Tuesday, December 3, 2013
"Born thy people to deliver, born a child, and yet a king; born to reign in us forever, now thy gracious kingdom bring. By thine own eternal Spirit rule in all our hearts alone; by thine all sufficient merit raise us to thy glorious throne" (ELW #254).
Time is a gift of God's creation. It is that measurement by which we mark events past, present and future. The church year is how we tell the story of God who stands above time, and yet has acted decisively in time. For its part in the marking of time, the season of Advent places us squarely between past and future events: Between the comfort of knowing that God so loved the world he sent his only son to die for it, and the discomfort of knowing that the crucified, resurrected and ascended Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead.
The season of Advent reminds us that life beyond the bells of Christmas is fraught with crooked roads and cavernous valleys. Advent reminds us that like our ancient forebears, we often find ourselves in exile crying desperately for God to tear open the heavens and come down so that the mountains of brokenness and pain might quake in God's presence.
And yet in this season of Advent, we along with the prophet Isaiah are invited to see beyond our present time of exile to the day when hearts will be healed and those held captive will be set free. What better place to view life beyond exile than in that place of God's promised presence? In the word proclaimed and the sacraments shared.
In the coming weeks as we begin preparations for Christmas celebrations, let us also take God's gift of Advent time to prepare our hearts for that day when our exile shall be no more and we shall greatly rejoice in the Lord once and for all.
Peace in Christ,
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
The American Heritage Dictionary defines death as, "The act of dying; the termination of life; extinction". Death is not a word for polite dinner conversation nor is it a word that we in the church like to talk much about. And that's too bad. Who better to talk of death than the followers of the One who himself experienced death and was raised to new life? Who better to talk of death than those in the church who confess that Jesus did not stay dead?
So why do we tremble with dread and fear when we hear the words "death" and "church" used in the same sentence? I think the church has been descending toward death for a very long time now: Not just over the last 30 years with attendance decline, but since about 325 CE when Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Empire.
In her book, The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle puts it another way.
"Arguably, one of the most potentially destructive things that can happen to a faith is for it to become the accepted and established religion of the political, cultural, and social unit in which its adherents live" (p.161).
My take on this? Religion is the cancer of faith. The moment faith became institutionalized, it ceased to be a verb and instead became a proper noun; “the church”. People of “The Way” were now called “Christians”. People of faith now became people of church whose vision no longer extended to the coming of God’s Kingdom but instead to the parochial preservation of a structure. Over time, the church had to be preserved and God had to be controlled at all costs. Hence, centuries of crusades and bloodshed followed.
Do we really think for a moment that Jesus intended to start a new religion? The word “Christian” never once came out of this Jewish man’s mouth and in fact didn’t come about until the late first/early second century. (a good 70 to 100 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection).
A long time ago, some of the very first followers of the crucified and resurrected Jesus gathered together on a daily basis and “devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers" (Acts 2:42). And as if that were not enough time together, they gathered at other times throughout the week in peoples’ homes breaking bread and eating food “with glad and generous hearts, praising God” (Acts 2:46-7) Not only did these early followers of Jesus have all things in common, but “they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:45).
This is all we’re told about the earliest gathering of Jesus’ followers. Maybe that’s all we need to know. Maybe following Jesus has less to do with preserving institutions and more to do with nourishing relationships. Maybe following Jesus has nothing to do with religion where I seek to control God and instead has everything to do with faith: trusting that Jesus will lead me into right relationships of love and peace with God and the world.
As a follower of Jesus named and claimed by God in the waters of Baptism, I will not be seduced by the Church or any institution claiming to have God in its back pocket and demanding my allegiance to it. But I will follow Jesus into the places of deepest darkness. I will follow Jesus into the neighborhoods of profound brokenness. I will even follow Jesus into the valley of the shadow of death. But not before I gather with you in prayer, praising God, breaking bread and sharing all things in common with glad and generous hearts. Breaking bread, praising God, sharing all things in common? I’ll do that with you any day of the week.
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
I'm not a fan of Jesus. There, I said it. Now before you grab the nearest pitchfork and torch, let me explain.
I'm not a fan, but I am a follower. Or at least I try to follow. (Though more often than not, I think I do a pretty sucky job of it). Let's face it, it's a lot easier being a fan than a follower. Fans can watch from a distance without having to exert much energy. Fans are entertained by somebody else's actions. Fans talk and talk about the game without ever having to play it. Fans can be armchair Christians deluding themselves into thinking they have insider information about Jesus and the will of God. Finally, fans can change team loyalties anytime. Whenever I'm sick of cheering a team of losers, I can switch jerseys and root for whoever is winning.
In a recent Huffington Post blog, Mark Sandlin writes that "when we are fans of Jesus rather than followers of Jesus, our focus is inward turned". He goes on to write that in this self-centered fandom, it's easy to "forget there is a world of hurting people who we are not only called to stand with but who we are to recognize as equally created in the image of God."
I think he may be on to something here. Jesus doesn't tell me things I want to hear. Sure I love when he tells me that he is the Shepherd and I am his sheep. I love when I read that God so loved the world he gave his only son. I'm a fan of that! But there's a whole bunch of other things that I'd prefer to leave behind if truth be told. I'm not sure that I can be a fan of someone who tells me to love my enemies and to do good to those who hate me. I know I'm not comfortable blessing those who curse me and praying for those who abuse me. And who does this Jesus think he is telling me not to judge lest I myself be judged? And what's up with that "new commandment" to love one another just as Christ has loved us? Christ poured out his life for us. Am I really supposed to do that for the guy down the street I don't know or even like?
Fans pick and choose what they like without risk of any personal investment. Followers.... well followers actually walk into the same crappy places Jesus goes breaking down barriers and giving up their lives. Getting down and dirty with the broken and hurting world around us is what following Jesus is all about. It's neither fun nor entertaining and it's sure as hell not easy.
In Philippians, the Apostle Paul exhorts those who would follow Jesus to "look not to your own interests but to the interests of others letting the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus who...emptied himself taking the form of a slave...and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:4-8).
I don't know anybody who's a fan of emptying oneself and taking the form of a slave, nor do I know many people (myself included) who are fans of looking to the interests of others. But that is the call that Jesus issues not just to you and me but to the whole church. Maybe the church's purpose then is not to entertain or be entertained, nor is it to talk about God. Maybe the church's purpose is to follow Jesus into the broken world helping those who wish to follow Jesus do so in ways that are faithful and authentic. Maybe the church's job is to change lives. And why not? Changed lives change the world. And maybe - just maybe - changing the world is what following Jesus is all about.
Peace and Love,
Tuesday, November 5, 2013
Dear Dawn and Wanda,
The doors of our church were opened to you this week as we invited you and your families to make our church building your home. We do this four weeks a year: Opening our building to those in need of a home through the RAIHN program. Yet this evening as we gathered for bible study like we always do, something was different. Tonight, our small group of Incarnate Word folk were not simply meeting in a building at 597 East Avenue, we were meeting in your home. And in your home this evening, "host" became "guest" and "guest" became "host" right before my very eyes.
Coming to our bible study you shared your stories of faith: Of what following Jesus means to you. Of how in the midst of adversities that I cannot even begin to comprehend, your faith in God's faithfulness has sustained you. I thought we were hosting you and as it turns out, your witness to God's greatness and love made you my host: Offering me a safe place for my own faith struggles: A safe place to share my own moments of faith poverty: A safe place for me to confide my occasional bouts of faith amnesia, when I get so caught up in life, that I forget all about a great and faithful God who loves me despite my many and egregious imperfections.
A long time ago, the writer of Hebrews wrote of entertaining angels and not even knowing it. I saw that for myself this evening in your graciousness and in your proclamation of God's transforming and abundant love. Tonight in the church where I function as pastor, your grace and faith preached to the preacher. It turns out that in the place I have called home for nearly nine years, I was your guest and you were my host. Tonight, my journey with Jesus was profoundly nourished by your grace and love and for that I cannot begin to thank you enough. I cannot begin to thank God enough.
Our God is indeed an awesome God! I know this because of your journey with us this evening. You are indeed angels: Messengers of an incredible God whose love and mercy knows no end.
Amen. And again I say Amen!
Peace and Love,
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
I heard a most disturbing story on NPR this morning involving one of my favorite sports: NASCAR. Now I realize that to many of us northeasterners, NASCAR is hardly considered a "sport". I mean how athletic must you be to sit behind the wheel of a car driving around a circular track? Well, in defense of those drivers, you and I probably wouldn't even make it once around the track without hitting the wall. And then add to that, other cars riding inches away from your bumper at 180 miles per hour? Good luck with that.
NPR reported this morning that NASCAR is now beginning to experience a decline in both attendance and viewership around the country. Sound familiar? For many years, the sport of NASCAR racing has been one of the most popular ones, even attracting presidential candidates desperately seeking to show us how they're just plain ordinary Americans. Now even major television networks are picking up on this trend and are beginning to re-evaluate their desire for NASCAR contracts. CBS is walking away from NASCAR altogether. For reasons that are not entirely apparent to me, we as a culture are beginning to move beyond the need for speed. Perhaps in the age of technology, we are no longer stimulated by just watching cars go around a track like we did thirty years ago. Maybe for some its just become too expensive to fuel up the RV and take a few days to enjoy the NASCAR festivities. Maybe our culture's obsession with cars is being supplanted by an obsession with I-Phones and Androids. Why else would texting while driving be at epidemic levels? Maybe NASCAR appeals to mostly white males who as a demographic are declining in number.
Whatever the reasons for the decline in NASCAR's popularity, one thing is for certain. The culture in which we live is very different from the culture of twenty or even thirty years ago. Times are changing. Is NASCAR?
Now substitute "church" for "NASCAR" and this question hits even closer to home. Times are changing. Is the church?
At the formation of Incarnate Word in 1961, mainline Protestant churches were the cultural religious establishment, as such, they relied on a sense of obligation as a powerful motivator for membership. They were the only game on Sunday morning. Attending church, having your children baptized and sending them to Sunday School were obligations you were supposed to fulfill. Over time a sense of complacency set in as church leaders and others assumed the church had a guaranteed place and constituency. In 1961, the era of Christendom was alive and well fueled by a sense of civic faith that said, if you were a good American, you were a good Christian and you were in church.
Times have changed and so has our culture. An unpopular war in Vietnam, assassinations of prominent leaders and the scandal of Watergate helped erode a sense of trust in society's institutions, the church among them. Moreover with the implementation of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, our culture became more racially, ethnically and religiously diverse. No longer did the assumptions of civic faith hold true that to be a good American was to be a Christian who attended church every week. No longer taking for granted that folks will simply show up on our doorsteps ready to join us in church, we've had to reassess the church's purpose and its relationship with the world around it. We've had to re-examine what it is to be the church in a post-modern, pluralistic and inter-connected world.
The culture around us has changed. Have we? The adaptive challenges that face us today compel us to re-examine our own congregational culture and assumptions. Gone are the days when "membership" had its privileges. Those outside our church walls are no longer "joiners". They are "seekers": Looking for healing, transformation and purpose. Are we offering that?
The life and death choice facing the church today is clear: Do we lament the changes around us yearning for a return to the good ol' days, or do we adapt to them? The church that adapts to these cultural challenges; that sees them not as threats but as new opportunities to tell and re-tell its story of a God in love with the world, is the church that is going to live another day bearing witness to the timeless story of a God whose love and healing in Jesus Christ knows no end.
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
I've heard a lot of talk recently about the steady decline of the mainline Protestant church and how the church just doesn't pack folks in like it used to. We look at statistical bar graphs of membership, worship attendance and Sunday School enrollment for the last thirty years and are saddened, perplexed and even terrified as we see the irrefutable trend: Numbers steadily going down.
So is this the end of the church? Have we shrunk so much that death is imminent? There is no question we have significantly declined. The culture around us is in the midst of major change; an emerging generation of younger folks are for the most part absent from our churches. Little wonder then that when folks from this missing demographic journey into our midst on a Sunday morning, we descend upon them in a scene right out of "The Walking Dead", grabbing them for all we're worth and trying all sorts of gimmicks to keep them coming back to church. (i.e. coupon for a free coffee at fellowship hour, a free loaf of bread for each visiting family...you get the picture).
The problem with these "free gift" gimmicks is that despite being well-intentioned, they're not real. They neither invite the stranger in our midst into an authentic relationship of trust with us or with Jesus. Instead they tell the visitor, "if you come to our church, you'll get stuff". Not exactly what Jesus was getting at when he preached, "if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." (Matthew 16:24). By the way, Jesus says this on the heals of Peter trying to stop him from going on to a cross in Jerusalem to suffer and be killed.
Our culture is so saturated with advertising gimmicks promising free stuff that we've become skeptical of them. Free pizza for test driving a car? Really? Car dealers are not in business to give away free pizza. Their purpose is to sell us cars. Is this how the church is perceived too?
Maybe instead of trying to market ourselves we should just listen. Listen to God and listen to our neighbors. What does the God who came to serve and not be served want for our congregation? What does the God whose son poured himself out for the life of the world want to see us do in the city for good? What events have broken the hearts of those who live in the neighborhood around us? Who are those in our neighborhood who are broken economically or spiritually? Who in our neighborhood needs to experience the healing and wholeness that walking with Jesus brings? These are the questions for which we need to listen for answers.
Regardless of demographic, folks wandering into our pews on a Sunday morning are not looking for an opportunity to help pay the light bills. They don't really care about that beloved pastor who served for many years, or that the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Mark Hanson was with us a year ago. They don't even care where we drink our coffee and eat our donuts on Sunday morning. What they are looking for is what each of us is looking for: Jesus and the radical healing and transformation that comes from being in his presence. They may even want to be a part of something bigger than themselves yearning to make a difference in the broken world around them.
As admirable as congregational loyalty may sound, it is not what those outside our church walls are looking for. As much as we rightfully love and cherish our congregational history, that too is not what those outside our church walls are looking for. Folks who wander into our midst are looking for communities of faith who are committed to mission, not maintenance; living and loving with authenticity and generous hearts.
Maybe Jesus got it right when he said a long time ago, "Love God. Love your neighbor. Nothing else matters". Just sayin'...
Thursday, October 17, 2013
For many weeks and months now, I've been wrestling with what the church is all about. What is it's purpose? Is the "business" of the church to maintain what we've got? Or is it to be like Jesus emptied out for the sake of the world? I don't think the church has done a very good job answering these questions. For too long pastors and parishioners have functioned in the church as if it were 1959, when it was just assumed in our culture, that if you were a good American you fulfilled your civic duties by being in church. How many times have we longed for the good ol' days when extra chairs had to be dragged into worship to accomodate large Sunday morning crowds? How often do we beat ourselves up as we lament the empty pews in our sanctuaries?
But the culture has changed. The church is no longer at the center like it was in 1959. If we are lucky, the church is barely in the cultural circle at all anymore. At the very least, we are off to the side watching the world go by without us. It seems to me that if we don't want to be irrelevant, we need to begin to ask the tough questions. Do we stay off to the side watching the world go by, mournfully longing for the days when the church was in the cultural center? Or do we actually do something about it by engaging the post-modern, multicultural, interconnected world with the good news that God through Jesus heals and transforms broken lives? Do we stay locked behind closed doors waiting for a "magic bullet" to fill our pews again, or do we seek ways to pour ourselves out in love for all?
Let me put it another way. Are we a church of "maintenance"or "mission"?
Here's how a maintenance church rolls as I see it:
The maintenance church:
seeks to preserve membership;
focuses on congregational survival;
depends on pastors and other professionals to do the ministry;
has volunteers who will do the work of ministry if there is time;
uses terms like "inreach" concerning itself with making all members happy all the time;
assumes new members will come to it;
focuses primarily on the congregation and what happens within its four walls;
is driven by the ABCs: (Attendance, Budget and Cash Flow);
expects very little commitment by members;
identifies itself as "congregation".
On the other hand,
The mission church:
seeks to make disciples;
understands that you find your life when you give it away;
believes that ministry belongs to the people with the pastor helping to equip for ministry;
is not about membership, but the lifestyle of discipleship;
is focused outward;
is called to love people and go to them;
is concerned with advancing the Kingdom of God;
is not obsessed with numbers but with how people are living the faith and sharing the gospel;
understands that being a disciple is a 24/7 commitment;
identifies itself as "community of faith".
These are questions with which I continue to wrestle. I hope and I pray that you will too.
Peace and Love,