amazing choir.
Oh, we’re just a small church hoping to stay open for a few more years.
Oh, we’re a church for people who don’t like church.
And let’s not go into how church-going folks describe other churches in their community.
But, I hope that we, as a church, can soon be known for what we do more than our theology or what we issues we stand for or what sins we require people to repent of.

I want churches to be described as, “Oh yea, that’s the church that serves the homeless.”
“That’s the church in our community trying to help the schools in that struggling neighborhood.”
“That’s the church that throws a banquet for the struggling people within their neighborhood.”
“That’s the church that makes our community a better place to live.”

Or something like that. You know, known more for our actions rather than our rhetoric.
I think if more Church’s took Jesus’ tactic of letting our actions (and not just our words) to show people we are a church, then, perhaps, we’d have less people using church as a scapegoat. We’ve all heard people say things like, “I believe in God, but I don’t believe in church” or “I believe in God, but I don’t need to go to church.” If the church really lived by their actions of unconditional love, then as Francis Chan writes, maybe they’ll say, “I can’t deny what the church is doing, but I don’t think I believe in God.”
If people, who never stepped inside your church, were to describe your church by what they’ve seen and heard, what would they say?
How would they know you by?

Would they even know that you exist?