Transformation

The Problem is the Answer

By J.C. Mitchell

I grew up in the Roman Catholic tradition, which for my family was more of an ethnic identifier than a faith community.  The church was there for special rituals in life, but it wasn’t until I lived in Ireland that I discovered a more intense relationship and thus I began my search for church in my adult years. 

I will never forget the great performances done by my peers in Connecticut through the Walter Shock School of Dance.  I had only participated in ballroom dancing, as everyone in my town of affluence did, but I simply enjoyed the larger theatric performances.  I can recall the time break dancers came to our school, and when we went to see a Soviet dance company share mostly traditional dances.  This started my love of dance that brought me to love ballet.

So both of these important parts of my life now were not part of my formative years.  Most people that love dance as an adult danced as a child, and constantly in the church I hear about youth church camp experiences and/or how one was raised in the church.  Neither of these is true for me, but that doesn’t make me any less of a fan, and the best fans are actually critics.  I think there is a unique perspective from those who discover church as an adult rather than those who have grown up with it. There is an outside appreciation that may be overlooked. The same may be said of fans of dance who were not dancers in their youth—there is something unique that draws them in.

Recently I was reading Jennifer Homans’ Appollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet, and when I read these words about ballet, I could not help but also think of the church:

Today’s artists [PASTORS]—their students and heirs—have been curiously unable to rise to the challenge of their legacy. They seem crushed and confused by its iconoclasm and grandeur, unable to build on its foundation yet unwilling to throw it off in favor of a vision of their own. Contemporary choreography [WORSHIP] veers aimlessly from unimaginative imitation to strident innovation—usually in the form of gymnastic or melodramatic excess, accentuated by overzealous lighting and special effects. This taste for unthinking athleticism and dense thickets of steps, for spectacle and sentiment, is not the final cry of a dying artistic era; it represents a collapse of confidence and a generation ill at ease with itself and uncertain of its relationship to the past.[i]

I read this over and over, and I could not help but change the word artists with pastors and choreography with worship.  And I must say this applies equally to ballet as it does to the church.

Is this a pure coincidence? 

 Is this a problem of post-modernity? 

Is this a problem of consumerism? 

Is it a problem at all? 

Honestly I think there is more hope for ballet, for it is an artistic form that can explore the divine and humanism equally with no dogma, while the church has found itself stuck in a battle of dogma rather than following the one that preached against organized religion: that Rabbi Jesus.  But maybe we can take the forms and discipline of church, as with ballet, to new and very different ways we cannot even imagine.

Perhaps we can remember in both dance and church, but more importantly in life, what George Balachine asks, “Why are you stingy with yourselves? Why are you holding back? What are you saving for—for another time? There are no other times. There is only now. Right now.”

 

 

 

 

 

[i]Homans, Jennifer (2010-11-02). Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet (Kindle Locations 10507-10512). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

 

Part Three: The Transformative Power of Compassion - Justice

Dr. Mark Poindexter

This is the last in a series of articles about the transformative power of compassion for congregations.  As many local churches struggle with aging membership and declining resources, there is a plethora of strategies and programs that are offered to “turn things around.”  I have been involved in many conversations, both formal and informal, concerning this matter.  Somewhere along the way, it became clear to me that any faithful congregational revitalization/transformation effort needed to be rooted in compassion. 

I define compassion as the capacity to identify with the needs of others and then to work toward the meeting of those needs.  I proposed that compassion has three aspects. There is sympathy which involves the ministry of presence and is a key element in the building of community.  Sympathy is at the heart of the mutually supportive care we are called to provide to one another in the body of Christ. There is also charity which involves our response to the immediate needs of people who, for whatever reason, are not able to meet those needs on their own.  The third sphere of compassion is justice.  This is the sphere in which our work is to try and ensure that all people have equal access to the bounty of God’s creation.  Justice is the work that is rooted in our belief that all people are created in the divine image and are of equal worth.  Justice is that aspect of compassion which calls us to work toward the world that so many of us pray for each week, where the ways of God are known upon earth as they are in heaven.      

The pursuit of justice calls for the followers of Christ to be engaged in such matters as fair housing, health care, the epidemic of violence that has taken place in our culture, issues surrounding immigration and refugees, treatment of prisoners, education for our children, etc.  Justice is that which calls us to be involved in the struggle for human worth and dignity.  This is the area of compassion that some folks want to avoid, because it has political implications. Of course, not being engaged in matters of justice has political implications too.  I don’t believe that the gospel calls us to be anything less than involved when it comes to the matter of human rights.  That struggle affirms the oldest of the truths we claim, that all people are made in God’s image and are worthy of the respect that is due to someone of such divine heritage. 

Many years ago, Jerry Falwell said that “Preachers are called not to be politicians, but soul winners.”  That came at the end of an interview in which he said the Supreme Court erred in its 1954 decision to desegregate public schools (Brown v. Board of Education).  He said the facilities should be separate and that “where God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross it” (“The Nation,” May 2007). History could not have proven him to be more wrong. The struggle for civil rights was the very kind of struggle the church should have been engaged in. Thanks be, that a portion of the church understood that.  Wherever and whenever there is an instance concerning human dignity and worth the body of Christ has an appropriate place and should have a clear voice.  Not every congregation is called to battle in every arena of justice.  I don’t think any church could have that much energy.  But I feel certain every congregation can have a certain voice about human value and worth and a specific place where it can give the energy and talent it does have.

Finally, though I believe compassion as defined the last three weeks – sympathy, charity and justice – is at the heart of any faithful effort at church transformation.  It is, for me, not ultimately a strategy for transformation.  It is the path of faithfulness to Christ.  The ministry of our Lord Jesus was rooted firmly in compassion.  The incarnation expresses God’s sympathetic and caring presence with us.  God didn’t just create us and leave us be, God in Jesus came and walked among us sharing in all that is human – our life and our death.  Jesus’ compassion was expressed in many acts of charity, providing healing and restoration for those whose situation in life pushed them to the edges and reduced them to begging.  And Jesus stood firmly in the role of a Hebrew prophet questioning the “powers that be” and “the rules that were” which continued to divide people into the have and have not’s, the included and the excluded.  This is why compassion is at the heart of transformation/revitalization, because it’s about following Jesus.  And a congregation that is faithful to its Lord is a vital church no matter how many people are in the pews.   

Seth Godin, Resilience and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

By Julie Richardson Brown

I don’t remember when I first stumbled upon Seth Godin’s blog. I do know that for some time I’d heard his name, knew his work (most notably Tribes) and had sloughed him off as just another babbling voice claiming to have The Answer to any company’s, entrepreneur’s or organizational leader’s cry of “What do we do now?”

I’ve read about moving cheese and making it stick and where the tipping point is and...blah, blah, blah. And while all sorts of writers have made all sorts of claims on what it means to be a leader, what it means to be a brave visionary, what it means to navigate new ideas and be a successful “change agent,” I’ve yet to see more than a handful of those in church leadership positions (lay, ordained, or otherwise; local church, various judicatory levels, or otherwise) use these secular world notions applied to church in a way that makes much sense or effects transformation. So it all just winds up being an impressive bookshelf lineup.

Until now. I really believe that Mr. Godin’s got stuff to say that matters--just about every day. And I’ve considered starting an online clergy discussion group to discuss his writing and his work in terms of, “What might this have to say to us, Church?”

And then the post on Seth’s Blog for this morning, Friday, April 26th, popped up in my inbox andJesusJosephMaryPatrickandALLtheSaints! I thought, “This is briliant! And my church that I love (and daily struggle with) so needs to hear this!”

It’s about resilience, people (“the ability to shift and respond to change/the ability to survive and thrive in the face of change” as Godin defines it). I call resilience what it means to hold on, rise above, move forward and emerge transformed in the midst of the most rapidly changing social, religious and technological landscape that the world (and, by inclusion, the Church) has ever known.

As the CC (DOC) continues to ride the rough waters of said landscape, with declining budgets, theological disagreement and a general and pervasive fear of “What’s next and how will we get there?” as massive boulders along the way, it seems like maybe this--resilience--is something we might do well to think about in new ways.

Lucky us. Seth did it for us.

The choice, he writes, is “build something perfect for today, or build something that lasts,” because, “perfect today no longer means perfect forever.” And then he offers four approaches to resilience. I’ll let you read about them in full if you choose to do so here, but what I want to focus on is the first two of the approaches, “Don’t Need It” and “Invest in a Network.”

Godin ranks these as the two braver approaches--in churchy language we might say “the two more prophetic approaches.”

We don’t need--any more--enormous buildings, top-heavy structures/leadership or processes of being that, far too often, aren’t much more than a series of hoops to jump through. We don’t need an “in crowd” (Disciples Royalty, as some of us snarkier ones say), and we don’t need General Assemblies that are barely--if at all--affordable for the vast majority of our churches and membership (and so, by default, a good number of voices get left out).

What we need is space for grace to happen. What we need is a true inclusion of all people, all gifts and all theological viewpoints. What we need is open and honest and non-gatekeeping accountability in our education, commissioning, ordination and Search and Call processes. What we need is a willingness to let go of job titles that no longer make sense and funding streams we all fight over and territories (geographical, theological and philosophical) that we try desperately to protect.

I realize that I’m using broad strokes here, and I know that behind what I write are real people and real lives and real jobs at stake. Believe me, I get it. But we cannot hold on to and hide behind a crumbling way of being (no matter how good it once was) in hopes that we’ll get it stabilized enough to stay there--when what we ought to be doing is clearing the rubble so that something new can be built.

And we ought to be doing this building together, or, as Godin would say, “investing in networks” as we do. “When your neighbor can lend you what you need, it's far easier to survive losing what you've got,” he posits (and correctly).

Somewhere along the way we People of the Chalice have forgotten what it means to live this life and faith together. The result is a lack of institutional trust, policies that force diversity (often, in my opinion, falsely) as opposed to honestly loving, respecting and welcoming one another, and competition for what little money exists, or, worse, a lack of understanding about why the Disciples Mission Fund really does matter (even if how it is collected and dispersed might need a little work).

It’s one of the very worst byproducts of fear of change--a desperate effort to cling to our own corner of the world so that we can maintain some pale sense of security.

The stories of our faith teach us differently. Ruth and Esther did not become heroes of our faith because they did a great job maintaining the status quo. And not a single one of us, I’d wager, would, today, lift up King David as a model of spiritual leadership. But God used him. And most of our churches would just as soon judge a pregnant teenager as we would think that maybe she might be carrying the Son of God. And rarely do we follow Jesus well enough to live out of a sense of abundance (you know...more than enough loaves and fishes), because too often we’re bemoaning scarcity.

My friends and colleagues, we can do better. And please know, I do not pretend to have all the answers, but there is not a single issue I have named here that I am not willing to work with others on towards solutions. One of the worst traits of church people is a tendency to name all that’s wrong and yet not be willing to be part of effecting change. So let’s not even go there.

Let’s be prophetic. Brave. Let’s take a page from the playbooks of our ancestors in the faith, even if it means wandering in the desert for a while, so that we can find a new Canaan and there settle, at least for a while, giving thanks as we do for the God who got us this far in the first place.

A God who, in fact, has given us all that way we need to enter into a new way of being.

May we be resilient enough to trust that same God to walk with us, among us, and through us all along the way.

Read Julie regularly at www.julierichardsonbrown.net

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)

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.

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.

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.

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.

RECLAIMING EASTER

Easter is about resurrection and transformation - today. Easter is not about the torture and execution and resurrection of Jesus. Easter is not about an event that happened one time to one person a long time ago. Easter is not about an 11th-century feudal theology .....of "penal substitution" or "substitutionary sacrifice." Easter is not about a 4th-century theology of "original sin." Easter is not about a sadistic abusive murderous blood-thirsty God. Easter is not about a narcissistic mercenary God .....whose love and grace are so shallow and tenuous and inadequate .....that the favor or forgiveness of God can only be earned or purchased. Easter is not about useless promises of an eternal post-mortal utopian etherial existence. Easter is not about using the sharing the Good News as a form of conquest. Easter is not about hate.

Easter is about the life and message and path of Jesus. Easter is about us living the life and message and path of Jesus. Easter is about the resurrection of the disciples - all of us who follow Jesus. Easter is about disciples living and being - here and now - the Kingdom of God. Easter is about disciples working together as the living body of Christ. Easter is about the Good News.

What difference would it make if an ossuary was found that undeniably contained the bones of Jesus?

To the message of Jesus – that God is personal and present and immediate and available and is characterized by love and grace, whose passion for us is to provide justice and compassion and generosity and hospitality and service, and who invites us and welcomes us and includes us and embraces us without exception or conditions – that message would not in any way be changed or diminished.

Something happened on Easter morning. Until that morning, the disciples still saw the message of Jesus as an unassembled upside-down puzzle with no idea as to what image would be revealed by the completed puzzle.

What happened on Easter was a transformative epiphany. The women had it first - a profound comprehensive epiphany. It was the best of epiphanies. When the women shared their insight with the others, the others had the same epiphany, the same transformation.

It was as if every piece of the puzzle had been turned upside-right and sufficiently assembled that the picture could be easily discerned. After all the questions that had only received Jesus’ annoying and unsatisfying answers and after repeatedly hearing the puzzling parables and confounding aphorisms of Jesus, compounded by the grief and depression and repressive fear of the preceding weekend, the impact of this epiphany had to have been earth shaking. It was such a powerful experience that it felt like an earthquake strong enough to roll away massive tombstones. It was so revealing, it was as if the curtain covering the Holy of Holies had been ripped asunder and the presence of God could be plainly seen by anyone who had the courage to look. It was so personal that it was as if Jesus was alive - speaking to them and sharing meals with them - a tangible presence. The life and message and path of Jesus did not die on the cross. The life and message and path of Jesus lives like a fire that hovers over us and smolders within us and breathes as powerfully and disturbingly as a noisy rampaging wind storm. The life and message and path of Jesus can be heard by anyone at any time and regardless of where they were born or what language they speak.

In those first few years, this same epiphany happened to Paul and hundreds of others. Repeatedly, it was such a powerful experience that people were transformed. The isolation and desperation and fatalism of day-to-day living in an oppressive empire supported and legitimized by imperial dominionist theology was replaced by the dual realization that the character of the one true God is: .....* unrestrained love and unconditional grace - .....* always present and immediately available to anyone anywhere anytime, and .....* that life does not require participation in the empire - .....* not its political activities, not its cultural domination practices, .....* not its imperial civic theology, not its military conquests, and .....* not its greedy and isolating economics.

This same profound epiphany, this same earth-shaking resurrection, this same life-as-if-from-death transformation is still happening today.

The Good News has 3 inseparable messages: 1) The universal accessibility of the personal and persistent 1) unrestrained love and unconditional grace of God; and 2) The feeding quenching clothing healing visiting welcoming compassion and 2) the reparative rehabilitating restorative justice of the Community; and 3) The inclusive hospitality and joyous generosity and healthy service of the Individual ............................................................RECLAIMING CHURCH - REDUX

This is resurrection and transformation! This is the Good News! This is Easter! Alleluia!

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.

Pacifying the Inevitable Resurrection

Change is inevitable, or so it has been said.  There are many types of changes, and preparation for change is also inevitable.  The classic metaphor of preparation of change is the nursery for one’s first child.  As we prepared our son’s first room, we researched what we may expect and need.  Once A.J. moved into his nursery we were prepared for the change, or as prepared as any parents could be for such a huge change. Parenting has many changes, and some are easier than others, and sometimes there are changes that you do not expect.  I recall Mindi, my wife, did not want to use a pacifier, however on the second day of A.J.’s life I was sent out to find what will become known as his “binky.”  The first two years A.J. seemed to always have his binky.

We discussed different methods of getting him parted from his binky.  Originally it was based around reasoning with him, such as giving all his binkies to a younger baby who needed them or perhaps a little trickery that included the “binky fairy.”  However, A.J. to this day still does not communicate (part of his autism) on the level one would need for either of those plans to have a chance to work.  We got him into a Headstart program starting shortly after he turned three, and while we had at least weaned him to only have the binky when he slept or napped, he would not be allowed to have one for nap time at the center.  He would rarely fall asleep without the pacifier in place.

We dreaded taking the binky from him, but if we wanted him to nap at Headstart he was going to have to learn to sleep without it. Not to mention we knew he was sometimes going to “nap” just to have the binky time, but not sleep.  We considered just not giving it to him, cold turkey, but how could we explain why since he does not communicate?  My wife found a great idea-- she was going to cut off the nub and hand him the binky and say it was broken.  So that was the plan.  We kept putting it off, for we liked him sleeping at night and an occasional nap.  We were terrified and convinced he would not sleep well, and thus keep us up.  Since we felt we knew what this change would entail, we even picked a week where it seemed less of a burden.

So we even threw out all binkies, save the one Mindi cut the bulb off, no turning back.  She handed him the broken binky at bed time as she usually would, saying, “Mama broke it.”  He looked at it and laughed and laughed.  He held it and fell asleep almost as quickly as normal.  The next night he laughed as well.  By the end of the week he wasn’t even looking for the binky.

We delayed this process for fear of what we knew certainly would happen.  Honestly, we can often predict our son’s behavior, and it is smart to be prepared, hence the diaper bag filled not only with pull-ups, but snacks, books, straws, crayons, coloring pages, and of course wipes for any sort of mess.

During the Transfiguration, Peter came up the mountain saw the great event and assumed making booths to contain and hold this event was the answer.  This assumption came out of fear, as it says in the scripture, and I believe this not only refers to this specific moment on the mountain, but the inevitable resurrection.  Jesus even tells them to hold onto this sign and God’s command to listen to Him, after He had been raised from the dead.

We know what Peter witnessed, that the tomb was empty and the change was not the change we were terrified of—death—it was resurrection.  To contain the church of the good ol’ days, to believe we know the Bible, to worry about change we are terrified of actually doing, having programs without vision--this is how we try to put Jesus in a booth.  We need to share the empty tomb, the great change, the laughter over death, the Resurrection!!!

Overworked, Underpaid, and Inadequately Advocating

Last week I wrote about clergy student loan debt and how for many congregations, they cannot afford to pay an adequate compensation that allows for both the high cost of living in some communities and the ability to pay back student loans.  This week, I’m going beyond compensation and into benefits.  But more specifically, I’m going to write about clergy self-care, as it is at the crux of this ongoing discussion.

If you are rolling your eyes at the topic of clergy self-care, I am guessing that you have read and heard enough about the topic and already practice good clergy self-care so these kind of discussions are just repetitions of what you already know.  You already practice good boundaries, stick to your days off, don’t answer the phone when you are not in the office and it’s not an emergency, take all your vacation and personal days, use all of your study days and go on retreats and spend enough time with your family and get enough sleep and eat right and exercise and have no stress-related illnesses or conditions.

Or, you are like many others, who think “yeah right” because there is no way you can work less than 70 hours a week, what the heck is a day off, and you can’t remember the last time you exercised or took a vacation in which you did not also work on a sermon or do your reading while visiting your parents.  Prayer time is what happens during worship on Sunday morning, and devotional reading is what happens when you are preparing for worship or Bible study.

But maybe I’m presumptuous and you aren’t rolling your eyes, but saying, “Yes, I hear you, but how can I get my church to hear you?”

One of the reasons I am writing about this now is that I have been thinking of my grandfather this week.  He passed away almost seventeen years ago at the age of sixty-seven.  He was a “retired” American Baptist minister who had to take early retirement due to complications of diabetes, but then worked as a pastor after his retirement part-time.  He died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but we all know that he worked himself to an early grave.  In the early years of his ministry he served two, sometimes three churches in a United Methodist circuit.  He worked part-time jobs at times along with pastoring churches to help make ends meet.  He did manage to take family vacations and some days off, but my mother remembers him getting up at 4 or 5AM on Sunday mornings to write his sermon because he didn’t get to it earlier in the week.

I love my grandfather and still look up to him in a lot of ways.  But I don’t want to be like him in my daily life.  I know a number of pastors who live unhealthy and hurried lives because they are trying to serve everyone at all times.

Getting back to benefits, clergy need to be better advocates for both salary and benefits.  We need to advocate for better healthcare (as a side note, I have never been offered a plan by a denominational or regional body that fully covers maternity care—I had to go find my own plan, but that’s a topic for the next article) for both ourselves and our family.  We need to advocate for full vacation time, at least four weeks a year.  We need to advocate for study time so we are not reading the latest theological and Biblical scholarship after we lie our head down at 10PM at night.  We need to advocate for retreat time, time for prayer and devotional reading as well as worship.  We also need to be our own advocates for our days off.  If we don’t take them, just like our vacation time, our churches may never notice.

And after you advocate for your benefits, use them!  Take your days off and your vacations. Spend time with your family and your friends (I know a lot of clergy who have no friends outside of the church or other clergy, because they don’t have the time to make friends).  Use your health benefits and schedule yearly physicals—don’t put off regular checkups.  Go on retreats, attend other church services rather than your own, and find time to pray.  Take time during the day to walk—even if its fifteen minutes—and use it to pray and get your exercise in.

Most importantly, though, we need to be our own advocates.  We need to advocate for each other as clergy and congregational leaders as well.  Otherwise, all too often, churches won’t notice that you haven’t taken a day off in months or that you didn’t take a vacation last summer or attend a retreat.  But they will notice a tired, short-tempered pastor.  But it all begins with you.  You have to make it, take it, and advocate for it.  And we clergy and church leaders need to work better together in advocating for our compensation and benefits—and then use them.

RECLAIMING CHURCH - REDUX

(Blue Text is an internet link)

(The first version of RECLAIMING CHURCH was published June 3, 2010) (It was the first [D]mergent article by Doug Sloan)

(all scripture references are NRSV)

Have you seen or used the following sermon illustration?

Firmly, I place my hand on the wall of the sanctuary. Loudly, I proclaim, ......"This is not the church!" ......"The building is not the church." ......"It is the people who are the church." ......"Amen."

Do we have any idea what was really just said?

Do we have any idea what it really means?

If the building is not the church, then why do we spend so much time and effort dealing with this physical structure? If the building is not the church, then why is the building so important to us? After our hand-on-the-wall proclamation, have we ever taken a far look in the direction we just pointed? What happens when we extend that thought even further?

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, ......where moth and rust consume and ......where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, ......where neither moth nor rust consumes and ......where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, ......there your heart will be also. ........................Matthew 6:19-21

No one can serve two masters; ......for a slave will either ......hate the one and love the other, or ......be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. ........................Matthew 6:24

As he was setting out on a journey, ......a man ran up and knelt before him, ......and asked him, ............Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

Jesus said to him, ......Why do you call me good? ......No one is good but God alone. ......You know the commandments: ............You shall not murder; ............You shall not commit adultery; ............You shall not steal; ............You shall not bear false witness; ............You shall not defraud; ............Honor your father and mother.

He said to him, ......Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ......You lack one thing; ............go, sell what you own, and ............give the money to the poor, and ............you will have treasure in heaven; ............then come, follow me.

When he heard this, ......he was shocked and went away grieving, ......for he had many possessions. ........................Mark 10:17-22 ........................Matthew 19:16-22 ........................Luke 18:18-23

What do capital campaigns and 6- or 7- or 8-digit mortgages (or any mortgage amount) and sanctuaries with high vaulted ceilings and proper acoustic resonance and stained glass windows and basketball courts and dining halls and fully equipped kitchens and sculpted altars and carved pulpits and custom-built communion tables and decorative carpet and imported floor tiles and comfortable color-coordinated congregational seating and vast paved parking lots and meticulously manicured lawns and lavish landscaping have to do with living and sharing the Good News? – Nothing.

What do multiple annual fund-raisers and all the accompanying effort and bother and stress and time and finding workers and managing schedules and obtaining gaming licenses and liquor permits and additional liability insurance have to do with living and sharing the Good News? – Nothing.

What do praise bands and church orchestras and bell choirs and octaves of tuned bells and multi-rank pipe organs and grand pianos and synthesizers and drum sets and adult choirs and children choirs and choir auditions and choir robes and music folders and the search and review and selection analysis and purchase of new music and multi-line PA systems and multi-screen video systems and live broadcasts and recorded broadcasts and hours of rehearsal time and church bulletins and church bulletin art work and church bulletin paper and designer fonts and newsletters and mailing lists and advertising and advertising placement and multi-media web sites and visits by unique IP addresses and the use of and the presence on new media and follow-spots and theatrical lighting and entertainment values and spectacular presentations have to do with living and sharing the Good News? – Nothing.

What do membership drives and attendance numbers and baptism numbers and tithing pledge totals and expected bequests and sustaining endowments and liturgical employees and non-liturgical employees and salaries and benefits and committees and committee meetings and committee responsibilities and church boards and church board agendas and church board votes and the consequential and unavoidable church politics have to do with living and sharing the Good News? – Nothing.

Much of what we call successful church and successful worship and being a successful congregation has nothing to do with living and sharing the Good News.

Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and ......began to drive out those who were selling and ......those who were buying in the temple, and ......he overturned the tables of the money-changers and ......the seats of those who sold doves; and ......he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.

He was teaching and saying, ......Is it not written, ............My house shall be called ............a house of prayer for all the nations? ......But you have made it a den of robbers. ........................Mark 11:15-17 ........................Matthew 21:12-13 ........................Luke 19:45-46

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and ......the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, ......he drove all of them out of the temple, ......both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and ......overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ......Take these things out of here! ......Stop making my Father’s house a market-place! ........................John 2:13-16

Once we begin to think of our faith in terms of largeness instead of largess; once we begin to think of our faith in terms of measurable success or significant achievements or community stature or statistically significant gains or business models or congregational models or appropriate budget processes or cash flow direction or generally accepted accounting practices or independent audits or administrative requirements or procedural transparency or proper leadership roles or managerial responsibilities and boundaries or membership trends or effective organizational structures or current and accurate and relevant identity/purpose/vision/mission statements or strategic and tactical plans or valid and useful performance metrics – at that point, we have become money changers and temple authorities, we have deformed from a community into an industry that requires exclusionary individualism. At that point, we have lost our faith and our spiritual direction and we have wandered off the narrow path. At that point, we are colluding with and siding with the Empire instead of the Kingdom of God and we deserve to be rebelled against and driven away for we are neither living nor sharing the Good News. We have become that which the Good News opposes and seeks to replace.

But if it is by grace, ......it is no longer on the basis of works, ......otherwise grace would no longer be grace. ........................Romans 11:6

Yet we know that a person is justified ......not by the works of the law ......but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, ......so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, ......and not by doing the works of the law, ......because no one will be justified by the works of the law. ........................Galatians 2:16

But God, ......who is rich in compassion, ......out of the great love with which he loved us ......even when we were dead through our trespasses, ......made us alive together with Christ – ......by grace you have been saved – ......and raised us up with him ......and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, ......so that in the ages to come he might show ......the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness ......toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, ......and this is not your own doing; ......it is the gift of God – ......not the result of works, ......so that no one may boast. ........................Ephesians 2:4-9

Just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t ever assume that my using something means I caused it or that I needed it to accomplish my purposes. That will only lead you to false notions about me. Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors. ........................The Shack”, William P. Young, pp. 188-189

The Good News has 3 inseparable messages: 1) The universal accessibility of 1)..the personal and persistent unrestrained love and unconditional grace of God; and 2) The feeding quenching clothing healing visiting welcoming compassion and 2)..the reparative rehabilitating restorative justice of the Community; and 3) The inclusive hospitality and joyous generosity and healthy service of the Individual.

By living the Good News: We promote and provoke the unrestrained love and unconditional grace of God. We search for and find the .....hungry .....thirsty .....naked .....ill and hurting .....lost .....oppressed and enslaved .....excluded .....imprisoned and, both immediately and permanently, they are .....fed .....quenched .....clothed .....healed .....found and rescued and restored to participatory liberty .....freed .....invited and welcomed and included .....provided justice with a life repaired through rehabilitation and restoration ..........and, it is critically important that this is always included, .....all who are served are treated as members of the Community. We define ourselves as Individuals with .....inclusive hospitality .....joyous generosity .....healthy service to others "healthy service" means we understand and engage in .....healthy rest .....healthy nourishment .....healthy education .....healthy solitude .....healthy worship .....healthy relationship with those we serve ..........which does not include suffering or participating in or enabling ...............war ...............murder ...............abuse of others ...............self-destructive behavior ...............enslavement ...............the satisfaction of useless whimsical requests. In this way, we choose, join, become, live, share, and exude the Kingdom of God here and now.

What would happen if church universal assets – every congregational and regional and national property, every seminary, every camp – was sold and the net proceeds were consolidated with church investments and church cash to establish a trust fund endowment to support the services we provide to those whom we are called to serve?

When you want a new status quo – a new status quo so different that the current status quo will be relabeled as "old" – you are asking for revolution. When you desire radical counter-cultural transformation – you are asking for revolution. When you want to end the oppressive Empire ethos of piety, war, victory, peace - you are asking for the Empire to be dismantled and replaced with the Good News, you are asking for revolution. When the church is consumed and possessed by mortgages, capital campaigns, membership numbers, qualifications for membership or deacon or elder, the variety and format of financial reports, redecorating, ordination policies, the proper delineation of committee responsibilities, the aggregation and strengthening and protection of church hierarchical authority, the preference for political associations and prominence instead of being a voice and influence for justice and compassion, seasonal vestment colors, the abandonment and refusal to acknowledge congregations who dare to be excited by their proclaiming and provoking and living and sharing the Good News, the continual choosing and preoccupation with better organization over better outreach, or what styles of worship are to be offered – then it is time for an earth-shaking, stone-rolling, curtain ripping, hurricane-strength, fiery and noisy transformational revolution that will resurrect the Good News in the body and spirit of communities and individuals.

"Doing" has to be the new sole definition of faith. A "new definition of faith" will not be statements of identity/purpose/mission/vision or offering a variety of worship styles at various times and days or hosting church fund raisers that have achieved the status of popular civic events. "Doing" our faith will not promote isolation from people in need or from the present time or from planetary stewardship by valuing hope for an escape into a future post-mortal existence instead of being the response to the divine call to be justly and compassionately involved in the present reality of life. "Doing" our faith will not be glossy advertising campaigns; bigger capital campaigns; better communication and contacts between congregations and local, regional, and national governing boards; on-line seminaries and colleges; common language licensing/ordination policies; new carpet; or more affordable baptistery maintenance contracts. It will be specific activities; specific ways of gracious and grace-full living that are the new definition. Participating in CODA or LifeLine or Habitat for Humanity or Meals on Wheels or the Mental Health Association will not be an outreach activity; it will be what we do and it will be definitive of who we are. Supporting a free health clinic or a food pantry or a shelter for the homeless or hosting a community garden will not be the focus of an annual fund-raising event; it will be part of our continuously active and visible theological and spiritual DNA. Taking a publicly visible and vocal stance of opposition against and non-participation in institutional or legislated injustice will not be an exceptional or cautious action; it will be a bold and expected response arising from a communal personality that yearns for and demands justice and compassion from all public institutions. Worship will be whenever and wherever 2 or 3 (not 200 or 300, not 2,000 or 3,000, not 20,000 or 30,000) are gathered to live, study, and contemplate the Good News - and it will be no less true and no less sacred because there are only 2 or 3 - and it will be no more true and no more sacred because there are more than 2 or 3. Indeed, "doing" will be about living and being the Good News. Worship can be and should be less of a scheduled repetitive activity and more of a community gathering to share and become better acquainted with the presence of God and to mutually seek a better understanding of the Good News.

"Doing" our faith has to be seen as a radical, counter-cultural, defiant, fearless way of living. Our faith is not to be institutionalized. Our faith is not to be measured by or expressed as largeness, cultural pervasiveness, political influence, authoritarianism, or a social or managerial hierarchy. Our faith is not to treat people with: conditional inclusion, tolerance, shame, scorn, ridicule, shunning, rejection, exclusion, or condemnation. Our faith is not to hate people. Our faith is not to ignore people or God. Instead, our faith is to value the presence of God and to value all people and to value God and people together as one community or, better yet, as one family. Our faith is to value knowledge over ignorance and value compassion over knowledge. The way we embrace and treasure and grow our faith is personal and intelligent and loving and divine. The way we "do" our faith is to be personally and intelligently and lovingly and divinely humane. Our faith is to be constantly centered in the love and grace that is the persistent presence of God. The ancient writings of our ancient faith ancestors are to be regarded as human expressions arising out of human experiences with the divine and the profane and the ordinary. Those ancient writings are to be neither considered worthless and ignored nor considered controlling and obligatory. Those ancient writings can be considered instructive and inspirational; providing examples of living either to emulate faithfully or to avoid strenuously; a foundational starting point upon which we build, reach out, move on, and grow beyond the original ancient understanding. Our faithful "doing" is to be rendered and delivered person-to-person, face-to-face, one-to-one – not by an invisible faceless remote committees or collectives. “Doing” our faith can be accomplished only with more personal involvement and presence and not with more communication technology that is newer, faster, more pervasive, more invasive, environmentally expensive, and is used to increase personal remoteness and detachment and decrease personal involvement and presence.

As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; ......and he had compassion for them, ......because they were like sheep without a shepherd; ......and he began to teach them many things. When it grew late, ......his disciples came to him and said, ............This is a deserted place, ............and the hour is now very late; ............send them away so that they may go ............into the surrounding country and villages ............and buy something for themselves to eat.

But he answered them, ......You give them something to eat.

They said to him, ......Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, ............and give it to them to eat?

And he said to them, ......How many loaves have you? ......Go and see.

When they had found out, they said, ......Five, and two fish.

Then he ordered them to get all the people ......to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, ......he looked up to heaven, ......and blessed and broke the loaves, ......and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; ......and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled; ......and they took up twelve baskets ......full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men. ........................Mark 6:34-44 ........................Matthew 14:14-21 ........................Luke 9:12-17 ........................John 6:4-13

In those days ......when there was again a great crowd without anything to eat, ......he called his disciples and said to them, ...........I have compassion for the crowd, .................because they have been with me now for three days .................and have nothing to eat. ...........If I send them away hungry to their homes, .................they will faint on the way— .................and some of them have come from a great distance.

His disciples replied, ......How can one feed these people with bread ............here in the desert?

He asked them, ......How many loaves do you have?

They said, ......Seven.

Then he ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground; ......and he took the seven loaves, ......and after giving thanks ......he broke them ......and gave them to his disciples to distribute; ......and they distributed them to the crowd. They had also a few small fish; ......and after blessing them, ......he ordered that these too should be distributed. They ate and were filled; ......and they took up the broken pieces left over, ......seven baskets full. Now there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away. ........................Mark 8:1-9 ........................Matthew 15:32-39

They devoted themselves ......to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, ......to the breaking of bread and the prayers. All who believed were together and had all things in common; ......they would sell their possessions and goods and ......distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, ......they broke bread at home and ......ate their food with glad and generous hearts, ......praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. ........................Acts 2:42, 44-47

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 4:32-36

This way of living as a community of mutual sufficiency and support did not originate with the early church. It was a very old idea - first described in the written Torah.

There shall be one law for the native and for the alien who resides among you. ........................Exodus 12:49

You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; ........................Exodus 22:21-23

If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate. ........................Exodus 22:25-27

You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with the wicked to act as a malicious witness. You shall not follow a majority in wrongdoing; when you bear witness in a lawsuit, you shall not side with the majority so as to pervert justice; nor shall you be partial to the poor in a lawsuit. When you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray, you shall bring it back. When you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden and you would hold back from setting it free, you must help to set it free. You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in their lawsuits. Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and those in the right, for I will not acquit the guilty. You shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the officials, and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard. ........................Exodus 23:1-11

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God. You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord. You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord. You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. ........................Leviticus 19:9-18

The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants. Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land. If anyone of your kin falls into difficulty and sells a piece of property, then the next of kin shall come and redeem what the relative has sold. If the person has no one to redeem it, but then prospers and finds sufficient means to do so, the years since its sale shall be computed and the difference shall be refunded to the person to whom it was sold, and the property shall be returned. But if there is not sufficient means to recover it, what was sold shall remain with the purchaser until the year of jubilee; in the jubilee it shall be released, and the property shall be returned. If anyone sells a dwelling house in a walled city, it may be redeemed until a year has elapsed since its sale; the right of redemption shall be one year. If it is not redeemed before a full year has elapsed, a house that is in a walled city shall pass in perpetuity to the purchaser, throughout the generations; it shall not be released in the jubilee. But houses in villages that have no walls around them shall be classed as open country; they may be redeemed, and they shall be released in the jubilee. As for the cities of the Levites, the Levites shall forever have the right of redemption of the houses in the cities belonging to them. Such property as may be redeemed from the Levites—houses sold in a city belonging to them—shall be released in the jubilee; because the houses in the cities of the Levites are their possession among the people of Israel. But the open land around their cities may not be sold; for that is their possession for all time. If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support them; they shall live with you as though resident aliens. Do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from them, but fear your God; let them live with you. You shall not lend them your money at interest taken in advance, or provide them food at a profit. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God. ........................Leviticus 25:23-38

Speak to the Israelites, and say to them: When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, so that a slayer who kills a person without intent may flee there. The cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger, so that the slayer may not die until there is a trial before the congregation. The cities that you designate shall be six cities of refuge for you: you shall designate three cities beyond the Jordan, and three cities in the land of Canaan, to be cities of refuge. These six cities shall serve as refuge for the Israelites, for the resident or transient alien among them, so that anyone who kills a person without intent may flee there. ........................Numbers 35:10-15

“I charged your judges at that time: “Give the members of your community a fair hearing, and judge rightly between one person and another, whether citizen or resident alien. You must not be partial in judging: hear out the small and the great alike; you shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s. Any case that is too hard for you, bring to me, and I will hear it.” ........................Deuteronomy 1:16-17

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. ........................Deuteronomy 10:17-19

As for the Levites resident in your towns, do not neglect them, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you. Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake. Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts. And this is the manner of the remission: every creditor shall remit the claim that is held against a neighbor, not exacting it of a neighbor who is a member of the community, because the Lord’s remission has been proclaimed. Of a foreigner you may exact it, but you must remit your claim on whatever any member of your community owes you. There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy, if only you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today. When the Lord your God has blessed you, as he promised you, you will lend to many nations, but you will not borrow; you will rule over many nations, but they will not rule over you. If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” ........................Deuteronomy 14:27-29, 15:1-11

If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” ........................Deuteronomy 15:7-11

You shall appoint judges and officials throughout your tribes, in all your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall render just decisions for the people. You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you. ........................Deuteronomy 16:18-20

When you make your neighbor a loan of any kind, you shall not go into the house to take the pledge. You shall wait outside, while the person to whom you are making the loan brings the pledge out to you. If the person is poor, you shall not sleep in the garment given you as the pledge. You shall give the pledge back by sunset, so that your neighbor may sleep in the cloak and bless you; and it will be to your credit before the Lord your God. You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their parents; only for their own crimes may persons be put to death. You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this. When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this. ........................Deuteronomy 24:10-22

These are only some of the verses from the written Torah that are concerned with and advocate and demand and require inclusion, justice, forgiveness, and compassion. These are not the only verses – the entire scriptural collection, the Jewish Bible and the Christian Testament, repeatedly speaks of the same concerns, avocations, demands, and requirements. In this light, the scriptures are constantly calling us forward to a better and enlarging and more inclusive and maturing understanding of the will of God for us and for this world. God is always calling us from Exodus to the Promised Land. God is always calling us from Exile to return home.

The “will of God” – what God wants for us – is for us to: ......Be Free and Independent ......Think ......Be Curious ......Be Intelligent and Wise ......Value Knowledge over Ignorance and Compassion over Knowledge ......Be Creative ......Grow and Mature ......Live Long Healthy Satisfying Lives ......Live Non-Violently Without Vengeance ......Be Hospitable ......Be Generous ......Do No Harm ......Provide Justice as Healing and Rehabilitation and Restoration ......Be Forgiving ......Promote and Provide and Protect Reconciliation ......Be Good Stewards of all Resources ......Live Here as One Family ......Live in Loving Relationship with Grace-full God ......Be Transformed through Resurrection ......Be the Kingdom of God here and now

So how do we reclaim the Good News as the sole purpose for church? How do we reclaim the church for and as the Good News? How do we reclaim the church as a community and not as a scheduled activity with secondary social consequences? How do we reclaim the church as a community and not as an Empire organization based on and filled with hubris, sloth, and idolatry? How do we reclaim church as a place where people expect to grow and thrive emotionally, intellectually, theologically, and spiritually? How do we reclaim church as a community with a culture of love, grace, justice, compassion, affirmation, and encouragement for each individual?

There was a time when our choir, after singing the anthem, would leave their seats at the front of the sanctuary, move out into the congregation to be with their family, remove their full-length choir vestments, and sit down. A common tongue-in-cheek observation was that we were the only church in town (county? state?) where you could go to a worship service and watch people disrobe in public.

One way that the church can reclaim the Good News is to strip down to the bare necessities (deliberate song cue) - to start again with only God, Community, and Individuals. Remove burdensome structure - both administrative and physical. Remove all ecclesiastical hierarchy and all religious institutions. Remove all authoritarianism. If only for a month or two, meet for worship as a small group in the home of a member - and each week meet in the home of a different member. Collect offerings only for outreach. Eliminate the church governing board and board meetings. As detailed by Derek Penwell in Killing Church Committees and Other Reflections on Church Organization, eliminate committees and committee meetings. It is time to seriously consider eliminating: musical groups and instruments and rehearsals, fund-raisers, capital campaigns, financial systems, buildings, properties, employees, clergy, and membership rolls. This is not a denial of their "practical" benefits - it is an acknowledgement of how they too easily, even inescapably, become worldly consumptive replacements for the fulfilling and regenerative divine Good News - of how they too easily, even inescapably, become fatal distractions to our living and being the Kingdom of God.

Regardless of the physical and organizational implementation of church reformed and redefined...

Always Imagine Church as worship, studying, sharing in word and service to each other and to the world.

Always Imagine Church as always living and being the Good News as individuals and as community.

Always Imagine Church as the Kingdom of God in this world here and now.

Amen