Archive for the ‘Church’ Category

One and One is One

May 12, 2018

Tomorrow is the Sunday after Ascension Day, the last Sunday of the liturgical season of Easter.  The readings center on Jesus’ preparation of his disciples for his departure and his departure.  The Gospel lesson is from the Last Supper, and is known as the High Priestly Prayer, Jesus’ prayer for his disciples before they leave the room and before his ordeal plays out.  In a few last moments of peace together – even the peace of collective ignorance and confusion! – Jesus prays for his disciples.  At the center of this passage is verse 11 – Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. 

That unity has proven to be elusive, to say the least.  Judas has already shattered it in his heart and soon the evidence of this will be revealed to everyone.  From early on there have been those who sought to portray a different Jesus than the one the disciples and eye-witnesses proclaimed.  Those who sought to foist their own ideas about Jesus backwards onto him.  There have been theological differences of opinion, some of them heated and violent.  The history of the Church is fraught with internal violence as Jesus’ prayer for unity often becomes the pretext for enforcing unity.

Our polity makes a big deal about unity even as the unity we seek seems to crumble into smaller and smaller bastions of like-minded individuals.  And so congregations as well can struggle for unity.  We’re easily misled into thinking that our way is not only the right way, it should be the only way, and if others won’t see it then we are tempted to remove ourselves from the community or struggle for power or dominance over others.

Unity is hard when you have real freedom.  It would have been simpler for Jesus to draw up a complicated legal documentation to govern belief and practice so there could be no doubt about what unity should look like.  It’s another example of where I’d prefer a lot more detail from him but don’t receive it.  Joseph Smith sought to fill in some of those pesky missing blanks under the claim of further divine revelations.  Not much different than Mohammed in that respect 1200 years earlier.  In ways large and small we seek to not only identify or claim the proper rallying point for unity but to force it upon others.

But the Gospel is frustratingly free and it will not be pinned down and resists our efforts to pin others down with it.  Perhaps the essence of that freedom is in the relatively broad latitude within which we disagree with one another yet still consider one another more or less a brother or sister in the faith.  I may disagree with some Roman Catholic or Baptist theology but I’m pretty sure we’ll be in heaven together regardless of our disagreements.  And if the Gospel can provide for such a broad spectrum of unity, how much more should the smaller-scale decisions of individual congregations be governed first and foremost by a desire for unity, a refusal to allow Satan to sow seeds of discord or disparagement?   We are free, it would seem, to make bad decisions as well as good ones.  Paul picks up on this theme in some of his writings, and Romans 14 is particular instructive (as well as  challenging!) in this regard.

Perhaps if we set unity as our primary goal, it makes things easier.  Perhaps if we insist that we will bear with the weaker brother  or that we will not force our understanding of what is best on another brother or sister we come closer  to the essence of unity.  Perhaps this is where humility and a charitable spirit really develop.

Our unity is to reflect the unity of Jesus and the Father.  That’s a tough act to follow.  It implies a willingness to suffer in obedience to Jesus’ prayer for unity rather than to seek to impose  our will as a means of soothing our own consciences.  Of course there must be limits to all things.  There are aspects of our faith and our life of faith that cannot be altered or eliminated.  There are places where we need to stand firm against erroneous notions.  But in my experience, these are rarely the issues that divide congregations.  Denominations, sure.  But in congregations the divisions are more often over what we do or don’t do.  How do we spend the money we have?  How do we use the property we have?  It’s amazing how often these blessings can turn into curses and causes for separation and division rather than unity.  It’s frightening how strongly our insistence on what is right in these very fluid realms can destroy relationships and peace of mind, can shatter unity both between brothers and sisters in the faith as well as the peace of an individual heart or mind.

Isn’t it better to be wronged?  This is Paul’s’ argument in 1 Corinthians 6.  Isn’t it better to be wronged than admit to the world that two followers of Jesus Christ can’t agree on something?  That they aren’t willing to allow other brothers & sisters in the faith to arbitrate and render judgment?  Paul will use the very real possibility of personal damage and still insist that our goal should be the unity that Jesus prays for his followers in John 17.  A unity that insists that what is most important is not what we do but how we do it, that insists that we should do what we do together rather than allowing decisions to separate and divide us.  A unity that prizes the brother or sister in faith more than ensuring that a particular course of action is followed.  A unity that would rather stand with hands joined while the consequences of a bad decision bring down the church building around us, rather than push one another away in order to cling to what we think is the best course of action.

May we be one, Father, even as you and the Son are one.  May your Son’s prayer for unity echo in our hearts and minds and reverberate through what we do and say.  May our insistence on unity – made possible by your Holy Spirit within and between us – bear witness to your love for not just us but all of creation and give others pause to wonder at what power beyond ourselves could make such unity possible.

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Leading Change

May 10, 2018

I’m not a big proponent of change.  I’ll be the first to admit it these days, something that is hard after considering myself an outsider and out-of-the-box-thinker earlier in my life.  Part of working in an institution of any kind is that you become part of it, and to one extent or another it becomes a part  of you, so that change becomes increasingly difficult to envision or push for the longer you’re part of the institution.  Probably why successful change-makers tend to be folks (at least in my conception of them) who come in quickly, make changes quickly, and probably leave again just as quickly.  There’s no chance for attachment to processes or people, because attachment makes change harder.

But I also like to consider myself a realist, which means that there are times when change is inevitable, and it’s only a matter of how you approach it.  Are you proactive and engaged and involved when change is something you have the ability to influence or direct?  Or are you bitter and angry when change is beyond your control and you’re merely forced to react to the realities you never thought were going to become real?  To me there’s a world of difference in those two positions, and part of the difference lies in whether or not you’ll be able to weather the change and continue on in a different form, or whether the change kills you, the institution, or both.

My institution is a historic denominational congregation that is part of a historic denominational polity that sees itself very much in the same stream of Christian worshipers and churches going all the way back to the Apostles.  Which means change is hard.  In part because the attachment is pretty darn huge, and in part because change has to be weighed and measured against a very long history of Christian belief and practice.  Change is not done in a vacuum (ideally), but rather is contextualized and shaped by everything that has come before whether static or dynamic.

It also means that my congregation (as well as myself to a lesser extent) are used to congregational life looking a certain way.  Worship on Sunday mornings.  Maybe even Bible study or Sunday School on Sunday mornings.  Maybe an additional service the same day or through the week.  Programs for the various demographics of the congregation.  A great deal of activity focused and centered not only on the life of the church but at the physical church itself.  So for over a century, my congregation has conceived of itself as a people of a place.  Four different places over the last century, but places all the same.  The only reason one place was let go of was to expand to a larger place that would better accommodate the needs of the congregation.  By American standards, that’s a good change.  Bigger and better is always good – often physically but other times just in terms of capacity.  But there was always a place because you needed a place for all those people to do all the things that they wanted to do or the church wanted them to do.

As Americans we equate places – ownership of places – with a lot of things.  Respectability.  Legitimacy.  Permanency.  In a country where people can come from a lot of different places and say and claim a lot of different things, traditionally the ownership of a building has distinguished (perhaps psychologically if not overtly) the real McCoys from charlatans; community members from passers-through.  And also as Americans, the bigger the place, the better or more legitimate.  You weren’t just hanging on, you had arrived.  You were established.  You only left your place for something bigger and better.  Choosing to leave for another reason was suspect, rare, and by-and-large unnecessary.

Is that still the case?  In the business world it isn’t.  Brick and mortar shops are closing all over the place.  Venerable chains like Sears or Montgomery Ward struggle to stay alive or don’t exist at all any more.  Shopping malls that were the social and commercial hub for communities and teen-agers now sit derelict and empty.  People found a new way to get what they wanted.  Or their needs have changed.  The commercial landscape is littered with the derelict remains of the behemoths of a bygone age.

In Europe we see the same thing with the cathedrals.  A few dozen people at most gather for worship in this monumental artistic accomplishments.  The congregations can’t care for them any more because there are too few members and therefore not enough money being tithed.  The Catholic Church struggles to maintain them as well.  Alternate uses are being sought for some of these properties.  More than just a new delivery system has brought about this change.  More and more people are saying they don’t need God, or they don’t need the Church.  Some find new religions or philosophies.  Many drift into apathy.

We’re seeing the same thing here in the US.  Despite a majority of Americans claiming to believe in God, fewer and fewer of them are showing up at church on Sunday morning.  The beatniks and hippies of the 50’s and 60’s have given rise to multiple generations that are even less churched and less familiar with the Bible even as a cultural phenomenon.  Congregations worry about how to let people know they’re there.  They build new signs or new buildings to attract people.  But it isn’t a matter of not knowing where churches are – Google can provide that information in a heartbeat.  The problem is that fewer and fewer people care.  The idea of Sunday worship seems anachronistic to many folks in a digital age.  Efforts to become more attractive by changing how we worship have by and large failed to result in any resurgence of interest in all but a few places.

How do you respond in this kind of a ‘market shift’?  You  find a way to adapt or you go out of business.  Just like Sears or JC Penny’s.  If people are shopping in an entirely new way you can’t simply hope that better advertising will win them back over to driving to your store.  You can talk about how it used to be, once upon a time.  You can hope to draw them back in with lower prices or sales or other events, but after some period of time you have to realize this isn’t working.  You have to find a better or different way to connect with your customers in ways and places that are relevant to them.  Or you declare bankruptcy and auction off your assets.

There are good ways to adapt and bad.  There are half-hearted changes and real changes.  There are faithful changes and unfaithful changes.  There’s a danger in change that you lose who you are, that you sacrifice or erase or muddle your uniqueness, the quintessential aspects of yourself.  But there are ways to bring who you are out in new ways, in new contexts.  To introduce yourself or what you represent to people in a different setting where they’re better able to receive it and appreciate it.

But those changes are hard, as the business world will attest to.  Just because you have a good product doesn’t mean that your model for  delivering it will be sustainable.  Brand loyalty is hard to measure when there are myriads of brands from all over the world instantly accessible through Amazon or Google.  And like many businesses, it seems many congregations can’t make that fundamental shift from what was and is to something different.  It’s not a fault, per se.  We aren’t naturally equipped for these sorts of decisions.  And many – perhaps most – congregations don’t.  They slip gradually in membership until there are too few left to keep things going.  Bitter and angry or perhaps relieved, they hand the keys over to someone else, or sell the assets off and distribute legacy gifts to others who are still operational.  These are good ways of blessing others, but most people in my experience would rather figure out a way not to have to give away these kinds of blessings.

Sometimes change is inevitable.  In which case you better really give some serious thought to what that might mean or deal with the likely results of insisting on keeping things the same.  There’s a world of difference between those two end-points.  God the Holy Spirit is alive and at work in both of them, to be sure.  But it’s a lot more exciting when a congregation is able to make a big change proactively rather than gradually react to a changing environment.  We sing the praises of those folks even as we acknowledge and marvel at what hard work or great faithfulness enabled such a switch.  Nobody wants to be in the other category.  We pray with them and for them and take solace in the comfort of our Lord and pray and resolve not to be in their shoes someday.

As long as it doesn’t require us to change.

Death and Comfy Chairs

May 9, 2018

Today I got to sit down with Chuck.

Every Wednesday I’m privileged to sit down with Chuck for about an hour.  We meet in his study, where I sit on a lovely leather love seat and he in his office chair, his dog oftentimes expectantly moving back and forth between us as we talk without rush.  We are comfortable as we sit, remembering and laughing and talking about past, present and the future.  Especially the future.

Chuck is dying.  He knows this better than anyone, and I think it affords him in the midst of this process a clarity of thought which is breathtaking at times even as it is heartbreaking and jubilant.  As a follower of Jesus Christ death is an unpleasant visitor but neither completely unexpected nor totally to be feared.  He won’t, after all, be the final visitor.  He comes and we go  and then we part company with him again, never to have to share his cold congeniality ever again.  Chuck trusts this.  And as he sits in his comfy chair he is comfortable thinking about the future both individually and on a larger scale, and taking the stance of one who is curious, not cowardly.

Comfy chairs have not been a major part of Chuck’s life until recently.  More often pick up trucks and chain saws.  Shuffling ordnance off the coast of Vietnam during heavy shelling.  Chuck and death have crossed paths on more than one occasion, as he’s happy to admit with a twinkle in his eye that defies the ravages of illness in his body.  He has time and need of comfy chairs now, at the last.

We talked about the future, about the decisions that congregations are sometimes called to make about the future and how to approach it, and I know such conversations are no stranger to Chuck either.  He’s spent his life trying to help people make decisions about life and death, individually and on a larger scale.  He knows firsthand the difficulty of such a decision, and all the amazing blessings that can flow from it.

We talked about drug and alcohol recovery.  How hard it is to start.  How much harder it can be to maintain it.  The statistics are sobering (pun intended).  Chuck ran a special program for inmates at the county jail to help put them on the path to real recovery.  That program won all sorts of accolades from people local and statewide for the impressive statistics racked up, particularly the percentage of graduates who were still clean and sober five years later.  The interesting aspect of today’s conversation was that long-term recovery is harder for women than for men, when I would have thought it just the opposite.  Even in his prestigious program, only 39-41% of the men were still clean and sober five years later.  But only 31-32% of the women were.

One of the reasons for that is  that women often have children.  Children, who were taken away by the courts at some point because of Mom’s addiction and related issues.  Once Mom has completed a requisite or voluntary treatment program, she wants to get her kids back, and the courts are eager to give them to her.  The problem is now she has left the program (often times a residential program) and now has her kids with her.  How is she as a single mom (which the majority are effectively, if not actually) going to get a job as well as a place to live while watching her kids or ensuring that they are getting to and from school?  Is she going to make enough to feed all of them and pay rent?  The pressures mount.  It’s easy to slide from an apartment after not making rent into a pay by the week or day hotel which is even more expensive.  Maybe you start selling dope again to help pay the bills.  Maybe you have a few drinks to try and sleep at night because you’re so worried about all of this.  Maybe you prostitute yourself.  In any event you’re back in environments that foster addiction and substance abuse.

The only real option for people entering recovery is half-way houses or sober living houses.  But these are often not much cheaper than other housing options, and kids aren’t allowed to live on site so that makes it undesirable for a woman trying to reunite with her kids.

We talked about how wonderful it would be if there was a place that a woman could go to after completing residential rehab.  Rent would be free for a period of time to help give her time to lock in a job and start earning money.  She would  be able to have her kids come and live with her.  And in exchange for the free rent, there would be requirements – attending regular recovery meetings, regular drug/alcohol checks, curfews, limitations on who can be on site.  But also required classes on parenting and other life skills.  Bible studies and required church attendance.  And ideally a strong Christian on site not simply keeping watch on everyone but also building relationships with the ladies and helping to connect them to their church family.  After a period of time fractional rent would be paid each month, incrementing gradually to full rent, and perhaps to a decision to move out into fully independent living.  He spoke with amazement, and I could see lists of organizations flitting through his mind, all the people who understand what needs to be done and could be done and the many beautiful things that could come out of it, but don’t have anyone to share that vision with and no way to bring it to fruition themselves.  All the people who would gladly lend a hand or even a few dollars to make it real.

In the span of 20 minutes or so, this beautiful vision sprang into being.  It started with a need as well as a desire, and sprouted out as we tried to think of how not simply to meet a need, but to meet the ultimate need that all people have, which is to be anchored in relationship with the God who created them and died for them and offers them hope and strength and comfort not just temporarily but eternally.  A beautiful vision of what could be rather than fearful worry about what might be.  A looking forward to something different rather than an obsessing about the past or the familiar, but which grounds itself both in the past and the familiar as the only means of making something new and different possible.  Within short order we had a rough, verbal sketch of what this all could look like and incorporate.

Of course a sketch isn’t a finished product, but it’s something that you can hang up on the refrigerator, or pass between friends in comfy chairs to help start sharing a dream or a vision, to help see areas that need a bit more thought or other options that could be included.  Eventually it requires getting up out of comfy chairs to start working with pencils and calculators.  It requires the hard work of determining what it would take to reach this dream, and further, determining what each person is willing to contribute towards realizing it.

Dreams and visions often start in easy chairs, in quiet contemplation.  Some start from the perspicuity of a life drawing to an end; new vistas opening up and familiar terrain suddenly transformed and illuminated in their light.  Visions can start in easy chairs but will eventually require the dreamers to stand up and stand together to determine if this is a way forward they’re willing to pursue and encourage and support others in as well, or if it’s a good idea but not the right idea for this particular time and place.  But by that point we’re up out of our chairs and on the back patio or in the office and we might as well look around to see what other visions are being discussed and find out if perhaps one of them is right.

Because comfy chairs, like death itself, should never be permanent.

You Don’t Say?

May 7, 2018

If you grew up in the Christian Church, how much do you remember of the sermons and Sunday Schools and Bible studies?  If you grew up in a tradition where there was a rite of Confirmation – a period of study culminating in a statement of faith – what do you remember of what you studied?

I don’t remember much of anything.  I was far more concerned with hanging out with friends and the shenanigans we might get into together than the Confirmation studies I hastily scribbled answers to as I sat down at in my seat before class.  I know I was not a good student, despite knowing the answers for the most part.  As with some clever kids (who are not so clever as they think) I abused my understanding to make more time for my own interests and pleasures.

Not everyone is so clever.  Or, more likely, they are more clever.  So I know that this essay doesn’t apply universally.  Just because some don’t pay as much attention as they should doesn’t mean nobody does.  And I’ve met more than a few octogenarians who still remember a great deal (at least comparably) of their Confirmation class and teachings.

But at the end of the day I know that I felt like a failure for my inability to keep my oaths, and that knowing that I was better than some (and worse than others) at doing so was no comfort.  At the end of the day, it was nearly five more years before I really had a grasp of the Gospel and the promises of Christ that I was to cling to, rather than my own promises.  And as I in turn now familiarize others with God’s Word in Confirmation (including my own children), I am far less inclined to assign memory work than I am to keep talking about the big picture, hopefully encouraging them not towards licentiousness but towards a freedom and wonder in a God who could love them so much when they are so unlovable at times even to themselves.

There’s a balance between the two I’m sure I’m missing, but I strive to keep aiming towards.

 

 

 

Change Is Hard

May 2, 2018

It is.

Not just convincing people to change, not just getting them to go along with it.  But actually helping them to see the possibilities, the beauty, the potential, the danger, so that they don’t just agree to it but demand it, insist on it, and stop at nothing to accomplish it?

That’s hard.

Like many traditional denominational congregations, we struggle.  We’ve grown.  We’re financially stable.  But our population is overwhelmingly post-retired age.  Active involvement and engagement in ministry to and with people outside of our doors is very limited.  Not just by age and energy and the other challenges of aging, but perhaps at a fundamental level just by forgetfulness.  Forgetfulness, perhaps, about what it feels like to be engaging new people and inviting them into our lives both privately and as a corporate entity.  Forgetful about how we can still be a part of that sort of community regardless of our age or health condition.  Forgetful that people need to be invited in.  Not always to church, but certainly always into relationship (on that topic, this is a great little appetite-whetter !)  Forgetful that there’s more to look towards to than making it through the week, making it to church on Sunday morning and maybe Bible study during the week.

Those are good things.  Necessary things.  But as we get older we focus on those touchstones, on those milemarkers, on those accomplishments.  We focus more diligently on being careful, watching our step, not doing anything that might lead us to our final breaths any faster than absolutely necessary.  We focus on preserving what we spent our lives building and creating and accumulating.  And perhaps we forget to look up.  Look around.  To see that there are people in other stages of life and other situations – stages and situations that we once were in ourselves, and that they’re just as self-absorbed in their moments, their challenges, their reality as we are in ours.  It’s easy not to realize unless there is change, intentional, desired, persistent change, we continue in our circuit of habits and routines and preferences and they in theirs and never the two shall meet.

I’m frustrated and irritated with my denominational polity because of their emphasis on planting new congregations rather than standing with the ones who are already here.  Struggling, but still here after decades and sometimes (like ours) after a century and more.  I’m frustrated that they find talk of new churches more exciting than grappling with how to help the ones we have.

Like ours.

But I understand at another level, too.  At one level, planting new churches is a focus, a direction, a kind of change to rally people around.  Or perhaps to rally the larger congregations around, since most smaller congregations (which are the overwhelming majority in our denomination) don’t think about planting another congregation when they’re trying to save their own.

And I understand better and better that the statistical wisdom that it’s far easier to start something new than change something existing is very true.  Very real.  Very tangible.  That you can’t want and pray and model and wish and dream people into change easily or quickly.  Sometimes you can force them, which most times still ends in failure.  But it’s hard to inspire it.  To cast a vision that people are willing to risk things for – their comfort and routines and traditions – like they did earlier in their lives when they threw themselves into building campaigns and other initiatives.  When they could better see the connection between what they hoped to achieve and the risks and change necessary to stand a chance of reaching it.

It undoubtedly is easier to start from scratch.  But for everyone out there struggling for change, for something different, for a vision bigger than just to keep on keepin’ on, don’t give up.  We’re blessed in that, despite our sometimes stubborn insistence and nearsightedness to the contrary, we aren’t in this alone. Not by a long shot.  God is loose in the world and not even the most regimented routines or cherished traditions can stand against the Holy Spirit.  Keep loving people.  Try not to confuse confusion or uncertainty for stubbornness.  Keep trusting that change can happen.  That odds can be defied.  That trends can be bucked.     It happens.  Not often, perhaps, but it happens.  By the grace of the wild, boundless Spirit of God at loose in creation, it happens.

And I’m praying for that, personally and for the people I serve and love, and for the people who need to hear, or hear again, or hear correctly about the God who made them and died for them and calls to them now.  All of that – all of them – are worth changing for.

Shepherds and Sheep

April 23, 2018

These things have been on my mind a fair bit the past week or so, since these were prominent themes in the readings  (John 10:11-18, Psalm 23) for this past Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Easter, sometimes referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday.

I’ve been trying to think of analogies that would be easier for people in America in the 21st century to link to then shepherds and sheep, but what I find is that there isn’t an easy one that comes to mind.  Particularly as Americans, we largely disregard and further reject any forms of such persistent leadership.  We may have bosses or supervisors or employers, but these are recognized to be temporary, and subject to our dismissal at any time (through quitting our job).  The leadership of the father in a family unit has been steady denigrated over the past 40 years to the point where it is not only widely viewed as irrelevant but inappropriate and even offensive.  I struggle to find any suitable replacement analogy in our culture today.

I suspect this is not a good thing.

The Christian life is one of sheep and shepherds.  Jesus is, of course, ultimately the Good Shepherd.  Yet Christian leaders from the apostles on down are charged to imitate Jesus’ shepherd role in regards to God’s people.  Jesus commissions Peter in John 21:15-17 to continue the work of shepherding God’s people, as an extension, no doubt, of how Jesus shepherded Peter and the other disciples.   They are to do for and with others what Jesus has done for and with them.  Their efforts of course will fall short of the perfection of Jesus’ work with them, but the spirit of the work is to continue, and this ultimately presumes a degree of authority.  And it is authority that Americans have problems with, including in the Church.

That this authority is intended not just for the Apostles but rather for all leaders of God’s people is made clear by Peter himself, in 1 Peter 5:1-11.  His appeal presumes multiple things:

  1. there are sheep the faithful in Jesus Christ, therefore
  2. there are and need to be shepherds which naturally
  3. exercise oversight – willingly rather than grudgingly and
  4. this oversight is for the benefit of the sheep, not the benefit of the shepherds and
  5. not as a means for satisfying personal desires for control, or as an excuse to insist on doing things your particular way but rather
  6. consists of leading in large part by example rather than coercion, a method that may be effective in the long-run but is not nearly as easy or simple as demanding obedience, and therefore requires that
  7. shepherds should exercise humility, even as they carry out their duties as shepherds

Sheep need shepherds.  Jesus acknowledges in his Good Shepherd discourse of John 10 that there are shepherds who are unfaithful or more concerned with personal gain than the welfare of the sheep.  But these realities of a sinful world full of sinful sheep and shepherds don’t alter the fact that sheep still need shepherds.  And the fact that the shepherds are also themselves sheep doesn’t seem to preclude Jesus and the Apostles for maintaining this motif.

How does this dynamic play out in a culture where everyone is expected to be or encouraged to be their own – and largely only – shepherd?  Certainly it can and does lead to a lot of confusion in the sheep pens and pastures that are the Church.  Certainly it will lead to the idea that shepherds in Christ are really no different than supervisors or employers – that people are free to reject their leadership in search of a preferred leadership style.  Or it may lead to the notion that the sheep are really the ones calling the shots – all of the shots, and that shepherds are only there to affirm and carry out the will of the sheep.  And certainly it does at times lead to shepherds who abuse their authority for their own benefit, or insist on a vision the sheep have no ability or interest in following.

But sheep and shepherds remain, 2000 years after Jesus observed them day in and day out and saw fit to utilize this motif, and despite the fact that sheep and shepherds are both equally scarce these days for the vast majority of people and Christians.  Which means we have to keep trying to figure out how to be faithful shepherds and sheep.  Together.

Looking for Angles

April 19, 2018

A curious read, this.

Noting the publication, it’s not surprising that the piece is critical of gun ownership and a congregation or pastor’s attempts to make sense of Second Amendment rights in a contemporary context.  And I believe I at least understand and can perhaps even sympathize with those who think that banning some or all guns will fix the problems in our culture that more and more regularly express themselves in violence.  And I can further understand an uneasiness with this particular congregation’s advertisement of guns on site.  The conversation about guns and the risks that gathering groups of Christians seem to increasingly face in our society is one being had in many congregations and gatherings of church leaders and workers.

I wouldn’t personally advocate for such a sign on site, even if I lived in a place where such a sign wouldn’t likely be legally challenged.  It reads too much like a challenge, a dare of sorts.  I could understand better an article that wanted to deal with the tone and the repercussions a sign like that might generate.

But the  article wants to be theological.  It wants to imply that this congregation, this pastor, is a lesser form of Christianity.  Unfaithful, even.  Specifically because of their stance on guns.  I think it would be more interesting if the author cast a wider net, addressing some of the other pastoral statements that the author refers to with a not-very-veiled derogatory perspective.

But the attempt to focus simply on gun control falls flat, theologically and otherwise.  The author wants to talk about Jesus and speculate on how He might have dealt with the issue, personally.  Without referring or offering an interpretation of Luke 22:36 (perhaps understandably, it is a very confusing statement!).  But also without referencing parables and other sayings of Jesus that seem to at least tacitly acknowledge the understanding of self defense (Luke 11:14-21, for instance).  Further, the author disregards passages in Scripture (such as Exodus 22:2-3) that do deal specifically with the issue of reasonable self-defense.  Not gun control per se, but what many opponents to revising or eliminating the Second Amendment point to – the right to protect themselves.

I often hear opponents to the Second Amendment claim that you can’t be Christian and support the Second Amendment.  I don’t often hear opponents of gun control arguing that it is unChristian to argue for gun control. But I do hear them arguing – along with non-Christian opponents of gun control – that gun controls or banning gun ownership is not wise.

As the author notes, things were already scary.  I don’t see a division between Christians and non-Christians as to whether things are scary these days.  I don’t see a division between gun control advocates and Second Amendment supporters as to whether things are scary today or not.  I’m pretty positive that most people would admit that there are some seriously scary things going on in our culture.

What we disagree on is firstly what those things are, and secondly how to deal with them.  I’d rather see pastors and theologians talking about that, rather than trying to vet another person’s faith through a political or social filter.  In the long run, changing our approaches is going to be a blessing to everyone.

Easter Hit-Pieces

April 4, 2018

It’s that time of year again, when the smell of lily’s is in the air and a barrage of articles attacking the Christian faith or the Bible or the Church emerge just in time for Easter.  This is the one I was directed to this year.

I’ve had a lot of conversations recently with people about authority.  What is the authority in your life?  In mine, it’s the Bible.  Which means that to the best of my ability and despite my frequent failures, I acknowledge that what it has to say to me about my life trumps whatever ideas I might have about my life.  Whatever Scripture has to say about the world around me and my place and function in it gets priority over whatever the world says or whatever I come up with.  Every assertion, every idea has to run through the filter of Scripture first.

There are places where personal interpretation is necessary, of course.  And Christians have, of course, disagreed over a those areas over time.  But that’s different than discarding something the Bible says wholesale simply because you’d rather think about things or act on things or speak about things differently.

And that’s ultimately what’s at play here in the article.  It sounds sympathetic but it’s anything but.  This person who refuses to grant her fellow worshipers forgiveness, and would rather remove herself than have to deal with their obvious (by her definition) sinfulness.   A sinfulness she doesn’t apparently share and therefore can hold herself aloof and separate.  Despite Jesus’ rather pointed directive in Matthew 18:35, after an entire chapter devoted to radically reorienting our ideas about forgiveness.  I wonder if this author has read Matthew 18.

Perhaps not, as she admits that her issues with the Church have been long-standing.  And again, on issues that at least to some degree or spoken to be Scripture, and therefore need to be addressed in that light if you’re going to claim to be a follower of Jesus Christ, the ostensible Lord of your life.  And how do you get to enlarge your idea of God beyond what God himself has told you?  How can you do so reliably?  On what basis?  I’d argue that the Church is indeed necessary, but in a culture of plenty where you find others willing to agree with you it’s easy to forego worship and the Church – along with (God-willing) the teaching and training and study that helps to inform your understanding of God’s Word and ultimately your lived out life of faith.  But then if you don’t really want to listen to what the Bible says, then I can see how going to Church would get a bit frustrating.

I find the third paragraph from the end to be very interesting.  First off, she quotes Emily Dickinson as a way of defending her idea about not going to Church (interestingly, she doesn’t quote Hebrews 10:24-25 on the topic).  While I’m not an expert on Dickinson, I’d argue that despite human tradition (which may or may not be on target), observing the Sabbath and gathering for corporate Christian worship are two different (though historically related) things.  Frankly, I’m  all for worshiping the Sabbath at home or in the woods.  But that means going to church on a different day, since God’s original statements about the Sabbath don’t mention anything about mandatory church attendance.  I can agree with Dickinson and still say the author is misguided in avoiding worship.

Secondly, is Church primarily intended to summon awe and gratitude?  Is that the function of Church?  Since when?  Is that what Acts 4:32-37 is describing?  I don’t think so.  Certainly I personally find the Tetons a better source of awe, and time spent with my family a better source of gratitude.  I don’t assume the Church is trying to compete with those.  It isn’t.  Rather, Church and worship is an opportunity to inform me about how to receive these gifts of God and interact with them responsibly and appreciate them faithfully.  It’s there to teach and act as a resource to my life of faith, a place where I am mentored in the faith as I mentor others.  A place that challenges the ideas I’ve come up with at work or in college or in grad school and demands that I place those up against the Word of God to ensure that I’m not being led astray with allegedly good intentions.  Church is necessary to teach me that the proper response to God’s creation is not only awe, but awe to  the God who created them and who has placed his Word and his Spirit and, very specifically, his Son into creation in order that I might learn and live both now and forever.

No mention in the article is made of what Easter is.  The idea that Jesus was willing to die for a bunch of people who vehemently disagreed with him and were willing to utilize hate and violence to try and silence him.  That He was willing to die so that they might be forgiven.  That He could even say as they raised his cross into place, Father forgive them for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34).  No mention is made of what God has done for the author, or that the author is in very real need of the same forgiveness from God that all those people at Church she disagrees with are.  No mention is made of the possibility that repentance, not arrogance, is the center of the Christian life, and that as we realize our own sins and shortcomings (instead of obsessing over the sins and shortcomings of other people) that we are changed in the process into people who are certainly willing to stand for what is right, but who are (ideally) also full of humility and grace and the willingness to admit that they might be wrong, but that the one place where that can best be sorted out is in Christian community gathered first and foremost in and around and obedient to the Word of God.

Authority matters.  And what (or who) our authority is ultimately is lived out and demonstrated in our lives and our decisions and the way we are with those around us. I’m glad the author was going to be at Mass on Easter morning.  And I pray that what she heard there reminded her of her own need for forgiveness and humility, as well as her duty to engage her voice in wrestling with Scripture as well as the ideas of the world to see how they work together or not.  I pray that she’ll be back again this week as well.  And the week after.  Forever and ever Amen.

Acknowledging Mistakes

April 3, 2018

One of the hardest things for people to do is acknowledge that mistakes have been made.  It seems so harsh and judgmental.  So in the interest of avoiding pointing fingers (especially at ourselves!), we often times continue down a path that was started years ago simply because the idea of changing course seems too depressing or offensive.  The result is that there are times when we end up someplace we never wanted to be, yet claim that there can’t possibly any alternative options that might begin to lead us where we’d prefer to be.

The Church is like that sometimes, just like families and cities and nations and PTA boards and any other gathering of people can be.  But it’s vitally important to be able to say This isn’t working and move down a different path that might lead us to different outcomes.

I agree completely with this brief essay, and the conclusion that separating children from their parents in worship is – while aimed at a good goal – a big mistake.  Parents do need breaks, but there are a variety of ways that breaks can be given without removing children from worship until they’re 18, at which point they are expected to become adult members and proponents of the congregation, to be involved in something they’ve actually been excluded from all of their life.

There are other ways to help parents without removing the children.  Parenting is hard work, to be sure.  But it’s work that has to be done and it has to be done in Church just like it has to be done at the grocery store and restaurants and everywhere else we take our children.  Church as a community should be able to find all sorts of ways to assist parents in receiving the message and worshiping without breaking up the family to do so.

This essay has apparently sparked a lot of controversy.  But we need to remember that we can decide that something wasn’t a good idea without demonizing the people who initiated it – with good intentions and towards good goals.  We just have to be able to say that it was a mistake and we need to change direction.  Too much is at stake not to.

 

Acting for Life

February 5, 2018

Each year there is a massive rally in Washington DC and all around the United States on or near the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in this country 45 years ago.  And every year, despite thousands and thousands of protestors nationwide, the national press is by and large silent on it.  Certainly far more silent than it was about the Women’s March last year, despite that march having very little cohesive purpose.  And despite presidential and vice-presidential statements of support to pro-lifers, the news media saw fit once again to by and large ignore the event.

One of the typical responses against these marches is to criticize Christians for wanting to force women to have their babies but not wanting to help these women in that process, implying that Christians don’t really care about the women, only about the baby.  Which is somehow less sensitive than caring about the woman by killing the baby.

Riiiiiggghhhtt.

But it struck me that one of the problems with this attack on the Christian response to helping women in pregnancy is that it is increasingly difficult for the Church to do this, and the source of this increasing difficulty is the very State that seems determined to maintain the status quo on abortions.  Adoptions, for instance, are a highly regulated issue it turns out.  This is good in some respects – the potential abuse of women and babies by selling babies to the highest bidder or other such exploitation demands there be some rules on what constitutes a legal adoption.  Other regulations are not helpful – demanding that adoption agencies provide adoption opportunities to any potential couple including same-sex couples – something which violates the faith basis of many Christian organizations and has resulted in actually shutting down Christian (mostly Catholic) adoption agencies that refuse to comply with such regulation.

In other words, adoption is a political issue just as much or more so than abortion.  People who want to criticize Christians for not being helpful to young mothers also want to demand Christians violate their religious beliefs to help young mothers.  Problematic at best.

The other aspect to this critique is that as church participation declines in America in favor of some vague, inactive spirituality (even Christian spirituality), many young women have no church community and are therefore lacking in resources to assist them in dealing not only with their sexual development but with unexpected pregnancy.  I’d like to think that a congregation would try to help a member who found themselves in such a situation, though I’m sure many congregations have been guilty rather of ostracizing and casting out the person.

I pray that Roe v. Wade is overturned.  Sooner rather than later.  I pray that everyone will come to understand that freedom which requires the death of the most vulnerable can hardly be thought of as a freedom.  But discussion also needs to focus on how much State regulation actually prevents Christians from doing what their critics chastise them for not doing.