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.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Being the Church Today: Food Part 2

 Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2 Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; 3 but anyone who loves God is known by him. 1 Corinthians 8

Okay, I confess I skipped over 1 Corinthians 7 dealing with relationships.  I have a bit of a defense, which is to remember that we are reading the Corinthians' mail.  Sometimes something is said in a personal card to me that is tough for an outsider to sort out.  Second, remember the last post about judging?  Seriously, let's grab coffee and talk about chapter 7.  

In chapter 8, Paul picks up the theme of food dedicated to idols.  This would have been meat sacrificed to Apollo the god of music or Aphrodite the goddess of love.  Some thought, "Hey, I know there is only one God...what is the big deal.  Besides have you tasted the 11 herbs and spices?  Delicious!"  Others thought it was just poor taste and causes confusion among the people of faith.  So there was trouble in River City.  Plus, Paul sets the tone here for the famous chapter 13, the treaties on love.  So, some in Corinth were making arguments...based on show people that idol meat was a-okay.  Others took the other side.  And the bottom line was tension so thick you could cut it with a knife.   

Some might say, where is the connection?  I would suggest that if, like me, you walk past the Apple Store gazing longingly at the new watch...we know what the Corinthians were going through.  If you struggle with wants and that whole stewardship post from a few times ago (you were hoping I forgot that weren't you??) than we know what the Corinthians were going through.  There are temples dedicated to the gods of today all around us...we just don't see it that way.

So, what happens when we bring that into the church?  It can create divisions and tensions.  Where is this happening in your church?  How about your family?  How about within your own heart?

Paul says rather than trying to solve these dilemmas, what if love gets a word in edgewise?  What would God's love say about technology?  About disagreements over theology?  About debates over vision for the church?  Both inside and outside in the church, we need to let God's love give voice to the how, what, and why of our lives.  May there be more than a trace of God's grace moving in our lives as we do so.

Blessings ~ 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Being the Church Today: Judging

When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints? 2 Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?  1 Corinthians 6

I grew up loving court room dramas.  Perry Mason...check.  Judge Wapner and the People's Court...oh yes.  Colombo, mysteries, CSI, Law and Order; yup, you bet, always, and guilty as charged!  What happens when we have a grievance with a church member?  I mean besides going out into the parking lot and gossiping?  It seems the people in Corinth were more comfortable in a public courtroom than trying to settle in a private conversation.  Of course, we all rely on the court of public approval.  Politicians, athletes, CEOs, and anyone who is every pictured on People Magazine knows how quickly the tide of public opinion can turn.  Everyday we hear some one get swept by the undercurrent of someone in the public eye being judge (right now it is Tom Brady and deflat-gate, but give it a few days...someone else will become the media pinata and everyone comes out swinging).

So, I get why that is brought into the church.  It is the sea we swim in every day.  So, we keep on swimming in the church.  But to stop takes us being intentional and prayerful.  It takes us giving up our opinion...something that I wonder if it is really let God's opinion take hold of us.  The first step is paying attention to when and where and who you are judging...both inside and outside the church.  If we only do this on Sunday morning...which we definitely should...such a practice needs to extend to our work place, to our family gatherings, to sporting events, to every minute of our lives.  But it is going to take time and thoughtfulness and a lot of grace.

What do you think of when you hear the word, "judgement"?

Are you ready to embrace that we all judge or do you find yourself wanting to push away from this blog and click on another site?

How can your friends at church help?  What kinds of practices do we need to engage in order to take Paul's words seriously for our lives here and now?

In these questions, we need God's grace moving powerfully and persistently.  I pray it would be so for you and me.

Blessings ~

Friday, May 15, 2015

Being the Church Today: Body

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. 2 And you are arrogant! Should you not rather have mourned, so that he who has done this would have been removed from among you?
3 For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present I have already pronounced judgment 4 in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. 1 Corinthians 5

Apparently arguing about who is the wisest of them all was not enough for the Corinthians.  Apparently baptismal divisions were not enough for the Corinthians.  Apparently debating food and being faithful stewards were not enough for the Corinthians...they gotta go and get all 50 Shades of Grey in Scripture.  I am going to go out on a limb and say most UCC churches have not spent a lot of time preaching on this.  In the last post, we spent some time thinking about why not follow that up with a post about sex.  That should help increase the readership.

We live in a highly sexual world.  Women are objectified from the football we watch on Sunday to the magazines we flip through while in the line at grocery store.  Of course issues of Men Health and GQ also idealize men, but arguably to a lesser extent.  Turn on the tv...go to the down the road, Paul's words still hold truth for us.  It could not only be reported but confirmed that there is sexual immorality among us today.  We spend more time throwing hateful words about two monogamous people of the same gender who want to get married than the easy of pornography available on your computer with a slight click of your mouse.

Like money, we want to control the conversation because we know that our approach to bodies is stuck in Victorian attitudes that ring hallow in a contemporary world.  We don't want to talk about it.  We want to stick our fingers in our ears and say, "La, la, la, I am not listening."  Especially for me with two children daily moving closer to the strange world known as adolescence.  What is the sexual ethic of the church?  What is your sexual ethic?  And if you have not thought or talked about it, why?  Why does the church worry and debate the color of the paint for the walls, but refuse to dive deeper into issues like Paul?  No where in Corinthians does Paul discuss whether you should serve regular or decaf?  (By the way, compromise...make a pot of both...and make it free-trade).  If the church wants people to pay attention to what people actually look at on the internet...even if that makes us uncomfortable...some times that shifting in the pew is exactly what we need for the shifting spirit of God to enter in.

God's blessings to our churches and lives as we seek to open up on issues we've been taught to keep to ourselves...and may we find more than a trace of God's grace!  

Monday, May 11, 2015

Being the Church Today: Stewardship

Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. 2 Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. 3 But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. 4 I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. 5 Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God.  1 Corinthians 4

You might be feeling a bit of a disconnect between the picture and the text above.  Maybe wondering, "What is the deal with the pigs?"  I am born and bred in Iowa, where I think pigs outnumber people.  But actually, the picture is to make a point about the word steward, which is really an English word for the ward of the sty, as in pig sty, as in what your mother always said your room looked like.  How in the world did being a keeper and overseer of pigs become a biblical image?  I am not sure exactly, especially since pigs are about as un-kosher as it gets.  But to keep the sty means that you are managing someone else's property.  Remember the prodigal son in the parable bearing his name?  Where does he wind up?  Watching pigs!  And he starts to salivate at what the pigs are feasting upon.  In that moment, the prodigal was a steward.

That is quite the image to think of next time your church does its annual stewardship campaign.  But if you think about it, the way the church approaches money might as well be dealing with pigs.  Pastor's dance around talking about money.  Or the pastor goes to the other extreme and starts to rain guilt that if you don't increase your pledge that you might as well bring the marshmallows for the after life because God will see that you did not tithe.  It is all messy and brings up a lot of baggage.  But, we need to start unpacking some of that.  We need to start airing our laundry around stewardship.  We need to let God enter in with the wisdom only God can bring...remember Paul cautioned the Corinthians and us today to rely too much on our own wisdom.

So, here is where we might start: do you believe everything belongs to God?  By everything, I mean, everything.  Your house, your car, your family, your paycheck, your calendar, your check book, and your whole life!  It is easy to say, "Oh yeah, totally."  But if you let that sentiment start to rummage around your life, that is where it gets difficult.  Because then we start to say things like, "You deserve that vacation."  Or, "You earned that new car."  However, if our resources belong to God, doesn't that mean that God is the source of our time and talents that allowed/enabled us to earn that treasure?  See what I mean?  One statement starts to wiggle around our hearts and upsets everything...and probably everyone reading this blog!

So, let's start with that statement.  How do you respond to, "Everything belongs to God?"  How do you reconcile that with words like, "deserve" and "earn"?  How does the still speaking God help in this?  Where do all of us need to be better stewards of the sty's of our life?

May God bless the prayerful pondering of our hearts on this issue! 

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Being the Church today: Food

And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, 3 for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? 4 For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?  1 Corinthians 3

Had we just picked up reading the letter to Corinth with is gem, we might think Paul sounds a little "Too big for his britches", as my grandmother would say.  Yet, we know that Paul just confessed his own fear and trembling in the previous chapter.  Paul says as long as we quarrel we are not ready for solid food.  As long as we try to score political points, prove who is right and wrong, and how much smarter we are than others, we still don't get what it means to follow Jesus together.  As I child, I learned that great rhyme, "Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the door and see all the people."  What that rhyme did not teach me is that people can sometimes cause a lot of hurt and harm to each other.  That rhyme did not tell me that when we argue and bicker with each other inside the church, the sermon our communal life together is preaching, enters a dissonant chord not easily resolved.  That rhyme did not tell me that within the church there are moments others will grate on us and challenge us and we might be tempted to try that other church down the road a piece...where the grass looks a little greener.

On the one hand we can be frustrated about this image of milk...on the other we can see that it is as essential as water to sustaining and strengthening us.  You never really outgrow milk.  I try to drink milk everyday.  Likewise in the church, we never really outgrow our need to learn and deepen our connections to each other and to God.  One of the hardest obstacles to overcome is that of seeing Confirmation of youth as graduation from the church.  One reason it is an obstacle is that the child is getting older and the crafts/games of Sunday School may not be meaningful any longer.  That does not mean, however, that they (or any adult) has it all figured out.  Yet, how often do we, as adults model such life-long learning?  How often do we participate in Bible study, book discussions, or small groups?  How often do we keep striving to move deeper into the mystery of our baptism?  Or do we switch to autopilot and set the cruise for status quo?  To be sure, I get that.  It takes energy and effort to keep reading.  It takes energy and effort to keep exploring new ideas, some of which I don't like or even offend me.  It takes energy and effort to engage our faith.  Yet, when we don't, we stay stuck in our understandings of God, Jesus, the Spirit, the church, and why we do what we do when we do it.  There is always more mystery to explore...God is not done with us yet.  

How many of us act like God is finished?  How many of you have written a statement of faith recently?  I know I have not.  How many of you have sat down and read the Bible?  And for preachers like me, the preaching passage doesn't qualify.  How many of us pray?  Our faith is a verb, a living part of our being.  And in order to keep moving and growing, faith needs nourishment.  Hopefully, worship does that.  Hopefully, you have other ways on the other days of the week.  

What is nourishing your faith right now?  

I pray you sense the presence of God moving in ways that cause you to grow and move and live deeper in God's grace and love.

Alleluia and Amen.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Being the church today: Words

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. 3 And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. 4 My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.  
1 Corinthians 2:1-5

I spend a lot of my time dwelling with words.  I listen to words of other preachers.  I read words.  I exchange words with my family, with church members.  I compose sermons and -ahem- blog posts. Words, words, words.  Yet, this is just a fraction of words we swim in each day.  There is a tidal wave of words that wash over us every day and trying to make sense of those words, plus our own reactions, takes a lot of energy.  Even though we talk about a still speaking God, how in the world would God get a word in edgewise in this world?  Some of suggested that the God who sang creation into being, called out to Abraham and Sara, to Moses, to Deborah the judge, to Jonah, increasingly grows quieter and quieter as the world grows noisier and noisier.  It is hard to hear when we are constantly trying to sort through emails, texts, phone calls, news papers and news shows, books, and on and on.

Given all this, most of what we see today are pundits trying to shout louder above the cacophony.  The volume keeps getting turned up.  Yet, Paul, says that he came not with eloquent speeches but in weakness and in fear and trembling.  Most preachers will tell you, we are nervous on Sunday morning.  Beneath that calm exterior that says, "Oh, everything is fully in control," our minds are racing making sure we don't look too foolish up there.  Most of us are editing sermons right up to the preaching moment, even afterwards too.  I agree with Paul.  Maybe, all of us who come to church should have some fear and trembling too.  Not in a guilty way or that the roof of the church is going to cave in kind of way.  No, but in a way that realizes what we are evoking.  Annie Dillard has one of my favorite quotes:
Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.... we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.
—Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), pp. 40-41.

We enter into the presence of the life-changing God, it matters and I pray makes all the difference for the whole week.  Yet, because worship often falls into a comfortable routine, because we sit in the same pew week after week, because the monotone voice in which we speak, we try (perhaps) to lull God to sleep.  Yet, the Spirit moves.  Recently, in worship, there was a goosebump moment during a hymn.  I had just shared words about the first chapter of 1 Corinthians, and the hymn we sang after spoke about our need for prayer, our need to acknowledge that we don't have it all figured out, our need to encounter this living God who draws us to where we can never return.  That is powerful.  There is a sense of fear...meaning "awe" and amazement.  There is a sense of hopefulness, but also a recognition that what we are doing with these words could change every thing.

I pray the words you encounter this week shape you and speak to you.  I pray the words you use are in concert with God's presence.  But most of all, I pray, you will sense the mystery of God and realize that silence can be full of an unspeakable grace and love that really does change everything.

Alleluia and Amen.