Success as a Less Faithful Goal

Last week I went with a friend to a conference in Lee’s Summit, MO. It was fantastic, by the way. The 3 main speakers at this conference (“The Crucified God”) spoke with us from 3 different perspectives about what it means for a community or a person to hold to a theology of the cross (as Luther called it), or a cruciform theology, if you will — however you want to slice it, we’re talking about beginning all theology with the reality that the God we worship … died. Gave himself up to death. By the world’s standards, this looks like failure, like weakness. But the crucified God stands at the very center of our faith.

I may wind up writing about the overall conference at some point in the near future, but today I wanted to focus on one of the break-out sessions that the organizers offered for us. The one I attended had to do with the church growth model we’ve been following for the past 40 years (give or take). Author and pastor Tim Suttle led our session, which he based on his book, Shrink. (Here’s a link to a video overview of the book, in case you’re interested.)

Before I talk about the meat of our session, I wanted to mention a little side remark that Tim made regarding a study of Olympian medal winners’ emotions. In the study, it came to light that Gold Medal winners were the happiest, which makes sense. One would expect Silver Medalists to be the next-happiest, since silver means that they placed second of three, but it turns out that Bronze Medal winners were happier than Silver recipients. Why? In terms of “success,” the silver placers outperformed the bronze placers; however, it seems that the Bronze Medal winners were thankful that they placed, realizing how precarious their victories had been, while the Silver Medal winners focused more on how close they came to getting gold. (Here’s an article in the Washington Post that alludes to the study, and here’s a link to the study itself.) Ah, comparison to the other. Such a treacherous beast, eh?

So, to the session:

Tim was talking about how, for the past 40 or so years, most of our approaches to church growth have been based on business models. We came about it honestly as people like Bill Hybels, Rick Warren and other megachurch pastors took the talents they had been gifted with and tried to apply them for the sake of the church. NB I used a lot of their wisdom back in the days when I worked for not-for-profit museums — especially management strategies that they and folks like John Kotter and Steven Covey offered for us to move from Good to Great and all that jazz.

They base their approach on business models, strategies, and techniques that aimed to bring about success. Bigger, better, faster, more efficient, yadda yadda yadda.

The problem with using these models – these pragmatic models deigned to increasify our effectability and embiggen our impactfulness (yes, I know those aren’t real words, but if you’ve worked in business, you’ll know a lot of the jargon they use aren’t real words, either) — specifically in the Church, well … they’re all models of Empire, aren’t they? The biggest concern is the bottom line, the profit margin, the return on investment, etc. Those are business/Empire values. “Success” charts under those models show a straight line of increase, moving left to right in an upward direction.

In contrast, the Church — the cross-shaped community, gathered around a crucified God — looks different. “Success” for us looks like compassion. It looks like human flourishing and a healthy creation. Our success chart isn’t a straight arrow pointing up, but rather an undulating wave that reminds us of inhaling and exhaling, like a pumping heart, like a living thing, not a sterile growth chart or something.

Tim recalled for us the words of John the Baptist: “I must decrease, that he might increase.” The church isn’t about bigger, better, faster, but about obedience and faithfulness. “Where 2 or 3 are gathered” looks a lot different than a successful business, yeah?

So, Tim is suggesting that we move away from “growth models” to a healthy ecclesiology. You know: What IS the Church, anyway? What do we exist for? What did Jesus command?

He suggests that we move from “growth strategies” to telling stories and trying to understand meaning.

He suggests we move from “growth techniques” to the Church’s historical virtues (and we could just as easily say “values”): Broken-ness, Self-giving (kenosis), gentleness, humility, co-suffering, patience, and all those other things Paul talked about.

The faithful approach isn’t pragmatic (whatever it takes in order to be effective) as it is meant to be practical, embodied by real, living people, who are called to be the image of Christ for their neighbors.

It’s less about doing, and more about being.

It’s less likely to produce anxiety, and more likely to bring peace.

Being a business/Empire requires conformity, uniformity, order. Living under the lordship of Jesus is often chaotic; it frequently involves conflict (which is NOT a bad thing, fellow Lutherans! Without conflict, nothing would EVER change! Wait, maybe that wasn’t a strong selling point. Hmm.) And yet it can be very, very productive.

This was the gist of the presentation. It wasn’t so much a take-down of megachurches and the last 40 years of church growth efforts as it was a way of calling us back to think about what’s necessary NOW. We can’t compare ourselves to megachurches. We’re just not like them in any way. In our small communities, there’s no way to stay anonymous. If you’re not in community with us for a couple weeks running, we’re going to notice. That means we’re also vulnerable, because our lives are more laid open to the other folks who do community with us.This is a Good Thing!

It also means that we can’t be mere spectators. The church of Now is a participatory church. It HAS to be! We need every man, woman, and child – and everybody in between — to help any way they can. This is also a Good Thing!

As society changes, the church needs to change. And the church needs also to remember that God is trustworthy. This “shrinkage” (apologies for the image for all you Seinfeld fans) could very well be the work of the Holy Spirit, who is shrinking our numbers SO THAT we will: lose some of our baggage; reach out to one another; grow spiritually; learn again to trust that God knows what God is doing.

The old model has been, for the past century or more, primarily about US. The church is no longer an alternative way of life compared to Empire, but has come to mirror the thing that God calls us to “come out of” in Revelation. People outside the church see this about us, and they’re opting out. Let’s give up, as Tim Suttle suggests, on the idea of “church growth” and begin thinking more about the flourishing of lives, the flourishing of our communities. Let us be, as Jesus calls us in Matthew’s Gospel, to be salt and light. It only takes a small amount of salt in a recipe to flavor an entire dish. It only takes a bit of light to scatter darkness.

This is what the world needs from us. This is what God has called us to. Let’s be faithful to that call.

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Of Shipwrecks and Rescues

Standard greetings apply: Long time, no see and all that. The truth is, I’ve been too depressed to write. Overwhelmed, tired, bummed out, sapped of strength. Church conflict wears me out. It’s not that we’re always in conflict here, but the fruits of conflict are never far away.

But that’s not what I’m here to write about today. Shaking that dust from my feet for now.

What I DO want to write about is a new book I’m reading by Jonathan Martin (of Sanctuary Tulsa). He’s called this book How to Survive a Shipwreck: Help is on the Way and Love is Already Here.

I’m still on the first chapter, and already “my mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives.”Ahem. Yes.

The first chapter is called “Losing your ship without losing your soul,” and Martin talks here about the experience of what we would call “drowning” in the secular world, but which Christians might describe as “baptism.” It’s about the death of the old, not simply for death’s sake, but death out of which comes New Life, Transformed Life. The shipwreck is the overarching metaphor or the event that leads to this drowning.

At first I was simply thinking about this kind of baptismal drowning in terms of the ritual of Baptism, which is officially a Big Deal among Lutherans (and other sacramental denominations). For us, along with the Eucharist, it’s one of the Two Biggies.

Recently I did some counseling with a woman who brought to me her two adult children whom she had never had baptized. It hadn’t been a priority for her husband, and she had gone along with his apathy until now, when she will be moving out of state. Now she wants to make sure she “does the right thing” by having them dunked. We talked about how this isn’t a ritual that magically solves people’s life problems, and how one really needs to make this decision on their own as an adult. (NB I truly believe that God is the active worker in Baptism, not the person being baptized, but if you have no desire as a grown-up to undergo the drowning, what would your motivation be, aside from superstition?)

In that event I made an invitation to the adult children to learn more, and I do hope they follow up, but it got me thinking about the rite of Baptism, which the Church used to consider necessary for salvation, almost as if it WERE a magical ritual.

Jonathan Martin’s book basically affirms what I had been thinking, but it takes me to a whole new depth of understanding. He writes about the shipwreck in a person’s life that – intentionally or otherwise – leads to baptism/drowning. It cuts one off completely from a person’s old life, and there is no going back. “The shipwreck is upon you.”

“The waters that drown are the waters that save.”

And then he turns to the creation story in Genesis 1.

“Before there was a human, there was a sea; there was a watery, shapeless chaos, a blackness that had no form and no meaning. Spirit came and hovered over the black, liquid night of the waters; the dove brooded over the anarchy we call sea. And she stayed there long enough, breathed into her deep enough, for life to come up shimmering out of the ocean.”

Martin brings us from our primordial, mythical beginnings to our actual, physical entrance into the world, and then into the mystery of the return:

“It is these primordial waters that we come from, the same water that poured out of the woman you called mother in the hours before you were born. It is into these dark waters that you must return, into this primitive abyss, into this watery grave. You must return again to the chaos of the world you knew before you started trying to build a world you could control — back to the bottom of the ocean where you once lay, submerged.”

This return, Martin says, feels like death. Probably because it is, in a way, maybe in a real, literal way, maybe more symbolically. The old, beloved, comfortable things that once helped us form our identity are now sinking into the murky depths, never to be reclaimed. But their absence makes possible new realities, new identities! It’s ultimately Good News for the old to die, otherwise the old chokes out the potential for New Life, New Growth.

This is about so much more than a simple ritual cleansing. It’s a real-life facing of death. And out of that death, we’re dragged coughing and gasping into something wholly new, wholly clean. Next to this, superstition seems so … superficial. Right?

——————————

As I was thinking about this whole drowning and rescue mission, I got to thinking about our congregation and redevelopment. We have sort of officially come out of that phase. We aren’t receiving any more money, which I look at as a good thing. This is our moment of truth, because we can no longer kick the can down the road, but instead we have to face the reality of death for this congregation.

I’ve quoted our Bishop before and will keep quoting him, because his words are truly wise: As a congregation, you can either die, or you can die. In other words, you can keep doing what you’ve always done and sadly watch ourselves fade away; OR, we can allow our old selves — our old way of being church, our old everything — to die, so that something new may be reborn from the ashes.

As I was thinking about this whole shipwreck metaphor, the image of our church as an overturned boat (look at how our sanctuary is built) seemed apt. We hit the rocks somewhere along the line — whether the winds carried us there, the currents, bad navigation, intentional self-destruction — whatever the specifics are don’t matter because we’re there.

And in the shipwreck, we had an option to cling to the flotsam of the wreckage — our building, our “Lutheran heritage,” “the way we’ve always done things around here,” our music program, our manner of following the liturgy … there’s a LOT of flotsam — and we’ve tried to drag ourselves to shore in order to be resuscitated. We also had the option to let ourselves drown, let ourselves go under the water and trust God to drag our dead bodies out of the water. We could have stopped the wild flailing of a drowning person, and look into the deep, “into the depths of God, into the depths of [our] own souls, into the depths, of life itself.”

To do that would have meant “linger[ing] at the ocean floor, where the sea monsters live, and confront[ing] everything in [us] that [we]’ve constructed a whole life out of avoiding … confont[ing] the mysteries that lie at the bottom of [us].”

We didn’t really do that. We made some attempts to do that. But we never did.
What we needed was Resurrection. What we settled for was mere resuscitation.

I would like us to radically rethink and re-process our last 3 years together. Let’s reconsider letting ourselves drown. Even though it’s a terrifying proposition. The things we cling to, the flotsam, isn’t saving us. The only thing that will save us is to lose our lives. Jesus said, “Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, but whoever will die for my sake will find it.”  Martin writes about this baptismal kind of death, that, “to almost everyone’s surprise, until an invisible hand holds them underwater long enough, the most beautiful things in all of creation are down here — below, beneath, under the world you knew.” We can’t know what beauty we’re missing out on by hanging on to the ship’s wreckage.

“The waters that drown you are the same waters that will save you; and the same sea that is pulling you under is the sea that will make you new. The things you’e been holding on to cannot keep you afloat any longer. There is no going back down the birth canal when the Spirit of life is pushing you forward, despite yourself. The only way to lose yourself forever is to keep hanging on to the life you had before. The storm rides you hard, but the Spirit whispers into the ptich-black that surrounds you, carrying the words Jesus spoke to Nicodemus in the wind: You must be born again.”

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Reformations and Liturgical “Magic”

There are two things I wanted to share from my devotional reading from this month. Both of them come from Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. [If you purchase this from Amazon Smile and set up First Evangelical Lutheran Church as your preferred charity, we will get a small donation from Amazon for every purchase made.]

The first is from the monthly header article entitled “Marks of New Monasticism.” The second comes from the devotional on April 19 and is called “Liturgy is Magical, but Not Magic.”

April Marks of New Monasticism: “Submission to Christ’s Body, the Church”

Discontentment is a gift to the church. If you are one of those people who has the ability to see the things that are wrong in the church and in the world, you should thank God for that perception.. Not everyone has the eyes to see, or to notice, or to care. But we must also see that our discontentment is not a reason to disengage from the church but a reason to engage with it. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Our invitation is to “be the change” we want to see in the church. There are things worth protesting, but we also have to be people who “pro-testify,” proclaiming the kingdom that we’re for, not just the evils we’re against.

Jesus offered an alternative to Caesar’s empire not by mounting a rebellion but by teaching people that another way is possible. That way is summed up well in Jesus’ triumphal entry, the inaugural parade of a new kind of king for a new kind of kingdom. Church history is filled with holy dissenters, rabble-rousers, and prophets — disturbers of the peace who’ve helped to show us a better way. As some church historians have pointed out, every few hundred years the church gets cluttered by and infected with the materialism and militarism of the world around it. We begin to forget who we are. One bishop said, “And so every five hundred years or so the church needs a rummage sale,” to get rid of the clutter and to remember the true treasures of our faith.

Church history is filled with reformations and renewals. It was in the middle of Italy’s wealth and crusades that St. Francis heard God whisper, “Repair my church which is in ruins,” and he began to repair the ruins. At one point the pope had a vision that the church was beginning to crumble, but the corner was being held up by Francis and the little youth movement in Assisi. The call to repair the church is a call we continue to hear from God, and a movement we are invited to participate in. 
….

“Liturgy is Magical, but Not Magic”

As we pray to and worship the God of the universe, there is something that remains at some level incomprehensible. It gives us a taste of something dazzling and transcendent. Historians say the phrase hocus pocus originated from liturgical worship services, in which the priest held up the bread and proclaimed, Hoc est corpus Christi. There were lots of folks on the fringes of the church who looked through the doors and windows, marveling at the mystery and magic of the moment. Many of them were unfamiliar with liturgy and had little education, so all they picked up was hocus pocus, and it seemed quite magical.

Although the liturgy is not magic or illusion or sorcery, it captures our imagination — this idea that God came to earth and died and now lives in us. It is a mystery. So while there is nothing of a magical formula in the liturgy, there is plenty that points us toward a world beyond this one. Perhaps one of the sure signs that we have worshiped God is that we walk away saying, “I didn’t understand everything that happened there. It must be bigger than my comprehension.” Too much of our worship has boxed God in as if we were going to see a play on Broadway. But in worship we become a part of the play. Though we can’t understand it all, we can come onstage and participate in the divine drama.

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Apocalypse and Conversion

Whew! It felt to me like it had been a Really Long Time since my last post here, but WordPress tells me that my last entry was on March 7, just a little over a month ago. That’s nice. Helps me feel a little less like a slacker.

In any case, here’s the latest “poop.” I hope this doesn’t bleed over too much into tomorrow’s sermon, but please accept my apologies if it does.

Recently in our parish we’ve been embroiled in a bit of a “controversy” over whom we may or may not allow to serve Communion elements. I don’t really care to rehash all of that here, but I bring it up just to repeat what I said in the recent Town Hall meeting: This has become a matter of upholding the gospel for me.

What is the gospel? (I’m making a distinction here between the “Capital G” Gospel genre belonging to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John on the one hand, and the “small g” gospel, meaning the content of the “good news of God in Christ.” Most of you probably are aware of that distinction, but I wanted to make it explicit here.)

Again, what is the gospel? I believe that a lot of people will answer this differently. We had the assignment in seminary to boil it down into kind of an elevator speech, knowing that HOW we as pastors would proclaim the gospel in different contexts would need to look or sound different than in an academic paper at seminary.

For me, the core message of the goespel is the revelation (apocalypsis) through Jesus Christ that “God” is “good,” meaning that “God” is “for us.”

I put “God” in quotes because it’s a bit of a loaded term. Like “gospel,” if you ask 100 people what it means, you’re likely to get (at least) 100 answers. What *I* mean by God is the Abba witnessed to in the Gospels by Jesus.

I also put “good” and “for us” in quotes. Unpacking that a little, I would say that God being good and for us means that God desires that we, as a species, should flourish. I’m not talking about a “prosperity gospel,” but rather about a commitment by God to us the Creation that we should live abundantly, a desire that we belong to the Kingdom, etc.

Abundant life does not mean, of course, that “anything goes.” Instead, we need to look at everything through a gospel lens: Does what we believe — or more importantly, what we do *liberate* people? Does it *promote human flourishing*? Or does it *bind* people, *accuse* people, seek to *control or exclude* people? Does it *inhibit* human flourishing? Everything we do, espacially as a people who draws our identity from Jesus, needs to be scrutinized in light of those gospel questions.

As I’ve been thinking about this in recent weeks, it has occurred to me that, what I seek to do in my ministry in the parish, is to confront people with the goespel — to shine a gospel light on our congregations (and sometimes personal?) practices and ask, “Does the gospel confirm this? Does it call for us to re-evaluate what we’re doing? Does it outright oppose what we’re doing?”

When Michael Hardin came to visit us last September, he put into words something that has been on my heart especially since the last year of seminary, but was a seed planted way, way back in my Catholic school experience. Michael said that he felt part of his call was “to convert Christians to Jesus.” 🙂 When he said that, it really hit me that this has ALWAYS belonged to my call to the church! I just never knew how to articulate it.

Now, there’s a little caveat I need to add, and I know Michael would agree with this: Converting people isn’t my job. It’s not Michael’s job. It’s not any of our job. Conversion belongs to the work of the Holy Spirit. BUT, what all of us are called to do — some perhaps more than others — is to help people listen to the Holy Spirit so that they can get out of her way and allow themselves to be converted. THIS is what I mean by confronting people with the gospel.

Now, a lot of this work is necessarily deconstructive. A good deal of it is saying, “OK, this is what you believe” or “this is what you practice, but WHY?! Where did you get that? Is it because ‘we’ve always done it that way’? Is it because you’re building this on a solid biblical foundation? Or is it simply an unexamined belief or practice? What happens to it when we scrutinize it under a gospel light?”

Some people are going to resent this work. None of us likes to be confronted. Most of us don’t like to undergo that kind of scrutiny, especially when we’re dealing with long-held or dearly-held beliefs or practices or traditions. I remember a LOT of people getting really angry at professors in seminary, who would force us to bear witness to the WHYs of our beliefs. For a lot of folks, it had to do with things they learned in Sunday School that were just wrong. Or they learned it from beloved pastors or elders, but it had no grounding in truth or reality. Sometimes the arguments got pretty ugly. That happens during a deconstructive phase. But it doesn’t mean it’s bad to have it happen. It’s a GOOD thing, when it leads to REconstruction on more solid ground.

But people hated it in seminary, and they hate it in parishes, too.

The other day I had a good conversation with someone about the Communion server incident, and we got to talking about how I have come to realize that my heart lies with people who have been excluded from the Table. This person said, “Yeah, I’ve noticed that! So-and-so and I were talking about that, and …” At this point, my conversation partner kind of let slip that the two people who had been talking about my passion for the homeless, the addict, etc. felt that it was in that kind of street ministry where I “belonged.”

I can’t say for certain that there was anything to read beneath the surface of that comment, but as I reflected on it for the next couple of days, the thought occurred to me: “Did they mean that I belonged with the street folks INSTEAD of in the congregation?” If so … and this is a HUGE “if,” the implication is “and then you’d leave us alone and let us be comfortable in our tried and true traditions.”

I’ve heard people say that about other pastors folks don’t like, and about pastors who confront congregations, trying to move them to a different place than where they are. Please hear this: I understand discomfort with change. It’s universal. But so is change. Universal and inevitable. It doesn’t make it any more comfortable to know that, but it’s also not helpful to think we can wish change away. It’s GOING to happen, one way or another. Adaptation is change. So is death. It’s going to happen. I would prefer that people choose adaptation, even if it’s painful, to death.

Anyway, got off track there. I’ve heard people talk about pastors that way, saying, “Oh, she was hard to deal with. She really belonged in the seminary teaching. That’s where she would have been the happiest.” The unspoken part of that sentence: “And she would have been out of our hair.”

And this leads me to this last bit: We have a vicious circle going on here, at least in our denomination. We have good seminarys, staffed by good faculty teaching good and enthusiastic seminarians, whom we are ordaining and sending them into parishes that are unwilling to receive them, especially when those newly-minted pastors start asking the “Why” questions, the “how does that square with the gospel” questions. And so we end up with unhappy parishioners AND frustrated pastors, some of whom actually do end up “doing their time” in a congregation, high-tailing it back to get their Doctorates, then heading back to seminary to teach and start the whole thing over again.

What the Church needs is people who are willing to stick it out in the parish, even when the seas get rough. We need people who will work as change agents — not for change’s sake, but for the sake of the liberating, inclusive gospel. Parishes need to learn to listen to the movement of the Spirit who, being the Spirit of Jesus, meets them first where they are, but isn’t satisfied to leave well enough alone. Instead, the Spirit of Christ calls us BEYOND ourselves, our inward-focused budgets, our inward-focused missions, our inward-focused, individualistic, pietistic theologies. The Spirit calls us BEYOND religion into REVELATION. We get apocalypsed. This is the beginning of our deconstruction. And then we get converted. Converted from “Christians” to followers of The Way.

If you want to learn more about this, please consult the book of the Acts of the Apostles as well as Paul’s letters. And of course, don’t forget about the Gospels.

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Lost Sheep, Lost Coins, Lost Sons & Ambassadors of Reconciliation

The last couple of weeks have been pretty rough on a personal level. Lent is one of those seasons that I really, really love. It’s typically quieter than the rest of the year, and I find that the midweek contemplative services we offer at church help fill out a sense of prayerful, meditative contemplation, and that kind of thing really feeds my soul.

This year we’ve been doing a round-robin preaching cycle within our Synod’s “cluster.” (For us, that means the ELCA congregations in and just outside of Tulsa.) While this is a great idea and I think we should keep doing it in the future, this is really exhausting to me. It’s not extra work, per se: Each preacher writes a single sermon, then delivers it every Wednesday in a different congregation. Pretty simple, really, but for me it’s very anxiety-inducing. I need to meet and make myself vulnerable to a brand new set of people every Wednesday evening, and this gets ratcheted up when I’m expected to come and make small talk at the simple suppers beforehand. I’m not complaining about this. Just being honest.

So, yeah, I support this and will keep on doing this kind of thing in the future. As much as I ask our congregation to stretch their comfort zones, I need to also be willing to stretch. And I think the whole thing has been very positively received in each of the congregations so far.

But it’s tiring. And it makes Lent less worshipful for me, somewhat ironically. Combine this with both of my kids entering different phases of independence at the same time (again, a good and healthy thing, but tiring for Mom and Dad), all of the bureaucratic junk that comes with pastoring a congregation, all the time spent meeting with folks inside and outside the congregation, a couple of online classes I’m taking, etc. etc., … Well, it gets to be a little much after a while. Don’t worry. I’m taking a vacation right after Easter, so I should have some time to refill my energy reserves (and take in a couple of movies I’ve been meaning to see).

All of this goes just to say that, in a busy season like this, one has to look for highlights and uplifts wherever they might be found. I found a gem of one on Sunday.

Let me back up a touch. Fridays are generally my sermon-writing days. I spend the first part of the week looking at the texts and letting them sink in, as well as entering “conversation” with some of my favorite study resources. All of this marinates together until Friday morning, when I put it in the oven and pull it out, hopefully less half-baked than the week before.

But this Friday I just wasn’t feeling it. I wrote down some thoughts, but couldn’t bring them together. Synapses weren’t firing well. So I thought to myself, “Well, tomorrow’s Saturday. I hate writing sermons on Saturday, but I just can’t get it done today. I’ll wait until Chris is outside playing with the neighbor kids and Emily is down for her nap.”

Well, Saturday came. Chris went across the street to invite the kids to play. They were getting ready for a trip to their grandparents’ place and wouldn’t be back until Tuesday. Crap. I put Emily down for her nap. 10 minutes later, she’s wide awake. I spent the next 40 mintues trying to put her back down, but she just won’t stay asleep. Double crap.

By the time Christy got home from the book fair she was working, it was time to eat, get the kids ready for bed, and I was wiped. the heck. out.

I went to bed early, but oddly unconcerned. I figured I had enough stuff stewing in my brain to pull together a sermon. Went into the office early, realizing I was under a deadline: I usually pick up a friend who can’t drive and bring her in to church at around 8.

A quick glance at my clock (OK, the clock on my phone, truth be told), I realized I only had about 15 minutes to finish. Just then I get a text. My friend couldn’t make it that day. I felt bad for her, but internally grateful that I had a few more minutes to write.

Cranked out the last little bit and hit “print.” As I got up to retrieve the freshly printed manuscript, the door buzzer sounded. “Great. Now what?” I thought. It was my friend L – a guy who lives on the streets. We’ve known eachother a couple of years now. He comes by to use the phone, the bathroom, and occasionally the shower, but also to hang out and tell me about what’s going on with his life. He’s a very nice guy, especially when he’s sober.

But on Sunday morning, he was schnookered. He could barely stand, but somehow he made it up the stairs to our door. I went out to meet him, and he was half frozen. So he came in and we had some coffee together. His hands weren’t working well, so I helped him wash them, and he asked for a foot washing. How can I turn that down?! Then he wanted to wash MY feet. Boy, did I ever feel like Peter! But he did it, and we prayed together a while.

I offered him one of the prayer blankets our congregation has begun making. It’s a cool ministry. Not only does prayer go into the making of these items, but also we bless them as a community, so they are just infused with prayer. It’s pretty awesome.

By the time I gave him the blanket, he was a little less drunk and almost coherent. I asked him if we wanted to stay for church. Our street friends almost never do that. I think they feel out of place in a worship space where they’re the only ones not dressed up, unshowered and unkempt. Plus, we’re a liturgical church, and while most of our friends from the street are people of faith, they tend to come from a less formal worship setting. Lots of baptists, lots of pentecostals and the like, most of whom feel judged by God and Man for their alcoholic and other moral transgressions. (This is a big reason I think our city – and every city! – needs a voice like the one our denomination has, at least on some level. We know there’s nothing you can do to EARN God’s favor, and there’s nothing you can do, no sin big enough to overpower God’s mercy.)

Anyway, L stayed to worship with us. I knew our Middle Class Lutheran congregation might need a little prep for what could happen with a drunken L among us, so I introduced him as a charismatic friend who is living on the streets. I asked people to go with the flow, and to set aside for a moment our Lutheran shyness and formality, and to come and lay hands on L as we prayed for him.

I was overwhelmed by the positive response. People really went with it! I think the only people who didn’t stand up were those with physical limitations that prevented them from doing so.

Then we worshipped together. The music was great. I preached a sermon on the so-called parable of the prodigal son (in relation to the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin). During the sermon I encouraged folks to notice that, unlike the lost sheep and coin stories, which have a happy ending, the lost son story has NO ending: it winds up with the father and the son standing in the field, with the father urging/pleading with the elder son to come into the party.

I asked people to imagine what will happen in the end. Will the older brother steadfastly refuse to join the banquet? Or will he give in to grace and rejoice with his family? What about when the father eventually dies? Will the older brother follow his father’s wishes and keep the younger son within the fold, or will he excommunicate him as he so richly “deserves?”

We finished the service, and I discovered that L’s brother from Oklahoma City had come to pick him up. We spent a few minutes chatting about L, his recovery issues, where he seems to do better and where his pitfalls are. L’s brother didn’t hold out much hope for recovery. He told me that the other siblings have given up on him entirely, then he said, “All I can do is take him home and sober him up. It might not last long. Sometimes he gets violent with me and I have to turn him out again.”

I said to him, “Well, thanks for taking him back today.”

He responded, “He’s my brother. What else can I do?”

Perfect ending to that parable, don’t you think?

In the midst of a very hectic season, both in the church and at home – a season where my Depression has returned in the past few weeks with a vengeance, and so much of life seems dark and foreboding, something like this happens, and it breathes new life.

I’m thankful for L, for his brother, and for our church community. I don’t know that we’ve done everything we could, and I don’t know what the results of our efforts will be, but I think we’ve all been faithful to St. Paul’s admonition that came in our second reading on Sunday, to become what we were called to be: Ambassadors of reconciliation.

Peace!

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I Saw the Sign…

Some of you locals may have seen our church marquis and wondered about it. Right now it says, “The Bible is not the Word of God; that’s Jesus.”

Hyperbole? Sure. A cheap shot at biblical literalists? No, not intentionally. But it is meant to provoke conversation. A church sign doesn’t always do that, but it can. Many of the messages you’ll typically see on church a church marquis are strictly informational: Name of church, worship times, maybe the pastor’s name, maybe the web address and/or phone number. We’ve got that covered on one side.

Sometimes a church sign will have a little whimsical musing, a message, a verse of scripture. All too often, these become unintentionally hilarious. (For example)

Every once in a while, a sign will provoke people to wonder, “Now just what the heck are they talking about?!” This seems to be the case this time around. We’ve already had some inquiries. The most notable was from a gentleman who has studied Scripture, but says he’s not a believer at all. That was a valuable conversation!

But some of us sitting in the pews might also wonder what the heck it means. Today we were asked for a 30 second run-down, so here goes:

According to John 1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with (or face-to-face with) God, and the Word was God (or divine).” This does NOT refer to the Bible. The Bible, as it’s currently assembled in our particular faith tradition, hasn’t been around for more than 1700 years, let alone from “the beginning.” John is referring here, as he unfolds in his Gospel, to Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, who dwelt among us, who is the perfect image of God. That is the beginning of our understanding about what the Word of God means or is.

In the Lutheran tradition, proclamation about Jesus (aka preaching) is secondarily the word of God. In a tertiary place stands the Bible as the word of God.

That’s the 30 second answer, and so far, that has seemed to satisfy those who felt provoked enough to inquire.

But in case people care to dig a little deeper, we’ll add about another minute and a half worth of run-down, because people might object: “But don’t we know about Jesus in the first place because of the Bible?” Yes, more or less that’s true. Although there still was not “Bible” within the Church for around 200 some years after Christ. Still, that Scriptural witness to Jesus is one of the primary ways we come to know about (and perhaps to know) Jesus. So, we’re not throwing out the Bible entirely as the “word of God,” but we are putting a caveat on it and hoping people will ask what we mean.

The Bible is our authority, but the Bible is complicated. It’s not so much a book as it is a library of books, containing multiple viewpoints, a number of voices – voices that contradict one another in many places. Part of what it means that Jesus takes precedence as the Word over the Bible comes from that contradiction. We have to ask as we read our Scriptures: “Does that sound like something Jesus would say or do?” If the answer is no, we have to follow the Jesus thread as authoritative.

If Scripture says we should dash the heads of our enemies’ babies against the rocks, and we ask the question, “Would Jesus command that?” I’m pretty sure most of us would say, “Absolutely not!”

Some might object, appealing to dispensations or appealing to God giving different messages to different people at different times, but that requires a lot of mental gymnastics, whereas simply asking the cliched-but-valuable question WWJD really simplifies it. If Jesus Christ is, as Scripture attests, the perfect reflection of the Father, and if Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow (again as Scripture testifies), that leads us to ask serious questions about the multiple voices in Scripture. And it must lead to the conclusion that either the Bible is schizophrenic (of that God is two-faced, sometimes wrathful, sometimes merciful), or that our view of the Scriptures needs a serious corrective.

So, neither this post nor the sign are meant to be conclusive statements, but are meant to provoke conversation, reflection, maybe even a little consternation and unsettlement. It’s Lent, after all. What better time for some deep mind and soul work?

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Hashtag ashtag, hashtag blessing

It’s 5:30 p.m. on Ash Wednesday, and it has been one of the busiest and most blessed days of the year so far.

Began this morning the way I begin every weekday morning: by dropping of my Lad at school. It’s normally a fight to get him to school at a reasonable hour, but this morning, he got out of bed in a good mood the very first time I called on him. He ate his breakfast, largely without complaint. Things ran so smoothly, that we even had to wait in the car a few minutes before the school doors opened. This was a miracle.

Went over to a pick up a friend at the edge of downtown – she’s here sort of temporarily from out of state and wound up (like me) accidentally becoming Lutheran. That’s beside the point. But she doesn’t drive, so I went over there and arrived a couple minutes early. Another miracle.

We headed over to Panera bread in the Cherry Street district, as is my wont of a Wednesday morning. Was expecting to meet a prospective new participant at church, but she wasn’t there. That’s cool. I did meet one other person I had been expecting, but also encountered a homeless couple I know. We had had a big falling out a few weeks ago. Since then, every time I’ve seen them, they’ve been clean & sober, articulate, funny even. We all had coffee together and one of our church members said, “This has changed my whole perspective on homeless people.” Another miracle.

Got to church with still no Ash Wednesday sermon prepared, and less than 2 hours to go – plus I needed to get a haircut. Dashed out the door while returning a call to the local synagogue, where one of the rabbis was asking us to partner with them on an English as a Second Language program in our neighborhood. Miracle? Maybe so. A blessing at least.

Got back to the office. Whipped off a sermon. Held a service, which had more people than expected in attendance. It was beautiful and the sermon didn’t seem to have offended anybody. Total freaking miracle! 🙂

After the sermon, went back over to Cherry Street and imposed ashes on one of the waitresses at Panera, the guy who owns the European market, a couple of homeless people on the street, three people in the bar at Kilkenny’s, a shop owner at a quirky furniture store, and got back to the office by 2:15 p.m. Probably not miraculous, but again, a blessing.

I’m sitting now, just waiting for the last Ash Wednesday service of the day. I’m tired but energized at the same time. Miracle? Nah. But a beautiful paradox, and a blessing beyond belief.

A good start to Lent, I’d say. May yours be blessed, as well.

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