Sunday, June 28, 2015

Being the Church: Facing Hard Times



Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain....What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”“Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?” 1 Corinthians 15

In these days following the tragedy in Charleston, South Carolina, we know the fragility and brokenness in this life.  We know that humans have a great capacity for harm (as well as for good as the Charleston residents have shown in spades following the attack).  I am concerned that we are anesthetized to violence around us.  We also seem unable to sustain the strength, conviction or courage to make changes to our culture of fear.  It will take more than liking a post on Facebook, re-tweeting someones 144 characters, or giving a few dollars on a website.  This will take a sustained effort on the part of people to say, "No more."  No more will we allow a false choices that are presented by the political voices and lobbyists today.  No more shrugging our shoulders.  No more sidestepping issues.  Charleston shines a light bright on racism, gun violence, hatred, and our cultural paralysis to talk about these issues.  Talk, not as the only solution, but as a way that might start to help or point toward changes.  Being the church means living in a culture that is constantly proving a doctrine of sinfulness and missing the mark.  And being the church means we are not immune to proving that doctrine in our own meetings, sermons, and actions as well.  We need courage to dive into the brokenness, not with a Savior complex...that job has already been taken.  Jesus was born, lived a life of love, died because of his willingness to share God's unconditional love with all people, but that was not the end.  Death was conquered...fear need not be the only emotion that drives our decisions.  Yet, no matter how many Easters we have celebrated, the truth never really takes center stage in our lives.

Of course, the inconvenient truths of Easter take a life time to change fully our lives.  The soaring sensation of singing "Christ the Lord is Risen Today," seems hallow in the face of the messy realities of daily lives.  But that is true on Easter too.  It was certainly true in Paul's day.  Here are people who are under Roman rule, not free to do what they want.  Some in the Corinthian church were wealthier, some were not.  They were diverse and had to live together.  Of course, they did not always get it right...as we have seen in almost every blog post on this passage!

But they tried to be the church together.  Part of being the church is listening, caring for, challenging each other.  Part of being the church is praying together.  Part of being the church is taking action together.  Part of being the church is remembering together.  One way of saying, "No more" is to not forget.  To find ways to gather with each other to talk about the legacy of racism that lingers.  To explore the ways hate festers in all of us.  To confess and let God's presence convict us establishing a new and right spirit for the living of these days.

It would be great if there was one solution, a golden ticket, that would make everything better.  But that rarely works in our personal life and even less so in our systemic, communal life.  It takes time.  We won't dismantle racism by ignoring the facts of white privilege.  We won't make changes without dealing with our history.  This 4th of July, we can celebrate a vision for a country of freedom.  We can celebrate that now our LGBT brothers and sisters gained a huge victory of freedom.  We can celebrate our best moments as a country.  But we can also confess that we don't get it right.  We have flaws as a nation (if you doubt, look at Congress' approval ratings, there are reasons for that rating).  Yet, we do strive to do our best.  I recently heard a quote from Winston Churchill who said, "American will always do the right thing, but only after they have tried everything else."  I know I am exhausted by trying everything else.  We need to find ways to be the church that faces the hard issues of the day, rather than skirting them.

I pray we will have the courage to keep talking prayerfully and openly with each other.  Most of all, I pray as we do, as individuals and a nation, we will find a trace of God, and it will be for the healing of all nations and the world God so loves.

Blessings ~  

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Being the Church Today: Worship




What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in church and speak to themselves and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to someone else sitting nearby, let the first person be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged. And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets, for God is a God not of disorder but of peace. 1 Corinthians 14

Worship is central and core to who I am.  It often feels like my week leads up to, climaxes at Sunday morning worship.  Monday is a chance to reflect prayerfully on what went well and what could be better.  Tuesday starts the cycle over again.  Sunday morning worship can feel like a production.  There are many moving parts: choir, children lighting candles, people reading, the congregation singing, someone playing the organ, a sermon, a prayer, ushers collecting the offering, greeters welcoming, and that is not to even touch on the different needs and variety of emotions that gather in the sanctuary every single Sunday.  There is lots going on.  It can feel like trying to conduct an orchestra, trying to contain holy chaos.  

Soren Kierkegaard would say that worship is a drama.  But, it is NOT the pastor or even the choir who are the actors.  Kierkegaard said it was the people who were the actors.  Let's face it, in some of our churches, I am not sure our actors feel very engaged.  The pastor and choir and organist are more like prompters or directors.  God is the audience.  I have always contended that God can also be the holy prompter in our midst.  Just as at Pentecost, when the disciples caught wind of the new thing God was doing, God can swirl and stir in our Sunday morning worship. Yet, how many of us really expect or even want that?  Would we, honestly, prefer to sit back and arm chair quarter back the whole service, like we are at the theater?  Would we rather play critic and give the various components a "thumbs up or down"?  It is easier role for us.  It is difficult because what opens you to worship is NOT what opens someone else.  Some like silence, some what to check in with their neighbor and see how their procedure went.  Some like familiar hymns, some like to sing a new song.  Some like to laugh, others are more somber.  So, I know that.  But the question is, how do we plan worship?

If you take Paul seriously, it would mean there would be no worship bulletin.  You'd gather on Sunday, and if someone had a song on her heart, she would offer it.  Another would stand up and testify.  Another would speak in tongues.  Another still might interpret that moment.  Another might say, "Let's sing another verse of In the Garden."  It would be holy chaos.  Or to some reading this blog, just plain chaos.

So, what is your expectation of worship?  Seriously, we need to talk about this in church.  And not just talk in the sense of everyone come, dump a bunch of ideas on a table, then walk out the door for the pastor to deal with...that is NOT helpful to anyone.  If liturgy (which means the work of the people) is to reflect the hopes and dreams of the people we need to constantly be talking about our expectations for this hour on Sunday morning.  I hope and pray you will find time to do this in your faith community in the coming weeks.  I know I will do so in mine.  I pray for the sake of the world God so loves, we will find more than a trace of God's grace in such dialogue.

Blessings and pax

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Being the church today: Love


If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.  1 Corinthians 13:1-4

This is the climax of the letter, a treatise on love.  A vision for what it means to be whole and holy in relationship with each other.  A prayer written, not for two individuals getting married, but for the church.  Like Paul's metaphor on the body being interconnected and intertwined, this vision too sets the bar high.  To love in the way Paul describes and defines it here would take all our energy on our best days...even more when we wake up on the wrong side of the bed.  

But Paul was not the first to come up with this ideal of love, nor was the church or even Christ.  In the Hebrew Scriptures time and again the key characteristic of God is hesed (click here to read more).  That is important for a variety of reasons.  First, it is a counter to the oversimplified understanding that the God of the Old Testament is vengeful/full of wrath and the God of the New Testament is cuddly and (like Olaf in Frozen) likes warm hugs.  God is love.  Our Jewish brothers and sisters know that God cares about justice too.  There are times those two desires/prayers come in conflict with each other.  We know this from our own life.  A friend hurts us with words spoken hastily, do we keep loving or do we seek out reconciliation/forgiveness? The two don't have to be exclusive, but can create tension within our hearts.  God is hesed, or loving-kindness and caring.  God did not create all that is seen and unseen just because God was bored.  God wanted a living, breathing, changing relationship (although I do think God sometimes gets more than God bargained for).  That relationship is grounded and guided by love.  Always.  From both testaments.  Second, the truth that God is hesed, or loving-kindness and caring, means it is central to the way God moves in our lives and inspires our responses.

Yesterday, I went with my daughter to see the re-make of Cinderella.  The moral lesson is about being kind and loving in all we do, even in the face of mean and broken people.  At one point in the move, Cinderella, must look into the mirror and see herself...which is where Paul ends this chapter.  We all need to look into the mirror to see ourselves, to be authentically who we are.  Martin Luther, the 16th Century reformer, is famous for saying, "Here I stand, I can do no other."  It takes courage to be ourselves.  It takes courage to not hide behind masks of anger, brokenness, pain that we like to carry around like badges of honor.  It takes courage to set the stones down, and let God's hesed or loving-kindness take over.  Paul will say, "Love does not insist on its own way".  To be sure, in my family there are moments when I am in need and my need takes precedence.  But we share that... we each have needs, times we need the warmth of the loving spotlight shined on us....times we need to go and shine the light on others.  To do anything less is to be a clanging cymbal or noisy gong.  Honestly, we have enough of that in the world today.  That is what I hear in the news and endless commercials telling me I can buy my way to happiness and other noise around me.  So, I invite you to listen for the voice of God's love guiding you and grounding you this day and for countless days to come.

May we each sense more than a trace of God's grace.

Blessings 

Friday, June 12, 2015

Being the Church Today: Togetherness


For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.  1 Corinthians 12


Part of the power of Scripture is the use of metaphor.  Jesus often used ordinary, everyday experiences in his parables.  Paul also draws on something we are intimately familiar: our bodies,  I am not sure how often we contemplate our own embodiment...until, of course, we stub our pinkie toe or toothaches or we receive a warm hug from a family member we have not seen in awhile or hold the hand of a friend in a difficult time.  We don't often think about our sense of touch...but we know it to be very powerful.  I feel the warmth of the sun or the chill of the rain on my skin.  I jump in the pool and the water evaporates off, making me aware of my skin.  This morning, after worship, the people who pressed their hand into mine, a moment of bringing Paul's words off the page and to life.  

To be sure, we can wax eloquent about the power of community.  There is much good that comes from our togetherness.  As the great hymn says, "Blessed be the tie that binds...our hearts in Christian love...the fellowship of kindred minds...is like to that above."  The church is to be a moment where the words of the Lord's Prayer, "Thy Kingdom (kin-dom...realm) come on earth."  If the church is not a glimpse of that, we need to ask why?  Yet, we also need to name and claim that the church does not always get it right.  We make mistakes...miss the mark in our relationships.  We say things we regret or drag out a debate about carpeting for the loooongest time, just because.  One of my favorite Peanuts cartoons says it best...


I love humanity...it is people I can't stand.  How many of us have ever felt that way?  Of course, NOT me...certainly NOT after some church meeting when I said some boneheaded thing that led to a twenty minute exit ramp.  Paul's point is that we celebrate the body of Christ, not only in good times when the Spirit is stirring and we are holding hands and singing Kumbaya...but also in difficult times and especially with people we, like Linus, may not be able to stand.  Paul will go on to say, "The hand cannot say to the foot...I have no need of you."  Likewise, I cannot say to that person who grates on my nerves...I have no need of you.  Like a body, in order to be whole, we need each other.  Even those parts that might frustrate us.

Part of what makes recent church life so troubling is ALL over the church seems to be saying to each other, "I have no need of YOU!"  Evangelicals say it to Progressives; Progressives say it right back.  Some churches say that about our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.  Some churches say that about your political stance.  Some churches say it based on what you understand about science or the Nicene Creed or how you read Scripture.  Paul says, "Stop it."  We cannot say that to each other.  In Christ, all divisions were torn down.  In Christ's life he reached out to the really religious and the left out.  He ate with some of the holiest people and some whose hearts were as hard as stone.  Christ lived in a life that loved humanity and LOVED people.  

That is a high bar for us who claim to follow Jesus today.  A bar, I knock my head on and don't clear numerous times every day...okay to be honest every hour!  Yet, rather than hold Paul's words at arm's length, this week I am going to try to notice God's grace in the people I usually only get frustrated with, the ones whose voice is like nails on a chalk board.  Because, what if, our still speaking God is trying to speak through that person?  That person you usually dismiss or make fun of?  It might compel us to listen...listen differently.  Maybe if we do...there would be at least a trace of God's grace.

May it be so for you and for me.

Blessings. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Being the Church Today: Communion


And then I find that you bring your divisions to worship—you come together, and instead of eating the Lord’s Supper, you bring in a lot of food from the outside and make pigs of yourselves. Some are left out, and go home hungry. Others have to be carried out, too drunk to walk. I can’t believe it! Don’t you have your own homes to eat and drink in? Why would you stoop to desecrating God’s church? Why would you actually shame God’s poor? I never would have believed you would stoop to this. And I’m not going to stand by and say nothing.  1 Corinthians 11:20-22 (The Message)

I am continually compelled by communion.  Too often in ministry, the mystery of communion and the practices surrounding the sacrament, has caused frustration and even brokenness.  Let's start with the fact that communion was originally an addition onto the Passover Seder.  Jesus gathered in the upper room to celebrate Passover, which is one of the holiest Jewish rituals and days.  Passover is telling the story (remember the previous post about letting God's story mingle in your story?) of God intervening in the lives of the people who were indentured servants in Egypt.  It is the story of God making a way when it seemed like there was no way.  It is the story of God claiming, adopting a stiff-necked people who had trouble breaking out of the cultural of fear and scarcity (because there is a story sounds VERY familiar to mine!).  Jesus gathers with his friends in a home.  Unlike Christianity, which often focuses/centers in a church, much of Judaism is practiced in the home.  Much of the Sabbath, the day of rest, is spent in the home...not a church.  There might be a story you want to hear more about.

Jesus and his friends/family enact, retell, relive, remember, re-embody the sacred story of Passover.  And Jesus adds a new wrinkle.  One of the great truths is that religion is always unfolding and inching forward, perhaps in some small way, but a new way nevertheless.  Jesus adds another loaf of bread and cup of wine (there was already four cups of wine in Passover by this point...no wonder some accused Jesus of being a drunkard and glutton!).  Jesus takes, gives, and says remember.

Notice that in communion, our only responsibility is to receive and remember.  Our responsibility is participate fully.  We don't make the bread.  We don't buy the wine/juice.  We only show up with our hands wide open.  For me, that is metaphorically and symbolically true of so much of my life.  I show up with really only my presence to offer.  Sure, on Sunday, I have a prepared sermon.  Sure at meetings I have my notebook, minutes, and my own opinions (plenty of those).  But full life as shown at communion is about receiving.  Receiving openly and humbly the grace we did not earn or buy or prepare...which is why it is grace!

Yet, too often today, we take Christ's table and put barriers to others.  We say, "You are welcome, if you believe such and such."  Or, "You can come, IF you are baptized."  Or, "Come all...except people who make us uncomfortable."  What part of loving our enemies do we not understand?  Or, more honestly, are truly afraid of when it comes to such a radically open table invitation as communion.  We, like the Corinthians, still divide and debate the table.  Even the church I serve, with our open communion practice, can still make some shift uncomfortably or really wonder if we mean it.  To be sure, we (as a church) try our best.  But the real grace is that it is not up to me.  I am not the one who is really the host.  Christ is.  At the table we encounter Christ.  We encounter his full story: his birth, life, death, and resurrection.  That whole story intertwines with our story in that holy moment.

The communion...union...part of Eucharist is that.  A holy, grace-filled, moment where past, present, future all get mixed up and for a brief moment, in Christ's presence, we are one with each other and with God's presence.  That is the promise we taste on the tip of our tongue with the bread and wine.  That is the promise I need every day to remind me of the way to life, full life.

Blessings and may you sense more than a trace of God's grace the next time you celebrate communion.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Being the Church Today: Past

Remember our history, friends, and be warned. All our ancestors were led by the providential Cloud and taken miraculously through the Sea. They went through the waters, in a baptism like ours, as Moses led them from enslaving death to salvation life. They all ate and drank identical food and drink, meals provided daily by God. They drank from the Rock, God’s fountain for them that stayed with them wherever they were. And the Rock was Christ. But just experiencing God’s wonder and grace didn’t seem to mean much—most of them were defeated by temptation during the hard times in the desert, and God was not pleased.  1 Corinthians 10:1-5

Paul has held the Corinthians accountable up to this point on all the ways they have broken covenant with each other.  He has called them on the carpet when it comes to understandings of baptism, communion, relationships, power, and being the church.  But in chapter 10, he says, "Remember OUR history..."  Here is the thing, it was NOT really the Corinthians history.  We suspect some, even many, in the Corinthian church were Gentiles, not Jewish.  Paul is taking the Jewish story and laying it over the story of this new church start.  He is offering a story of a past that no one in that church actually lived and many had never really learned.  Being the church today means remembering our past, but not being bound by it.  It is a difficult dance, a two-step that might get our feet/lives all twisted and tangled and cause us to fall flat on our fact.

Here is why: when we remember our past it is easy to slip into nostalgia.  Wasn't it great the pews were full (without asking the harder question, why were they full?  What were the cultural conditions that encouraged church attendance...even mandated it in some communities? And is it just about people in the pews or do we want to people to be engaged beyond the hour on Sunday?).  Or wasn't it great when the Sunday School was bigger (without looking at the truth that there is a good reason they called that time/generation the Baby BOOM!).  Or wasn't it great when the pastor gave longer sermons...just kidding no one remembers or looks back fondly on that.

Looking at the past is difficult.  Think about this in your own life.  Can you really tell the story of every single day in your life without notes?  Can you really remember what it felt like on November 5, 1989?  I don't even remember that date...and wait just a second...I had to stop, count backwards to recall I was in eight grade.  I don't have the foggiest idea what happened on that date.  I don't really remember if it was a good day or even a good year.  I think Middle School was an okay time.  I played in the bad, work on one of those original Mac Computers with the green screen, where you had to type commands, and the cursor blinked at you non-stop just mocking you!!

What do you remember about the past (1989 or some other year)?  How might that both be truth and somewhat generalized by our minds?  One of the truths about Judaism is that it is a narrative religion.   For Jewish people, the story, their story and God's story mingling and merging together is what matters.  Telling the story time and time and time again is what matters and helps them make sense.  In order to understand the story you have to keep telling it and you need to keep including people into the widening story of God's presence.  Your story is, on the one hand, yours.  But your story intersects with other's stories too.  Your story is on-going and unfolding.  Your story is God's story mingling together.  That means, you need to remember, look back to when YOU were led through the waters (perhaps metaphorically or literally!).  When were YOU eating, drinking identical food with others (beyond the church potlucks)?  How can we let God's story in Scripture be a lens for our story?  That is the question facing and challenging us to be the church today!

Blessings to you and me as we try to take these words and let them guide us for the living out of these days.


Saturday, May 23, 2015

Being the Church Today: Running


 Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!
24-25 You’ve all been to the stadium and seen the athletes race. Everyone runs; one wins. Run to win. All good athletes train hard. They do it for a gold medal that tarnishes and fades. You’re after one that’s gold eternally.
26-27 I don’t know about you, but I’m running hard for the finish line. I’m giving it everything I’ve got. No sloppy living for me! I’m staying alert and in top condition. I’m not going to get caught napping, telling everyone else all about it and then missing out myself.  1 Corinthians 9:19-27
I sometimes wonder if the model of ministry that best describes what I am doing comes from a cartoon I watched growing up.  On Saturday morning, I would get up early, a feat that could not be accomplished during the week mind you.  I would grab a bowl of Frosted Flakes.  They were great... for cavities.  One of my favorite cartoons was Wile E. Coyote, and his tirelessly efforts to come up with plan to catch that elusive road runner.  Every episode was pretty much the same.  Wiley would draw an elaborate sketch, he would order some item from the Acme Company, although I now wonder what his source of income?  He seemed to spend a lot of time plotting.  Usually his scheme meant strapping some kind of explosive to his back or feet, once said devise was lit it would sent him whooshing past the road runner into a rock or off a cliff where he would suspend in air and hold up a sign that read, “Yikes.”  Yikes might just be one of the most faithful words in trying to lead the church today.  
Paul gives us two great images today.  First is a willingness to meet people where they are at.  He says he reached out to everyone: religious and nonreligious, the moralists and those whose morals were questionable at best.  I think about the recent Pew Research Survey that was released and has been a cause of much discussion and debate.  I wonder if instead of discussing data, the church could start being more concerned about stories?  Your story of who you are, what matters, why, what is at the core?  What if we were less concerned about percentages and more about people?  Less concerned about attendance and more concerned about abiding/attending to each other?  There are countless surveys out there.  Every time we turn around we are being asked for our opinion.  But, the real questions that matter in life are not which soda I prefer or if this car makes me feel happy...the real questions in life are how am I living right now?  What sermon is my bank account preaching about my values?  Where am I energized and what exhausts me?  Those questions need time and space.  They are unending because my answers today are not the same as they were one year ago and won't be the same a year from now.
Tomorrow is Pentecost, the birthday of the church.  If the church is going to be a place with a wide door, a place of extravagant welcome, maybe we need to find new spaces and places to be the church.  Maybe we need to stop thinking about buildings and more about holy ground.  The truth that convicts me is that there are very few temples in Scripture...and the temples that are described are often destroyed or not exactly the places you'd want to hang out.  
So, what is the church?  I know from my childhood choir time, "The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place (which I now have some theological objects to), the church is the people."  Okay everyone now sing with me.
What I know about that song is that it reminds me that the church is a movement.  The church is a dance.  The church needs to be willing to run the race.  Last Sunday, I talked with the church I serve about agape love being a movement toward.  We are able to move toward another person (agape or love them) because God first agaped...moved toward us.  God continually swirls and stirs around us.  Which is a bit scary because if God is always moving, there is an unpredictability and uncontrollable part to the holy.  Which is where the word, "Yikes" is most appropriate.  It can feel often like the church is running in all directions... always plotting and scheming like Wile to come up with the next best thing to bring 'em in.  And yet "'em" remains elusive like the road runner.  Maybe it is time to be less concerned with stats and more concerned with being the church for the people around us.  Being the church is less about the what and more about the how, why, and where is God calling us now.  Being the church meanings staying open to that spirit which abides with us and in us and keeps us moving toward others...agape...for the living out of these days.  And yes, some days are "Yikes" and other days are "Yeah!" and others days are "Yawn"...and the good news is that God is in all that.  
Happy birthday church.  May we celebrate the relationships that bless and bind us together in faith...may we notice that we are the church today.