Church

Deeds Instead of Creeds

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

"The inner journey, pursued faithfully and well, always takes us back to the world of action."    Parker Palmer

Over the years that I have been involved in ministry, I have come to the conclusion that right doctrine takes a back seat to right living.  That orthodoxy is not nearly as important as orthopraxis.  I don’t think adherence to creeds is as important as a life of deeds.  Of course, this sometimes gets me in trouble with those who want to say I am arguing for salvation by works instead of grace.  To which my reply is always Matthew 25 and Jesus’ Parable of the Sheep and Goats where the place of eternal habitation was not based on what one believed, but how one treated others, specifically those who are on the margins of society.  Even the Apostle Paul wrote, in the book of Romans no-less, that God’s righteous judgement will be revealed and God will repay each one according to their deeds (2:5-6).

The truth is, for me, the Christian faith is no longer about how I get to heaven and avoid hell.  It is about how I live in this world as a follower of Jesus.  How do I live as a person who seeks to practice love for all, including my enemy?  In what ways can I work to tear downs walls of prejudice and hatred that have been built up over the centuries.  How do I stand up for the truth that every human being has been created in the image of God in a world where special privilege is given to those of a certain race or class?  What am I doing to feed the hungry, provide shelter for the homeless and sanctuary for the refugee?  What am I doing to further the kingdom of God that Jesus came preaching about?    

Recently, in the congregation I serve, someone brought to our attention a study done called “Virginia Millennials Come of Age.”  It was about the social, economic and political traits of the millennial generation in Virginia.  One of the highlights of the study was the high percentage of millennials who wanted to be involved in service opportunities to their community (75%).  Many were looking toward churches to be an avenue through which they could fulfill this desire.  If we believe that our faith is more about deeds than creeds, then we have a natural inroad to this group that has largely become absent from the pews.  If we can understand that church doesn’t just happen on Sunday in the classroom or the sanctuary, but that church happens whenever we work together to lessen the difficult plight of others. 

I do not mean that this should be understood as another “evangelism strategy;” an effort to keep alive the institution of the church, as we have understood it, by getting younger people involved.  It does mean a whole new way of understanding the body of Christ existing in this world.  It means the church is not the people who set themselves apart by a system of beliefs, it is a group of people who engages the world for the sake of creating a world of peace, equality and justice.  I have spent a lot of time over the years working with the ministry Habitat for Humanity which builds simple, decent and affordable housing.  Habitat’s founder, Millard Fuller, once said this, “Habitat is unashamedly a Christian ministry.  And it is precisely because it is a Christian ministry that we work with people of all faiths and no faith.  Because that is what we believe Jesus would have us to do.” 

 In the middle of writing this post, I went and worked at Oasis Social Ministry.  I go there on some Thursdays with members of my congregation.  We join with others and serve food to whoever comes.  Those that do come are considered our “guests” and they are treated with dignity and respect.  The posted sign reminds us of that.  Today we served bacon-cheeseburgers, French fries, fruit salad and vegetable soup.  There was no preaching with words.  I did hear some singing, but not certain it was the hymns.  There were definitely some heads bowed in prayer and gratitude before the food was eaten.  If someone were to ask me when was the last time I was at church, I would say “Today, at Oasis.”  I do know this, whatever food we serve on whatever Thursday we serve it, well, it all tastes a lot like bread and wine.

 

Vulnerable Worship

 

By J.C. Mitchell

                Growing up in the Roman Catholic tradition we would gather at special times for our Christening, First Communions, and Confirmation Worship Celebrations.  I was intrigued by the inclusion of these rites in the United Methodist Church that enticed me toward the Protestant expression of the church.  The baptisms were quite similar to what I knew, but the whole congregation and visitors were included, and at Confirmation the faith stories where shared with everyone.  Of course communion was always open to be the first on the first Sunday of the Month. 

                Serving a UMC church later, I recall having a child visit the time I was bringing a class to observe and partake in communion.  This child had one parent that was Roman Catholic, so she mentioned afterwards it was her first communion.  The parent that brought her confirmed this, but made it clear it was great how she was included, and there were years of relationship with this church afterwards to confirm this sentiment.  I wanted it to be clear we celebrated what she thought as special, so her first correspondence from the church was a first communion card and a small inexpensive cross..

                All of our worship services can be, and perhaps should be, a celebration of life together, neighbors and strangers..  At Hope Church Boston (now Hope Central Church), this became a common occurrence when many people were getting married, especially when Marriage Equality was achieved first in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. There were many couples that had been in committed relationships for years and when they wanted to tie the knot, they decided to do so during the regular worship service.  Mixed among those dressed up were people visiting the first—but not last—time.  What a way to celebrate an important act in the life of not just those two individuals but the whole church!  This is why I believe it became standard practice at that church to ordain those in-care, such as myself, during the regular service.  While similar to a typical service, I was honored not just as the one ordained, but as the church universal celebrating the acceptance of an individual into such service. 

                Now I am serving a congregation that will call you a younger adult if you are 79 or younger. We even sold our building because the reality of the situation and our understanding of the Gospel has made it possible to free up funds for ministries and charities, locally and globally.  They did not stop worshiping together and have found a home in an elementary school’s multi-purpose room, not unlike the cafeteria they worshiped in as younger adults before the building of the complex we sold.  It becomes sacred space conveniently at the sacred time, with good flat access.

                We had a beloved man in this church who was in his mid-nineties who had no children with his wife, who had passed on a few years prior.  When he passed away, there was not a family asking me to find a church to borrow or rent for a memorial service.  I could tell that honoring his life was important for the church family, so I suggested we do a memorial for him during our typical Sunday morning service.  We even sent the invitation to some of his cousins who after the service thanked me greatly, and among those gathered were close friends and even the woman that just starting attending.  It fulfilled our need to memorialize our brother in Christ.

                Now we have done two more like this in the Multi-Purpose room, and others have mentioned how wonderfully apropos it was to incorporate the memorials into our typical services, and that they planned on such services in the future.  Of course, there is certainly some convenience for my congregants where travel is more difficult, and even though the church we borrow is lovely, it is not the space we gather in.  Of course this saves money as well, but I think there is something more to this practice, as Hope Church did with some marriages and most ordinations, including the life of the church within the typical service, which includes death as well.

How does our typical worship reflect the life we know as the church body?  Do we uphold mourning and celebration?  Do we celebrate the diversity of life within the uniqueness of our situations?  Does our typical worship service draw us into deeper vulnerability with not only our known members, but the visitor and even the stranger? 

 


Don't Give Your Heart to the Church

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

Last week, I wrote about why I have decided to stay with the church.  It was in response to the numerous reports out there about the number of people leaving the church and the reasons they are making that decision.  I ended that article by stating that even though I have decided to stay with the church, I have not given the church my heart.  That is, I have not given it my deepest commitment.  I also said that this week I would explain what I meant by that. Since it might seem strange to some that a congregational pastor would say “I haven’t given my heart to the church,” I thought I should offer an explanation.  The following is a sermon that I have preached a couple of times over the years.  The scripture text for the sermon is Revelation 21:10; 22-22:5.  The verse of focus is 21:5; “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb.” 

"Don’t Give Your Heart to the Church"

However one experiences something depends a great deal on the perspective one has during that experience.  In baseball, the pitcher and the catcher and the batter are all part of the same event, but because of their particular perspectives their experiences are different.  The infielders and outfielders, the coaches and fans are, likewise, all part of the same event but their experiences all come from their own perspective.  Umpires are part of the same event as well, and most people think umpires always have the wrong perspective.

Over the last twenty-five years the perspective from which I have participated in the life of the church has been that of a pastor.  On forty-eight out of fifty-two Sunday mornings I find myself standing in a pulpit instead of sitting in a pew.  And in regard to the life of the church the perspective of the pulpit has both advantages and disadvantages.  The church has been the source of some of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in life.  I can’t begin to tell you the number of people I’ve visited over the years, people who are in the midst of a major crisis – an illness, a death, a personal struggle, but what they have testified to the love and support of the church.  So often, wherever I go to offer pastoral care, I am able to follow the footsteps of Christians who have already been there – sending a card, writing a note, bringing food, sending flowers.  Folks, don’t ever say, “Well all I can do is . . . ” - for the things you may think are so little, so inconsequential are the very acts of care that keep many hearts going.  I know.  I have been there.  They’ve shown me the cards, told me you came by to visit, said there was so much food they didn’t know what to do with it all.  I’ve often heard these words, “I didn’t know so many people cared.”  There are times when from my perspective the church is beautiful and it bears witness so well to the God of love and care that we believe in. 

The church has also provided me, just to be honest with you, a continually flowing river of laughter.  Just like in a lot of your families when you get together and tell stories on each other and start laughing until your sides hurt,  I sometimes get to laughing so hard at the things that happen in church that I have trouble breathing.  I’ll never forget the Sunday I was preaching, when in the middle of the sermon I heard a loud thud.  A woman in church had fallen asleep while I was preaching, slumped forward and smacked her head on the pew in front of her.  She shook my hand on the way out of the church that morning and as I noticed the red mark across her forehead she said, “Mark that was one of the best sermons you preached in a long time.” 

Beauty and laughter, I have seen them both from the pastoral perspective in the church.  Yet, sadly, I see all too often from this perspective ugliness and bitterness as well.  I’ve seen Christian folk treat one another in some of the most cruel and spiteful ways imaginable.  I’ve seen people grab for power in the church, often because they couldn’t get power anywhere else, and once they have power run over everyone else.  I’ve also had people in the church who when they didn’t get their way on a matter come in and tell me that they would do whatever it took to get their way and that it included “gettin’ rid of the current pastor (me).”  I had a colleague who once wrote in a letter:

It is sometimes ridiculous to take the church seriously as an adult institution.  Does everyone come to church to be coddled? If they don’t agree with what the church is doing they resort to blackmail by saying they will just quit giving.  And how immature some people are, expecting that pastor to show up on their doorstep and take their side every time there is even the slightest hint of conflict.

I sometimes laugh at what the people are missing in church, because if I don’t, I’ll spend all my time crying.

And, of course, it’s not just conflicts at the local level that are troublesome.  The church is fragmented in so many different ways.  I once served a church in which there were five different congregations located within a block of each other, all of us seeking to do our own thing.  All of us struggling to maintain our building and run our programs.  Think about what a witness if could have been if those five congregations became one – working together as one body, instead of each of us limping along.  Could you imagine trying to preside over a meeting that brought those congregations together?  Jesus prayed that all who believe might be one even as he and his Father are one, but we are so far from that.

Then there are the times when segments of the church have simply opposed the movement of God’s Spirit and the Gospel’s call for justice.  The Civil Rights movement in America was at the same time perhaps the American church’s finest hour and saddest witness.  The Christian spiritual strength of many was what undergirded the Civil Rights movement and I am proud that that movement was led by a man who first and foremost considered himself a preacher.  But at the same time there were white congregations in the south and the north, in the east and the west, who were taking votes that said they as a congregation would not integrate, black people would not be welcome to worship the God who made us all. 

And history has shown us as well that a contributing factor to the Jewish Holocaust of WWII was Christian anti-Semitism.  And while our Jewish brothers and sisters and their children were being murdered, too much of the church remained silent.  In recent years, several denominations have been issuing apologies to the Jewish people for the failures that led to the death of so many.

So, from my vantage point as a pastor, a preacher, and a student of the Christian faith, I see the beauty, I experience the laughter, and I wince at our sin.  And with all that I have experienced and from the perspective that I have experienced it, I have to be honest with you.  As much as I love the church, and even though I plan to serve in it until the day I die, just to be honest with you, I have not given my heart to the church. 

Now that may sound like a strange thing for a pastor to say, “I have not given my heart to the church,” but I believe that if I am going to be faithful and honest as a pastor I have to say that and even more.  I have to say to you, “Please, don’t give your heart to the church.”  You see, I think we should save our heart for that which is Ultimate, for that in which beauty reaches its holiest heights and in which hate and ugliness do not reside at all.  And the church isn’t the Ultimate.

The text for this sermon is from the book of Revelation.  John is getting a picture of what the final consummation will be like.  The day when God will redeem all of heaven and earth.  And in this final consummation, John bears witness to the Ultimate.  He says, “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God Almighty.”  The temple represented the faith of the Jewish people.  They believed it held God’s very presence.  Remember one of the charges against Jesus was that he said he would destroy the temple, the very thing that represented their faith.  But here is John, saying there would come a time when there would be no temple – “for the temple will be the Lord God Almighty.”

The Ultimate is not the temple. The Ultimate is not the church.  The Ultimate is God.  The church isn’t the Ultimate, the church bears witness to the One who is the Ultimate, the One who is not only light, but the Source of all light.  The church tells God’s story which goes from eternity to eternity and of which we are only a part.  We tell of God’s purpose for all of creation to know holiness and righteousness, to walk in fellowship with the Divine.

To give our heart to the One who is the Ultimate is to give our heart to the One who welcomes all who wish to come, while the church argues too often about who is welcome.  To give our heart to the Ultimate One is to give our heart to the one in whom all racial and ethnic and cultural barriers are broken down.  To give our heart to the One who is Ultimate is to give our heart to the One in whom no evil dwells, the One in whom evil is out of place.  Though the church has great beauty at times, the church has also been the harbinger of things that are less than beautiful, prejudice, denial of truth, deceit, abuse of power – sometimes these evils creep into holy places.  But they do not creep into the One who is holy.

If you give your heart to the church, thinking that the church is the-all-in-all, the Ultimate – you will be disappointed.  And if we, as the church, ask people to give us their heart we will be leading them in the wrong direction.  What we need to invite people to do is to give their heart, the deepest part of them, to God, the God we know most fully in Jesus.  There is nothing more vital to accomplish the mission God has given us – which is to bear witness to the ways of heaven, the way of blessing and life – than for us to have hearts not devoted to ourselves but to the One who is the Ultimate Source of all that is and ever will be. 

About John’s words in Revelation, the theologian Karl Barth wrote, “Nothing is more finally significant than the church’s complete absence.  No place of worship, no temple, no synagogue or church building is needed any longer – because there is God."  God is the Ultimate and it is to God that I encourage all of you to give your heart.

Hearts that are committed first to God will help keep the church on the right track, for when we are tempted to keep everything just the way it is because that’s what makes us comfortable – we will remember the God who makes all things new.  We will remember the God who pokes and prods and disrupts, moving us ever onward from living in comfortable complacency toward a fuller expression of justice and righteousness.

Hearts that are committed first to God will help keep the church on track, because when we think being a Christian is all about filling a pew, saying a prayer, and dropping something in the offering plate with an attitude of moral superiority toward those who aren’t there, we will remember that through the prophets God said there is nothing more important than justice, mercy and humility.  We remember the God who said to the religious folk of that day, if you are worried about the outward appearance you better stop concentrating on the outside and let love fill your insides or you will be in trouble.  We should always remember that Jesus was indeed particular about who he hung around with.  He always made certain he was surrounded by sinners in need of love.

Hearts that are committed first to God will help keep the church on track and we desperately need that, because it’s so easy for us to get off track.  And it is those hearts committed first to God that will help us to get straightened out if we dare to listen.

Most of us are aware that commitment to the church as we have known it is in significant decline.  The present generation does not have the same level of commitment to that church that many of us do.  There is much grief attached to this decline, and sometimes a finger of blame is pointed.  It is said that something is wrong with the present generation and their level of commitment.  But I will not say that.

The changing focus of commitment may well be a blessing from God, in that God is reminding us that the church is not the Ultimate, and surely then no form or structure that the church has taken over the last 2,000 years is the Ultimate.  We are being reminded that our work is not to get people to give their heart to the church, our work is to invite people to give their heart to God.

From my perspective as a leader in the church, the church at times can be beautiful and the church can be a source of great joy, but it can also be a place that has lost its way.  The only true way I feel that I can be a leader in the church, is to not give it my heart.  I am trying hard to give my heart to God.  That’s where I encourage you to give yours.  Amen

A version of this sermon was published in “Keeping the Faith: Best Indiana Sermons” by Guild Press, 2003.

 

 

     

 

I Understand Why Others Are Leaving: This Is Why I'm Staying

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

Recently, a parishioner who happens to be a former congregational pastor sent me something that he found in the magazine Christianity Today.  It is actually a piece of information that I came across in The Christian Century as well.  It is a quote from John Longhurst on research about why people are leaving the church (CC: April 16, 2014, p. 9). 

Evangelicals are leaving the church because they are angry.  Roman Catholics are leaving because they feel betrayed.  And mainline Christians? They’re leaving because they’re bored.

That quote appeared on a page that featured a bar graph about the “Decline of Institutions” with all the appropriate sociological descriptions for each age group – Millennials (18-33), Gen X (34-49), Boomers (50-68), and the Silent Generation (69-86).  The Builders (WW II generation) have finally fallen off the graph. So there exists only one group (Silent Generation) between my group (Boomers) and the end.  I hope the Silent folk hang around for a long time to come – I just hope they can find something to say.   Of course, the graph shows that the younger groups are much less inclined to participate in the institutions that the older groups have given much significant time and energy.  It is most likely that anyone reading this post is at least somewhat aware of “institutional decline.”

Over the past few weeks, I have also come across a number of stories of people of faith leaving the church because they have felt as if the church was hindering the growth of their faith. Their experience of church was one in which they did not find the presence of Christ. The sense of the Sacred was absent for them within the institution.  I read of one person who said that she was actually leaving the church so that “she could find Christ.” The telling of these stories almost always include the painful way that folks have been treated by others in the church.

Well, having been part of the “institutional church” for most of my life, (I have a problem with the way “institution” is most often used and understood in description of the church, but that’s another article) I thought that I would tell you why I have stuck it out.  I have written earlier about why I stayed with the life of faith, but this different.  This is about why I have stayed in the church.  First, however, I want to say that I recognize and honor the reasons others have chosen to leave.  I’ll readily admit that some of the ways church has been practiced can leave people with feelings of anger, betrayal and boredom.  I’ll acknowledge that some people and groups of people have been treated awful by the church – that the place of love and grace has been toward some a place of judgment and exclusion.  Let’s be honest.  The church has its fair share of people who can be real jerks (substitute any four-letter description you feel led to use).  After thirty years in ministry, I’ve met plenty of them.  They are people who, for whatever reason, believe that their obnoxious behavior toward others is something that Christ does not need to transform.  Such folks can cause significant damage to an entire congregation if they get into a position of leadership.  And they do get into leadership positions because too often the church simply looks for folks who are willing to say “yes,” instead of folks who are truly gifted to lead.  So for those who have been mistreated or seen the church mistreat others and feel betrayed and angry enough to leave, I understand.  And for those who are simply bored with the fact that too many times the church focuses on matters that don’t really matter, I get it.  I know why you have left.  Truth is, I have been close, very close, to walking out the door with you.  But I haven’t and here is why.

Yes, there are some real jerks in church. I know some by name.  But I have also found a lot of really good people in the church too.  People who are seriously concerned about doing what is right and striving to follow Christ in this day and time.  I was just in a meeting with one of the saints of our present congregation.  An 89 year old man by the name of Hoby.  Hoby is one of the kindest, gentlest, most honorable people I have ever met.  He still gives leadership in our church in many ways and presides at the Lord’s Table.  He greets everyone with a deep sense of humility and genuineness. He has a gentle, welcoming hug that embraces all.  Not too long ago, in a meeting around an important matter that involved some significant change for our church, I heard this wise old gentleman say, “Well, we better listen to what the younger folks are saying because we want them here.”  The meeting went silent after Hoby spoke, because everyone knew he spoke the truth.  Throughout my time in the church I’ve met a lot of folks like Hoby – John Ross, Bob and Barb Miller, Bob and Anna McDaniel, Rich Davis, Doc Martin – just to name a very few. I could name many more.  People who have blessed my life.  People who have helped me to experience the presence of the living Christ.  People who have helped me to remember the Sacred reality of life and given me and my family the opportunity to give and receive love.  Such folks help to balance out those who aren’t as kind or caring, or just plain mean.  I don’t let those folks zap my energy or take my attention anymore.  If that starts to happen I think how blessed I have been to have people like Hoby in my life.  The place I met Hoby, and all the others like him, is in the church. 

Another reason I have stayed with the church is because, as much as I love sports and good weather, I need something else to talk about.  I want to talk about meaning and purpose and what really matters in life and the church has been a place for me to do that.  In the church we can and should talk about such things as what is right and what is wrong and how we arrive at our conclusions.  We can and should talk about our own mortality and what that means for how we live.  We can and should talk about what it means to care for each other and all others.  We can and should talk about overcoming prejudice and not living in fear of one another.   I need some depth in life and maybe because I as a pastor have pushed the envelope at times, the church has been a place where that desire for depth has been explored.  Not too long ago, I was leading a class and some of the folks were sharing from a very deep place about their own lives and I can remember being moved to tears.  Not so much by their stories, but by the fact that a safe place had been created where they felt it was okay to share that part of themselves.  I understand why some folks have left out of boredom.  Too often the church steers away from important matters because they are either afraid that someone will be offended or because they don’t want to deal with the different opinions that can arise.  But if we don’t talk about matters of importance, I don’t know what it is we are to spend our time talking about. 

Finally, I have stayed in the church because, honestly, I don’t know where else to go. I crave human community and a sense of connection. I desire to live life in such a way that I feel like I am making a difference and, for me, that means following Jesus and being a part of that group of people who are seeking to follow him as well.  If I were to leave the “institutional church,” I would look for another group of folks who were on this same path and once I found them – that would be church too.  I’ve decided to stick it out in the church, because I think, if I left, I’d just find church somewhere else. 

So, that’s why I’ve stayed.  Folks like Hoby, who truly loves Jesus and strives to love others.  Such people in the church have fed my faith, immensely more than others have diminished it.  Because I get to have conversations with people on topics that matter.  And then, after our conversation, roll up our sleeves and get to the work that matters.  And because I don’t know where else I would go.   So, I’ve stayed with the church and I think it has been a good decision for me.  It has helped me to be a better person and helped me to work toward a better world. 

But I want to make something clear, though I have stayed in the church, I have not given the church my heart and I won’t.  My heart, the deepest part of me, belongs to another.  And I will explain what I mean by that next week.  

Who We Are, When We Are, Where We Are . . .

By Rev. Charlsi Lewis Lee

Since my first memory of church there’s been a constant struggle to “redefine” who the church is, what we are doing, and to whom we are doing it.  I grew up in the age of vision statements, mission statements and the like.  They all serve a good purpose.  They help us to articulate the mission to which we have been called and the church’s best possible understanding of how to make that happen. 

I have witnessed churches spend months and months crafting delightful vision and mission statements.  I have participated in developing well-thought out carefully worded phrases that encapsulate the essentials of the gospel as lived out in a specific time and place.  I do not deny the usefulness of such activities because it gives focus and intention to the work we are called to do.

I do, however, wonder if we sometimes get so lost in the work of producing documents about being church, or in philosophizing about church, or even preaching about church that we forget to be church in the moment.  We meander about waiting for the next step and busy ourselves fretting over who is going to sit next to us in the coming years that we completely neglect the work and the identity that is now. 

In the interests of full disclosure, I have been accused of being impulsive.   I do like spontaneity and creativity.  I also recognize that there does need to be a road map to the church’s identity. 

Last week, I preached from Matthew 5.  Jesus tells those who are listening that they are salt and light.  They are a city on a hill.  What I love about this text is that Jesus does not say that we have to prepare to become these things.  Jesus says that we are salt, we are light, and we are a city on the hill.    That’s the vision statement.

I am a member of a congregation that just made a tough financial decision.  Some were disquieted by it, some were relieved, but in the end most understood that it was a decision that allows the church to continuing being salt and light in our city.  One member stated that if we spend our money in such a way as to maintain ourselves we have lost our flavor and we have hidden our light under a bushel.  If we use our money in such a way as to continue in ministry and make the Good News known in the community, then we are living into our saltiness and producing light. 

So many of us are afraid to claim who we are in this world because a stigma that has been placed upon us as Christians.  Even today, announcing ourselves as Christians is often met with a roll of the eyes or a sigh.  It does not matter.  We are who we are, when we are, where we are.  We are conveyors of God’s presence in the world when we offer food to a stranger or shelter from the rain.  We are seasoning our towns and communities with God’s love when we pass the peace to a cashier at the grocery store.  We are lighting a little of the darkness when we choose to spend our time and money giving instead of collecting.  It is that simple.

The church is the church because God has called us to gather in the presence of others who are salt and light.  We are who we are, in this time, and in this place—where ever that may be.  We do not have to ponder it any longer.  We only have to claim our saltiness, own our light, and live it out at the top of the hill.

Idealized Failure

By J.C. Mitchell

Growing up in New England, I remember going to Woolworth’s counter and spinning the seats, but generally my mother would take us to a different store called Caldor.  It was a regional discount department store that originally started as a 5 & Dime.  It was where I am sure most of my toys and clothes were purchased.  I even remember the tent that I picked out when I turned ten was from this predecessor to Wal-Mart.  There were stores throughout the East, but the one in Ridgefield and Norwalk were the two I knew like the back of my hand.  

Caldor is no more than a fond memory, for the Ridgefield store is now a Kohl’s, and in Norwalk, a Wal-Mart.  Honestly the items are not very different, especially since fashion seems to repeat itself, and retro is currently quite popular.  Therefore I have been known to say to Mindi often, “Let’s go to Caldor,” referring to Kohl’s, Wal-Mart, or Freddies.  Her correction has turned to a laugh, for it is generally all the same thing anyway.  

Caldor and Woolworth’s both came to end in the same decade, but the former was the one where I had the stronger memories.  Today I compare any department stores to my Caldor.  I say “my” for it is actually an idealized memory.  Kohl’s and Wal-Mart are the successful competition, yet I can’t shake my boyhood memory.

Living in the past can keep stuck us in the present: it is not the past because you actually cannot go back, but you cannot go forward as well.  We all have our Caldors and the church is often one of our strongest.  Of course, a store is not nearly as emotional as a church, but it is easy to see how hard it is to progress when we only have the conversations that start with, “I remember….” Or “What if…”  Well, the reality is I now shop at Freddies (Fred Meyers) and I still have the essentials and some things I want and do not need. 

 So upon reflecting on my Caldor memory, I realize it was not their prices or logo, but that my mom would bring me there with my sister. That when I put on a new shirt, even if it wasn’t bought at a fancy store, I knew of my mother’s love.    I worry less about remembering the store or trying to figure out how they could have stayed competitive.  I am fine with knowing the store was for a season, but the memory lasts a lifetime, compelling me to make similar memories with AJ, my son. 

Early in this millennium the church has seen a lot of attempts of change.  We are not a business, which I cannot over emphasize, but I do believe we can learn from the reality of these “failed” department stores.  Of course I am sharing how my memory is often trapped by our idealization of our past.  This is a very real problem and we need to be aware of this when looking to implement new ways of being church, be it in worship, study, programs, or space.  The other key is to remember that we can also learn from “failed” ministries.  I put that word in quotes, because is it a failure to have served people but only for a specific time?  I do not think so.  

If we are looking to create new churches and new programs to serve people that have felt the church is not relevant, we need to understand we are not to create an institution that will last for eternity.  That is for the Divine, not us.  I want to be clear that we should not make the Gospel relevant: the Gospel is relevant.  However, the reality is there are many people that are suspicious, bored, or mad at the human institution we wrap the relevant Gospel within.  So if we criticize the traditional model and believe it must change, and even die to make room for a Resurrection--we must be ready that our new emergent programs, churches, thoughts, and ways will not last forever, either.  

Caldor Logo.gif

Rethinking Routine

By Rev. Mindi

As a mom of a child with special needs, I understand the importance of routine, stability, and predictability. It’s comfortable, it’s familiar, and it’s simply what one knows. But over time, even the routine needs a little mixing up now and then, because what ends up happening is not the routine you first established, but a second routine that emerges. This second routine creeps up on you out of nowhere. One day you have activities scheduled out—a good healthy mix of physical play, one-on-one learning, quiet time, therapies, etc. You bring in music and reading and flashcards and the latest technology. But over time, quiet time turns into putting-on-a-DVD-so-mom-can-take-a-shower, music time turns into putting-on-Steve-Songs-because-it-makes-my-child-happy, physical play is going-to-the-park-and-running-while-mom-checks-her-emails-on-her-phone, and so on and so forth. There are some things still established: regular appointments with therapists, regular play groups, etc, but other things fall through the cracks over time. The second routine emerges accidentally, without thought, and while it resembles the intentions of the first, it is not the first.

This is what I believe happens often in our churches.  The first routine that was established: the worship service, the education programs, the outreach opportunities, the fellowship events—these were all great ideas and worked well at the time. But over time, the routine has slipped away into finding a program for our kids and filling teaching positions with volunteers that are reluctant to step up, dropping away from outreach unless someone can come up with a new idea, reducing fellowship to coffee hour and doing the same order of worship that we’ve done for the past forty years.  At times we manage to shake up one thing—try moving the Sunday school hour, try contemporary music instead of traditional hymns—but we haven’t looked over the whole routine.

When I realize as a parent we’ve gone into the second routine, I try to go back to the beginning—not to the first routine, but I try to go back and see where things started to slip up and look at the root of routine change. It may be that the first routine set up was too rigid, too structured. It may be that what once worked for my son (such as a particular CD) has become boring and he won’t pay attention any longer, or a certain system for communication isn’t working any longer. We have to rethink how we do that part of the routine, and in rethinking that part, I may have to rethink the whole thing.

As a church, it may be it’s time to rethink the whole thing. Is worship really the central part of who we are? Do we still count attendance by how many are sitting in the pews on Sunday, or do we think of all the people we’ve reached out to during the week (which also leads us to ask the question, should be concerned about numbers anyway)?  What is our goal, our purpose, our vision? If it is to share the message of God’s love through Jesus Christ, is that best done through a worship service on a Sunday morning, or through volunteering time at a food pantry on Saturday afternoon? Does Christian education have to take place on a weekly basis in classrooms or Children’s Church, or can it take place alongside parents and other adults volunteering, or at a playground, or at a coffee shop (or ice-cream parlor—I used to do my Baptism classes at a local frozen yogurt shop!)

What is your church’s routine? What was its original intention, and what does it look like now? Is it time to rethink your routine?

Women Responding to the Call of God

 When Jennifer Harris Dault put out a call for Baptist women’s call stories, I was excited for the opportunity to share the story of God’s call on my life (from my perspective, of course).  I quickly wrote out my story, edited it a bit, and sent it to her.  Many months later, The Modern Magnificat: Women Responding to the Call of God was released.  I purchased the book for my mother for Christmas and waited for my copy to arrive in the mail, excited to see my name as a chapter in this collection.

However, when I sat down to read this canon of twenty-three stories of Baptist women called into ministry, I forgot about the details of my own story.  As I read, chapter by chapter, story by story, woman by woman, I heard my story in the voices of these women.  Women who had faithfully responded to that inkling, that nudge, that Divine Word, that altar call, that prayer to follow Jesus by going into ministry, and all of whom at one point or another faced incredible challenges to following that call.  More often than not, it was a male voice telling them, “No.”  Not the voice of God, not the Bible, but the voice of pastors, teachers, even husbands and fathers, saying “No” simply because she was a woman. 

Even though my call story is included in this collection, it isn’t complete by itself. As I read their stories, I recalled other moments when men said “No” simply because they were a man and I was a woman. I also now remember times when other women told me I needed to learn my place.  I remember friends and family who believed they were being loving by telling me I had no place in ministry whose words were crushing. 

But I also remember so much more now.  As I read these testimonies, I feel pride in remembering all the encouraging voices on the way—pastors, parents and grandparents, teachers, friends—all who saw the gifts of God in me and pulled me along the way.  I recall my own personal experiences with God when I heard, or felt, very clearly that God was indeed calling me to be a minister.

While this book is written by Baptist women and their experience, I believe there are many women in other traditions who have experienced similar discrimination, and I hope, similar places of encouragement along the way in their faith journey.  Baptists, of course, bear our own unique name and burdens, stereotypes and generalizations, and there are many former Baptist women serving in other traditions now, but I believe this book can be a work of encouragement for all women pursuing the call to ministry. 

As I read this book with my story in it, as a fifth-generation ordained American Baptist minister (and the first woman, with my mother following after me), I wonder about my grandmother and the other minister’s wives in my family and their daughters.  I wonder if they ever wondered if God was calling them into pastoral ministry but set it aside, believing that they were fulfilling that calling by being a pastor’s wife. I wonder how many women have been denied even the possibility of dreaming about being a minister. 

In more conservative and evangelical circles there is a continuing debate about Biblical equality and women in pastoral leadership roles.  In the progressive/liberal churches, we often assume that debate has been settled.  Yet I know my colleagues in other traditions, and I in my American Baptist tradition know our name has been rejected from church search committees because we are women. We know that churches still refuse to consider a woman, even if the batch of profiles they receive from their regional office are full of women’s names, even when we know that over 60% of seminary students today are women and that number continues to grow. 

The Modern Magnificat brings a challenge to the church universal: women will follow the call by God, despite the attempts of denominational bodies or local churches, despite the naysayers in the pulpit and on the parish committee.  Will the church be the one to change and accept that God calls all people, or will the church continue to hold on to false interpretations of Scripture used to justify power-holding and power-over others?  For there is no other purpose of denying women into ministry: besides the numerous Biblical examples from Deborah to Phoebe, besides the traditions of women partnering with men in ministry throughout church history, the need to hold power and authority over others is what perpetuates the denial of women into ministry—or indeed, any group considered a minority in power. 

While there are other great books out there on women in ministry, written from academic theological perspectives, read this book of women whose own stories, who own narratives share their experiences of denial and perseverance, of challenge and most importantly, hope. 

(You can read the introduction of Jennifer Harris Dault’s book here).

Extravagant Community

By Tim Graves

I cringe when I hear Christians respond to the "spiritual but not religious" by extolling the importance of community. Yes, we all need community for spirituality. We are social creatures. 

But, while there is truth in this response it is based upon an unproven assumption. That is, that the "spiritual but not religious" lead the lives of hermits never talking with friends about their faith journeys. The community-defense also assumes that community must take an organized form. It does not.

[caption id="attachment_1067" align="alignright" width="358"] They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. Acts 4:35 NRSV Photo by Tim Graves[/caption]

More troublesome about the community-defense, however, is that it allows followers of Jesus to avoid our own failings. Too often churches are not places of community. Community is about caring for one another in deep ways. It is about assuring that everyone has their basic needs met. The reality is we spend more time worshiping consumerism and capitalism than we do sharing with our neighbor--even those within our churches. 

Too many churches have within their midst those struggling in very real ways while others live in relative laps of luxury. Aside from this being contrary to the teachings of our purported savior, the attitude of the relatively wealthy community members disturbs me. In my experience, when help is provided it comes with strings and pettiness. We reflect the resentment of a culture that elevates rugged individualism to idolatry.

Within this context of blaming the victim, we operate not out of extravagant love but out of begrudging duty. We do not believe that Jesus fed the whole crowd with a few loaves and fish. We fear that if we give too much to someone, even someone within our own community, there will not be enough for us. 

Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Mark 12: 29-31 NRSV (Read in context.)

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.Acts 4: 32-35 NRSV (Read in context.)

Trustworthy God of Abundance,

You give extravagant,

   undeserved grace.

We give out of love,

   limited by our human fears and worries.

Help us to trust in your abundance,

   help us to love you as you love us.

Help us to give lavishly to others,

   within the koinonia,

   and to the whole human family.

What kept me (a young adult) in the church

By Rev. Mindi

There have been a number of discussions, tweets, chats, blogs and other articles on why young adults are leaving the church.  The most recent was Christian Piatt’s blog post here.  He lists seven reasons to think about, but there’s another that has been nagging me for a while: authenticity. I grew up in a small startup church in Alaska, a church that I still have my name on as a member.  It’s a church that from the beginning did not imagine itself as a large, growing church, drawing in several families and youth.  It’s a church that set out to meet needs, starting as four families meeting together.  When my family joined a couple of years after it started, the church created its first Sunday School class for children.  Over the years, if kids came, there was a class, if there were no kids, there was not a class.  People didn’t panic when families moved or stopped coming.  The church simply molded into whoever we were at the time.

When I was in high school, we had a youth group for about a year, but then we didn’t for a while.  There were plenty of other churches offering youth activities and some families drifted there, and sometimes I just went along with my friends to other churches.  But the church recognized a need: there were few summer programs for kids in our area except for camps.  There was a camp our congregation supported, and the church decided that any kid who wanted to go to camp would go for free.  One year we sent 13 kids to camp—from a church of about 25 members!  But part of the reason we didn’t need a youth group, in my view, was that from an early age, we were part of the church.  We were encouraged to remain in the church service (the church actually stopped offering childcare during worship after my first few years there).  We were invited to participate in ways we were comfortable—lighting candles or reading Scripture or even preaching on occasion as we got older.  When I was baptized at the age of thirteen, a week later I was welcomed into the church and asked to serve on the Deacon board, the only board in the church.  There was no such thing as “Junior Deacon” in our church.  We were all part of the church together.

What I have learned from my small startup church over the years is to be authentic.  Too many churches try to be all things to all people.  They start up programs and ministries hoping to attract the kind of people they want, such as young adults, rather than just being themselves and embracing the community that they are.  As a young adult, I went off to college and attended a wonderful church where I felt the same kind of authenticity from the pastor and leaders.  They were glad some college students were attending, but recognized that we weren’t going to come every Sunday and that they weren’t going to be a big draw as the campus population was more evangelical and conservative.  But I do remember the finals week care packages they sent to each of us who came as we studied for exams.  I remember being given the opportunity to preach, both there and in my home church, recognizing my gifts for ministry.  I remember other friends preaching, leading music and book studies, working with children, or just attending worship and Easter brunch, because they were accepted as they were, and the church did not try to be anything but who they were.

My home church never became a big church, but there were young adults, older adults, and ages in between that have come over the years and call it their church home because it was an authentic church, and they were welcomed and affirmed as who they were, their authentic selves.

I have seen too many churches try new programs—if we move Bible study to a different time, they will come.  If we have a praise band play every 4th Sunday, they will come.  It’s like a Field of Dreams for mainline churches—and I distinctly remember the moderator of the first church I served saying, “If we just open the doors, they will come.”  But it doesn’t work that way.  This is reality, not fantasy.  And the best thing we can do in the church is to be authentic.

Stop pretending to be something you are not.  Stop trying to cling to a dream of the past when every pew was filled and you had multiple Bible studies occurring at the same time.  And please, stop targeting young people in the hopes that young people mean young families which means more children who can grow up and carry on the legacy you remember from your own childhood.  We can all see right through that.  Instead, remember that church does not start at the doors, but that we as the church must go outside.  We are the church in the pew or in the coffee shop, in Bible study or in the office, in the beauty salon and in the seat on the plane.  We are the church wherever we are.  If we start remembering that and start being ourselves, we can grow the body of Christ.  And we can definitely reach out to young adults, and to all sorts of people, if we are authentic in the world and inside the walls.

RECLAIMING THE FAMILY OF GOD

Us, not ThemHere, not There Now, not Later

A Sermon by Doug Sloan, Elder Terre Haute Central Christian Church Sunday, May 6, 2012

I want to begin by thanking Dianne Mansfield and Phil Ewoldsen for their participation in a very important and successful meeting that took place yesterday, Saturday, May 5, 2012 at Central Christian Church in Indianapolis. This congregation [Terre Haute Central Christian Church], through its board and elders, is one of four congregations [now five] sponsoring a resolution to change the ordination policy of the Indiana Region. Elders and representatives of those four congregations met with the pastor and an elder of the Oaktown congregation, which has deep reservations and sincere concerns about the resolution. The meeting was serious – most of the time, we are talking about a gathering of Disciples – and spiritual. I came away from the meeting feeling hopeful. New ground was broken and a path was cleared for similar conversations elsewhere in the region that involve congregations with the same reservations and concerns as Oaktown.

Also, I want to thank my wife, Carol, for “encouraging” me to stop and think and – in this case – step back ten yards and punt. I can’t help wondering how much better off the history of the church and how much easier Christian theology would be if Paul had been married. Imagine the difference there would be in all of Christianity if Paul had been married to a woman who had looked at him with equal amounts of disdain and concern and said, “Paul, honey – KISS.*”

Being family is not always easy.

My father was quiet and laid back. My mother was gregarious and active. My younger brother, Dennis, was a jock. I was not. In high school, I was in choir, plays, and on the speech team. Dennis ran cross country and played trombone in the band – with band, especially marching band, being more for social enjoyment than satisfying any musical ambition.

Dennis also liked to ride his 12-speed bicycle. Dennis and his riding buddies thought nothing about jumping on their bikes and pedaling from New Castle to Muncie and back between lunch and supper. Muncie is approximately 25 miles north of New Castle – a round trip of a good 50 miles. You have to understand, they would return from these little jaunts with no signs of having exerted themselves.

One day, a trip was planned to our Uncle’s house on the southwest edge of Muncie – and I decided to join them. How hard could it be? The trip to my Uncle’s house was a great ride – we took county roads and stayed off the state highways. We had a nice visit with our Aunt Marjorie and Uncle Kenneth and our cousin Joy Ann and her boyfriend, Phil – and the girl who lived next door to Phil.

Well, the time came to return home. We jumped on our bikes and started pedaling home. A few miles south of Muncie, it happened – my lack of experience with long-distance bicycle rides caught up with me and hammered me with the great-granddaddy of all leg cramps. Every muscle in both legs, above and below the knees, tightened into an unbreakable searing knot. Whatever fantasies I ever had about being “the man of steel” – this wasn’t it. The ride came to a screeching stop in front of someone’s house – to this day, I don’t know who those poor people were. Dennis knocked on the door to ask to use the phone to call our parents. Meanwhile, I had hobbled to the porch to get out of the sun where I promptly collapsed in excruciating pain which I expressed without restraint at the top of my lungs. Eventually, my father arrived and took me and my bicycle home. I never took another bicycle trip with my brother – and my brother has never harassed me about it or held it against me.

Being family is not always easy.

I hear that it has been this way for a long time.

When King David died, the crown went to his son, Solomon. When Solomon died, the crown went to his son, Rehoboam.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is the author of an encyclopedic book titled, “Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History.”

Rabbi Telushkin has this to say about King David’s grandson: "Rehoboam has three bad traits; he is greedy arrogant, and a fool." (p. 84)

From I Kings 12, here is a summary of what happened after the death of King Solomon. King Solomon had imposed high taxes and forced labor to build the temple. After the death of Solomon, the people approached Rehoboam and asked, “Your father made our yoke heavy. Now, therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke that he placed on us, and we will serve you.” Rehoboam told them he would have an answer for them in three days. His father’s advisors, who are older, suggest kindness and moderation and thus gain the eternal allegiance of the people. The younger advisors, who had grown up with Rehoboam, suggest a ruthless denial of the request. Rehoboam listens to his younger advisors. When the people return in three days, Rehoboam informs them that he will be even tougher than his father. And the people said, “We’re outta here.” [Hoosier translation of the original Hebrew] Ten of the twelve tribes form their own kingdom and Rehoboam is left with the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. The ten tribes name their kingdom, “Israel.”

208 years later, Israel is destroyed by Assyria. 136 years after the destruction of Israel, most of Judah is exiled to Babylon.

Here is the rest of the story. When the Assyrians destroyed Israel, some of the people escaped to Judah, formed their own province in the north of Judah and called it Samaria.

Take a breath and change gears – we are jumping to the United States in the 1860s. Think about the animosity between the North and South just before the Civil War. Now, think about that animosity between the North and South and no Civil War. Instead of Civil War, there is only the constant animosity. That is the relationship between Judah and Samaria in the first century during the ministry of Jesus. Back to the United States; what kind of stories do people in the north like to tell about southerners? What kind of stories do people in the south like to tell about those damn yankees? It was the same way between Judah and Samaria. Remember the animosity and the stereotyped jokes that had to have existed the next time you hear the story of the Good Samaritan or the story of the Samaritan woman at the well.

NRSV John 4:7-21 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, .....and Jesus said to her, ..........Give me a drink. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)

The Samaritan woman said to him, ..........How is it that you, a Jew, ...............ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria? (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)

Jesus answered her, ..........If you knew the gift of God, and ...............who it is that is saying to you, ....................‘Give me a drink,’ ...............you would have asked him, ...............and he would have given you living water.

The woman said to him, ..........Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. ..........Where do you get that living water? ..........Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, ...............who gave us the well, ...............and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?

Jesus said to her, ..........Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, ...............but those who drink of the water that I will give them ...............will never be thirsty. ..........The water that I will give ...............will become in them a spring of water ...............gushing up to eternal life.

The woman said to him, ..........Sir, give me this water, ...............so that I may never be thirsty or ...............have to keep coming here to draw water.

Jesus said to her, ..........Go, call your husband, and come back.

The woman answered him, ..........I have no husband.

Jesus said to her, ..........You are right in saying, ....................‘I have no husband’; ...............for you have had five husbands, ...............and the one you have now is not your husband. ..........What you have said is true!

The woman said to him, ..........Sir, I see that you are a prophet. ..........Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, ...............but you say that the place where people must worship ...............is in Jerusalem.

Jesus said to her, ..........Woman, believe me, ...............the hour is coming when you will worship the Father ...............neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. [END OF SCRIPTURE]

Two interesting observations about this story.

The first observation is this: Jesus would go the synagogue of whatever village he was visiting. The custom of the day was to invite such a visitor to participate in the worship service. This gave Jesus the opportunity to share his message. Yet, only a couple of stories exist about his synagogue visits. All of the other stories about his ministry – about the teachings and interactions of Jesus – take place outside the synagogue.

The second observation is a question and a challenge: With whom did Jesus interact? Go home and explore the four Gospels; start with Mark, then Matthew and Luke, and finally John. With whom did Jesus interact? Here is a hint: anyone. The early church heard this message and followed it.

NRSV Acts of the Apostles 8:26-40 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ..........Get up and go toward the south ...............to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza. (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went.

Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, .....a court official of the Candace, .....queen of the Ethiopians, .....in charge of her entire treasury.

He had come to Jerusalem to worship .....and was returning home; .....seated in his chariot, .....he was reading the prophet Isaiah.

Then the Spirit said to Philip, ..........Go over to this chariot and join it. So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ..........Do you understand what you are reading? He replied, ..........How can I, unless someone guides me? And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.

Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.

The eunuch asked Philip, ..........About whom, may I ask you, ..........does the prophet say this, ..........about himself or about someone else?

Then Philip began to speak, and .....starting with this scripture, .....he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.

As they were going along the road, .....they came to some water; .....and the eunuch said, ..........Look, here is water! ..........What is to prevent me from being baptized?

He commanded the chariot to stop, .....and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, .....went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.

When they came up out of the water, .....the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; .....the eunuch saw him no more, .....and went on his way rejoicing.

But Philip found himself at Azotus, .....and as he was passing through the region, .....he proclaimed the good news to all the towns .....until he came to Caesarea. [END OF SCRIPTURE]

The eunuch, because of his incompleteness, would not have been allowed to participate in certain acts of worship at the temple in Jerusalem and there were parts of the temple where he would not have been allowed to enter.

Both of these stories were clear messages of inclusiveness to and by the early church. Additionally, a very clear attribute of the ministry and message of Jesus and the conduct of the early church was that ministry and message occur out there, not in the synagogue. While ministry and message are public, they are not to be overtly offensive, not in-your-face abuse, and they do not demand change as a requirement to hear the message or to receive ministry. Change can occur and it happens through the resurrection and transformation that is experienced when the ministry and message of Jesus is embraced and internalized.

We speak of being children of God, of being in the family of God. We speak of how this includes everyone, that it is a global perspective. We gladly talk about having an open table where all are invited. Really?

We are open and affirming – we welcome anyone regardless of sexual orientation. What about the homophobic? They, too, are children of God.

We happily talk about welcoming all regardless of race, color, or ethnicity. What about the racist, the Neo-Nazi, the KKK? They, too, are children of God.

We would welcome attorneys, judges, police officers, prison guards – anyone involved with law enforcement. What about the car thief, the burglar, the robber, the home invader, the child molester, the rapist, the murderer? They, too, are children of God.

Would we welcome the invisible people? The illegal immigrant, the homeless, the people who have chronic mental illness and are receiving little or no mental health service? They, too, are children of God.

Being family is not easy. There are 4 terrible prices to be paid if we truly accept and embrace this radical ridiculous notion that there are over 7 billion of God’s children on this planet.

1) If we accept each other as real brothers and sisters, then we are going to have to overlook a lot – and that includes stupid disastrous bicycle rides. For example, just in this room, it means affirming that in our worship service, there are no mistakes. [I have lost count of how many times this act of grace in worship has saved my butt.] When applied globally, the price to be paid is: There is no “them”, only us.

2) If we accept that we have 7 billion brothers and sisters, then we lose “there.” The Republic of Congo is not there, it is here. Syria and Iran and Pakistan are not there, they are here. Mexico and Venezuela are not there, they are here. They are as much here as we are in this room.

3) If we accept that we have 7 billion sisters and brothers, then we lose “later.” If Dennis phones from his home in Churubusco saying that he has an emergency that requires me to be there, I’m outta here. I know – We know – that the same is true between many of us in this room. It should be true for all of us who are here – all 7 billion of us. How do we respond “now” [?] – because “later” doesn’t exist.

4) The most terrible price to be paid is that in the presence of evil, we cannot be silent and still. In the presence of evil, we are called to shout, “This is wrong!” and we called to move against it. Evil exists. Evil is when a person is murdered, abandoned, or excluded from their rightful place in life because of prejudice or ignorance. Evil is when people are treated as “them” “there” and we decide that their need for justice or compassion can be dealt with “later.”

Consequently, if we accept that we have 7 billion siblings – and if we accept that “we” are “here” “now” – then we are going to settle our differences in vastly different ways. We are going to settle our differences as family. We are not going to settle our differences as winner-take-all antagonists and not as an act of conquest. We are going to change the way we intervene in conflicts and feuds – and we are going to intervene. We are going to change the way we intervene in harmful practices such as genocide and slavery and exclusion based on prejudice and ignorance – and we are going to intervene. We are going to change the way we intervene in the oppressive practice of living in empire instead of community – and we are going to intervene.

Being family is not easy.

My apologies to those who have already heard this story. I am telling it again because it is the only one I have to end this message.

At one point during his short troubled life, my son, Chad, was arrested and incarcerated in the Greene County jail. Having neither the emotional nor financial resources to pay his bail, I rationalized it as an example of “tough love.”

At 4 o’clock in the morning there was a knock on the front door. There stood my brother, Dennis, with Chad. Chad had phoned Dennis, who at the time lived in Muncie. Dennis had made the 3-hour drive in the middle of the night, from Muncie to Bloomfield, and bailed Chad out of jail and brought Chad home, and then Dennis made the 3-hour drive back to Muncie.

My question to Dennis was something along the line of “What were you thinking?” My brother’s response to me was “What else was I to do? He’s family.”

Being family is not easy. The Good News is that there is no other way than – all of us here and now – be the family of God living in the Kingdom of God – and respond to each other one-to-one with generosity and hospitality and healthy service – and as a community provide justice and compassion – and that we be and live and share the Kingdom of God by embracing and exuding the unrestrained love and unconditional grace of God.

Amen. _________________________________

* In this case, KISS = Keep It Short and Simple

No Red Ink on the Vision Test

By JC Mitchell

As a boy in elementary school, I would sometimes tussle with other boys. Generally we would not hurt each other, but sometimes it would result in a visit to the nurse’s office. During one such incident, my head hit against a cement wall. It hurt some, but I felt I was fine; however, the teacher did not believe me, but who would argue with a teacher that was allowing you to go to the nurse’s office and miss some of class(as we were just coming in from recess)? The nurse examined me and asked questions. I was determined to be fine, diagnosis “boy.” The last question posed during the nurse’s examination was, “Are you seeing double?” My response worried her, as I stated, “No more than usual.” I was seeing double often while reading and I just trained and strained myself to read both images simultaneously. The nurse, concerned and curious, did some tests and discovered what I thought was normal: I saw double. What I also remember about her is she did not make me feel stupid for thinking that seeing double was normal, and she did not make me nervous about this situation.

I went to the optometrist, and I must say that was an exciting experience. It was explained to me that everyone has a focal point in which when you get closer to the eyes, one will see double, but generally it is centimeters from the nose, not an arm’s length. This doctor prescribed intense exercises. I had various contraptions and ditto papers and spent one to two hours a day strengthening my eyes, so my focal point would be in a normal range. I was committed because reading, which I greatly enjoy, was much easier with only one image.

I share this anecdote to emphasize the importance of knowing vision in the church.  We in the church world use this term often, and it is not easily defined as it is different for each ministry and congregation, while also being part of God’s Vision.  I assume that there is an importance of vision, for it is what drives a congregation and/or ministry in the direction of God.  We know that it is not simple to find a vision, but it is just as important to realize when your ministry has lost or been burdened with poor vision. Just as I believed seeing double was normal, many churches and ministries keep going, not realizing they would have a difficult time reading the bottom line on the metaphorical eye chart.

For many, the reality of finances brings a congregation to the metaphorical optometrist.  However, I want to share the story of a local food bank I was involved with this past year that closed.  The bank had been serving the community for 30 years, but the original vision of helping people between applying for food stamps and receiving them is now outdated.  Other food banks had taken form over the past decade serving the community more efficiently and in greater numbers.   The food bank needed a new vision of how to utilize their resources.  For various reasons the need of a new vision was not taken up by the board and the volunteers, until the vote that closed the bank.  Even a year before, a vote keeping it open (by one vote) didn’t get enough people realizing the need of a vision.  However, this ministry did not lack resources.  We had enough food, especially canned corn (not sure why so much corn), and we could have continued for 15 years without raising anymore funds, at the level of help we were providing, give or take a couple of years.

My point is that vision has nothing to do with finances.

We need to not wait until it is reflected by red ink.

My question is what is, or can be, our metaphorical eye chart?  (comment away)

Radical Thanksgiving

By Rev. Mindi

I was going to write a whole post about how we as progressive Christians can reclaim Thanksgiving as a spiritual practice of giving thanks and giving back from what God has given us on a daily basis, to acknowledge and honor the fact that the tame little story we learned in elementary school about the Pilgrims and Indians is based on a white myth that we Euro-Americans keep retelling to the next generation because the truth about genocide is too uncomfortable for us to bear… but that might wait for another day. Or maybe from this one brief paragraph you’ll garner enough insight for yourself (and read this great article on the Huffington Post asking the question Do Native Americans Celebrate Thanksgiving?)

But then this happened. The Church of England, by a margin of 6 votes, was unable to allow female bishops for the first time.  By six votes. 

And suddenly I’m thinking back over almost 400 years of not only the struggles for religious freedom, but also the freedom of call, and the freedom to speak.  I think of not only the Separatists in England that later became known as the Puritans and Pilgrims, but of the very few (less than ten) who left the Separatists in Holland to return to England after being influenced by the Anabaptists and began meeting as the first Baptists in England, meeting in secret.  I think of Roger Williams in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, banished back to England but fled to what is now Rhode Island, who not only had radical beliefs about baptism and the separation of church and state, but also believed that the Native Americans already knew God and that he was not called to convert them but to become friends with them.  And I think of the women who began to preach almost 400 years ago in small New England churches along with the women who were burned at the stake in Salem.  This tension of the freedom of the Spirit and the need to control to the point of death go hand in hand over our last four hundred years.

We’ve come so far and yet we take steps backward every step forward.  We continue to forget our history and even disguise our stories in overreaching myths.  My Southern Baptist sisters, from the same roots of religious freedom and the separation of church and state that was established along with the First Baptist Church in Providence, RI, still face expulsion for ordination, along with the congregations that call them.  And now my Anglican sisters, who have only been able to be ordained for twenty years, are faced with the stained-glass ceiling because of a few who might be uncomfortable, for those who claimed this was a cultural issue and not a biblical issue.

But this is a Biblical issue.  It is a Biblical issue when we ignore our history and repeat the mistakes of the past—didn’t the prophets teach us this when the people ignored the poor and the widows and the orphans and left the way of their God?  Isn’t it a Biblical issue when we ignore the basic human rights of others and treat entire cultures as not worthy of survival, as the ancient Israelites faced and as Native Americans have experienced, and how many groups around the world continue to experience, while Christians have stood by or mainly been silent (as happening in Gaza and Israel)?  And isn’t it a Biblical issue when we silence voices speaking out against injustice, and deny rights and responsibilities to individuals based on our DNA such as race, gender, and sexual orientation?  Didn’t the Syrophonecian woman challenge Jesus herself to be heard?  Didn’t Priscilla and Phoebe serve in equal roles as Paul?  And didn’t Paul himself say there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28)?

It is a travesty that women cannot be bishops in the Church of England just because it makes some people uncomfortable.  It is outrageous that this is said in the name of tradition.  It is unthinkable that this is not seen as a Biblical issue but a cultural one, and that the very people who do not want the Church of England to give in to the culture of today use their own culture of tradition as their excuse.

The world around us has had women in leadership in just about every position. While the U.S. still waits to have its first female president, many other nation-states including the United Kingdom have moved forward.  The U.S. had a record number of women elected to Congress this year.  And yet, for some reason in these people’s minds, while God would allow a woman to rule a country (as the Queen in the United Kingdom, who is also technically the head of the Church of England, ironically), while women can do just about anything today, they cannot lead in a church. 

There is nothing Biblical in that argument. Instead, it is giving in to a very old culture and tradition that states the way things have been is the way they should be.  White men rule the world, so therefore white men should continue.  Our version of Christianity is the right way to believe, so others must convert.  Our culture is superior, so others must become Westernized.  And so we continue to perpetuate the myth that we continue to teach to elementary school children: our version of history is the right one because it’s neat and orderly and makes us look good.  In the church, we perpetuate that myth as well: because we’ve always had male bishops and male church leaders, it’s the right one because it’s neat and orderly.

To truly be counter-cultural, to truly be revolutionary, to truly be Biblical and living into God’s ways, we have to learn from our past mistakes and know that God is continuing to lead us forward.  The way of the world is to stick with the culture and traditions of the past; the Biblical way, and the way of God, is to continue to seek God’s insight in our own lives, to come to new and greater conclusions of God’s inclusive love, as Paul did in his letter to the Galatians, as Jesus did when he was challenged by the Syrophonecian woman, as the prophets did long ago when they challenged the status quo.

Happy Thanksgiving!  Eat, drink, and be merry.  Give thanks to God who has given this beautiful earth as our dwelling place.  But let us stop perpetuating myths, and let us give thanks to those who have challenged, who have spoken out on behalf of the marginalized, and who continue to lead us forward. Remember and mourn with our Native American brothers and sisters, with our Israeli and Palestinian brothers and sisters, and with our Anglican brothers and sisters.  Let us give thanks to God, who always gives us another chance to learn from our mistakes, and to grow in our understanding of God’s great love.

Oh, and P.S. To hear some great stories of women who are challenging authority and leadership culture in the church, check out this book by Jennifer Harris Dault, released yesterday: The Modern Magnificat: Women Responding to the Call of God.  My call story is included in this collection.

The "Family" Unit

Ever since this article by Tony Robinson came out in June, I have been reflecting on the church as family. Growing up, that is how I felt about my church—they were an extended family. In my ministry, I have often referred to the church as “The Family of God.”  There are still good uses of the metaphor of family.  However, I agree with Robinson that it’s time to rethink that metaphor, especially of how it has been mis/used in church circles. First, we have to understand that the concept of family and household has changed throughout the Bible and throughout our own human history, so to think that today’s definition is the same as it was even a few generations ago is a false assumption to start on.  Yet I hear many Christians objectify the “family”—the idea that there is a husband who is the provider, a wife who is the caregiver, and children who are cared for by the mother.  Every Sunday I hear of people who share about the morning’s worship service that praised the family and where the pastor taught that we need to protect the family.

Frankly, this is contradictory to the Gospel and to the New Testament.  Jesus certainly didn’t provide for or care for his earthly family (save in John’s Gospel where he asked the “beloved disciple” to care for his mother, who, probably widowed and without support would have needed someone in that culture to provide for her given the cultural barriers).

Jesus taught that “whoever does the will of God is my mother and my sister and my brother” (Matthew 3:35)

Jesus said, “And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matthew 5:47)

And Jesus even proclaimed, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).

The family unit was something never upheld by Jesus.  This doesn’t mean the family unit is contrary to Scripture or to faith—it means that it is not nearly as important as we might think it is.  This is Good News.

This is Good News to the stepfamilies, the same-sex families, the grandparents who raise children, the single moms and dads.  This is Good News to those who do not have children.  This is Good News to those who live together, friends that share homes, multiple families in one roof.  This is Good News to married heterosexual couples with children, interracial and multicultural families.  Because it’s not about how we live together, but that we are part of God’s Community together.

In the Old Testament, we do hear of God being called the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but later God is called the God of Israel.  This is not the God of one person or of one family, but this is the God of the Community.  God is not just present with one individual or one family, but when multiple families and individuals and all people come together as a community.  In the New Testament, Paul often speaks of “households” which included not only the biological family unit, but the servants and caregivers and others associated with the family.  When one person became a follower of the Way, as in Acts 16 with Lydia, the rest of the household was assumed to also be followers of the Way, as often the whole household was baptized into the faith.  The act of faith was not one of the individual or the individual’s family, but of the community the individual belonged to, greater than themselves and family.

Jesus said, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20).

Jesus said this in the context of discipline and forgiveness within the community.  When we are in community, we need to be conscious of how our lives affect the well-being of the community, how our actions and decisions affect others.

In the question of equal marriage, posed in several states this election year, including my new home state of Washington, we would do well to remember this: it is not about the family unity, but how we live in community with each other.  When we limit rights to one kind of family unit, we disallow not only homosexual families but we are making a statement that there is no other kind of family unit that is acceptable.  It is clear that Jesus would stand against this hypocrisy.

Scapegoating Satan

Conflict is a part of life.  We have to deal with differences of opinions and beliefs.  Sometimes our differences create conflict in our relationships, and churches are no different from any other social institution: conflict can be destructive, but conflict can also be constructive.  Healthy conflict, where differences are shared, viewpoints expressed in ways that share one’s views rather than condemn others can help us to learn from each other and to grow.  It can, in the long run, help us to grow closer together and work towards common ground. However, more often than not conflict can bring out the worst in us, because we don’t know how to deal with it in a healthy way.  We don’t know how to confront conflict, when we have a disagreement with someone, or if someone has rubbed us the wrong way.  Bad behavior happens in every social gathering.  Churches are no exception.  Someone rubs us the wrong way.  We tell another friend about it.  Gossip gets woven into the fabric of the group.  The hurtful words come back around to the person they were about and the damage is done.  Rather than dealing with conflict head on, we go round about ways of dealing with it to the point we often create more conflict over other issues than the original issue that was at conflict.

Case in point: in one church a big brouhaha occurred over an extra cake making its entrance at a church lunch.  The person in charge of the lunch said quite sternly that they already had a cake and didn’t need another one. The person who brought the cake was hurt by those words and told several others they would leave the church.  Yes. Over a cake.

The issue was not the cake.  The issue went far beyond and before my time at the church, but it came to a head over the cake and the bad behavior was going around and talking to others rather than addressing the person they felt offended by.

Since moving to the South, I have found another layer of defense: “The devil must be in her.”  “The devil is in control of that church.”  Satan gets a lot of blame for personal conflict and poor leadership.  I’m not going to debate the existence of Satan here, but I do think we blame others, or we blame Satan, rather than looking at ourselves.

When we have been wronged or hurt by someone in the church, what is the best way to deal with it?  All too often, we talk to others rather than talking to the one who has wronged us, who may not even realize their actions were perceived as hurtful (as in the situation with the cake).  While there are times when actions can be purposefully hurtful, many times it is our own reaction, based on experiences of the past that causes us to overreact and make mountains out of molehills.

Maybe it’s a regional thing to blame Satan (I never heard that when I served churches in the Northeast) but whether we blame Satan or the other person, the only thing we truly can control is our own reaction.  How do we respond when we’ve been hurt?  Where do we go?  Who do we talk to?

As a minister, it has been a slow lesson for me to learn over the years that yes, there are toxic people in churches.  Yes, there are times people do things on purpose to hurt others, even ministers.  But most of the time, it is our reactions that can make conflict a place of growth and learning or a place of division.  We can only control how we react and manage our own emotional response.  We can’t change others.  We can’t change the fact that there are control freaks and “Lone Rangers” and all sorts of different personalities in our congregations, but we can change how we react to them, and by our model, we can perhaps show others how to learn from conflict.

Then in the end, instead of one person in control and another person hurt, perhaps we’ll learn that the miracle is there are two cakes to enjoy.  Or at the very least, maybe one will learn how their actions cause negative reactions in others, whether it be the controller of the lunch or the cake baker.   And whether or not one believes Satan was involved, let us all at least remember we have control over our own actions and reaction, and that is the one thing we can fix, we can change.  We can learn from conflict and grow from it, rather than being paralyzed and watching it spin out of control.  And by our lesson, we can model for others a different way to live with each other in true Christian community.

The Beauty of the Church

Sometimes I get disillusioned with “the church.”  I hear stories of people who were run out, who were gossiped about, who were hurt by the very people who were supposed to love them.  I hear of pastors who were treated like the sole employee with their boss being a board of 15 who criticized every decision the pastor made, every minute of the pastor’s time and every breath or sigh taken during the sermon.  I hear stories of bully pulpits and sanctuaries where children were definitely not welcome. There have been times when I have been down about “the church.”  I become very critical of an organization that can perpetuate myth in tradition, that runs on models outdated and yet expects the pastor to be a miracle worker.  I have been hurt by people in my churches in the past.  I have been hurt as a guest by a pastor using their pulpit to instill fear and justify their own narrow beliefs.  I have been hurt by the things said casually about other people, even in general terms, that were degrading to certain groups of people that happen to be who my family is made up of.

It’s easy to walk away from the church.  I see people do it all the time, I have had people visit me as a pastor and now speak to me as a chaplain about why they will never set foot in a church again.  They are done with organized religion.  They are done with the institution called “the church.”

It breaks my heart.  But rarely do I try to encourage them to go back.  Sometimes the damage is too great.  Instead, I always encourage them to continue on the spiritual journey.  And my hope and prayer is that perhaps they will find their way back to the church.  But me, as clergy, as a direct representative of the institution that has harmed them, I don’t feel it is my place to tell them to come back.  I wouldn’t tell the victim of domestic abuse to go back to the person who has abused them.  But I would tell them they can love again, that in time, perhaps they can trust again.  The same I would say to those abused by “the church.”  I would encourage them to continue on their spiritual journey, and my hope is that they would find a loving, supportive, embracing community.

I love the Church, the Body of Christ described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12.  I don’t love all manifestations of the church.  But I love what it is supposed to be.

The church is supposed to be the place where you feel you are a part of the Body of Christ.  You are valuable.  You are significant.  Your gifts are useful and necessary.  You have an important part to play in the whole body’s function.  You are part of the family.  You are loved, exactly as you are, exactly as you were made by God.  You can come with your wounds and hurts and find comfort and strength.  You can come with your worries and fears and find courage.  You can come with your grief and find some ease.  You come and find your burdens are born by others, your joys are shared by others.

Thankfully, I have experienced the church as this: the body of Christ.  I realize it is hard for me to say this as clergy and have any clout beyond that, but before I was a minister, I loved the church.  As a teen, the church was where I was welcomed and embraced and encouraged in my call to ministry.  As a child, the church was where I was included and loved just as I was.

It saddens me when people throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Whereas I understand completely how individuals, even groups of people have been hurt by the church and have left, I am grieved that there are people calling for the end of the church.  I do believe the church is changing, dying even, but with death there is always the hope of resurrection—something new.  It may look completely different than it is now.  But my hope and prayer is that the church—whatever it is—will be the Body of Christ.

All too often I have friends who claim to be spiritual but not religious—who want nothing to do with church.  Fine.   I actually have no problem with that because the “church” they are rejecting I would reject as well, a place where people are harmed rather than healed.  But it is when my friends go to nothing—there is no faith community, no gathering of people to talk about spirituality or God or whatever—when there is just an absence, this is where I grieve.

I’m not talking about those who have rejected those things and have gone to atheism (that is a different kind of grieving for me, I will admit), but for those friends who rejected the church of their childhood and are raising children, and they tell me they want their children to have the values they were taught but not in the church, and don’t know where to turn—I grieve for them.  I grieve for the ones who want to talk about spirituality and faith but feel they have no place to go.  And I grieve for the ones who simply ridicule those of us who stayed in the church.  I have friends among them all.

But I know one person, who once described his return to church after a twenty-year absence as a “homecoming.”  He walked in the doors and was immediately greeted.  Someone came to his seat and welcomed him.  The people shook his hands and shared their names and made him feel comfortable.  The preacher shared a message of hope.  The songs were uplifting.  And communion was shared with all as a welcome to Christ’s table.

This is the beauty of the church, that for all the shortcomings of the earthly “church” (and as I used to say, the problem with churches is that they are full of people!), there are some who will find their way home again, and find the love, grace, peace and joy that we expect to be there.

Shaping Authentic Ministers

A few weeks ago I wrote about why I as a young adult stayed in the church—because my small hometown church was authentic.  They knew who they were and didn’t pretend to be something they weren’t.  They didn’t go all out in trying new programs and investing in recruiting young people—they simply tried to meet the needs of the people already within the church, as well as recognizing the needs of the larger community they were part of.  I also reflected on the church I attended in college, how while I was there they recognized the best way to reach out to the college students was to be authentic—to welcome the students and their gifts and abilities, to not pressure students to come every Sunday, but to welcome and invite students to participate in ministry with their gifts and time as they could, and to care for the students in their needs.  For me, I remember not feeling guilty about skipping church during finals—instead I remember a wonderful gift basket during final exams week with snacks and a note of encouragement.  I have never forgotten the care and compassion. I was asked in response to that article what role authenticity in those congregations played in shaping my call to ministry.  As I think back to my home church that included me from an early age and to the church I attended in college, here are some ways being in a church that valued authenticity helped shape me in my call to ministry:

1. My home church recognized and valued my call to ministry.  I felt God’s call to ministry when I was thirteen, sitting in my grandfather’s church in Pennsylvania, and felt something inside me say “That will be you someday” as I listened to my grandfather preach.  When I shared this with my pastor a few months later, he was delighted, and made a point of including me in the worship leadership throughout my youth, in varied ways.  I was invited to preach on occasion, and not just on a special Youth Sunday or when we came back from summer camp (although I was asked to preach then).  In the church I attended in college, I was not only invited to preach, but asked back after my initial sermon which I know was terrible.  I was given another chance, and I remember my religion professor who attended that church telling me how much I had improved.  My first sermon there really was that bad, but this church loved me, encouraged me, and kept inviting me back.  They truly were authentic in who they were, and they were loving, forgiving, encouraging people.  Maybe my first sermon wasn’t as bad as I remember, but I know I was anxious and nervous, and this church continued to see a call from God in me and nurtured that call.

2. I learned first-hand about the challenges facing small churches and the reality that many mainline churches face today.  I was asked to serve on the Deacon board in my home church when I was thirteen years old, and I already understood how many who serve in the church as laity become overworked and burned out.  But I also learned how to become refreshed and that sometimes we take church life way too seriously and need to step away for a breather.  We do have a life outside of church, laity and clergy.

3. Church does not have to happen in an old building that has been in the same spot for 200 years.  Church can take place in a rented church space, in the basement of a house, in the back booth of a coffee shop, in the bowling alley, in the kitchen of the pastor’s house (where we made excellent homemade pizzas as youth).  Church happens where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name.   My home church changed locations a few times before settling in their current location (a house that they purchased and converted into a Meetinghouse; several AA groups and other organizations also use the building as part of the church’s ministry now).

4. Vision is something to be embraced, and vision can be renewed.  In my home congregation we went from trying to be a church in the traditional sense, of looking for land to buy and a building to construct, to renting space in another church and deciding that maintaining a building was not part of our ministry, to a future where in a nearby town we did decide to own a building and give space to other ministries.  But the vision continues to grow and change.  It made me less afraid of the major changes a church may go through in deciding to sell a building or move or changing its vision of pastoral ministry.  It’s just part of the vision process, part of change that all churches must go through and it is not necessarily negative and can be quite positive when the congregation embraces the process of co-creating vision with Christ.

5. Bending/breaking “the rules” and taking risks are necessary parts of the journey of ministry.  Chucking the sermon and having a genuine conversation.  Suspending/ignoring the bylaws because they don’t work anymore and no one remembers anyway.  Having church at the home of your eldest member because they can’t drive in the snow to get to your place of worship.  Being spontaneous and moving worship outdoors because the day is just too beautiful to spend inside.    Letting go of an idea for youth ministry and instead supporting another church’s youth outreach because it is effectively meeting the needs of the youth in the community.  Abandoning plans to buy property and build a church because you recognize the needs of mission and ministry are done beyond the walls of any one building, and yet are often done within the walls of the homes of the members of the church community.

These are just a few of the ways growing up in authentic community helped shape me.  To sum it up, I learned that by being authentic, there is little to be afraid or ashamed of.  Instead, all moments can reform vision, create new opportunities, and encourage spiritual growth.  It may sound cliché or even too enthusiastic to say that, but when people, a congregation, a church, is authentic, they are not afraid to voice both their concerns and their hopes and dreams, both their worries and their prayers and new ideas.  Authentic vision is created and something new is given root.  Even if that authentic vision leads to a church closing, resurrection is always possible—something new can be born.

All too often, churches put on blinders.  For churches that have existed for many years, a decline in attendance or membership can lead to panic or anxiety that leads to creation or adaption of programs without vision.  Often this manifests itself in creating programs to attract young adults or young families in hopes of recruiting the next generation to take the place of the declining generation.  It is a true bait and switch—the church puts out the message that they are welcoming of families and young adults but then wants them to conform to the ways they have always been.  It’s not always conscious it does this, but I have seen many churches attempt to grow by just trying to reproduce what they have always had.

The other most popular way I have experienced this is in churches that have tried to take on contemporary worship when it obviously does not fit.  If your church has primarily used the organ for the past one hundred years and within a few months you want to switch to guitars, I can tell you most likely it will not work.  Mainly because you are fooling yourselves.  Now if your congregation has been experimenting with different kinds of music over the past few years, it might not be such a jump.  But more importantly, if you have young families attending your worship already, it is not so much of a stretch to assume that they might actually like the traditional music.  And even if they don’t, they obviously don’t mind it so much as to leave and find another congregation—they have come to your congregation for a reason.  Find out why.  I can guess that it is probably because they have established relationships there—authentic relationships with others.

As a pastor, I have done my best to be authentic in my ministry, to not pretend to be something I am not and to not portray a church as something it is not.  But one thing I have consistently done is sought out young people who have gifts for ministry and encouraged them in using those gifts, both within and beyond the congregation.  I have encouraged preaching and worship leading among my youth and not just on Youth Sunday.  I have invited youth to attend pastoral visitations with me.  But more importantly, I have encouraged the congregation to embrace these young ministers as ministers—not just youth who are dressed up cute and have a nice message to give—but as called by God to be ministers.

I was one of three straight-from-college young seminarians during my first year.  Over my three years of seminary there grew to be more of us, but I found from talking with my peers that few of them were nurtured in a call from their home church.  They may have felt the call as a teen or even as a young child, but their home church did not give them opportunities for ministry.  They were taken out of the service to be with the other children because they weren’t old enough.  They were invited to participate in worship as a teen but only on Youth Sunday.  Their pastor rarely talked to them except to ask them what college they were going to.  So many felt called by God, were inspired by their churches, but then were not given the opportunity—and so they assumed maybe they weren’t called.   Went to college and tried something else.  Fortunately, a lot of them made their way back to seminary and ministry, and some of them made their way back to church.

We need more authentic churches, not only for the sake of Christian ministry in the future, but for the sake of nurturing authentic pastors and ministers.  Kids see right through us when we aren’t authentic.  When we say “Jesus welcomed all the children” and then shuffle them off to another program, we aren’t authentic.  We have blinders on.  We are baiting and switching.

Look to your children and youth.  Where do you see ministers?  Where are they ministering?  Open up the opportunities for them.  Encourage them.  Invite them to grow on the journey.  Remind children when they dream of what they want to be when they grow up that ministry is a great and wonderful calling, and that chances are, one of them is called to be a minister.  Be real, and real ministers will blossom.

THE SECOND COMING - RECLAIMED

Regarding the future of the church,we have made a mistake.

It is not about Reformation II (or III or IV or V or...) It is about the Second Coming of Jesus

It is not about the coming death of the church. It is about the coming transformation of the church.

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The Second Coming is an inside joke.... ...To those who do not "get it" - The Second Coming is an apocalyptic view that awaits the arrival of a militant Jesus who will violently eliminate evil from the world. It makes for best-selling religious literary fiction, great cinematic special effects, and lousy-abusive-useless theology. ...To those who do "get it" - the joke is that Jesus is already here, peacefully present. Jesus "returns" for each person as they discover and embark on the life-path that Jesus walked. The "Second Coming" is personal - it is neither an apocalyptic nor a global event. The epiphany by the women on Easter morning was that, even though Jesus was executed and buried, the path walked by Jesus still exists - and by walking that same path, the message and example of Jesus is resurrected. Many find this epiphany to be transformative, their old self dies and a new transformed person is resurrected from a dead and buried former life. By walking the path - living The Way of Jesus - they continue and extend the path and message and life of Jesus. In doing so, our lives proclaim:

Jesus is arisen! Jesus is here! Jesus appears to us! Jesus walks with us! Jesus breaks bread with us! Jesus lives! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

The church must go the same way as Jesus. The church must die and be buried - and be reborn through an epiphanic resurrection and transformation. The church cannot be rescued. The church cannot be reformed. The church cannot evolve. At some point, the current church structure, structures, hierarchy, and institutions must be abandoned and demolished and replaced - existing only in our memory as a history lesson of how not to be church.

Those of us who are Baby Boomers or older - and regardless of whether we participate, oppose, or sit on the sidelines - the church we know, have worked so hard to grow and maintain, has been so important to us, and indeed which we love so much - that church is about to disappear, must disappear - and there is nothing we can do about it or should be able to do about it. As a statement of objective emotionless fact - the generations that come after us will re-create church in ways that will have little to do with church as it has existed since the end of WWII and even less with church as it has existed since the early 19th-century "Great Awakening" revival that birthed the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and other denominations. Do not be surprised when the future church finds it can exist only by abandoning and demolishing the structure, structures, hierarchy, and institutions of the 200-year-old American church in all its denominational and independent expressions, colors, sounds, textures, architecture, rituals, liturgies, and self-righteous self-assuredness. Do not be surprised when this abandonment and demolition is completed with no sense of sadness and no sense of loss. The National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. has been completed just in time to be abandoned.

There is no pleasure in being the last of your kind, a breed on the verge of extinction. However, the WWII "Greatest Generation" and their "Baby Boomer" kids will not leave quietly and not without generating rippling resonating repercussions as they pass into memory. We have been faithful generous tithers and - most dangerously and in a final fit of useless spite and exasperation - we will continue to support the church after we are gone. We are wealthy generations who have retained lawyers to write wills that are specific and enforceable. The problem for future lawyers, judges, CPAs, and juries will be how to allocate funds for a church that is closed, abandoned, or demolished. They will have few or no options for diverting those funds to a living congregation or a worthwhile project. Already, we can see that the generations who follow us do not tithe to churches. They support specific projects and missions. Unlike us, they do not want their giving to be for slogans and annual reports and push pins on a map. They want projects and missions that are tangible, immediate, and - most important - participatory. Where we gave strictly of our wealth, these next generations will give of themselves - of their time, talent, labor, and presence - as well as their treasure.

At the forefront of the church demolition will be recent college graduates, college students and the high school students that will follow them. They will abandon (are abandoning) Sunday morning worship, Sunday School, and congregational events as well as mainstream campus ministries, Campus Crusade, Youth for Christ, and any Christian organization that values exclusion over inclusion or has any hint of structural rigidity, hierarchical authority, membership requirements, or dogmatic rejection of or does not live the theology of universal justice and compassion infused with divine love and grace.

Expensive specific-purpose church structures will be replaced with the use of former stores, abandoned theatres, rented warehouses, and individual homes. The traditional Sunday morning worship will diminish and be replaced by conversations in food courts and bars and coffee shops, studies in quiet places inside and outdoors, meditational Taize gatherings, loud Praise concerts, other worship experiences yet to be created - all arranged through social media and sometimes occurring more as a flash mob experience than a scheduled service. Future church will occur while flowing with the stream of life, not alongside or outside of it as a stationary event.

The seminary/ordination track as well as clergy as a profession and calling will be vastly different from what it is now, if it exists at all. There is no justification for ministerial candidates having to bear the crushing burden of a 5-digit (6-digit?) school loan to earn the formal label/prefix "Rev." and to be eligible for employment in a shrinking system and a disappearing paradigm. The concept of clergy will not be reformed, it will be so revolutionized as to be re-created. Future clergy will see themselves as scholars and counselors and project/mission managers and will reject calls to be church/congregational CEOs or mega-entrepreneurs. Clergy will find that their calling includes a responsibility to freely and openly share their formal studies. Denominations that currently have multiple seminaries will collapse them into one. Some denominations will find it necessary to join together to form a cooperative organization to support a single ecumenical seminary. Many seminaries will disappear. One possibility is that ministerial candidates, from the beginning of their education, will serve a sponsoring and supportive congregation. Seminary scholars representing the various necessary ministerial disciplines will hold regional classes or, when the technology becomes inexpensively ubiquitous, hold synchronous video conferences.

A major contributing factor to the clerical revolution will be public access to church knowledge. In an age of Wiki sites, there is no justification for the Catholic church or any denomination or any church institution to have secret archives or to have historical documents or ancient biblical texts hidden from public view. Every document, every scroll, every parchment fragment must be scanned, indexed, hyperlinked, and its high-resolution digital image placed on-line within a single web site. The biblical texts, both Jewish and Christian and regardless of whether they are currently considered canonical, must be on-line and referenced to a source document or source documents as well as being referenced to differing source documents. What will be paperless is not the office, it will be knowledge.

One of the identifying marks of living The Way is fearlessness. In this context, it means not being afraid to die and not being afraid to live. This article is neither a vision nor a prediction, neither a warning nor an advocating. It is a call to the church to move confidently into the future and to fearlessly embrace and enable its coming death and resurrection and transformation and new life.

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Technology Postscript: As on-line conferencing and smart-phone/tablet technologies improve and take advantage of increasing transmission rates and bandwidth, virtual worship and gatherings will be normal, common, and expected. As the virtual world is populated and utilized, the realization will slowly sink in that while virtual connections are immediate and easy and global, virtual connections are better at enhancing human disconnectedness than creating human presence and are better at amplifying loneliness than creating community. At some point, it will be generally recognized that virtual connections are an inadequate and invalid replacement for the connections we form when we are in the presence of each other. No matter how much we tweet, text, Facebook, email, YouTube, or Skype - at some point we have to see each other in the same physical space, face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball. We relate best when our mutual presence is tangible and accessible. Personally and communally as well as psychologically and technologically, at some point the virtual connection will be deemed unacceptable and generally harmful and best reserved for situations that are emergencies or physically remote or both. We will have to discover that pixels and bits are always inferior to hugs and prayer circles.

...and that will be the next transformation.

Tickets Please?

AJ, my three-year-old son, and I went to the museum in Fort Worth recently, because his mom (my wife) was out of town.  We got to the entrance and purchased our tickets and I asked about the children’s section.  The woman helping me probably assumed AJ was older as per his height and certainly did not know about his autism.  I politely listened to her talk about an exhibit that I knew was beyond AJ’s attention and comprehension.  So we went onto to the children’s section, and to my disappointment most of the items were too complicated for his interest, but he seemed happy to be among the energy of the children.  He does not interact with other children but he does enjoy the energy.  We then went to the water area, and if you know anything about AJ, water is as exciting as letters and numbers.  AJ ran around in circles and got soaked.  AJ was ecstatic and so was I.

After I got him into the dry clothes I decided to go by the exhibit that was recommended.  I bet we were the quickest through as it was all much too complicated for this tall non-communicative three-year-old.  So we went on to the store where AJ was again happy to be among the energy of a crowd.

I share this story because I have read many discussions about what the church should or will look like in the future.  I believe it is an important conversation--a conversation that has occurred since Paul.  We all know there is no formula for church success, and if one thing works for a specific community, it will not necessarily transfer to another, even if the communities look similar.  I am sure most reading this are saying that I am stating the obvious--I am because I keep running into people who write or talk about church as if they were the ticket sales person at the museum.  The generalizations and assumptions seep in even to the best intentions.

I must admit for a moment out in the water area, I felt awkward because AJ did not play with any of the water things properly.  I then noticed his smile and heard his squeals of joy as he splashed in the water.  Those moments are wonderful, such are the moments when he writes letters and words, and recites the alphabet.  These are not normal for his age, but it is what we utilize with his teachers and specialists to encourage better communication.  We go through a lot of hard work to truly share these happy moments with him, for he now lets us into his enjoyment and we have great hope.

As church, we need to do the hard work of discernment and research for each community, new and old.  We need to encourage each community to work for its own vision, finding its joy, its specialties, and work as a community to discover God’s vision for each community.  It is hard work, especially because it is too easy to see programs working at other congregations, especially in churches that look similar, or too easy to depend only on leadership, be it pastor, board, or just the key active lay leaders, to “sell” the vision to the congregation.  New church plants are clearly individual and unique, but humans often look to others for ideas, and that is fine for established and new church starts, if you are honest about your community’s vision from God.  What are your community’s unique gifts and joy?  The answers will lead the church toward the work needed for discernment, and it will be fun.

It will be hard and unique work and the result is a vision that truly calls out of the normal, secular, world, and the Body of Christ will run around influencing the world, for we will be following the “happiness” that surpasses all understanding.

If you don't know your history, you're doomed to repeat it: Separation of Church and State

I’ve been really disappointed in the current discourse on the separation of church and state. I’m not disappointed that people do not agree with it. I’m not disappointed that some people believe America should be a Christian nation. What I am disappointed about is the fact that we are not teaching our history to our children, and as we all know, those that do not know their history are doomed to repeat it. As a fifth-generation ordained Baptist minister I am incredibly frustrated with my brothers and sisters that do not know their own history. The separation of church and state, the freedom of conscience, is one of the basic Baptist principles. Even among some of my own family, all Baptists, whom with a few I have disagreements with on political and social issues, we always agree that the government should not control the church, that America was not founded as a Christian nation with Christianity as the official religion. Because in my family, we know our history:

Roger Williams, fleeing banishment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony where he had protested the Puritan-controlled colonial establishment, established not only the colony of Rhode Island on the basis of the separation of church and state, but also founded the First Baptist Church in America in Providence in 1638. The Puritans may have come to America in search of religious freedom for themselves, but among their laws was a ban on celebrating Christmas and working on the Sabbath. It was clear that religious freedom meant a freedom only for those that believed the same way they did, and that they believed the government should regulate religious beliefs. Roger Williams believed that religious freedom must mean everyone had the right to worship as their conscience directed, that this freedom could not be regulated and controlled by the government. There should be no interference between the individual and their relationship with God—not from a pope, a priest, and certainly not from an official state religion. Williams and other Puritans had already experienced the suffocating hold of the Church of England, and they were destined to repeat their mistake in the “New World.”

Now fast forward 138 years. Thomas Jefferson received a petition from the Virginia Baptists to disestablish the Church of England in Virginia. The Baptists in Virginia experienced the same crackdown against their freedom to worship that Roger Williams and others experienced in Puritan Massachusetts, which was what they had experienced less than a generation earlier in England. Same thing happens in Connecticut, another Puritan (now Congregationalist) colony at the turn of the nineteenth century, and once again Thomas Jefferson speaks out on behalf of the Baptists for religious liberty. Jefferson, accused of being an atheist by some, an agnostic by others, and one who cut out the parts of the Bible he didn’t agree with, was a champion of religious freedom for the Baptists in America.

Now, fast forward again to 1960 and JFK’s election campaign. Kennedy is poised to become the first Catholic president of the United States. There is great concern that Kennedy will “take orders” from the Pope and foster legislation based on his Catholic beliefs. Kennedy addresses a large gathering of Baptist ministers to assure them that the church and state will remain separate as he believes it should—and as they believe it should. Baptist principles, which include freedom of conscience and the separation of church and state, were alive and well among most Baptist in the 1960’s.

But we have forgotten our principles and our history today. We look back at history and take the snippets, the soundbites that prove our point or our view, and don’t look at history in its context. Some might accuse me of doing the same thing, but if you read the history of Colonial America through the Revolutionary War, watch the entirety of JFK’s speech and understand the political context of Kennedy’s election campaign, it’s hard not to draw similar conclusions: the history of religious freedom in America’s foundational principle is the separation of church and state. Baptists may lay claim to originating the idea, but it is foundational to all who believe in the freedom of the church and the right to worship God without the interference of government regulation.

This is what I find most disappointing: unless we are willing to learn our history, we are doomed to repeat it. And if we Americans want to forget our history, forget the foundation for the First Amendment, forget the ways we were once oppressed for our beliefs and the ways we have oppressed others with our beliefs, then we are destined to be oppressed again.

(For a great article on Roger Williams, see this article in the January 2012 issue of the Smithsonian. For more on Thomas Jefferson and his history with the Baptists in Virginia and Connecticut, I recommend the PBS special "God in America").