Emergent

Death at the Movies

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become servants to one another.  For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. (Galatians 5:13-15)

Could someone please explain to me when texting during the previews of a movie became a capital offense?  It might be slightly inappropriate, but I would even argue that may not necessarily be true.  As long as a phone is put away before the movie begins, who really cares?  I guarantee you that most of those under 40 don’t really see it as a major problem.  And a lot of us who are 50 plus aren’t too worried about it either.   But the fact that Chad Oulson was texting during the previews to a movie, apparently texting his young daughter’s baby-sister, so infuriated another movie goer, Curtis Reeves, that Reeves shot Oulson to death.   Yes, there was apparently an exchange of words and Oulson may have even thrown some popcorn at Reeves, but again where does any of that come close to being a capital offense with Reeves as judge, jury and executioner.

Gun violence is an epidemic in America.  In the small town in which I live, a father was recently arrested for shooting and killing his son over an argument about a football game.  When I tell people about my trip to Israel and Jordan a few years back, they ask if I was scared to travel in the Middle East.  I answer that question by telling folks that the very day we landed in Jerusalem there was a shooting in the school that is just a quarter mile from the church I serve.  A middle school student shot another student as part of a romantic triangle.  Fortunately, the student did not die – but at least two young lives have been forever affected by this incident.    Any research will quickly show that the number of gun related deaths in America is out of proportion to our western, economic counterparts.        (http://www.americanbar.org/groups/committees/gun_violence/resources/the_u_s_compared_to_other_nations.html)  

For a powerful visual image about the tally of gun deaths in America, I recommend this site: http://guns.periscopic.com/?year=2013.  It illustrates that the 11,419 gun deaths in America in 2013 claimed over 502,000 years of life. 

Look, I know that ever since Cain killed Abel people have been killing each other.  But the number of guns and the easy access to them in America has made that killing so much easier.  You take the gun away from Mr. Reeves and there may have been an argument between him and Mr.  Oulson, but it isn’t nearly as likely that someone would have ended up dead.  One of the saddest parts of this episode is that Mr. Reeves is a retired police captain and Mr. Oulson was a former Navy officer.  Here were two people who had given portions of their life in service to their community and nation, and one ended up dead because he was texting when he wasn’t supposed to and the other guy didn’t like it and had a gun. 

We have to do something as a nation.  Too many lives are ending way too soon.  Too many people who become angry and volatile when things don’t go their way are carrying weapons.  We have to do something.  I think most everyone is probably in agreement that Mr.  Reeves should be held accountable and prosecuted to the full extent of the law and if found guilty serve the appropriate time in jail.  But that doesn’t give Mr. Oulson back his life or his daughter back her daddy.  Again, we need to do something as a nation.  And I think the church has an important role to play in this conversation.

We believe in the church that human life is of inestimable value, for every life is created in the divine and sacred image, and when life is lost, especially violently and needlessly, the heart of God grieves. In the text above, from Paul’s letter to the church at Galatia, he states that freedom is a wonderful, but dangerous thing.  When freedom becomes more concerned about self than it is about others, it leads to us consuming each other. Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl said that freedom and liberty, the hallmarks of America society, has to be balanced with responsibility.  And as people die, school children, movie goers, mall shoppers, America has to act responsibly to create a safer, less violent society.

And now, so you know, I am a gun owner.  I own a 16 gauge double barrel shot gun that was handed down to me by my father.  I have taken both my children to target shoot so they might learn proper technique and safety in regard to firearms.  But this I believe, my right to own a firearm isn’t the first concern for me.  The first concern for me, especially as a person of faith, is what can we do as a nation to create a more civil and respectful society.  What are the root causes that underlie our societal violence?  What can we do to address those issues? 

I am asking questions to which I have my own answers and if I could change it all with one great big wand, I would do it in a minute.  But I can’t.  So people with all different sorts of perspectives have to be part of the conversation.  But it has to happen.  Something has to be done.   Every day, 31 people are dying in America at the end of a gun. Some of them are children in school, some of them are shoppers in malls, and some of them are people who simply went to a movie with their wives and got a text from the baby-sitter.  I guess, for me, the right to life trumps everything else and there are a whole lot of folks who have lost that right here in America.

Prayers for our nation.

Truth Telling

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

Last night, the story on the national news was about the $636,000,000 Mega Millions Dollar Jackpot and all the last minute tickets that were being purchased. The reporter said that if there was one winner and they took the cash option they would receive $341,000,000.  He went on to state that if the winner kept 80% of that prize money and divided the other 20% among three charities there was a lot of good that could be done.  The first charity he mentioned was the Salvation Army.   A representative from that charity said that they could help about 150,000 families with their 1/3 of that 20%.  The second charity mentioned was Habitat for Humanity and they said they could build about 25,000 homes around the world with their third of that money.  Honestly, I don’t remember the last charity mentioned.  I started thinking about the fact that the first two charities were founded by people whose purpose was to follow the example of our Lord Jesus.  In this season when we celebrate his birth, I thought it would have been nice for the news reporter to mention that fact.  But, of course, I am a little biased.  For all that is wrong with the church, there are still some things that we get right.  The Salvation Army and Habitat are but two of the ministries rooted in the Christian faith that remind us where our attention and focus should be.  I was glad that they were highlighted on the national news even if their origins weren’t mentioned.

The more I thought about it, however, the more frustrated I got with the way this story was reported; the Mega Million winner giving a “generous” 20% to these charities.  The story could have been approached much differently.  If all the people buying tickets, hoping against the astronomical odds of getting rich, had decided instead to give their dollars to these charities there would be a whole lot more good that could be done for people.  More than one billion dollars’ worth of tickets were sold to create this jackpot of $636 million.  So a report could have been about what these three charities could have done with 1/3 of a billion dollars instead of 1/3 of 20% of $341 million dollars.  So the story was about what one person “might” do with an abundance, instead of focusing on what we all “could” do with what we already have.

The stories in the news today are about the two winning tickets for this Mega Million jackpot and the happiness of the store owners who sold those tickets.  For selling the winning tickets, the store owners get a large lump of money too.   Maybe these “winners” will be generous in sharing their winnings with the charities that were mentioned.  Maybe they won’t.   To be truthful, I think these lotteries and the “feel good stories” that come out of them are a very sad commentary on our culture and the priorities that have taken hold of us.

I know that people will argue that the funds raised with the lottery support education.  But the truth is much more complex.  This was the way lotteries were “sold” to people.  We were told the money made from the lottery would supplement education and make our public education system stronger.  Nothing wrong with that goal.   And with billions and billions of dollars raised over the past few decades through lotteries you would think that our public education system would be the best in the world.   Why then are there still so many public school systems struggling and having to make cut backs, struggling to make budget?  According to a March 2012 Washington Post story:

Because instead of using the money as additional funding, legislatures have used the lottery money to pay for the education budget and spent the money that would have been used had there been no lottery cash on other things.  Public school budgets as a result, haven’t gotten a boost because of the lottery funding. . . . . As one state education official said, “That’s been a slow and insidious movement that’s been going on for a few years now.” (“Mega Millions: Do Lotteries really benefit Public Schools”, Valerie Strauss)

So our children are sold two lies with the lottery. First, the lie that the money is going to be used to make our education system better.  And second, the lie inherent in the lottery itself, that buying tickets at the chance of getting rich is a good way to use their resources.  Hard work, education and wise decisions aren’t really important in this life.  All you need is just pure dumb luck. 

In just a few days, we will be celebrating the birth of our Lord Jesus.  Whatever else we might believe about Jesus, as Christians we do believe that he came as a word of Truth spoken to our world.  Those of us who chose to invest our life by following him are to be people who, likewise, speak a word of Truth to our world.  Though we have all at some point bought into the Lies that are part of our world, it is imperative that we continue to strive toward the speaking of Truth.  Our culture’s obsession with wealth, made so clear by the billions of lottery tickets sold for the mere chance at getting rich, is one of the most profound Lies we have believed.   All the hypothetical questions about “What would you do if you won the lottery” keep us from the real question of “What are we already doing with what we have.”   Because the truth is, all of us working together, have more than enough to make this a more just and equitable world.   

"We need all kinds of thinkers."

by Rev. Mindi

My husband and I had the opportunity to hear Temple Grandin speak last week. Temple is, of course, probably one of the most famous people with autism that we know of today, but as Temple shared, many also suspect people such as Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs had undiagnosed autism. Albert Einstein did not speak until the age of three, and Steve Jobs had few friends and was socially awkward as a child and youth.

While Temple has contributed much to our more current understandings of how people live in the world with autism, I was reminded that she is one person, with one set of experiences, and that as parent of a child with autism our experience and our son’s experience is different.  Her experience has taught her that sometimes the rest of us try to make it too easy and we don’t challenge our children enough. Perhaps there is some wisdom in that; maybe we do make it too easy at times. However, I am again reminded that is her opinion from her experience, and that we knew little about autism when she was a child. While we still don’t know as much, we do know that intensive therapies such as speech-language and behavioral therapy can go a long way in helping a child with autism achieve access to education as “typically developing” children do today.  We have had to think differently about how we care and educate children with autism, and we are continuing to do so.

But what I took away from Temple’s speech was that “We need all kinds of thinkers.” She thinks in pictures. She did not do well in math, especially algebra, but she is known for her incredible, creative designs for cattle farmers because she drew them out in elaborate detail.  She sees things in pictures. While many of us start at the top with a large concept and work our way through a problem by breaking it down into smaller pieces, she starts with the smaller pieces. She thinks differently. And many people living with autism do. Steve Jobs , as she shared, started by dreaming of an interface that was easy to use. He didn’t start with trying to figure out how to develop the software to do it—he left that to the engineers.

In the church, we need all kinds of thinkers. We need dreamers who dream of the church differently, out-of-the-box, along with the people who work on the ideas and ministries that help us to move into the new church concept. All too often, we are still working from the old concept, and we expect the pastor to do it all. We are not working out of the box, we are instead looking at the old concept of church and breaking down into smaller pieces: Christian education, outreach, programs, Bible Study, Youth ministry, etc. I have seen way too many churches think if they just hire a new Youth Minister everything will change for the good, or if they just try a new program for Young Adults they will change. But the truth is they aren’t looking for that kind of change—they are looking to fix one small problem without seeing the larger picture: the church they once knew is dying. Or dead. Or just completely outdated and irrelevant. And the pastor often gets blamed when the change does not occur (as expected).

We need all kinds of thinkers. We need dreamers and imaginers and organizers and planners. We need to go back to vision and purpose: who do we imagine God desires us to be as the church? Are we fulfilling that dream and vision, or are we fulfilling a plan of the past, an old model that doesn’t mean the same thing anymore?  How can we think out of the box in this world, today?

More importantly, how can we use all kinds of thinkers? How can we bring in the doubters and the strugglers, the ones who don’t know (and perhaps don’t care too much) about our denominational identity along with the cradle churchgoers? Or, to think even more outside of the box, how do we go out and be the church with all of these?

We need all kinds of thinkers. This isn’t easy to do, but we need to let go of the old models of programs and staff configurations and even building maintenance to move into a model of being the church as Christ’s Body. The church, since even the early days, has been challenged to think outside of the box. In many ways, this isn’t something new. It’s just time to dream it up again, and to include the dreamers who might think about church differently than you. It’s not enough to include a token young adult or youth on a committee; a church needs to engage communities of youth and young adults and actually desire to build a relationship. It’s not enough to say “Let’s have a program for young families to get them into the church;” a church needs to think outside the box and look at the greater picture: are we really a child-friendly church? Are we welcoming of children who may cry or run around? Do we provide child care? Do we care if children eat all the cookies at coffee hour? And are we welcoming of non-traditional families? How do we include families whose children may live with another parent and only attend on occasion?

It’s time to think outside the box, and to do that, we’re going to need some help. We’re going to need all kinds of thinkers.

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

Vision and Branding

By Rev. Mindi

I had a really awesome talk with a local advertising agent for our local news blog just this morning (Monday as I write this) and it has me thinking that we in the church still are so, so far behind in so many ways.

We are so good in the church about saying “We are not a business.”  But then we go and act like a business with a board that runs like a corporation and congregational leaders that act like CEO’s.   We draw up budgets and we crunch the numbers. We put resources into staff positions and maintenance and cut outreach and education and mission. We get smaller and smaller and so we cut all “non-essential” budget items like continuing education and health insurance, cut salaries and positions down to half-time or less, and finally, we are left with nothing to cut and we close. We are a failed corporation.

That’s where our problem is: we say we are not a business, but then we act like big business.  Rather, we have a lot to learn from small businesses (and yes, not every business is the same, not every small business is the same).  Many new start-up small businesses are based on a passion, a dream, that is driving the business: a vision. Many people start up their own business because they love doing what they are doing and dream about doing it, whether it be a restaurant or a bakery or a used book store, a consulting firm or jewelry shop, just to name a few of the small businesses in our town on one street. But here’s the thing: they are local, and they begin with a dream, a vision.

They also have to compete with the big box stores or big firms or big chain restaurants, but don’t worry too much about the competition from them because they are local, they offer personal service, they don’t mind you taking time and they will take time for you when it comes to making decisions on purchases or transactions of services.  Of course, the church is not a place where we exchange money for services, but the personal service, the attention to detail, and the time given for decision making are all good aspects we can take into the church, on top of the notion of dreams and passion: a vision that moves people forward.

Now here is where branding comes into play. I know of a church whose slogan on its sign is “Something For Everyone.”  Except it doesn’t really offer something for everyone and if it did offer something for everyone, I would expect it to be much, much larger than it is. Even my current church is using a slogan that is a bit too broad and too open for interpretation.  We do this all the time in smaller churches that want to grow: we don’t want to limit our possible outreach, we don’t want to say no to anyone who comes in, so we try to say “yes” to everyone. The truth is we can’t be all things to all people.

So that’s where my talk with the advertising agent comes in. She (an active member of another church) told me something I’ve known for a while: you have to brand yourself.  That’s the marketing term: branding.  What is it that makes you stand out, what makes you unique?

Translation for the church: What is your vision? How do you make your vision known?

I have been leading my church in a vision process for the past six months, and I led my previous congregation in a similar process.  First, we looked back at our past. We had a day where we shared memories by the decades (I started with the 1950’s but people had memories further back than that). We wrote them down on big sheets of paper, decade by decade. What was it that brought you to church way back when? What was fun? What was exciting? What made you want to keep coming back? We wrote it all down and then put it up the next Sunday for everyone to look at, and fill in a memory if they weren’t there or had remembered something later.  We talked about our memories. More specifically, we talked about the feelings we had, and we talked about the movement of the Spirit in the life of the church. The conversation turned from “what we used to do” or “how we used to do it” to “what was it that helped us feel alive, engaged with God, in relationship with Jesus, moved by the Spirit,” etc. 

The next month we talked about what was important to us, as individuals and as a church (this part is core to the vision process—what is it that we value?)  The following month, we talked about what we were ready to let go of—past assumptions, long announcements, etc. This is a time for venting the negative energy, the things that we do but we don’t know why we do them.  The next gathering we focused on the three core parts of the vision process: Values, Words, Actions. We’d already done the Values part, now we focused on what it was that we said about ourselves and what it was that we did. Do our words, actions and values line up with who we say we are, or is there is a disconnect? 

We’re nearing the end of this part of the process: we are going to be forming a vision statement.  A vision statement is not the be-all and end-all of the process, but it helps point the way. This vision statement will say something about who we are, who we want to be, and how we are being. This statement will go with our church logo, will go on our website, will be the branding that we use. 

For churches, I think (or would hope) that it is less about competition and more about saying who we are to those that don’t know us, and at the same time, reminding us of who we are and where we are going.  Habakkuk 2:2 says “Write the vision… make it plain so that a runner may read it.”  In other words, keep it short, make it easy to know, make it something that everyone can memorize and recite to those who want to know about who you are.

Lastly, so you don’t fall into the trap of “Something for Everyone,” be a little more specific. If you are Open and Affirming or Welcoming and Affirming, say it. Put a rainbow flag up, or a handicap accessible sign, or an Autism puzzle piece on your logo, or something else that symbolizes you are welcoming, open and affirming to a specific population. That doesn’t mean you’re not open and affirming of typically developing children, straight people, or people who don’t use a wheelchair! But it lets people know that your congregation thinks about these things and is concerned about the inclusion of others.  Most of us don’t want to limit ourselves so we either say nothing, or have a very, very long non-discrimination or inclusion statement.  The statements are great—and should be on your website and your welcoming information. But your vision statement, your branding, your logo, your identity statement—however you want to put it—should be shorter, something everyone can memorize and recite, and needs to contain something that makes people say “If they welcome these people, they probably welcome others as well.”  

So as I said, my current church is still in the process. We haven’t gotten there yet. But I’m very hopeful about the process and where we are going, and through this process, we are recognizing our need to be more specific in our welcome and inclusion of others. We are learning that we need to share our dreams, our passion, through the process of vision, remembering the spirit that once filled us before, and we are finding that spirit again. We are also learning more about who we are as individuals, and how we welcome one another is integral to our church.  The spirit is still there, and in the words of Habakkuk, there is still a vision for the appointed time.

Becoming Unchurched

By Rev. Mindi

When I was in seminary, I remember attending denominational events for seminarians and new pastors in which we talked about the “unchurched.”  Questions were asked in workshops and seminars about how we were going to reach the unchurched. Friends were being called to positions such as Ministers of Outreach whose primarily function was to seek the unchurched and somehow get them to come to their church.

Though the language may have changed over the past fifteen years, from referring to those who don’t go to church as the “unchurched” to the “nones,” the terms we use are all based on old, and often false, assumptions. We assume that the “unchurched” have never been to church and just don’t know what it is we have to offer.  We assume that they don’t know anything about the Bible, God, Jesus, or church.  We assume that the “nones” have no spiritual or religious background and were not brought up with any traditions and that they are out there, lost, and in need of what we have to offer.  Notice that there are an awful lot of assumptions made in this paragraph about the church, and the last, big assumption, is that we have what others are looking for. 

Okay, wait, there is one more assumption: we assume that in bringing people from the outside in we are doing the best thing for them: to make them “churched.”

We want others to conform to us. We know what’s best, because we’ve been doing it this way since before we can remember.  This is how you are Christian, this is how you do church.  If you are on the outside, you are not churched.

It’s time to become unchurched.  It’s time to remove the divisions, that somehow those on the inside have it right. Becoming unchurched doesn’t mean that those outside have it right, either, but rather we are removing the distinction of inside vs. outside, churched vs. unchurched, spiritual vs. religious.  It is time to take off the lens of church that we see everything through.  It’s time for us to do our part to break away from the old assumptions held deep within the walls of the concept of church.  It’s also time for us to stop assuming that people who aren’t in church or affiliated with a local institution of faith are not spiritual, are not religious, and are lacking something in their life.  Maybe it’s less about what we have to offer and more about what we can learn from listening to each other.

Let us become unchurched.  Let us listen to other’s stories and share our stories.  Let us focus not on bringing others in but on breaking down divisions.  It’s not about closing doors and emptying buildings as much as it is removing the barriers that have been put in place.  For there is no Jew or Greek, nor slave nor free, neither male nor female; neither is there church or unchurched, spiritual or religious, haves or nones; for all are one in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Creative Pastors, Energized Ministries

By Rev. Mindi

Some might think I’ve taken a few steps down in my career: I started off as an associate minister of a well-to-do congregation in an urban area. The type of church that pastors like to retire from.  The type of church that is often called a flagship church.  But I felt called to something else, so I moved to a smaller urban church in another town, where I had no administrator, and after my first two years, I became a solo pastor.  Then I took time off and became a volunteer chaplain and stay-at-home mom while my husband pursued a full-time call into ministry.  And now I am the part-time pastor of a very small church, which was referred to as “Oh, isn’t that church a dying church?” during a clergy conversation recently.

It’s not a dying church.  I don’t believe it is.  And while I have enjoyed each calling differently, I am loving this call because this is exactly where I am supposed to be, now.  This is how I have felt at every position I have been called to so far, and I hope it will continue.  Right now is where I am called to be.

One of the great skills that all pastors need is the skill of drawing out people’s gifts.  In my view, many of those gifts lie in great ideas—creative energy—that often lies dormant in the minds and hearts of people.  They are afraid to share their great idea because it will be turned down. Because no one will hear them. Because someone will say there isn’t enough money or enough people to do it, or it’s not the right time.  And the idea, the dream, the energy—will fizzle out, fade and even die at times.

There are different ways to draw out the gifts of others. Some will go to a meeting and say, “Anyone have any bright ideas?” It’s not exactly the best way to start, especially if you’ve had a history of people turning down ideas for the reasons mentioned above.  People may be afraid to share their ideas.  There’s also the risk that people who don’t have such great ideas, but instead say, “Church A is doing this down the street, we need to do what they are doing,” will come forth.  Just taking other people’s ideas and programs doesn’t really work and is trying to be a band-aid to the real problem, which is not using the gifts of the people you have.

What I have found in my ministry is that when I share my ideas, my energy and enthusiasm, others catch on to the spirit, but are fueled for their own ideas.  In a church where we had few children and no ideas for a Children’s ministry other than “we want them to feel welcome in the worship service,” we are now coming up with creative ideas for children’s space within the worship service as well as for those who would prefer to go to their own space downstairs (cleaning out the nursery that has been used as a storage facility for the past few years).  We are moving from a Wednesday night Bible study series into a Pub theology forum.  And while I may have begun with these ideas, others in my congregation are now sharing their ideas for Children’s ministry, outreach to seniors, and other ways to be involved in the community.

In order to give space for people to use their gifts, to share their creative energy through their ideas and dreams, a leader also has to be willing to share their creative energy, their ideas and dreams. And it all takes a little work. There are still the same trip-ups that happen, where someone shares the idea but doesn’t want to do the work. Some ideas sound really great but are awful once you start implementing them, or just don’t fit your community.  Time and again I have found myself starting off with a great idea, then find myself doing the work, then realizing that if I stopped no one would really notice (except with a “Why aren’t we doing that anymore?” question at the next board meeting).

But don’t stop. Try and try again. I have found in all of my ministry locations that when I come to the table with ideas, not only do others get on board, but they get inspired. They remember the idea they once had a few years ago and find the courage to bring it up again.  They see your energy and enthusiasm and are encouraged to tap into their God-given gifts and creativity.

There is life in the small churches, and perhaps there is still time to re-create the vision (Habakkuk 2:2), to be inspired again, to see the possibilities for new life in ideas that had been dormant for so long.  So don’t give up. Be creative. Let your ideas flow. Go for it.

Hope comes in small packages

By Rev. Mindi

Sorry for that terribly cliche title. But bear with me.

I’m in that weird post-election pre-Advent what-do-I-write-about phase. You know, the calm before the storm for pastors, because the next month will be ca-razy!

As a pastor, I’m constantly challenged by outside the church of what I need to preach about, because outside seems to be where so many are.  Outside the church is the real world of political struggle, conflict over debt, taxes and support to the poor; outside is where the difficult questions about ethnicity and religion are happening over in Gaza and Israel; outside is where the “nones” are and we need to reach them and we need to abandon this old way of doing church so we can get out there and be with the “real” people.  Outside is where the homeless and poor are. Outside, outside, outside. The church is stuck inside and is cold and boring and dying.

*Yet this week I heard the story of a 70-something woman who is finding new life after almost dying. After being unable to walk she is starting to learn a new musical instrument. I know another who is reclaiming a passion for art that they had in their teens but lost in their adult years.  Another is struggling with a child who has AIDS, another has a grandson they have never seen.  Another’s brother is in rehab and another’s child is pregnant and not seventeen.  I know grandparents raising children and grandparents going back to school for another degree.  I know of elderly volunteers at elementary schools and young environmental activists reorganizing the church’s recycling. 

For all the criticisms of the church that we might have, for all the “new” and emergent churches that are making a difference, our old churches can still make a difference, too, and may be doing it under our noses.  There are days I throw my hands up in the air in ministry and think, “These people will never change, they’ll never grow out of their habits and they never want to do something new.”  And then I peer under the surface and find they are reaching out in new ways, but also living into hope in new ways.  They are miracles in and of themselves.  And they love their church.  And sometimes they just don’t know what to do, and they know the way they have always done things isn’t the best way, but they are trying their darndest.

So sometimes I think those of us, and I am including myself, who get all critical and huffy about the church being stuck in the past, need to take a moment to pause before the craziness of the world and be thankful for the problems we have, for the people we are with, because these are the real people in our lives.  We may see the conflict in Israel and Gaza and wonder how in the world we can make a difference.  I have friends involved in petitions and protests and peace conferences and interfaith dialogues—they are doing good work.  But the grandparents who keep an eye on the neighborhood kids in our small city streets—they are doing the work of peacemaking as well. 

For those of us in our small churches, let us be thankful for what we have, let us work with what we have, and let us see those miracles, those stories of living hope, and do what we can to tackle the small problems in our lives.  Who knows?  Maybe we can reach out to some of those “nones” by our everyday ministry and stories of hope. 

This Sunday I’ll be dusting off the Advent wreath and getting ready to participate in the traditions that this church has held for a long time, some of which the meaning has been lost.  But there is hope here, hope in the living stories of the people who still gather here, and the meaning of these traditions becomes apparent when I remember that: this is a community of faith, and the ritual of tradition at times stirs in them hope that even when they are gone, things will continue on, and that they won’t be forgotten.

We have plenty of poor people, people on Social Security and food stamps within our congregations.  We have plenty of reasons to speak out for social change and to act for greater change in the world around us.  And yes, we do need to step out of our comfort zones and we need to go out into the world.  But that doesn’t mean we are dead on the inside.  No, for those who have grown up in the church, put their faith in their community, there is life here, too.  And we need to honor and recognize and celebrate that life. 

So as I prepare for Advent as a pastor, to preach a familiar message once again, I am reminded that even in the familiar, I can find challenges and struggles, despair and conflict—and hope, hope, hope.  Hope that is alive in the lives of people going through chemo, recovering after a fall, searching for a new job, dreaming of college.  Hope of those with a family member in rehab, hope for those struggling with health care.  If there is one thing that Advent does, year after year, candle after candle, it is remind us that Hope is always, always possible, in the darkest of times. And maybe there is no greater place to find hope lived out than in the faithful in a small, aging church, as they light the candles year after year.

*obviously I have changed these stories, the details and ages because these are real people I know, but you may know these stories in your lives.

Speak Christian to a “T”

This London Olympic coverage of course includes some joking about how the English language across the pond does not match what Americans call English.  Having lived in Northern Ireland, I can attest to these differences.  I remember on my first or second day going into a restaurant to eat.  I was confused about the layout and went and talked to a waitress.  I could not understand a word she said to me, so frustrated, I just left.  Not my usual way of dealing with someone speaking a different language, but we were both speaking English. I acclimated quite quickly and fully, as most people thought I was from south of the border, The Republic of Ireland.  There were certainly other instances of miscommunications. My flat mate was from Newcastle, and honestly many of the Irish had a hard time understanding her accent as well.  I remember one night about 6 pm she asked, “Would you like some tea?” and I said “no” thinking to myself I want something to eat.  About 15 minutes later I went into the kitchen to see she was preparing dinner.  I asked if I could have some, and she said, “I asked you if you wanted some.”  See, at that time of day, asking if you want tea referred to a meal, for I should have known that generally when someone was offering the beverage tea, you would be asked, “Do you want a cuppa?”

I am sure you know stories of miscommunications, which would have made the writers of “Three’s Company” consider them, but these miscommunications within the same language are frustrating.  This is what happens in Christianity often, and we assume we are speaking the same language.

Let me remind you that English on both sides of the pond works well, even if their petrol pedal is on the opposite side of the vehicle.  So why do some Christians that I know shy away from certain words in our tradition?  Evangelism, salvation, righteousness, sacrifice, etc. are example words that I sense have been dropped from many pastors’ lexicon.  I understand there are strong connotations, for some of these words do require careful use out of the Body of Christ, the church.  For instance, I will not go and greet someone by saying, “Hi I am from my Church’s evangelism team, and I want to make sure you understand the sacrifice Jesus made for the world’s salvation from violence, and we try to live a righteous life, so I hope you join us for worship.”  There is way too much baggage in those terms, and I am very aware of that.

You may say we need to reclaim the terms--I know I have said that myself.  Upon reflection, that attitude demonstrates defining my Christianity against another.  I just need to use the terms as I have learned from Biblical and theological study, while being aware when I am talking to those that know only the fundamentalists or media’s language of Christianity.  Let us be comfortable with our own speech.

If we are comfortable with our language, we are able to answer the questions and hang in there in dialogue with other Christians who are using a language that seems “foreign.” I know there are people filled with hate using that language, and I do not recommend anything but a smile and prayer for those individuals, but I have seen time and again Christians that explored the deeper and complex meaning of our traditional key words--they may talk the talk, but they also certainly walk the walk.

The best way to be comfortable is to use these terms without apology, while knowing these same words will have different meanings to other Christians.  Hopefully, we will find each other at the same table drinking from the same chalice or cup.

Letting Go

We all know that change is often hard. We all know that change is often necessary.

We all know that change is often feared.

I remember hearing once during a conversation on Missional/Emergent church that people really don’t fear change, but what they fear is loss.  And as I have transitioned from one ministry to another, that thought has struck me in a new way:

We don’t fear change, we fear loss.

We don’t want to lose what we have, so we try to hold on desperately.

To hold on desperately, we must have power, so we become concerned with gaining/keeping power.

Most conflicts in the church become power struggles.  As the church continues to change, even transform, into the 21st century, we are more and more concerned with gaining and holding on to power so we won’t lose what we have.  So we can keep the traditions we like that we associate with memories of what “good church is.”  So we can get back to the church we remember, when it was thriving (at least, how we remember it, how it appeared), when people went to church.

Problem is, we can’t make people go to church.  We can’t make people want what we remember.  We can’t make people be like us.  So we dwindle and dwindle.

And the center of the power struggle is… the building.

But stop for a moment.  When we look at the first and second century Christians, when we read the letters of the New Testament, I don’t remember Paul writing about any conflict over a church building.  There were power struggles, yes—but no church building.  People met in each other’s homes, at the synagogues, or down by the river.

We know that church buildings were not long in coming, and by the fourth and fifth centuries there were church buildings in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.  While we know there were rival church groups, and in the divisions of orders within the Catholic Church after the first millennium, for the most part church buildings were not build to be in competition with each other.

Then came the Protestant Reformation, and a few hundred years later, the Great Awakenings in the United States.  And church buildings sprung up like daisies.  Church groups built new buildings across the green, or even across the street, from other church buildings.

Church buildings were, of course, the community center for many.  It’s where you went if you were poor or in need.  It’s where you went to pray and seek counsel.  Church buildings had a significance for all people within the greater community.

Now a new transformation is beginning—or is it just getting back to our roots?  We don’t need the church building the way we once did.  YMCA’s, community centers, malls and parks have taken away the social needs.  A greater understanding of faith life has led to many to seek individual ways of finding faith.  And when the church has insisted you need community, you need a church building—you need the old ways—society has found a way to resist even greater.

The church needs to let go of the building.  It was not part of our earliest memories, nor did Jesus call us to go and build church buildings—he called us to go and make disciples.

The church building is the center of power for many people.  They have put their hopes and dreams and their finances into the building.  Many were involved in the design and décor of certain rooms in the building and also determine the function and use of those rooms.  The building committee or trustees determine what needs to be done about the building and what finances are used or what is needed to maintain the function of the building.  The building itself is called the church.  Many churches continue to use a picture of the building as their logo for promotion.

One of the biggest problems for the church today is the continued mistake of thinking the church is the building.  And even churches who are aware of this problem continue to do so by masking this mistake under colorful language of “being good stewards of the blessings we have.”  There is nothing wrong with that statement in itself.  If the “blessings,” however, is understood by most to be the building and/or finances, then you have a problem.  The words have changed, but the attitude and belief is still there.

I think the building symbolizes power, control and stability for many in the church.  It means we are something in the community. We are important and we would be missing if we were gone.  Those last statements are important; however, what the church building often also represents is that we are in control. And that is the crux of the problem: are we really in control?  Should we be in control?

Letting go of the building is a symbolic letting go of centralized power.  Rather, when we decentralize power, we allow for power-sharing among members, but more importantly, there is freedom for the work of the Spirit and an acceptance that control does not happen in an office, a sanctuary, or a Sunday School room—control is something that is shared, empowered by the Holy Spirit—and even at times, let go of.

I’m not suggesting everyone go out and sell their buildings.  However, I am suggesting we let go of the concept of building ownership,  letting go of the phrase “being good stewards of the building” with its connotations of power and ownership as the focus of our work and even our identity.  I think churches should get out of the renting business and instead see themselves as building partnerships.  We need partnerships with other congregations, ballet studios, artists, non-profits, childcare centers and others that might use our building.  When we are simply landlords, it is hard (if not impossible) to do ministry because we are worried about what might happen to our building, what kind of damage might happen or what needs to be cleaned up and who will pay for it.

When we are partners, we recognize that God is the one in control.  We recognize opportunities for ministry are not just ours but are everyone’s and that we all can be involved.  We recognize that we are all on the same side—trying to promote God’s goodness and beauty and love and justice in a world that needs it.  We recognize true stewardship of all of our gifts and are interested in working together to create a community center, a place of worship, a place of peace and contemplation, or whatever we envision lead by the Holy Spirit, together.

“Tell me what you want to do, not what you want to avoid doing.”

“What do you want to do when you get out of college?” That was the question on the table. Summer camp. We were gathered together with one of the grizzled veteran counselors to talk about what we planned to do with our lives.

Having just graduated high school, we found the whole conversation a bit abstract. We didn’t know. And we certainly didn’t want to be reminded about the fact that we didn’t know.

But somebody asked the question, and we were all raised with the kind of manners that wouldn’t allow us to say what we were thinking: “I really don’t want to think about this. Ask me about the beach, or about what we’re going to do when we get to college. After college is just too far away.”

One girl said, “Well, I don’t want to have to do a job I hate, where I’m stuck doing the same thing over and over—like a factory. And I don’t want to work someplace that makes me do busy work just to satisfy some kind of Human Resources directive intended to create a ‘positive working environment.’”

“Ok. What kind of working environment do you want to work in?”

“I don’t want work with a lot of passive-aggressive people—you know, the kind who get mad about little things and start putting up signs about not eating their yogurt or taking the stapler off their desk.”

“You run into a lot of sign hangers, a lot of yogurt and stapler thieves in high school, did you?”

“No, but I hear my dad talk about it all the time.”

“Anyone else?”

A long-haired guy in a denim jacket and boots said, “I don’t want to have do any job that requires me to wear a name tag or be a part of a ‘team’” (his use of air quotes tipping us off to his studied use of sarcasm.)

I jumped in and said, “Look, I just don’t want to have to get up too early in the morning.” I was not particularly ambitious.

The counselor, showing signs of frustration, said, “You’ve obviously thought about this. Here’s what I want, though. Tell me what you want to do, not what you want to avoid doing. What are your dreams? What makes you excited enough to get out of bed in the morning? What do you care about so much you’d be willing to die for?”

The impression many young adults who’ve lost any desire to associate themselves with the church feel like they’ve heard ad nauseum an answer to the questions, “What do Christians want to avoid? What do Christians hate? What kinds of things are Christians willing to kill for?”

As cliché as it may sound, more people in emerging generations know Christianity by what it stands against than by what it stands for. Jesus, though he clearly had strong opinions about what people should stay away from, seemed on balance more concerned about the kind of things in which people should be investing their lives.

This full-throated commitment to doing something got Jesus in trouble. In Matthew, he is contrasted with the ascetic John the Baptist: “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!’”

It’s important to point out that Jesus drew the contrast between himself and John the Baptist to indicate that there’s just no pleasing some people, no matter what you do. However, it is worth noting that Jesus developed a reputation not for the things he avoided, but for the things he threw himself into.

In a post-denominational world the church must be aware of the widely held perception that it cares more about keeping people from doing things than in giving them the resources they need to live and flourish, and, finally, to follow Jesus. As commitment to mainline denominations deteriorates, the church would do well to think more intentionally about how it embodies its vision of the reign of God.

Justice. Equity. Mutuality. Community. Compassion for the poor, the outcast, the powerless. These are positive visions.

“But isn’t that just a rehash of the traditional liberalism mainline denominations have been trying to interest people in since the latter part of the nineteenth century? If it were such a winning strategy, why are mainline denominations dying?”

Excellent point! I realize I’m trying to thread a pretty fine needle here. What I’m suggesting, though, isn’t a strategy (I don’t think traditional liberal mainliners necessarily thought the Social Gospel was just a strategy either). Making strategic decisions about justice in God’s reign as a way to attract more people misses the whole point. Justice, equity, mutuality, etc. are what we think Jesus came to establish, not well-devised membership recruitment tools.

In a post-denominational world the church needs to quit thinking first about how to save its own bacon, and start devoting more thought to doing the right thing—because we have no other way of conceiving our lives as followers of Jesus.

Mermaids, Squids, and Christian Reality

Recently a friend of mine mentioned that a counselor had concerns about her daughter because she believed that mermaids existed.  The questioning included why she believed in their existence, and the child responded because she had read about them and had seen a documentary on the Animal Planet, yet admitted to not have seen one in person.  The “professional” was concerned.  The child did ask the interviewer if she believed if giant squids existed and if she had seen one, and as you probably have guessed the answer was, the counselor had read about them and saw a documentary.  This would be funny if the person was not a “professional” analyzing the youth. I had seen most of the mermaid documentary one late night with my brother-in-law, and I must admit I truly understand one believing that mermaids might exist on earth, after viewing the documentary.  I honestly had to choose not to believe this reality when watching the show, and I have to admit the choice is mostly because it may “freak me out” if I saw something while on a boat and that it may open me up to the reality of Bigfoot.  I did just move to the Seattle area, where there are more boats and Northwestern woods in my future, so I have decided on a reality where there are no mermaids and Yetis.

As Christians, are we simply asking people to believe in an historical reality--Jesus’ birth, teachings, death, and resurrection?  Even our Gospel accounts do not match up neatly.  This sets up a reality in which those that believe are in, and those that do not are out.  It is ok to believe in giant squids, but not mermaids.  This is not my Christianity.  My religion is reality, which I find in Christianity.

Humanity did not create God, but humans did create religion.  We must look at our rituals and beliefs with anthropologic and sociological lenses and not simply as a litmus test, such as do you believe….?  And this can be true of the progressive churches as well.  We cannot kid ourselves to think we don’t have litmus tests.  Often we stand there like the professional above, judging other’s beliefs.

“Reality:” that word is itself a question, perhaps even a riddle.  I have been enlightened by the theory of Mimesis, put forth by René Girard.  A one sentence explanation might be that we desire based from the desires of others, and this changes the dialogue immensely.  I would argue it is pre-historical, and cognitive scientists have even confirmed this as desire based off the desire (and actions) of others within our brain function.  As a confessing Christian, this theory has opened me up to Christianity that dare I say, seems “natural” and “scientific.” No longer am I claiming something that others choose not to believe, nor am I stating what I believe they will know exactly like I know.  Rather, I see the reality of religion within Christianity, which I knew before, but now worry only about divine love as an action against our human reality of rivalry from mimetic desire.

Our purpose is to help the Divine we call love be the reality we know.  Violence and rivalry are part of our human condition, and as Christians we know the realization of love by Jesus empting himself without rivalry or retaliation on the cross.  This love is the reality we all aspire to, yet we are tied together not by our individual transgressions, but our universal sin of rivalry and violence.  Thus we don’t need everyone to believe exactly the same way, but to live, what we confessing Christians call the compassion of Jesus, as our reality.  The reality is, who cares if one believes in giant squids and/or mermaids, but rather, are we teaching love--that is, nonviolence, and compassion?

That is the religion for me, religion of revealing forgiveness, compassion, and love without rivalry and violence, as the reality and culture of earth as it is in heaven. That is a transformed world reality here on this globe, not simply an eternal heaven of gold streets, where some are in and others out.

Identity Crisis

I have not been back to my alma mater’s campus in 13 years. The year I graduated college, the school was gifted more land and some buildings from a closed plant and since my graduation the campus size has grown to more than twice its original size. Buildings have changed functions and many have been remodeled and renamed. In talking with a few alumni today, including family members, the first thing everyone said was “My, how it has changed,” and expressed some disappointment. As I walked around campus and recalled some wonderful memories, I realized that most of the greatest memories were not specifically about the place but about the people I was with at the time, friends that I have kept in touch with as well as friends who have slipped away. Professors who have since retired and staff who have moved on—all the relationships I made in the four years I was there.  It is not the same, but the experiences and memories will stay with me.

I also visited the church I attended during my four years of college.  It, too, has changed—there was a building expansion and remodel after I graduated.  The sanctuary has added a stage and things have been moved around.  It is different.  Many of the people I knew have passed on, but there are still familiar names.

We all know we have mistaken the church for the building, and we continue to do so in mistaking the church for the institution.  People complain about change. Things are different. They aren’t how they used to be.  The truth is, they never will be the same, things are always changing, and most of the time, things were never exactly the way we remembered them, anyway.

In order for the church to truly be transformed—or be the church, the body of Christ that Paul experienced—we have to get away from building and institutional identity. The church is the ecclesia, the gathering of people. It is not the building. It is not the four-board structure with a moderator.  It is not the Pastor’s Bible Study on Sunday morning.  It is not the Fellowship Hall or the kitchen or the sanctuary.  Church happens in those places, but they are not the church.

In order for the church to continue to exist we must move away from this mistaken identity.  Otherwise we will always complain about things changing, especially when our roles within the institutions change and the building is changed.

Relationships, however, are things that are always changing every time we interact with someone. Friendships change and grow, sometimes they grow apart. Families change and grow. We expect this. We expect people to grow up and grow old. We expect friendships to change and strain and grow.  We take this for granted. At times we are surprised when a friendship grows cold or a relationship ceases, but I don’t know anyone who expects their relationships to always stay the same. We know that people change and grow.  However, we have put this expectation on our churches to stay the same.

Our relationship with God changes and grows.  We all experience transformation in relationship with Christ and do not expect to remain the same after we encounter God.  We hope to experience lifelong growth with God in our journey of faith.  But again, we put this expectation on our churches, to stay the same.

It is time to for us to let go of our identity as a place or a particular structure.  We are the church, ecclesia, the gathering of people.  When we remember this, we know that change will always come, and that it is welcome, it is familiar, and it is what is necessary for us to continue to grow.  Otherwise, if we remain committed to keeping our identity as a structure or building, we will continue to be disappointed, continue to sigh when something new happens, and continue to wish we could go back in time to the way things used to be.  We can be stuck, or we can grow.

Saying Goodbye, and Hello

We are saying goodbye to our church, community and state that we have lived in and been a part of for the past 2 ½ years. Goodbyes are never easy, among colleagues and friends, and also among church members. Church relationships are tricky. The old-old school of thought was that the pastor was part of the church family. If a pastor came to the church single, many in the church would work to set up the single pastor with a suitable partner for the future. Pastor’s families were expected to be in attendance and involved in the church thoroughly. My mother, a PK (Pastor’s Kid) herself, tells me of how she was expected to babysit children of the church when needed and for free. My grandmother had a china set with settings for 12 and coffee service for 16. My step-grandmother shared that in one church she was expected to serve the punch at every church meal. Ministers were part of the social clubs in town, often invited by church members, and ministers went golfing with their members on Saturday mornings. There were no days off in that school of thought—the minister and “his” family were always on.

The old-old school of thought was replaced by the old (modern) school of thought, which is that the pastor should keep strict limits with their congregation. Friendships were strongly discouraged. Professional boundaries needed to be set and maintained. Ministers were encouraged to seek friendships outside of the church, to attempt to not overwork their hours (though the hours of work were still estimated to be 50-55 hours a week) and to protect their family from the burdens of church life outside of Sundays.

I was taught in the old school, modern way of pastoral boundaries. In my last congregation I served, I was strict with my boundaries. I rarely spent time outside of meetings, worship, visitations and educational events with congregants. I protected my family’s time. When I felt a connection to church members in terms of hobbies or interests, I did not pursue beyond the church walls very often. As a result, when I left that congregation, I received a note that expressed disappointment that some felt they never got to know me as well as I knew them.

That note has stuck with me as I transitioned from pastor to pastor’s wife. While the role is different, this time around I did allow for friendships within the church. Having moved to a location where we had no family or friends in the surrounding area, friendships were a necessity. And try as I may to make friends outside of the congregation, my first friendships were within the church. And now, as we prepare to leave, I think about saying goodbye, and the ups and downs of these relationships.

As the culture has shifted, with the advent of Facebook and other social media in the last ten years, so has the dynamic of pastor/congregation boundaries. Many ministers are “friends” on Facebook with their members. Some still try to keep a professional page but many share pictures and events from family life. Our personal and professional lives are more integrated.

While this certainly can be abused, it can also lead to great connection. I think we still need to set some boundaries. I know I have made mistakes, both in being too concerned about holding boundaries and the reverse, of being too involved at the level of friendship. We need to strike a healthy balance.

My previous congregation’s previous pastor had been more integrated in the church community. Members were over at the parsonage much more often and the previous pastor spent more personal time with members at birthday parties, cookouts, dinners out and other celebrations. When I came, I set stricter boundaries for myself and for the congregation, and as a result, I received that note, which made me aware that perhaps I had been a bit too strict with the “rules” of professional boundaries.

As we move into newer ministries that are based more on relationships between people than on traditional commitments to institutions, we need to shift our thinking on how we relate to our congregations, in ways that are safe and healthy, but not restrictive to genuine interrelationship with Christ and the community.

As my husband and I say our goodbyes, and both of us prepare for new pastoral ministries, I hope to shift safely into the newness of both relationship-building and ministry, letting go of old “rules” that were so strict as to stifle genuine relationships, and embracing new ways of fostering relationships that are healthy and generate authentic connections in new ministry.

Authenticity: Goal or Sign?

Authentic is a word I have heard and have used to describe church.  However, when you look up the definition you will find the definition to be very specific.  That is, something claiming to be authentic can be proven, such as what one would see on Antiques Roadshow, "this is an authentic 17th century vase" or" first printing" of whatever favorite comic book (or graphic novel, as you may prefer).  However, we use this word for humans and human institutions such as church, and it is far from specific or able to be demarcated. So how do we know if we are moving toward authenticity as a person of faith and especially as a community of faith?  I am not positive, yet when I have experienced it I have known it, such as when viewing art--you just know.

I believe that there are at least four signs that authenticity is close, which are the following:

Passion—is there enthusiasm, excitement, and optimism about the community?

Vision—can everyone concisely name what the community has and continue to discern what they are doing for God’s culture on earth as it is in heaven?

Mission—is the love discerned coming out as action and not simply good thoughts and feelings?  Are there actual goals of the vision being completed?

Laughter & Tears—are the people in this part of the Body of Christ able to laugh and cry together?

These signs are important to the church but they are not the legalistic definition of authenticity.  Probably the greatest sign you are on the right direction is if you are not worried about being authentic.

I remember during college going to the co-op coffee shop with two other great friends.  We would drink coffee and tea and read and write (paper and pen), two to three times a week.  We had no idea we were observed by anyone else, but one night a young person came up to our table and said something about us being cool, just being there visiting with friends and studying and discussing the topic of the evening.  We were shocked at this individual’s need to say something, yet we were not quite sure if it was sarcasm or truly a compliment. That night we spent about a second discerning why this person shared with us and left quickly.

That story reminds me that authenticity is not determined by those outside, and that coffee house table of comrades was truly being authentic and did not let an outside observation, be it positive or negative, affect our behavior.

To know if we are being authentic, we cannot make that a goal--it is truly a sign of a healthy community or person of faith.

Is authenticity the goal, or the sign we are following the Divine?

Church with No Forwarding Address

I have been called by Bellevue Christian Church to be their pastor and planter.  The latter is of course very new territory that has no physical address, and at this time, the possibilities are endless, making vision the first goal.  However, I am writing not about the plant but about the exciting existing congregation: Bellevue Christian Church.  I met this congregation in person a month after they sold their wonderful physical facilities. The building was too big and too expensive to maintain for this “graying” congregation.  The decision must have been difficult and gut-wrenching, but these heroes did just that.  This group of Christians did the unthinkable--they sold the building. Σπλαγχνίζομαι (Splanchnizomai) is the word that comes to my mind when I think of Bellevue Christian Church.  The root of this word it splangchna, “pity” or more literally “bowels.”  Specifically, it was used to refer to the organs removed in a blood sacrifice prior to the Christian context, when it started being used to refer to being moved to compassion from the gut.[i]  As I wrote above this decision was gut-wrenching, and their decision was based on self-care.

Splanchnizomai is the word Jesus uses for the hungry crowds (Matthew 15:32; Mark 8:2).  It is wonderful that Jesus refers to this feeling of pity coming up through his “guts.”  Thus it should be also when the Body of Christ (Church) should also feel and act.  To truly understand compassion it is important that the empathy is from the gut.  Even when you are part of the crowd and the Body of Christ, even when it’s about your local congregation, you need to search your gut for the way.

Bellevue acted on this compassion, and left their building.  They have funded some great things with the sale, but what is important is this congregation still exists.  They are currently visiting a local UCC congregation for Sunday morning worship, which may or may not be a new home, and may or may not be 50% more people to the congregation.

It may have felt like, and still is, a sacrifice for some of the members. It is also self-care.  They could have kept the church in the building, renting it out more, developing programs that would attract a family or two.  However, in their collective gut they knew what was compassionate.  And just as Jesus was moved to feed the thousands with limited resources, they opened up many resources for scholarships, multiple plants, regional ministries, and their own authenticity.

Their own authenticity is going to be their greatest gift to themselves, as well as part of their new vision.   Instead of worrying about the building or growing, we will be worrying about our spiritual practices, about each other, and we will grow.  However, I don’t know where.

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.

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.