Archive for the ‘Church’ Category

Matthew 11:16-19

August 17, 2017

One of the irritating things of the past couple of weeks have been the recurring demands from various directions that the Church condemn publicly the activities in Charlottesville.  Specifically, that the Church condemn the Neo-Nazi marches and white supremacist groups, ideologies, and individuals.

I condemn Neo-Nazism and white supremacy ideologies.  I believe the Bible refutes these ideologies in principle and theology.   But let’s be careful about what is going on here.  I’m going to preach about the situation in our country in the aftermath of Charlottesville.  Not because some random person demanded that I do.  This certainly isn’t the first time that people have attempted to dictate what the Church preach.  Personally, I find the Church to be one of the greatest perpetrators of this error, designating numerous Sundays throughout the year  for special topics and focus on special issues or special interest groups.  This bugs the heck out of me and I generally refuse to comply (complicity is always voluntary in our polity, but there is no shortage of encouragement!).

Responding to demands on the Church to preach what culture thinks it should preach are perilous, at best.  This is not the Church’s job.  Fundamentally, the Church exists to preach the Biblical narrative of reality, emphasizing the Incarnation of the Son of God to suffer, die, rise again and ascend to heaven with the promise of return.  The Church can and should apply this central narrative to current events, but I worry that these days, such an application is not the Church leading the charge towards cultural change as it has in the past, but rather attempting to please and placate the larger culture so that culture will regard the Church better.

In other words, calls for the Church to preach against an ideology is not acknowledgement or agreement with the Church.  It’s an attempt to co-opt the Church for political and ideological reasons.  Sometimes these may overlap.  But not always, and the Church needs to be careful.  In general, I believe that culture will ultimately be hostile to the Church, even if it overlaps it or falls under Church influence for a period of time.

The cultural call for the Church to preach on a given topic no longer stems from a shared understanding of human nature, human history and divine existence.  Culture has jettisoned the Church and the Bible as unnecessary and actually problematic in terms of telling us who we are and whose we are.  Culture assumes things directly contrary to the Biblical narrative.  It assumes that the problems of our day can be routed out through education, indoctrination, and population control.  As I’ve already written, I believe this is the source of the shock and terror by many at the events in Charlottesville.  I believe it is similar shock and terror to Trump being elected president.  This wasn’t part of the cultural narrative.

The cultural narrative is that we are in control of our destiny and that, through the careful application of education and science and technology, we will further ourselves as a species.  This means the eradication of anyone and anything that is seen as contrary to a narrative of continuous progress and upwards movement towards our highest potential.  This allows for the destruction of millions of babies that might hinder personal and therefore societal progress.  It promotes the destruction of unborn children who exhibit (or might exhibit) genetic indicators that are deemed unproductive and undesirable, such as Downs Syndrome.  The cultural narrative is that the State is the best agent and overseer of this progress, and that the State is responsible for enforcing such progress when necessary.

So the shock of a president who doesn’t appear to share the same progressive ideology or assumptions about education or science or the media is a shock, literally.  An outrage.  This wasn’t supposed to happen!  He’s supposed to play along with the overarching cultural narrative and only tweak certain things to continue the illusion of real change, real diversity in our institutions.  And so the shock of finding out that there are numbers of people who still hold to ideas that have been deemed flawed and hateful.  This wasn’t supposed to happen!  Sesame Street and public education and mainstream media were supposed to have beaten these misguided concepts out of people!   UN Ambassador Nikki Haley preached this message this week when she asserted “People aren’t born with hate.  We have a responsibility to stand up and condemn it.”

The Bible says we are born with hate.  And lust.  And greed.  And envy.  And self-absorption.  And all the other problems that plague us as a people.  And the Bible claims that we aren’t going to be able to eradicate them because we have no objective, clean base from which to do so.  These things exist in everyone.  To different degrees.  In different ratios.  But everyone deals at some level with them in thought, word and deed.  Those calling out the hatred in Charlottesville are just as sinful and broken.  And it is for all our sinfulness and brokenness that Christ died, and it is for each of our sinfulness that we need to be saved.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t stand up and condemn hate when we see it and hear it!  We do!  Scripture calls us to this and entrusts us with this.  But if we have the mistaken idea that in standing up to it and condemning it we somehow also have the ability to eliminate it, we’re fundamentally mistaken.  Dangerously so.  It is at that point that we are most at risk for becoming the thing we hate – for utilizing power or cultural influence to damage others, believing our cause to be justified and the people we battle against to deserve nothing less.  We also have to recognize that hatred as culturally defined can be misleading and even incorrect.  A purpose or agenda doesn’t become true or right just because there are people crusading for it.  And just because someone claims something or someone is hateful doesn’t mean it necessarily is.

This became apparent with CNN’s publication of a listing of hate groups.  One group gets to define what is and what isn’t a hate group?  On what basis?  Are we to just take their word for it?  I looked at the map created by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).  There’s a group labeled as a hate group right here in my city.  What is their hate?  They are for immigration reform.  This makes them anti-immigrant, according to the SPLC.  Other groups (some Christian) are labeled as hate groups for being anti-LGBTQ.  What does that mean?  Does it mean they’re preaching the Bible and holding to Biblical standards on sexuality and gender that are thousands of years old?  But now they’re lumped in with the Black Panthers and radical Islamic groups?

So it’s OK to post the identities of the Neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville with the call for their employers to fire them.  But if a woman was identified being virulent in one of the women’s marches in January and was fired for her participation, I can only imagine the firestorm that would descend upon her employer.  It’s OK to threaten people for some ideas and beliefs, but not for others.  We need to be very careful about this line our culture is treading, and we as Christians and as the Church need to be the most skeptical and wary of all.

Jesus dealt with this in his day as well and warned his followers about it.

But to what shall I compare this generation?  It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates: ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’  For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they said, ‘He has a demon.’  The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’  

Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.  (Matthew 11:16-19)

The Church needs to be wise.  The Church condemns hatred, but all hatred.  The Church points out sin, but all sin.  This means at some times our culture will embrace us and at other times they will try to stone us to death.  Preach the truth in all seasons.  And that means preaching it to ourselves, to our fellow Christians, and to the culture around us.  That means trying to make sure we aren’t being co-opted for other purposes, and that our preaching of the truth truly is in love and not for personal or cultural agendas.

Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.  (Ephesians 4:25)

So I’m preaching.  The texts justify it to some degree, but the texts further still drive us towards the realization that God the Father desires that everyone come into his grace and forgiveness through faith in his Son, Jesus Christ.  This means that regardless of what someone is guilty of believing or saying or doing, as I stand up against hatred, I do so with the goal that this person will not simply tow the cultural line of the moment, but will place their faith in Jesus Christ for their eternal salvation.

That’s something I’m pretty sure the larger culture is not going to call us to preach about Sunday, or any other day.

Authentic Community?

August 6, 2017

I’ve shared a bit about how I’ve struggled, internally, with the concept of Christian community.  More accurately, I’ve struggled with how other people might want to define Christian community.  What makes it valid, legitimate, authentic?  There are no shortage of answers to those questions.  I’m sure that some folks would define Christian community as centered in worship, but then that begs the question of how is worship defined?  Is worship always and only defined as the Divine Service of Sunday mornings?  Is worship only where the Word or Sacraments are explicitly presented, or can these form the backdrop, the living context in which human beings are gathered?  Does Christian community only exist when acts of service are performed?  But how do we define acts of service?  Is it only reaching out to the socially or economically marginalized?  Or does it involve nursing and nurturing people through heartbreak, through disappointment, into joy?

Perhaps the confusion isn’t the nature of community so much as the nature of ministry.  If a congregation supports an outreach, a ministry to a group of people, what does this mean?  Are there explicit or implicit assumptions and expectations?  Is that outreach only valid when a certain set of criteria are met?  Or is just loving people and being together enough?

It seems that in most church-sponsored ministry, something gets done.  What if there are no tangible outcomes?  No quilts made?  No bags for the homeless stuffed?  No meals prepared?  No funds raised?  Not that any of these things are bad, of course!  It’s wonderful that God’s people are motivated to show love in so many ways!  But is such a tangible outcome the only criteria for a ministry?

As pastor I feel an obligation – a reasonable one – to be a good steward of my community’s resources.  Certainly those resources that are allocated to my work in various ministries.  Perhaps that’s what makes me most uncomfortable, the worry that some might view a ministry as pointless or irrelevant – ultimately as a bad investment for not meeting certain expectations.  On the other hand, I also feel it’s important to model what I believe the life of faith looks like.  Imperfectly, to be sure.  But intentionally as much as I can.

There are various ministries described in the Bible, but the command is ultimately to love our neighbor and to love our God.  That means I need to be comfortable – and encourage others to be comfortable – simply in loving one another.  When opportunity and interest present themselves to be of tangible service in some way, wonderful!  But love is often intangible, expressed in word and presence rather than in product.  Much like our Lord comes to us in worship – in Word and Sacrament, promising us that the Holy Spirit within us has drawn us into community.  His community.  Not based on what we do but who we are in faith.

So I have to trust that it’s enough to just gather, with gathering being the main point.  Joy in one another and the peculiar vibe created around family and friends, food and drink.  The simple enjoyment of the Lord’s good gifts on so many levels.  It isn’t always easy.  It’s definitely work (at least being the hosts and preparing for the gathering each week!).  But it’s work I enjoy and look forward to, never knowing quite what is going to happen, who is going to be there, and how we will be blessed through and in it.  But never doubting that we have been blessed in it, that we are, and that we will continue to be.

Eat Which Bread?

August 4, 2017

Thanks to Gene Veith’s great blog for reminding me about a somewhat recent/current controversy in conservative church circles – are gluten-free Communion wafers acceptable?  He refers to this article, which provides an analysis of the Roman Catholic refusal to approve gluten-free wafers for Holy Communion, including a history of how they reached this point (which shows that this point today is not really a new thing in their circles).

I’ll disclose at the outset that about two years ago we started offering gluten-free wafers in our congregation.  We have at least one member with Celiac Disease, who was never able to take Communion before.  Now she can, and I think this is a good thing.  There are likely a couple of others who consider themselves gluten-intolerant.  Whether this is a fad or a health thing is not a call I’m qualified to make.  Nor do I think it’s one I need to.  My only issue is that, thanks to a snafu a few weeks ago, I tasted one of those wafers and they’re disgusting.  Actually worse than the tasteless regular wafers.  I remain firmly committed to the principle that if we’re going to make a big deal about the elements (as we likely can and should), we should insist that the bread actually looks and somewhat tastes like bread, rather than simply being made from the requisite same ingredients as bread.

Several questions come to mind.  First of all, is the gluten-free issue in any way a revisitation of the gnostic rejection of anything material, a rehashing of the Docetist view that Jesus only appeared to be human but wasn’t really, and therefore celebrating Holy Communion at all – or with actual physical elements – is inappropriate?  I don’t think it is at all.  I think it’s an example of using the rationale from one theological dispute towards decisions in unrelated issues.  I don’t believe that people with legitimate health concerns are denying the real presence of Christ in with and under the bread and wine, or seeking to undermine the goodness of the created order and the material world (as declared by God in Genesis 1) by asking for gluten-free wafers.

Secondly, what kind of bread were Jesus and his disciples using?  And was that bread substantively different from other breads?  We know that it was unleavened, yet the Eastern Church uses leavened bread for their Eucharist.  Is that a big deal?  Not to them.  Should it be to us?  Perhaps.  I think the idea of maintaining the unleavened nature of Communion bread makes good sense, and is a further means of tying us more closely to the actual event, the actual Jesus, and the actual Jewish faith.

Jewish tradition dictates that the unleavened bread of Passover must be made from wheat, spelt, barley, rye or oats – either whole or refined grains – and water.  Jesus and his disciples ate whatever bread was provided to them by their host.  It could have been any of those.  Oat bread is gluten-free (when prepared properly).  Couldn’t this be an option (as opposed to rice) for gluten-free wafers?

What we seem to have at the core is whether the Roman Catholic decisions about the elements for Holy Communion should be considered binding beyond their denomination.  Lutherans traditionally line up pretty closely with the Roman Catholics on many issues – far more closely than most other Protestant traditions (except for maybe high church Anglicans).  Should we assume that the mandate for pure wheat and water alone being the ingredients for Communion wafers should be adopted?  That puts a lot of power in the arena of tradition, something that Lutherans are historically hesitant to do (fluctuating political trends notwithstanding!).  If Scripture doesn’t provide us with the ingredients of the Communion bread used by Jesus, should the Church take the authority to determine what does and does not qualify?

Finally, there’s the 1 Corinthians 11 issue.  St. Paul is taking the Corinthian church to task for some of their worship practices.  In 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 Paul deals with some fundamental misunderstandings about the nature of Holy Communion, and how it is different than any other meal we eat.  Yet the Corinthians have forgotten or don’t realize this.  They treat it just like any other meal.  If the bread and wine were in some way substantively different than the rest of the bread and wine available, or that they consumed at home, wouldn’t this have been a less problematic issue?  In other words, it seems clear that they weren’t using special bread for Holy Communion – as in special pure-wheat-and-water-only-bread.  Paul doesn’t fault them for this, but only for failing to distinguish that the consecrated bread and wine is something very different than the rest of the bread and wine laying around the house.  It has been set aside for the presence of Christ.  It is not the ingredients that are the issue, but the failure of the Corinthians to discern this spiritual truth that has led to issues in their community and the need for Paul to correct them.

I believe there should be regularity in the elements.  I believe that the elements should by and large reflect the type of elements Jesus and his disciples actually were using that night.  The bread should be unleavened.  But it should also be bread!  The wine should be kosher wine, not some sort of trendy boutique variety.  Holy Communion is not a wine-tasting exercise.  Because of the fermentation process with grapes, I don’t have a problem with offering grape juice (which has barely discernible levels of fermentation).  I don’t think we should substitute just any sort of juice or any kind of bread-like substance.

But I think it’s possible to become too legalistic about the issue as well.  I don’t think gluten-free wafers are a new incarnation of Gnostic/Docetist theology.  And while I may agree that the whole gluten-free thing is more a fad than anything else, I won’t take it upon myself to medically interrogate my parishioners to determine if they legitimately need a gluten-free wafer or just prefer one.  Here, as in many areas of worship, we attempt to be faithful while recognizing still our essential freedom.  We try never to lose sight of our connection to the Body of Christ as a whole – historically or otherwise – while taking into account the needs of our members and trying to discern whether there is theological tomfoolery afoot.

 

Good News

July 16, 2017

This morning I stopped, as usual, for my early Sunday morning tea and bagel and the final push towards finalizing preparation for worship.  This particular morning started earlier than usual.  A knock on our bedroom door roused me from sleep to discover one of our exchange students describing in confusion and distress a leak in their bathroom.

I thought that perhaps she had been doing laundry the night before.  If the loads are too big, the washer will sometimes leak water out.  It’s a nuisance but it seems a bigger nuisance than replacing or repairing the washer, and it doesn’t happen very often.  I assured her that I would take care of mopping it up.  She was still distressed, worried about how bad the situation would be by later in the morning.  A brief view of their bathroom indicates why.  It isn’t the washer that’s leaking, it’s the toilet that is overflowing.  Backed up and overflowing.  And let’s just say that the water is not clean.

I send her off to bed assuring her that I’ll take care of it.  I have no idea how, but I know it’s not her problem to handle.  She let me know the bad news and now it was my job to deal with it.  An hour or more later and I had the bathroom cleaned up and sterilized and we were awaiting a plumber to come and clear the line.  As I bought my tea and bagel I didn’t know the scope of the problem or the cost to fix it yet.  I was a tad preoccupied.

As he handed me my bagel and tea, the owner said something, and in my early morning fog and the fumes of bleach clinging to me and my increasing problems with hearing, it took me a few seconds after walking away to process.  Go out and save some lives, he had said.

It might be the world’s most succinct pep talk, and I appreciated his statement since I know he doesn’t probably share my faith (he’s someone who considers himself very spiritual but not religious).  As I put the cream and sugar in my tea, the thought that came into my head quickly was that I wasn’t going to be saving lives today.  Not because there aren’t lives to be saved, but because that’s not my job.

It’s God’s job to save lives, and that’s what He has done in Jesus.  Fixed what we can’t.  Opened a way for anyone who wants to be reconciled to the God who created them but whom they have been in rebellion against (whether actively or passively, consciously or unconsciously) since before they were born.  It’s not my job to save lives in the spiritual sense – I don’t have that power in me.

But I am blessed to be the bearer not of bad news like our poor student in the wee hours of this morning, but rather the proclaimer of good news.  What amazingly good news!  In a world that markets and manufactures despair and vitriol, that constantly seeks an angle for exploitation and manipulation, what a blessing to be able to share unmitigated good news.  There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ! (Romans 8:1, and part of the Epistle lesson I am preaching on this morning).  Whatever else may go wrong in my life, from toilets exploding to unforeseen health issues and struggles in relationship, at least I know that I am no longer condemned by God for my sin!  What a relief!  How simple everything else seems when I remind myself of this glorious message of promise and hope!

I Blessed a Boat and I Liked It

July 2, 2017

The coffee shop is usually pretty quiet on Sunday mornings when I stop in about 6:30 am, en route to a final few hours of preparation before morning worship.  There are a couple of regulars huddled behind their laptops, but it’s sparse.  Not being a morning person I’m not terribly engaging, but that’s OK as the employees know me and don’t require a lot of interaction.

This morning when I asked the girl ringing me up how she was doing, she smiled as a new song came on.  She then went on to do something that I thought was very kind.  I don’t know if you’re into Beyonce or not, but this is her new album.  It’s very unlike any of her other stuff and, well, it’s epic.  I appreciated that she took the time to give me a little information about the song rather than a generic I like this song.  It probably doesn’t require rocket science to look at me and determine that I might not be a Beyonce fan, but she shared a bit about herself as well as the music, and I appreciated that.

I headed out to my car with my tea and bagel.  As I climbed up and in, I saw framed in the open space wedge between my car door and the frame of my car the face of a man coming out and looking directly at me.  My hearing isn’t what it used to be, so I presume he had tried to get my attention and failed.  As I started to get out, he apologized and asked with a sheepish smile if I would bless his boat, pointing to his beater car with a large outrigger canoe mounted to the top.

Tom proceeded to tell me he grew up Catholic back East, was now currently the caretaker of a well-known local ruined castle (literally), and restored wooden boats for fun.  He was going out in this newly finished boat, along with his two dogs.  I asked him how far out he could go in it, and he said if it was properly equipped, he could sail to the islands 20 miles off our coast.  But he prefers to stay within 100 yards of shore because he’s come close to death on the ocean several times in his life.  He was interested in a blessing – if it wasn’t offensive – as he has a healthy respect of God’s waters and the creatures of the deep.

Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the great waters;

They saw the the deeds of the Lord, and his wondrous works in the deep.

(Psalm 107:23)

I’ve never served a rural congregation, where the blessing of fields and animals and other accoutrements of life off the land is de rigeur.  Barring a (mostly) humorous suggestion that I bless our team’s pool cues years ago, I’m not asked to bless things very often.  I explained that I am Lutheran, not Catholic, but that I’d be happy to say a prayer for him and his boat.  And I did.  And it was nice.  I should have given him my card, but at least he is reminded of who it is that goes with him as he pushes out through the waves.

Mercy Killing?

June 30, 2017

The Western world grapples with the fear of suffering.  Not simply our own, actual suffering, but the suffering of others and our own hypothetical suffering.  The idea of having to suffer offends our sensibilities.  There is no purpose to it.  And so we demand that we have the option to opt-out of suffering and along with that we demand the right to opt other people out of their suffering so that we don’t have to suffer along with them.

We term this mercy.

Here is what mercy now can look like.  Parents of a child born with congenital health issues for which there is no cure or treatment are being told that the government has decided to end their child’s life – in the best interest of the child.  Despite the fact that the parents do not want their child to die.  Despite the fact that there is experimental treatment available out of the country that could change the conditions for which the child is being sentenced to death.  Not only this, but now that their appeals for out-of-country treatment have been denied, the parents are also being denied the right to have their own child die in their own home, rather than in a hospital.

I’m still trying to see where the mercy is involved in all of this.  Perhaps because I don’t suspect that mercy is really what is being demonstrated.  Efficiency.  Expediency.  A rigorous attention to detail, the rule of law.  Bureaucratic policy.  But not mercy.

This is happening in Great Britain.  The country, as one observer notes, that fought against the Nazi’s and their insistence that some lives (other people, more specifically) were not worth living and therefore the government could decide to end those lives.  This is where we end up without a moral compass or baseline, without anything that limits our ability or tendency to define and redefine even such beautiful words as mercy until they mean the very opposite of why we find them beautiful.

This redefinition is evil.  It is evil because it reduces humanity to a matter of expediency and personal preferences, carefully sanitized in legalese and policy-speak.  It is evil because it holds the dictates of a human being or institution as ultimate and final, without recognizing that such beings and institutions are inherently unable to provide a single, permanent baseline from which to operate.  So the decisions made today may be completely opposite the decisions that would have been made 50 years ago, or the decisions that might be made 50 years hence.

We (Christians) are being inculcated to sympathy with this evil.  I find the seeds of it even in myself, despite being older and less prone to direct means of subversion and brain-washing (like schools).  We are being wooed towards sympathy because of our own fears and hopes and wishes.

Yesterday I visited one of our long-time members who is homebound.  She has been homebound for the past seven years, by and large.  Over those years I have brought her Communion and led us in simple worship together.  She is an amazing woman.  Her mind is sharp, her will is formidable, she is articulate, cultured, and refined, and she has a zest for life that would be admirable in a person a quarter her age.

When I saw her two weeks ago she was having a good day.  We shared Communion and prayer.  I could see much of her through her condition.  When I went yesterday, however, it was a bad day, and I could see so very, very little of the woman she is.  She was fearful, her words slurred and at times indecipherable.  Her fear was palpable and audible, her weakness striking.  She didn’t know who I was, or who the woman caring for her was, or where she was.  She begged to go home while sitting in her own living room of 50 years.

I left asking God why He didn’t take her yet.  She has been ready to go for years.  Her faith is strong, but her mind and body have been subverted and twisted by time.  What point is there in having her linger, I wondered.  I even flirted with the thought that perhaps God was being unkind to her in this.  She deserves to die.  It would be a blessing to her.  It would be merciful.

Merciful to whom, I suddenly thought.  Perhaps it would be merciful to me, so that I didn’t need to keep going to see her.  Merciful to me so that I wasn’t made uncomfortable by her condition and deterioration, fearful that I might one day be in her place.  Merciful to me in that I wouldn’t have to accommodate myself to her limitations, and that I could leave feeling happy and care-free, to go about my daily routine and duties, rather than struggling with mortality and the damnable reality of sin and death that lurks within my own frame.

She is still herself.  She isn’t less herself, or less of a human being, than she was two years ago or twenty years ago or eighty years ago.  She is entitled to all the same love and care and concern.  Is it harder to be with her?  Yes.  Which is perhaps why it is all the more important to be with her.  To come to grips with the effects of sin in our lives.  To seek to love her consistently and care for her consistently, rather than simply deciding that at some arbitrary point or in some arbitrary state of mind or body, she is no longer herself, no longer deserving of the life that God himself has given and sustained her in.  Perhaps part of the blessing of suffering is that we learn to see past and through these things, both in ourselves and others.

She is not defined by her dementia.  She is not defined by her physical frailty.  She is not defined by her suffering, and neither she nor I have the right to redefine her as such and cease to see her for what she is.  Beautiful.  Alive by the grace and wisdom of God.  And therefore an opportunity to love and practice mercy with in the truest and best sense of that word, rather than the senseless way our culture wants to redefine it.  Perhaps as I continue to care for her in this way, it will better prepare me to care for others in similar conditions, and will further prepare me – inasmuch as may be possible – for me to endure that condition should it become my own one day.

Mercy, like hope, isn’t necessarily expedient.   But we are in a dangerous place without either.

 

Hope Isn’t Expedient

June 27, 2017

In my line of work I hear a lot of difficult stories.  People moving through hard experiences.  Illnesses.  Family difficulties.  Broken relationships.  Unexpected adversities.

I’ve realized over time that the people who tell me the storytellers break down into two basic categories – those who want hope, and those who want help.  While these two things often are found together, they aren’t necessarily always.  But often the distinction is driven by the person speaking – I am either someone who conveys real hope, or I am someone to help them with a particular situation.  I am part of a bigger story and picture filled with hope, or I am an expedient means to an end.

The people in my community are in the first category.  Maybe they’re members of my congregation.  Maybe they’re regulars at Sunday Happy Hour.  They are present in community aside from any particular need.  Needs arise, to be sure, and when possible the community gathers around to try and meet the need.  But when the need passes or is met they continue in the community, seeing that community and their place in it as part and parcel with having their needs met but also as a source of hope and strength and comfort.  They see their needs as part of a larger picture that can best (and I would argue only) be met through intentional, consistent Christian community.

Community teaches us that struggles come and go.  Joys arrive and depart.  There remains a steady underlying reality that contextualizes these things and makes them respectively easier to bear and more enjoyable.  Our troubles are less overwhelming in some degree because we are a part of other people’s lives and know that they have troubles as well.  Our joys are heightened as we are able to share them with people who know us and care for us.  One day we are helping someone in need, the next day we are the ones who are being lifted up in care and prayer.

Other people I meet randomly are only looking for a temporary fix.  They need help with their car insurance, or this month’s rent, or groceries, or a bus pass.  Many of these are to some degree workable.  I’m blessed to serve a community with some assets set aside to help and care for people in need, and it is a wonderful experience to be able to do so.  Whenever it is appropriate, I encourage these people to join us for worship.  I ask if they have a community of faith or another support network that they can draw strength and encouragement as well as tangible help from.

Overwhelmingly the answer is no.  Not only is it no, they don’t want this.  They won’t come to church.  Won’t go get help at a shelter.  What they see is a very limited and specific need and what they want help with is that particular need.  Perhaps I can and will help them or perhaps I can’t or won’t, but they aren’t interested in hearing anything that extends beyond that particular need to the larger picture.  Despite the fact that my community is willing and able to help them, they don’t see any value in the community itself, only what that community might provide them at a single point in time.

Recently our community provided a young family in need with $1500 in a matter of three days.  All from members who desired to be a blessing and help.  The family isn’t part of our church, and from my limited talk with the guy, not a part of any Christian community – though desirous of one.  In the three days between their request and me delivering the check he was in constant contact.  Sending pictures of his daughter, etc.  As soon as he received the check, he cancelled the appointment we had set up for the next day.  For the last month he’s talked about rescheduling but something always comes up.

We didn’t help this family so they would join our congregation (though of course I’m always hopeful!).  But we did help them out of love first poured out into our lives from the Son of God.  We did it in faithfulness to how God wants us to live, and out of love for this family as part of that witness of faith.  And, we did what many individuals and even other communities could or would not do.  It baffles me that this man wouldn’t be interested in finding out more about and getting closer to our community.

The objective reader may point out that we’ve simply been taken advantage of.  Scammed.  Used.  Conned.  And this is of course possible (though for some compelling reasons I don’t think so in this particular case).  I’ve certainly helped other folks that I was sure were feeding me a line of bull  But even if that were the case, wouldn’t a con artist be interested in learning more about a group of people so willing to give of themselves?  To be sure, I don’t want con artists in my community.  Not if they’re insistent on remaining con artists.  But I do want con artists in my community so that the Holy Spirit might actually change them.  The early Christians were noted for their love and care for one another in adversity.  Now people are hopeful or even expectant of such love, but they see it only in terms of a particular need at a particular time, not as something which might transform their lives through the power of God the Holy Spirit.  And for those who aren’t con artists, who are really in need, I want them in our community to see the power and love of Jesus at work in tangible ways.  I don’t think you can experience that and not be affected by it at some level.  St. Paul and St. James clearly think you can’t.

Perhaps that is, in part, what keeps some people from community and the hope of real change and improvement.  Perhaps change isn’t really what some people want.  They simply want expediency.  This particular need met.  When the next particular need arises, they’ll figure out how to handle that.  But this issue here and now, and nothing more.  Not hope.  Perhaps they are so beleaguered are entrenched in their ways of thinking and being that it isn’t possible to even imagine something more or better.  Which means I should probably be praying more for them, that they would recognize what their greatest and deepest need truly is, and who alone can provide them not simply with help, but with hope.

 

Eclectic Community

June 13, 2017

Every Sunday evening for over a year we have opened our home on Sunday evenings to whomever wants to join us.  There is no format or agenda.  We provide simple snacks (homemade popcorn, veggies & homemade ranch, crackers & cheese, etc.) as well as cocktails (all part of my master plan, assuredly).

Over the last year, the group has grown from one or two Westmont grads.  Friends invited friends.  Friends invited roommates, bandmates, volleyball buddies, former roommates.  International students living with us pop in and out.  Our kids look forward to the event, helping to prepare (Our oldest son has gained wide-ranging respect for his popcorn skills.  Our younger two handle the cheese and cracker setup and some of the finger veggies).  Our oldest who just turned 15 has gone from slipping away to play XBox games to sitting in rapt enjoyment of the wide-ranging conversational topics that fill the air.  Economics, politics, education, culture, love, life, music – no two weeks are the same.  We have anywhere from three to a dozen or more people who come and go over a two to six hour period.   We’ve started broadening the scope, inviting home-schooling friends and other folks who don’t fit the post-college, early-20’s landscape that predominates the evening.  But there’s a core of people who clearly indicate that this is a priority for them, week in and week out.

I wish I had a genius explanation for that.

It’s eclectic.  We don’t have much of a community after seven years of living here.  The community we have found at times keeps moving away in search of less expensive living.  Our beloved congregation is mostly post-retired folks well into another stage of life, and we find that the younger folks that gather on Sundays are definitely in yet another stage of life.  We balance in the middle as best we can.  We’ve helped support two wonderful young women through traumatic relationship crashes, and celebrated with one of them as repairs were made and the relationship renewed.  Despite the presence and enjoyment of cocktails, we support and include and encourage a young man celebrating his first full year of sobriety in close to a decade, as well as one young woman who always wants to try what others are drinking despite the fact that she hates the taste of alcohol.  Sometimes people contribute things to the mix like snacks or baked goods or mead.  Often-times music forms a portion of the end of the evening as the guitar or ukuleles scattered around the house or brought in by our guests emerge to coax voices to life.

I feel guilty sometimes that there is no plan or agenda to Sundays.  Our culture – and particularly our culture in the area where we live – defines success in terms of how busy we are.  How many things are we juggling?  How little time do we have for ourselves?  Wow, you must be really successful if you’re that completely overwhelmed!  None of which we buy into – or we purchase as little as we can.  We’re convinced, if for no good reason, that there is a value in simply being that is missing in our culture, and that it is not only possible but actually healthy to just be for a few hours.  That idea has been echoed by those committed core members that come faithfully every week, not because they have to but because at some level they want to.  It’s helpful and important to them in ways we might not be able to articulate, but we can certainly enjoy.

I think that this is our faith at a fundamental level.  Many – but not all – of the people who come Sunday are Christians.  It’s a reality that undergirds the evening without the need to be preachy.  Sometimes the music that is played and sung to is worship music or hymnody.  Sometimes it’s the Beatles.  People who may not call themselves Christian are never made to feel awkward, but they sometimes get to hear us talking about our lives of faith, and I trust the Holy Spirit will use those exposures to his glory.  It isn’t worship, but the idea of worship is never far from who we are in Christ.  It is the echo detectable at times in our words and actions.  The shimmering, mirage-like reality that leads us on from day to day on a journey to eternity, never disappointing but always reminding us what awaits ahead.

We are called less to do than to be.  But not randomly to be, but rather to be His.  Created.  Redeemed.  In the process of being made better and perfect but a long way from that final state.  Which means not to be alone, to be in the presence of others and not just those that are the most like us, so that we all might look and inquire and wonder and test, and that they might find the one who has made them to be and calls them to be his.  Eclectic.  If there’s one word that describes the communion of the saints, I trust and hope and pray that this is it!

Testing the Boundaries

June 12, 2017

Here is a great article about an important judicial case that you probably never heard about until now (at least I hadn’t).

Attempts to undo religious liberty via workplace laws will continue and intensify.  But so far, those efforts are not succeeding – at least in the case of clearly confessional religious bodies.  For smaller churches unaffiliated with a broader denomination or historic church I’m guessing the vulnerability is greater.

I really like how the article stresses that while accusers in such cases often try to portray the actions of a congregation who terminates an employee as unloving or hateful, this is deliberate misrepresentation.  Terminating someone for violating the fundamental tenets of faith is not a hateful act.  At it’s heart, it should ultimately be a call to repentance, a firm reminder that God has spoken through his Word and we need to be careful when we violate it and expect to be commended.  This is, in the best application, another form of church discipline intended to call someone back to repentance and the forgiveness and grace of God, rather than allowing them to live with the potentially damning misunderstanding that what they do is approvable by God, regardless of what society says.

It’s an unfortunate situation for both the congregation and the individual involved, but it is not likely to be the last such situation, or the last such lawsuit.  It will be fascinating to see how long the courts side with churches on this issue.

When the Lost Find

April 13, 2017
Now, I know all you folks are the right kinda parents.
One fine night, they leave the pool hall,
Headin’ for the dance at the Arm’ry!
Libertine men and Scarlet women!
And Rag-time, shameless music
That’ll grab your son and your daughter
With the arms of a jungle animal instinct!
Mass-staria!
Friends, the idle brain is the devil’s playground!
Trouble, oh we got trouble,
Right here in River City!
With a capital “T”
That rhymes with “P”
And that stands for Pool,
That stands for pool.
“Ya Got Trouble” from The Music Man

 

I’ve been playing pool all of my adult life, which means countless hours spent in pool halls and bars.  I’ve seen a lot of things in those places, but there’s also a lot of things I haven’t seen, primarily because I don’t know what I’m looking at or looking for.  Pool halls and bars have earned their reputations at least in part, however, and just because I don’t see the sexual solicitations or the drug sales all the time doesn’t mean that they aren’t happening.

But there are also times when it’s pretty obvious what I’m looking  at, and then there are times when I’m reminded that I’m not seeing everything I ought to.  Not by a long shot.

I stopped in to a familiar bar with the best tables in town up the hill from my house the other day to snatch a quick few games of pool before an afternoon of meetings.  I knew a few of the guys playing there, and I quickly got my cues assembled and the balls racked and broke.  It was only after a few moments that I saw a girl I didn’t recognize chatting with one of the guys.  And as the game progressed I rapidly realized that the man was making pretty free use of her as she sat with her eyes glued to her smart phone.  Far more use than a casual acquaintance or even a good friend might, to put it diplomatically.

They disappear to his car for a few minutes and emerge in a haze of marijuana smoke and laughter.  But by this time I have to get back to the office.  I’ve packed up my cues and am on my way out of the bar, giving my regards to the guys I know and passing the couple as they re-enter the bar.  As I exit the cavern-like darkness of the bar into the blinding Central Coast sunshine, fumbling for my sunglasses,  I hear a woman calling Hey! after me.

You and I need to talk, she says as I turn in the parking lot to look back.  It’s the young woman the guy was with.  Her attire is eye-catching without being too over the top.  Faded denim jeans and a white t-shirt.  Her blond-ish hair has purple tints in it and her make-up is not light.  She’s probably in her late 20’s and the scent of her perfume alone is enough to nearly knock me unconscious.

I don’t imagine the conversation will be too long, as there can’t possibly be much to say.  Of the three guys at the pool table she was closest to, I paid her the least attention (by far!).  I assumed she just wanted to make sure I properly acknowledged her vanity, as it should have been obvious that I wasn’t interested in her services.

Are you really a priest? I mean, a real priest?   I assure her that I am, indeed, a card-carrying minister, realizing that the guy must have filled her in on that detail for some reason during their time together.  She’s taking her time now, sizing me up.  We’re blocking traffic in the parking lot so I move us out of the way.  I’m in a slight hurry, and not interested in playing around conversationally or otherwise.  But at length she asks What church?  I tell her the name and where it is.  She hasn’t heard of it.  Not surprising, I think to myself.  I start to search for a business card to give her.  My dad died a couple of months ago, and I’d like to think he’s with you.  When I look back up at her face she has tears on both cheeks that she’s wiping away.  I hope he’s with God, I respond after a stunned second.

In the bar I first saw a young woman who was so jaded in life that she didn’t care how men used her as long as they noticed her.  Then I saw a woman supporting herself with that attention and exploiting it.  What I had failed to see – in part because I didn’t want to pay too much attention to her – is someone lost.

My work in the recovery community has taught me a lot, but the one thing it has to keep teaching me over and over again is something that my faith taught me but is difficult at times to bear in mind.  People are more than the sum of their circumstances and choices.  They might be a train-wreck of addiction and crime and moral degradation, but it isn’t who they are.  It isn’t all they are.  And given the right circumstances and situations and the power of God the Holy Spirit, even the most monumental of train wrecks can be repaired.  The tracks cleared, the rubble swept away and a life of promise and possibility stretching into eternity put in place.

I hadn’t seen that with this girl.  So perhaps God the Holy Spirit sent her after me to make sure that I saw it.  I went to my car to search for a business card and brought it back to her.  By this point she was standing by a beat-up car lighting up a pipe of marijuana.  I recognized the young man in the car as someone who had been sitting at the bar earlier, and surmised it was her boss.  I handed her my card, wondering what he thought of the whole thing and realizing he probably didn’t think anything of it.  I wasn’t likely going to upset their arrangement.

I wasn’t.  I’m not.  But God the Holy Spirit, that’s another matter.  That’s a daugher of God the Father I was talking to.  That’s a woman The Son of God died and rose again for.  And while I may not want to look at her too long or bother to get involved too deeply, the Holy Spirit of God is after her.  He can do what I can’t.  He can lead her away from the pipe and the pimp and the random encounters in darkened bars in midday.  He can find the lost and lead them home and I pray that’s what happens with her.

It was a good reminder of the power and purpose of the Gospel.  One of the key reasons God gathers his people together, so that the Word might go out and reach the lost.  So that He might bring them home – the very people we don’t want to look at to closely or be seen talking to in the bright early afternoon sunlight of a busy parking lot.  It’s not a comfortable place to be, but it’s a necessary discomfort for somebody.  Perhaps even me.