Tuesday, December 19, 2006

What I've Learned From Church Planting, Part Two

One of the religious blogs that I follow, well, religiously, is the blog by Bob Hyatt, an evangelical church planter in Portland, Oregon. For those who think that all American evangelicals are all like James Dobson, you will be surprised. (But then, there are many types of evangelicalism out there.)

Bob is revisiting some old posts from 2006 and he talks about "Burger King Christianity," or trying to make church attractive to people. He writes:

...the goal is not to pack a room, and it's not the Pastor's job to get your friends saved. And shame on any pastor whose model allows people to think it is...The attractional model of church is perfectly designed to create consumers of church rather than covenant community... Give them (newcomers) the option/responsibilty of creating a community that makes sense to them, that works for them. Still individualistic? Sure... We're not saying that church should just be "This is what we offer- take it or leave it." But when we make allowances for individualism in healthy ways like creating open source community and allowing people to have a hand in shaping what happens, rather than the unhealthy ways of trying to figure out what it is people want and then working like crazy to give it to them, I think we end up creating more covenant communities and less consumers. And when we call people to create a community that not only works for them but for those around them as well...

When I think about Community of Grace, I think we worked too hard in trying to make CoG attractive and not about making a community and allowing people to have a role in fashioning this. It was there buzzing around in the back on my mind, but the whole jist and thrust was about getting butts in the seats.

I'm still thinking about this. More to come...

Monday, December 18, 2006

I Don't Know. Hallelujah!

I don't know if you heard this on Morning Edition this morning, but they had a wonderful essay on their This I Believe segment from Richard Rohr, a well-known Catholic priest, who decide to talk about his belief in mystery. Here's a snippet:

"...many religious folks insist on answers that are always true. We love
closure, resolution and clarity, while thinking that we are people of "faith"!
How strange that the very word "faith" has come to mean its exact opposite.

How very true. You can read or hear the rest, here.

What I've Learned from Church Planting, Part One

Community of Grace is facing a crossroads of sorts. Attendance has fallen off significantly, and the leadership is just plain exhausted. We have decided to enter a time of discernment and see what happens in the next few months. If nothing changes by May 2007, we will make a decision to end the current form of ministry.

As that time draws near, I’ve wondered what things could have been done differently. I’ve been thinking that if I do this again, or even continue this is some other form, there are some things I would do that I didn’t do this time around.

Gather a group of committed people willing to help plant a church with you. When I started CoG back in 2004, I asked some people who were interested in starting a church and people did show up. However, many of them were not people who committed. That’s nothing against them, it was just this was something they were curious about, but not interested in doing this in the long term. I would spend some time finding people from all walks of life who are interested in planting a church. I wouldn’t only look for church going people, but even those who are curious and willing to stick it out in the long run.

The thing is, having more people that are church planters put less pressure on the pastor and make it a more community building event. Having to carry a church on your shoulders only leaves you tired.

Pray. Yeah, I know this sounds pretty pathetic, but I failed to spend a lot of time in prayer and I didn’t encourage those who were with me, like my co-pastor, to come together in prayer. Prayer isn’t some kind of magic, but it does keep us grounded in God and without it, you start to get really frustrated, really easily. And I did.

Have no other churches before you. Another problem is that I was still involved in another church, as was the co-pastor. It gave the idea that CoG was more a hobby than a real ministry. If I did this again, I would give up membership with my old church and focus on the new church.

Make sure to secure funds for the church. The fact that we had no way to pay staff hurt us. We relied on our denomination for money, but they could only give so much. It was also hard to get others to give, because many thought that was the denomination’s job. Evangelical churches can do a whole lot better in getting financial support. If I did this again, I would basically come up with some kind a spiel that would give people a vision and a way to latch on. A church staff does this for love of God, but they have to pay bills like everyone else.

Build community, NOT a church. One of my favorite verses is Acts 2:42-47. It talks about those first believers coming together as a community. That is what church should be: about building community. Too often we were focused on building a church, a place where people come and get a little God once a week and move on. A community is a place where we learn to be followers of Christ, not just on Sunday, but everyday. We needed to be a people who prayed together, worship together, study the word together and just be together. I’m not talking about a cult, but about trying to be the body of Christ.

Another related thing was that we were trying to do certain things that would draw people. If we used a projector…if we move to this location…if we meet at this time…all of this turned church into a commodity. We should have focused more on being the church.

That’s all I have for now, but I’m sure there are others. Stay tuned…

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Sunday Sermon- Second Sunday in Advent, December 17, 2006

Oscar Romero.

I've been supply preaching the last two Sundays at a Presbyterian Church in St. Paul. Here's the sermon I gave there this morning:

“Not A Tame God, Part Two”
Luke 3: 7-18
December 17, 2006
Edgcumbe Presbyterian Church
St. Paul, MN

From the time I was about seven until maybe I was old enough to drive, my Dad would get me up at about 6am on a Saturday morning once a month to get to the barber shop before they opened around 7:30 or so. A line would form and Dad wanted to be among the first.

I hated doing this. Saturdays were for sleeping in and not trying to get to the barber shop before the other guy. However, we did it and maybe as a token of my patience, Dad would take me to breakfast where I would have pancakes.

I always got the same haircut; short, but not too close. For years, Dad would tell the barber what I wanted. I think when I got around 11 or 12, I started telling the barber what I wanted. Well, one Saturday, when I was about 13, I told the barber I wanted it cut short. So he went to work and I sat not paying attention. When he was done and spun me around, I was shocked; he had cut my hair really short. I mean were talking the next step was looking like Kojack. Now, these days, that is my standard haircut, but back then it wasn't and I thought I looked horrible. I remember just crying like crazy. Here it was, I wanted a little off the top; and I what I got was a buzzcut.

This got me thinking about today's passage; some people wanted a little off the top and John the Baptist was preaching a total buzzcut.

If you remember from last week, I said John the Baptist is not anyone's favorite Biblical character. He's rude and can't say anything nice and he certainly lives up to that in today's gospel, if you can it that. The passage opens with the crowds who were listening to John. Many in the crowd decided to come forward to be baptized. Now, I just celebrated the 30th anniversary of my baptism and I've learned that baptism is about being reminded of God's love for us. I don't think John was sitting in on my seminary class, because he calls those coming forward a “brood of vipers.” He tells them to produce fruit in keeping with repentance and to not rely on religious or family ties for salvation. He talks about an ax that is getting ready to cut down poor producing trees and throw them into the fire.

When was the last time you saw a preacher say that at a baptism? If they did, I can bet they didn't stay in the pulpit very long.

You know, in the past, when I have preached this sermon, I would have said that poor John was off his rocker. He was preaching a message of hell and damnation, a message of what my Lutheran friends like to say, “works-righteousness.” On the other hand, Jesus preached a message of grace. Of course, I said this because John's message is so harsh and seems mean-spirited. But these days, I'm beginning to think John was preaching a message of salvation and grace, but he reminds us this grace isn't cheap, but costly. John, like Jesus, was concerned with how we live. Yes, we are saved by grace not by works, but the eveidence of our faith relies on how we live. The best testimony of being a follower of Christ, is how we live our lives. Do we live them in the same way Jesus did, welcoming all, forgiving others and helping those in need?

A few weeks ago the election of a congressman caused a bit of a controversy. As many of you know, Keith Ellison was elected to fill the seat of Martin Sabo in the US Congress. Mr. Ellison will represent Minneapolis and some its suburbs in Congress and by doing so he is a trailblazer. He is the first African American from Minnesota to go to Washington and he is the first Muslim to be elected to Congress. When Mr. Ellison was asked about taking the oath of office, he opined that he would take that oath on the Koran, the Muslim holy book. That seemed to be a no-brainer since many Christians who serve in Congress as well as the President and Vice President take their oaths on Bibles. However, this didn't set well with radio host Dennis Praeger. Mr. Praeger retorted in a column “Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned, America is interested in only one book, the Bible. If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don't serve in Congress. In your personal life, we will fight for your right to prefer any other book. We will even fight for your right to publish cartoons mocking our Bible. But, Mr. Ellison, America, not you, decides on what book its public servants take their oath.”

Okey dokey.

Mr. Praeger, who is Jewish by the way, seems to think that the only book any person in public office must take their oath on has to be the Bible. Now, personally, believing in the separation of church and state, I don't think that public servants should take the oath of any holy book, but if someone wants to and they are Muslim, why can't they take an oath on a book that means so much to them?

What distrubed me and many others was that Mr. Praeger seems to put the Bible in such high regard and yet ignores its message. Shouldn't he be more concerned with the biblical injunction of helping those in need or not putting anything, including the Bible before God as an idol?

I think if John was around today, he would probably be calling all of us snakes as well. There are too many people, especially Christians, who will shout loudly that they are religious, holy people and yet their actions say sharply otherwise.

That was what John was getting at. Simply believing that God loves us and then turning around and treating your neighbor like crap makes you out to be liar as John the writer says.

There are a lot of people out there who think that to be a Christian means accepting certain truths; Jesus is God's Son, Jesus died and rose again, Jesus is coming soon. If you believe that, then you are all set. But John seems to be saying that's not enough. Of course Christians must believe in all of this, but if those beliefs aren't lived on in our daily lives, are they real to others? If we say we believe in Christ, and yet ignore the poor, or turn people away because they are different, will people really believe us?

Christianity isn't just about accepting certain beliefs; it's also about living as a Christian. John the Baptist told those in the crowd to share with those who have none, don't extort and don't overtax the populace. He was telling people that if they were coming to be baptized; they need to live lives of repentance and not do this just for show.

I know that Edgcumbe is in the midst of trying figure out where to go from here. You have been a faithful community for over 50 years and you'd like to know what kind of community you want to be in the next 50 years. I know there are a lot of meetings and planning and questioning going on. Well, let me add one more question. When people pass this church, what should they see? Will they see a community that puts their faith into action, helping the less fortunate in St. Paul and around the world, one that welcomes the stranger, one that practices the love and compassion of Jesus? I know that this community has been concerned with the widow and the orphan in the short time I have known you. I pray that as you enter this time of discernment, that you continue this practice and seek God's guidence to be more and more God's people.

Advent is a reminder that we need to be stirred to live into God's way of justice. It is not simply the coming of a little baby, but the coming of God who not only saves us, but wants us to join the effort of bring heaven to whole of creation.

A few weeks ago, I was listening to a concert by a local choral group. The designed it the style of a Lessons and Carols service. Between the songs we heard readings from Scripture and passages from poets and authors. One memorable passage was from the slain Archbishop Oscar Romero. He summed up nicely what Advent is all about:

Advent should admonish us to discover in each brother or sister that we greet, in each friend whose hand we shake, in each beggar who asks for bread, in each worker who wants to use the right to join a union, in each peasant who looks for work in the coffee groves, the face of Christ. Then it would not be possible to rob them, to cheat them, to deny them their rights. They are Christ, and whatever is done to them Christ will take as done to himself. This is what Advent is:
Christ living among us.

God isn't interested in shaving a little off the top. God wants us changed, to live lives for others.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Sunday Sermon- Second Sunday of Advent, December 12, 2006

Not a Tame God, Part One”

Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 3:1-6

December 10, 2006

Edgecumbe Presbyterian Church

St. Paul, MN

I have two cats. You'll hear about Felix next week, but this week I want to tell you about Morris. I've had Morris for about five years. He's a beautiful Russian Blue mix. If you've ever seen a Russian Blue cat, you will notice that they have this wonderful grey-blue fur that is just plush. Morris is a definitely a people-person; he loves to be loved and to give love. But, Morris has a dark side. I remember a time shortly after I brought him home from the shelter. He gets on his back, revealing his tummy. He obviously wants someone to run his stomach and he gives you that sweet, innocent look that is just so inviting. So, I started petting his stomach, when out of nowhere I see these two fangs heading towards me. Morris decided to bite me hard enough that I drew blood. I was not pleased.

Then there was the time I had a mouse in my old apartment. I had a recurring problem where the little visitors would end up in the cabinets. As I fretted about it, a friend suggested I open one of the cabinet doors and see what Morris does. So, I did just and that and the next morning, I got up and found a dead mouse; a little present for me.

Cats are cute. Because they look so cute with their fur and purrs, people tend to think these creatures are weak. In reality, the common housecat is a fierce predator not unlike their larger feline cousins. We are fooled by their appearance until they show their true nature.

In today's gospel, we are introduced to John the Baptist, or I should say the adult John the Baptist. Today's gospel doesn't say alot except that he was out proclaiming a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins. And yet it does say a lot. You see, he is the guy that we would not want to invite to our holiday party because he's so uncivil. He isn't polite, he's boorish, probably not playing with a full deck and just an all around jerk. We will find out next week his message of repentance isn't that easy for people to hear.

I don't like John the Baptist and I think there are a lot of you out there that might agree. This isn't a guy who plays well with others and you'd rather just ignore him.

He reminds me of one of those traveling preachers I would hear in the center triad during my college days at Michigan State University. The man would rant and rave about sin and the devil and basically provide a good laugh for the students making their way to the next class. Maybe some saw John the Baptist that way and ignored his message.

But the thing is, you can't ignore his message; not the folks back then and certainly not now. John is preparing us for God's entry into this world and when God arrives, valleys would be filled up, mountains would be made low and people would see that salvation comes from God. John is saying that God is coming and you better be ready, because the very foundations of the earth will be shaken with God arrives.

In popular culture, when we think of Christmas, we think of Jesus being born in a stable, and about shepherds and the Three Wise Men for good measure. We've all seen or participated in those Christmas pageants where the kids dress up as Bible characters and Jesus is usually portrayed by a doll. I sometimes think we want to make Jesus a lot like that doll; sweet, quiet and definitely harmless. Of course, in reality, Jesus' story is 180 degrees different from our quiet image. A ruling king is threatened by this small baby and proceeds to kill all male newborns under two in Bethlehem to make sure no one challenges his authority. This Jesus would grow up and confound his family, saying that whoever does his Father's will is his brother and sister. This Jesus would offend the religious authorities by associating with tax collectors and other sundry folk. He would overturn the tables of the money changers in the Temple. This man would then die the death of a theif, and just when you think everything is over, he confounds death by rising from the dead.

So John knew what he was talking about when he said that people need to get ready for Christ's coming. Valleys would be filled and mountains would be made low by his presence, so we need to be prepared. God's arrival is not a pleasant occasion, but an upheaval, that will demand we get ready and get right.

Our culture likes to skip those times of reflection. Some churches ignore Lent and Holy Week going straight to Easter. Good Friday becomes just a stopover to what happens Easter morning. We do the same with Advent. Advent is time of preparation; a time to take stock and wait for God. However, we skip that and go to the little baby born in a manger. When we do that, we miss why that little baby comes to earth in first place, because their are mountains and crooked roads blocking us from being with God. The sin, the injustice found in the world keeps us from communing with God. God comes to be with us, to save us, to redeem us through his Son, Jesus Christ.

Outside of the walls of this church today, there are many people dealing with mountains that seem to big to cross. Some are dealing with little resources to buy food and shelter. Some are dealing with the terrors of war. Some are being abused by someone who was supposed to take care of them. Some are dealing with those who opress them because they are different. There are mountains and valleys and crooked roads everywhere. This is what Advent reminds us. But this is also a time of hope, because we know that God is coming to bring down the mountains and make the crooked ways straight. We who follow Christ, must share that message with those who feel that all hope is gone. They must know that day of the Lord is surely coming and injustice will soon end.

So, I'm waiting until the end to tell about the meaning of my sermon title. Some of you might know where it comes from: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis. When the children are first told about Aslan the Lion, they wonder if he is safe. One of their their hosts, the Mr. Beaver, responds, "Safe? Course he's not safe. He's good. But he's not a tame lion."

God is not a safe God. God comes and upsets us, disturbs us and saves us. God is good and wants to bring healing to the world. But get ready for a bumpy ride.

We are not done talking about this disturbing God. Stay tuned. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Face of Christ?

Congresswoman-elect Michelle Bachman.

On Saturday evening, I went to a concert by a choral group that my partner, Daniel is in. It was structured in the style of a Lessons and Carols serivce, with songs interspersed with readings from Scripture and writers. One reading was from the Bishop Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran priest that was assinated in the early 80's. He describes what Advent is all about:

Advent should admonish us to discover in each brother or sister that we greet, in each friend whose hand we shake, in each beggar who asks for bread, in each worker who wants to use the right to join a union, in each peasant who looks for work in the coffee groves, the face of Christ. Then it would not be possible to rob them, to cheat them, to deny them their rights. They are Christ, and whatever is done to them Christ will take as done to himself. This is what Advent is:
Christ living among us.

I think it's a powerful statement, especially in this time when those who call themselves Christians are working hard to not be Christ-like to those who are gay. But, in some way, that's too easy for some of us. I mean, for those of us who work for justice by feeding the hungry or practicing radical welcome to agree with this and even think we are sitting damn pretty in God's eyes. We love those who are different and welcome them into our lives. We are not like those horrible people who don't help the less fortunate, or practice hospitality to those who don't look like ther rest of us.

But the thing is, we are not simply called to see Christ in the poor single mother, or the young gay man, we are also called to see Christ in those who are...well, assholes.

Here in Minnesota, a woman has been elected to Congress that is not loved by many in this state. Here name is Michelle Bachmann and she's made quite a name for herself as a state senator. For several years, she has tried to put forth a bill that would put the definition of marriage up for a vote in a referendum. If that passed, same-sex marriage and its equivalents would be banned (no matter that there is already a law that bans gay marriage). Luckily, the bills were bottled up serval times and never been voted on by Minnesotans.

Needless to say, she hasn't made many friends among the gay community and their allies and rightly so. She has been called many things, none of them kind.

I don't like Ms. Bachman. I think she is a mean and spiteful person and I don't understand why she is now becoming a congressperson. But the fact is, Christ died for her. She is loved by God and as a follower of Christ, I am called to love her.

In the Bible, Jesus calls us to love our enemies. It's funny how often I hear about that verse and how people hurl it towards others, but how seldom it's followed. When Jesus uttered those words during the Sermon on the Mount, you have to wonder if people were offended by his words. Jesus was asking the people there, most of them Jews, to love their Roman oppressors. That would be a hard thing to hear, something that seemed almost callous. How could they love the Romans?

How could I love Michelle Bachman? It's not easy, but I think I am called to. That's what a follower of Christ does. That doesn't mean I will ignore her actions, but it does mean that I see her as a child of God and respond in love.

During Advent, we talk a lot about Christ becoming incarnate, or becoming flesh and blood and living among us. I sometimes think we really don't understand the full implications of that. We like to talk about Christ becoming a sweet baby or that Christ came to the poor (we tend to romanticize the poor, instead of seeing them as humans just like everybody else). We make Christ kind of sweet and nice and pitched his tent with these nice people. It's kinda like Christ joined the PTA or something. Christ becomes incarnate with a buch a of nice people, but not those mean and nasty homophobes or racists or gasp...Republicans.

But the fact is Incarnation means Christ became one with a humanity that was corrupt and dark. A man who knew no sin made his way on earth with some truly bad people. Christ did this because God loved all of creation, even the rotten apples, which would be all of us in reality.

So, I'm going to love Michele Bachman knowing she has the face of Christ. Yes, I work against her actions which harms people, but I will also see her as a child of God and pray for her salvation.

"For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God," says Paul in his letter to the Romans. I'm not perfect. I fall short. The glorious fact is the Christ came and saved me, and not just me, but all of creation.

Michele Bachman, child of God. May you love as Christ love and may I as well. Amen.

Monday, December 04, 2006

"Midnight is When the Day Begins." Sunday Sermon- First Sunday in Advent, 2006

“Stir It Up!”
Luke 21:25-36
December 3, 2006
Community of Grace Christian Church
Minneapolis, MN

This week has been hell.

Not a good way to start a sermon, I know, but I need to be honest, this week has been sheer hell for me. It's not been a bad week event wise per se, unless you count the apparent death of my iPod because it went plop into my cat Felix's water dish. But emotionally, it has been damn hard. It took a lot of energy to finally get excited enough to plan today's sermon.

What was the source of my unhappiness? It was being the pastor of a new church. We haven't been able to get new people to come, and it sometimes seems like we can't get other churches to help us grow and prosper. We are coming to a time when we may have to close the ministry. If that's not bad enough, you start to wonder if you did something wrong to cause all this. It doesn't help that I suffer from clincal depression, so when I get down, I really get down. I feel like I'm in a deep valley with now way of getting out. There is no chance of hope.

We really don't live in very hopeful times. Take a look at the news today and you will see the headlines filled with dire news. The signs of global warming are becoming more evident daily and will wreak havoc on the earth's climate for our future ancestors. HIV/AIDS is still rampaging the planet, especially among some of the world's poorest people in places like South Africa or Uganda. Iraqis and American soliders live in daily fear of a car bomb going off while they are at the market or going to worship. The opening years of 21st century seem very bleak and we wonder what kind of world we are going to leave for the children who follow behind us.

Today's gospel text is doesn't seem like an Advent text. Here we are, waiting for Christ's coming into the world, and Jesus decides to take a page from “Left Behind.”

The thing is, I think Jesus was right. He talks about a time that is very dark, indeed. Jesus isn't trying to be cute, he is being realistic. Bad times were on their way, if not already here. In Jesus time, the Jews were dealing with Roman occupation. There is not much hope here. When Jesus talks about being weighed down, I can relate. Depression in many ways is like a weight that is pressed on your heart and you can't see that there is any tomorrow at all.

And yet, there is hope. There is hope in the midst of this darkness, just as the Winter Soltice tells us that that the days are getting longer. In this text, he says that the Son of Man is coming and that creation's redemption is near. That Son of Man is Jesus himself. His coming into the world bring us hope and not just that, it bring us salvation, healing.

The birth of Christ changed everything. This was proof positive that God was not against us, but with us and walked among us. Because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we are redeemed and when Christ returns we will be made new.

This is the hope that we have. It's the thing that keeps us going; the fact that Christ made us whole before we were born, is prefecting us now and will redeem us on that final day.

Since cold weather is up on us, this is the time of year that I start making chili. One of things I've noticed is that if I leave the chili to cook, all the indredients will settle to the bottom. On the surface, it looks like I'm cooking a big pot of tomato soup. So, of course, I get the spoon out and start stirring things up and lo and behold, all the ground beef, chopped tomatoes and onions end up on the top. Before, the soup was weighed down, after I stirred things up, the chili was alive with color and textures.

You've noticed that the theme for Advent is “Stir Up Your Power, Lord Christ and Come.” Advent is a time to remind us to be watchful for Christ's coming into the world. We are stirred out of our boredom and fear and in it's place given hope. We are stirred to share this message with a world that doesn't have much hope at all, especially at this time of the year. We are called to stir up the hearts of those facing the first holiday season without a loved one, to stir up those who are facing unemployment, to stir up those who are dealing with depression, bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses, to stir up those who are facing a cold night with no place to call home. We are called to share this message of hope in word and in deed.

That is what we, this small community called Community of Grace, must do. We must go out and share that message of hope with others. Tell them about hope. Tell them that God is with them and show that by befriending them. I want people to know that Community of Grace is a place where we share hope with a world that doesn't have much hope.

A few years ago, the Irish rock group, U2 released a song called “Lemon.” This is one of the few songs, where the lead guitarist, the Edge, actually sings. During one part of the song, while lead singer Bono is singing in a falsetto voice, the Edge sings, “midnight is when the day begins.” Wow. How true that is. Midnight is the darkest of the dark and yet it is the beginning of the day. In a few hours daybreak comes.

We all deal with our dark times. And yet, hope is on its way. It doesn't mean the problems will go away, but we know that God is with us, there to hold us and remind us that he will be with us for always.

Midnight is when the day begins. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Introducing "Soul Soup"

Beginning, Sunday November 5th, Community of Grace will start "Soul Soup." We will have our usual worship service and then have soup made by our Cantor and Co-Pastor, Dan Adolphson. Drinks will be provided. The meal is free, but there is a suggested donation of $2 is asked to help defray the costs. Anyone is invited and you don't have to be a part of Community of Grace to join.

This is going to be a new tradition at CoG every first Sunday at least during the winter months. It will be a great way to fellowship with people and foster community, something that is an important value to our group.

This first "Soul Soup" will take place at Lake Harriet Christian Church instead of our usual location at Lutheran Church of Christ the Redeemer due to scheduling conflict. After that, it will be held at LCCR.

So, if you live in the Twin Cities area and would like a free or incredibly cheap meal, stop on by. If you'd like more information about "Soul Soup," please contact Dan Adolphson at dan@communityofgracemn.org.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Sunday Sermon-October 22, 2006

It was a small night at church...just three people, myself, Dan, the Cantor and Daniel, my partner and accompanist. Oh well, where two or three are gathered...

Anyway, this is the sermon I shared with them. It's on my thoughts concerning the missional church. Enjoy.

“To Serve Man”
Mark 10:35-45
October 22, 2006
Community of Grace Christian Church
Minneapolis, MN

Most of you know that I love science fiction. I'm not that bad of sci-fi geek as to own a pair of Vulcan ears and head down to the nearest trekkie convention (though I have been to one), but I do love science fiction. What I love best is how this genre can take a current issue and set in another time or place. Star Trek has done that fairly well. The original series dealt with issues such as war and race relations, while the more current versions dealt with issues like rape and war crimes.

Another series that did this well was the Twilight Zone. Hosted by Rod Serling, this series tackled this issues of its time in the late 50s and early 60s. The stories still hold up to this day. One episode that I remember (and you probably do as well) is one where Earth is visited by Aliens who seem to come in peace. The offer to help the planet and they do. In exchange, people from earth end up making reciprocal visits to the alien planet. When the aliens first arrive, a book is left behind and a few people from the government try to translate it. They are able to get as far as the title, which is: To Serve Man. As time goes on, one of the translators is getting ready to visit the alien planet. As he approaches the spaceship, his assistant runs to the ship warning the translator to not board the ship. As she is prevented from reaching her comrade by an alien, she screams “IT'S A COOKBOOK!”

We learn that being served has more than one meaning.

Well, this week was not an easy week for me. Being a new church pastor means dealing with a roller coaster of emotions, and this week it seemed like everything was going downhill. In some conversations with Dan, we both wondered if this congregation could survive. We were tired, frustrated and feeling emotionally and in some cases, physically spent. There were a lot of questions about what we were doing and if it was of any value. Maybe it was time to give up.

It was at that time that I did some thinking and I started to wonder what would happen if we thought about this church differently. What if we decided to really, and I mean really, not focus on how many people are in the seats, but focused on the church that we are? What if we focused on being a community, a missional community, one that's very nature is to try to be like Jesus and serve the world (but not for dinner)?

You see, I think part of our problem is that we have been trying to create something that brings people into the pews. So we have moved to certain locations, tried innovative worship services, shouted to the rooftops that we are welcoming of gays and lesbians and even have thought about trying to meet at different times in order to get people interested, and people aren't interested and we get upset and frustrated-or I should say- I get upset and frustrated.

I'm beginning to think that I was on the wrong track. What we have been trying to do is create a church that I think would cater to the prevailing culture, I don't want to call it “American” because it's more than our native culture, but I will call it a culture that tends to view things as commodities or consumers. In a way, we have been marketing ourselves to the wider culture and they have passed us by. Now there are some churches that do well in marketing to the wider culture and they pack them in. But I tend to think that their worship services are more productions that one could find at the Ordway Theatre.

Is the purpose of the church to be another consumer item that is made attractive in order to buy? Now, I have no problems with being a consumer or with capitalism or anything, but I don't think that as follower of Christ we are called to be another shiny item to be bought and sold like a Lexus.

So what should Community of Grace strive for? If trying to have nice worship services and if I do say so myself, nice website, is not what church is all about, then what is it?

I think the answer lies in today's gospel. Two of Jesus' disciples came up to Jesus and asked for the best seats next to Jesus. Jesus basically tells them that following Jesus means that you probably won't be getting the best places in society. When the rest of the apostles hear about this, they are furious at James and John. Jesus then tells them that unlike the Gentiles who tend to fight for being number one, anyone who follows him must be a servant to his brothers and sisters.

That, my friends, is what we should strive for: to be a community of faith where mission to the world, service, is not just a nice thing, but who we are. It is about following Jesus gracefully, and trying to live like Jesus. Community of Grace needs to be a missional church.

So, what does that entail? I'm still sorting this out, but a few things:

First, we have to be a community. That means that we have to be a place where we are known to each other. So much of our modern culture is so atomized, where we live lives anonymously, disconected from each other. There are many people who attend churches, come in for worship and leave without meeting another soul. That is not what church should be about. Church should be a place where we are known and where relationships are made as we seek to serve Christ and our brothers and sisters.

Second, we have to be a praying community. I am thankful to see our sisters at Lake Harriet Christian who meeting weekly for prayer. If we are engaged in mission, then we need to be more willing to “get online” with the one who sustains us. Praying isn't magic, but it will keep us grounded in God. I am proposing we consider meeting for prayer every other week or at least monthly. Prayer is a good way of sharing each other's burdens and the burdens of the world.

Third, we need to be a missional community. Mission means being Christ to the outside world. When Christ ended his earthly ministry, he told his followers to go into all the world preaching and teaching to obey Jesus' teachings. We need to be about inviting people, not just to church, but to journey with us and find out about what it means to follow Jesus. We need to go and do mission projects, not because they are nice, but because we are called to feed the hungry and care for the widow and the orphan. I have to believe there are many people who long to hear the liberating message of Jesus. We need to be willing to share that word and then back it up by living a Christ-like life.

Fourth, we need to be a horizontal community. You know, when we started the every week worship services, we did with an emphasis on not wearing the ministers out. But what we have done, is really de-emphasize the minister and preaching. And that's a good thing. In most churches the highlight of the service is what I'm doing now-the sermon. That is the staple of Protestant worship. I still think it has a role, but we worship God in so many ways beyond what I say. We worship when have our contemplative services and when Dan leads us in his music based services. The other thing that churches do is look at people like me, ministers, as the spiritual experts. It creates a top down structure, where the pastor is the holy person who does all that holy stuff for us. But I think that in a missional church, the pastor is more of a facilitator than some kind of expert. Yes, he or she should be trained, but not as an expert, but a guide.

On a related note, I am very thankful for Dan and Daniel. When we started, I decided to call Dan a Cantor instead of Music Director. I thought it was a cool old church word and nice than Music Director. But in doing some research, Dan realized that a Cantor is a minister in their own right. What we were doing is emphasizing that music is an equal in worship, not just a nice side note before the pastor speaks. A missional community sees every one as an intregal part of the community and no one is more important than others.

Finally, we need to be a disagreeing yet united community. Let me explain. One of the wonderful thing about being a Disciple is that we are a very broad community. Because we are non creedal, and because we believe everyone must study the Scriptures for themselves, we have diverse opinions. Some of us are Trinitarians, some of us are more Unitarian. We don't see things the same way on a host of issues. And you know what? That's okay! We are united in Christ and that's more enough. To be a community doesn't mean we agree on everything. We might read the same Bible and have different views on war or tax policy, but that's okay.

There's a lot more to talk about, but we can get to that later. Community of Grace is sticking around and I think it will grow. But it will grow because of God's work, not ours. Our job is to try to follow Christ teachings and be Christ to the world.

To serve man and God. That's what it's all about. And not with fava beans and nice bottle of Cianti.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Church Plants and Gays, Part One

Community of Grace started from the get go as an open and affirming church, meaning we openly welcome gays and lesbians. Well, you'd think that would have made some people take notice, but it didn't.

It hasn't been a total failing. We have one person who is a vital part of the church that came because CoG was a welcoming place. But as for others, it is hard to get them to come to church. I'm beginning to think that bad publicity is much more effective than good publicity. Many gays and lesbians have had bad experiences in church and therefore see all churches as somehow suspect.

A lot of the people that Dan and I know just don't seem interested. However, they will attend "showtunes" at a local gay bar in Minneapolis. I've been there myself after service a few times and it is fun. A friend of mine looks for video clips from movies and television and you see a crowd of gay men singing a long. There is a gang of people that always attends and finds some sense of community there.

Of course, for a population that has been beaten down like gay men, it's easy to find solace in old movies and broadway tunes. I can totally understand the popularity of this event.

My partner in crime, Dan, thinks we should hold service earlier to allow those who want to go to showtunes a chance to worship and then go. I hesitate, because we could do that and not have anyone showing up. I tend to think this issue is deeper than just the time frame and it will take a lot more than offering an easier time to entice people to church.

There is an old saying that Christ has no hand and feet but ours. Well, if you see those hands and feet, not to mention mouths, saying that you aren't welcomed at church because of your sexuality and even says you are going to hell because of it, well, you have basically said Christ thinks the same way.

Only, Jesus doesn't. The hard part is convincing my friends.

My friend Jim is a part of this church because it welcomes him. My guess is that he doesn't have as much baggage about the church and saw more about God than what he viewed from the pulpit. I wonder if there are others like Jim out there and even moreso, how do you persuade those whose hearts are more hardened towards the church.

More on this later...

Friday, October 20, 2006

Making a Difference

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!’

-Matthew 13:1-9

For some reason, I felt the need to watch the ending of "It's a Wonderful Life," and lo and behold, it was on You Tube.

At some level, regarding Community of Grace, I'd love that the ending of that movie would happen to us. Just when things seem bleak, people would rush in and save the day. I would love if that happened, but in some way, that's only a part of the story.

As we all know, this story is about George Bates, a man with a good heart that kept getting slammed by the world. At some point he wishes he wasn't born and an angel gives him his wish: he gets to see a world where he never existed and what a bleak world it was.

The moral of the story: that even if we think we are insignificant, we are the thread that can determine the fate of others.

At some level, I tend to think that the congregation has been a failure and I've also wondered about my own talents and abilities. But I also tend to think about the impact we have made. We made a difference to Jim, the guy who has been a faithful attender. He was estranged from the church because of his sexuality and now he has a place. And then I think of the fact that Dan and I were able to minister to many of our friends after the suicide of someone we knew.

I think we have made a difference, whether we prosper in the next year or so, remains to be seen.

For some reason, (actually I know the reason) I am mindful of the parable of the sower. The Sower spreads the seeds among differing soils and the seed is affected by the ground. I think it fell on good soil with Jim. I just hope there are others who have a similar soil.

Even if the church closes, at least I can say I made some difference.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Church Planting and Mainline Church

I sometimes wonder if mainline Protestant churches really have a passion for new churches. I won't go into the nitty gritty of the situation with Community of Grace ,but I get this sense that for many people, a new church is not high on the priority list.

Case in point. I was having a conversation a few months ago with a friend of mine. He is also a pastor and recently came out as a gay man after three decades of marriage. He's coming to terms with being gay and with how society and the church deal with his sexuality. The whole "gay debates" have not hit the Disciples with the same ferocity that it has other denominations, but we do have some issues. He railed about the homophobia in the church. It was obvious he was angry and mad, about the injustice and rightly so. At some point though, I tried to talk about working for change and why Community of Grace exists; to be a place where everyone is welcome regardless of who they are (including sexual orientation). His retort was that I had to go and start a church to be a pastor; no other church would hire me because of my sexual orientation.

I was a little hurt. Yes, there might be some churches that might not call me because I'm gay. But, there might be some churches that don't care, either. But what really bothered me was the assertion that since Community of Grace kind of started without the Region's permission, it was not real. I had to start a church to be a pastor because no one would want me.

I didn't decide to plant a church simply because I was not accepted by the larger church. That might have been a small part, but the larger part was a desire to plant a church, even though I didn't want to. I truly believe God wanted me to plant a church, a church that was welcoming of gay people and so I went about doing that.

But my friend's retort reminded me of how new churches are met by mainline Christians with a collective shrug at times. It's not that people or church authorities are trying to stifle new churches, but at times I sense people are not as passionate about new churches.

Ron Robinson talks about how mainline Christians tend to be so wrapped up in the next big thing or cause, that they tend to ignore the present context. He writes:

We are so busy investing ourselves in the next big thing, or the new and improved thing, the cause around the corner that we don't realize how this keeps us from being grounded where we are and to hear the calling of our context. Progressives love progression, I think, because it keeps us in the life of the mind--the future will come to us as an idea, we think. Not sure I want to blame this most recently on Whitehead, blessed be his name, and Process Thought, but there is something to how the Creator as Creativity comes to us Cultural Creatives, and becomes something like a mind-hit, an addiction to the next idea and the next, etc. (you will no doubt remind me to read my James Luther Adams and my F.H. Hedge and my George Huntston Williams on Hedge to know this is nothing new but of course the predictable failing; I am just wondering if we have forgotten it)...

...Maybe this is a reason why there is so little concern or conversation about church planting among us? We, progressives in many religious affiliations, are focused on getting our existing churches to catch up with us and our enlightenments, and spend much energy on transforming the old wineskins to handle the new wine of various causes. We stay attached to the "churches that are" in order to have a place for us to continually reinforce and act out our identity as progressives.

If we worried equally about how the ancient would be incarnated in the future, as we do about how the present can be transformed to better fit our current ideologies/theologies, then we would have church planting perpetually on our agenda. It would be one of our reasons for being. Ancient Christian faith has the Great Commandment and Great Commission at its core (two liberal commandments by the way) and so it compels us to be so committed. The committment to plant and relate to new people comes first--the particular kind of church planting, or relationship-creating, will come afterwards. Our progressive understanding of right relationships comes afterwards and answers the question of how we plant. The why and the must comes first.

For me, I've wanted to be about creating inclusive churches. Many of my fellow friends in the mainlne Protestant church are involved in "the church that are," as Ron calls them. They want them to share whatever view people have, be it being more inclusive of gays and lesbians or women in the church. It's an important task, but it blinds them to the ability to be evangelists, bringing God's liberating word to people who desparately need it.

This questions comes up when I talk to some of my Lutheran friends. Many are rightfully upset that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American can still bar "practiciing" gays and lesbians from being ministers. Many of them have worked for inclusion and time and again, they come up short. I've heard people comment that these moves make gays and lesbians feel unwelcome in the church. That might be the case on one level, but then I look at the many inclusive Lutheran churches in the Twin Cities area. People who were once not going church because of their sexual orientation, are now part of a Christian community. Some of these churches have even went as far as to call gay ministers in defiance of the ban.

The fact is justice is proceeding even if the official church still has its head in the sand. And yet, many of my friends ignore what God is going despite the efforts to stifle the Spirit. They are so focused on what the national body will or won't do that they ignore what is going on at the local level.

In the Disciples, I remember being involved with a group at another church in the Twin Cities that wants to become Open and Affirming. Every few years they meet and try to get somewhere, but the effort is stymied by the some of the old guard. A few years back I finally asked about starting a church that is already open and affirming. The idea was poo-poohed. In fact, none of those involved have supported Community of Grace.

The funny thing is that Community of Grace is living out what they desire. We have gays in leadership, and we have helped bring people who were estranged from the church because of their sexual orientation, back into fellowship with other Christians and with God. Others are talking about change, butI feel CoG is doing something.

I think that it is the new churches that could lead the mainline church in the coming decades, taking us in new directions in being church. But that is only going to happen if mainline Christians give a damn about these new communities. Continually placing new wine in old wineskins while leaving those new wineskins unused isn't a sound strategy. It's way past time to use those news wineskins and let them grow into what God wants them to be.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Rantings of a Church Planter (It's Not Me)

I was surfing the net and stumbled upon a blog by a church planter. I agree with most his rants. His talk about being a church planter vaguely resembles mine:

There is nothing easy about a church plant. We set up and tear down every week. Every Saturday we wonder if people are going to show up. We are the pastor, IT guy, graphic designer, etc. Pastoring an established church isn't easy either but it would be a lot easier sometimes to find a church that didnt have to deal with the stuff we deal with.

I totally agree. I don't have a church administrator, so I'm the one who designed and maintained the webpage, designed the bulletins and flyers, write edit and mail the newsletter and when I have the chance, plan worship services and write a sermon to preach. Did I mention I'm also the chief fundraiser? When you are a new church pastor, you do it all. It is not easy; in fact, it's damn tiring.

At times, I've thought seriously about just giving this all up and find a nice small church to pastor and get a check from it (yeah, I don't get paid for all this. Well, that's not totally true- the middle ajudicatory in my denomination has given us a small grant that went to stipends, but without that, I'm pretty much not getting money). I mean, I get tired of trying to do my 40 hour week job and then try to plan a church service. I get tired of asking for financial support from people. I get tired of wondering if the church will survive with lack of funds.

Seems like Greg's been there too:

Every Monday I am so worn out I can barely get out of bed. Every Monday I tell my wife that I just want to find a small mountain church where all I have to do is preach three times a week and visit the members and get a paycheck. Every Monday I just want to find a place where they don't want the pastor to be the leader, have a vision or reach lost people. Sounds a lot easier to me. Then DeAnna reminds me that yes I could do that but that I would die a slow death. She is right. She always is.

The thing is, I have a passion for new church. This is what I want to do. Being the pastor of a new church has been hard, but it has also stretched me in ways that I never would have in an established church. While I don't agree theologically with Greg, I can understand his passion:

The fact is we don't do church the way we do to be cool. I am sure some do but they don't last very long. We do it because we think people are dying and going to hell. Because of that conviction, we feel as if we must do WHATEVER it takes to reach these people. I could care less about doing church the way we do it. If there was another way to reach lost people, we would do it. I admit I take it personally when people say these things because I know what fuels me and the church planters I know is very simply that fact that we have a burning desire to reach those people that would never darken the door of an established church. That is it. I don't care about anything else. We don't do it for the money, because it easier, because it is the way to build a church, we simply do it because people need to hear the message of Jesus Christ.

Now, I'm not sitting here worrying that someone is hellbound. I used to, but these days, I believe in a more gracious God. However, he is correct that there are a lot of people who come to Community of Grace that would never darken the door of an established church. Many of them have felt unwelcomed because of their sexual orientation, and now they have the certainly that God loves them just the way they are.

I wish that people were more passionate about new churches and about finding ways to support them. CoG is doing some great things reaching out and showing that God loves them in word and deed.

Being a new church pastor is hard, but damn well worth it.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Help Community of Grace Hire an Accompanist!

headshot_dan_adolphsonMost of you know this is Dan Adolphson, the Co-Pastor and Music Director (Cantor) for Community of Grace Christian Church. Right now Dan is pulling what little hair he has (and we do mean what little hair). You see, Community of Grace is looking to hire an accompanist to assist Dan with the music during our services. And with the help of my boyfriend Daniel, Dan found someone that would be a great asset to our team.

There is just one teensie problem:


So, this is where you all come in. For Community of Grace to hire this person, we need about $1000 to $1500. Some of this we will get through a grant, but we need to come up with the rest.

I'm asking you to consider giving what you can to help Dan out. Whatever you can give-even if it's $5 will go a long way to helping Dan hire this wonderful musician.

If you want to donate, you can go to the donation button that the bottom of this post. Please consider helping Community of Grace out. Don't let Dan have to tear those 10 remaining strands from his head. Thanks.

*Dan's going to kill me, but you have to have a sense of humor in raising money. You just gotta.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Money and the Church

There are times I want to believe that a church can be started and operated with little to no money. I want to believe the pastors and church musicans will work out of the goodness of their hearts with no concern for payment.

But the fact is, if you want to have an effective church, you do need some money.

Every so often, something happens that jolts me out of my happy thinking. I hit that on Wednesday evening. Community of Grace wants to have an accompanist that will work with our Cantor, Dan. I asked him where we were in the process, and he said that it was pretty much halted. The musicians want to be paid, and I can't blame them. You put in a lot of time and hard work, and you want to get some reumneration for that. Not to mention, church people have financial needs just like anyone else.

My boyfriend, who is a music director, has offered to help us in the meantime and I am thankful. He is a whiz at the piano. The only concern I have is he has a job in North Dakota and then drives five hours to see me. After a long day, I feel bad asking him to play again.

It's also hard to get accross to people the need for financial support. Our Region doesn't have a whole lot of financial resources, so we have to rely on the kindness of strangers. In this part of the country,it is hard to move people to support a new church like hours. You do try to tell people it costs to keep a website going or to get hymnals and the like and it seems to fall on deaf ears.

I also battle with the thoughts that all we have to do is meeting in living room and maybe listen to taped music or something. I remember attending an Anglican church a few years back that didn't have a pastor at the time. It was a very small congregation that was basically a house church. They never started on time and sometimes had a "community sermon" where people would talk about the scripture that day. At first, it seemed exciting. But after a while, it became boring and felt more like unattractive chaos. There is nothing wrong with being a house church; it's just that this isn't what I want. I would like some order and for church to feel like church. I did the meeting in living rooms thing in college and have no desire to do it again.

Then there is the fact that I or the cantor are getting paid. Neither of us are working in the church for the money. I can't speak for Dan, but I love what I do and would do it for free (as I have virtually done for two years). But the reality, is that I have bills to pay. Pastors have house notes, car notes and student loans just like everyone else. So, why do I feel like a leech when I desire to want to make even a small salary for all the work I do? Would I feel this way if I were a lawyer?

Blech. I wish money wasn't a concern.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Where is the Church?

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to do my first funeral service.

It wasn't one I wanted to do. Someone well known in a subsector of the Twin Cities gay community committed suicide over Pride Weekend last June and his death sent shockwaves throughout the GLBT community and the wider community as well. The service was pretty emotional, to say the least. I didn't know this guy well, but I did know him and will miss him.

This person's death made me start wondering a lot about church and about our role in the wider world. In the past year, I've been busy trying to develop new and flashy services to get people into the church. The results at Community of Grace haven't been very positive. All of this caused a lot of frustration on my part. Why wouldn't someone want to come to our church? While I was kevetching about getting more butts into pews; there was a guy my age in deep emotional pain.

I'm not under any illusions that I or anyone else at CoG could have prevented him from taking his life. But I do wonder what would have happened had someone been there for him to talk to if he wanted to.

For the last year, I operated under the assumption that I needed to get people to church. I was wrong. Remember the Great Commission? Jesus tells us to go into the world and be his witness, NOT to bring them to church. As Christians, we are called to be in the community, to be witnesses of Christ to a hurting world.

And no, I'm not talking about sharing Bible tracks or telling people to "come to Jesus." I'm talking about entering our daily lives and being who were are: followers of Christ. It means being honest that we are Christians and being there for others. Maybe that means feeding a hungry person. Maybe it means being a listening ear to someone that just wants to talk. When we show love and concern for others we are being Christ's witnesses.

This summer, Communuity of Grace took a summer sabbatical to prepare for fall. I can tell you that the direction of church will change. Our worship services have to be less about packing them in and more about empowering people to go into their daily life at work and at play and "being Church" to others. It will be more about a church on a journey, instead of a destination.

It's sad that it took a tragedy for me to wake the hell up.

Where is the Church? Hopefully wherever there are people.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Explorers Wanted.

I sent this email out to spread the word about Community of Grace. If you know of anyone who lives in the Twin Cities area and is interested, please send them my way. Thanks.

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, 'Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.' Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
-Matthew 4:18-22

Dear Friends,

Community of Grace is looking for a few good people.

As many of you know, about two years ago, I helped start a new church called Community of Grace. The community has had its ups and downs over the last two years, but we have made a difference in the lives of people here in the Twin Cities.

As we near our second anniversary, I'm sending out an email to seek people who are willing to join this ragtag bunch. Since we started in 2004, we have been a small group that meets for worship. This small group has done some wonderful things, such as raise $1000 for the Minnesota AIDS Project. But for Community of Grace to thrive, we need a slightly larger group that can work together as a team to do God's work in the world.

This is where you come in.

We are looking for 15-25 people who would be willing to commit to being part of this new church. We are looking for solid people who are ready for an adventure, believe in the vision of Community of Grace and are ready to contribute their piece to a shared vision. I know that many of you know people like this or at least, know people who know people like this. Talk to your friends. Share this email and the attachment with them. Go to our website to learn a little more about us and pass that on to some "spiritual thrill-seeker" that you happen to know.

Who knows...maybe it's you that is looking a for an adventure!

If you find someone that is crazy enough to join us in our journey, feel free to have them contact me. I can be reached at dennis@communityofgracemn.org.

When Jesus called the disciples, he was calling them to leave their ordinary lives and join an adventure, and what an adventure it was. God still calls each one of us today, to live lives for others.

Thanks and I look forward to receiving messages from fellow Explorers.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Sermon-Trinity Sunday, June 11, 2006

“Three is a Magic Number”
Isaiah 6:1-8, John 3:1-17, Romans 8:12-17
June 11, 2006 (Trinity Sunday)
Community of Grace Christian Church
New Brighton, MN


That one little word, sends fear into the hearts of many an adult, when a child asks it. I remember when I was about seven or so and I was playing with my friend Quentin. We had to come in for a moment, while his mother gave him some medicine for his asthma. I was curious about this so I asked why he had to take the medicine. I had asthma too, so I wanted to know. She answered my question and then I asked another one which I can't remember. After a while, Quentin and I went back to playing around and I forgot all about my questions.

A few days later, my mother told me about the incident. Unbeknownst to me, Quentin's mother had contacted my mother about what I did. My mother, told me that it was wrong to ask questions. Of course I responded by saying, why? I can't remember Mom's response, but it was basically a kind of “because-I-said-so” kind of answer.

Most parents are exasperated by such questions by kids. I sometimes wonder why questions upset adults. Having now been on the other side trying to answer the questions of others, including grown adults, I tend to think we don't want to come up short. We are afraid that someone might find out that we don't know everything, so it's best to not allow questions.

During my college years, I was involved with a college church group. What was interesting was that we learned to present the Gospel in a clear way that never really allowed for questions. I specifically remember another member of the group talking about their experience sharing the gospel with a friend who asked question after question after question. I remember the campus pastor saying that these questions were basically excuses to not accepting the gospel. Interesting, I thought.

I think it's a sad development that people who are religious tend to be so resistant to questions. It doesn't matter what end of the spectrum, be they liberal or conservative, there are people who seem to have all the answers and seem confident in themselves. Their faith is less a mystery to enter into than it is something that shores up what they already believe.

Today, this first Sunday after Pentecost, is considered Trinity Sunday. It is the Sunday of the year that we devote ourselves to a teaching of the church that dates back from it's beginnings: the Triune God-God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

Now if there is a day when going to church brings up questions, it has to be this day. Every since I was little, I could not figure the Trinity out. Three persons, one God? What does that mean? And you know what? Four years of seminary didn't even come close to answering the question. My professors seemed to think this was just something to be accepted and lived instead of solved. Well, thanks a lot. I'm putting myself in hock for this?

I think I can understand how Nicodemus felt during and after his visit with Jesus. Being born again? What the heck does that mean? Born of water and Spirit? I would feel just a silly as Nicodemus: all this education and I don't understand what Jesus is talking about.

I have to say that I like dear old Nick. This religious leader sometimes gets ridiculed because of his background, but Nicodemus is a true seeker. He was questions and he wants answers. When he hears Jesus talk about being born again, he confuses the Greek word anothen. The word is a synonymn, and it can mean born from above or born again. When our friend, Nick heard it, he started thinking of a grown man trying to get back into his mother's womb.

But that wasn't what Jesus was talking about. Nor was it as some would believe about a specific event when we were saved. What Jesus is talking about is to see things with different eyes: to enter into the life of the Spirit.

When Jesus talks about the flesh, he isn't saying that the flesh is bad, but you can't understand the things of the Spirit only with the flesh. Let me put this in English: faith can't be understood with only the mind. It isn't a rational exercise. It is only when we enter the life of the Spirit that we are able to understand and the Spirit is any but logical. Jesus likens it to the wind, that blows where it blows. The Spirit carries you to places you wouldn't expect.

It's a lot like playing in the ocean. Back in the mid 90s, I lived in Washington, DC and sometimes would take trips to the Maryland or Delaware shore. I would have fun swimming in the Atlantic. I remember one time just playing around and when I realized it, I was far away from the beach. The ocean currents had slowly moved me father and farther away from the shore.

That's what the Spirit is like. It moves us like the wind, or a strong current. If you want an example of what it means to live in the Spirit, simply look at Jesus' life. He was led to different places and events not of his choosing.

Nicodemus wanted an answer to his questions. Jesus gave them, but they were answers that had to be lived, not simply heard. Jesus wasn't giving an answer that would satisfy the mind; he was offering Nicodemus the chance to enter another reality, a new way of thinking and seeing.

This leads us back to all my questions about the Trinity. Now the word “trinity” doesn't occur in the Bible. But I do believe that the concept of the Trinity is there, even if there isn't a word that denotes it. In John 3 Jesus talks about God sending God's Son to save the world and we hear about the Spirit as water and as wind. Even after all this time I still can't figure out the Trinity but I can understand it. I don't have a perfectly logical answer, but I have one that I can live into.

The Trinity helps us to explain who God is. In our verses today, we see God as one that purifies us for mission, as God did to Isaiah. God is the One that loves creation so much that he wants to redeem us and so he came in the form of a human to live with us. And the Spirit is there to bring us more and more into the likeness of God, sanctifying us and helping us to see what God wants of us.

I can't understand the whole 1+1+1=1 equation, but I can understand that the Trinity shows us a God that passionately loves us. That's an answer I can live with, it doesn't explain a thing and yet it explains everything.

Is God limited to three ways of understanding? Of course not. Does it give an adaquate understanding of the totality of God? No, because God is bigger than we can imagine. The Bible is filled with mulitudes of images that show God. But the Trinity reminds us that this God we encounter loves us passionately, from the creation or the world until today. God is not a distant being, not a clockmaker God who made the world and then walked away, but a God that deeply loved us and never stopped loving us.

Earlier this year, Jim our moderator and I started a class going over the basics of the Bible. I have to hand it to Jim, he had a lot of questions. A lot. Many. I look back at those studies and I can remember being so nervous. Was I giving the best answers? I surely hope I was. But I think what I learned from the experience was not to give the perfect answer. From what I could tell, Jim, you didn't need a perfect answer. I could see the joy in your eyes from just being illuminated. I think that is what it means to live in the Spirit. You hear God in a song, or in a sermon, or in the smile on a friend and you want more.

Can we be born again? In the last few months, I've been rather down about church. I was seeing Community of Grace through human eyes: worried about numbers and wanting to be a “proper church.” Last Sunday, I saw things differently. We were still small in number, but I felt that things were different. I was seeing things through different eyes: I was born again: seeing things through the Spirit's eyes.

The answer is yes: we can be born again and again and again. Let us see life through the eyes of the one we call the Comforter and the Advocate. May it take us places we never expected. And may we never be the same. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

On the Worship Wars (Warning: Rant Ahead)

Community of Grace Cantor, Dan Adolphson.

If there is something that can get my dander up, it's the ongoing wars between those who like a more traditional style of worship and those who like a more contemporary (read: praise music) style. I grew up as an evangelical whose worship included a lot of praise music. As I grew older, I started to appreciate and savor more traditional styles, especially the high church worship. When I head back to my hometown of Flint, Michigan to visit my parents, you will see this kid who was raised in low churches, going to the St. Paul's Episcopal Church in downtown Flint to get some good ole Anglican worship.

I enjoy and prefer more traditional worship, but I've learned to respect the more contemporary styles as well.

So, what bugs me is how some people tend to view the other style with disdain and even in some instances question people's faith.

What got me ticked off was a website I was viewing. The website belonged to a new church start belonging to a major mainline Protestant denomination. I was reading one of those "get to know the pastor" page and at the end of his bio, he made some off the cuff remark about liking high church and not liking praise music. To be more exact, he said called praise music pseudo-ethusiastic and then said it was intolerable.

Hmm. That's a good way to bring people to your church.

Frankly, I don't see understand that. You don't have to like praise music. I don't like all of it. But the fact is, there are many people who do like it and it allows them to worship God. It might have been that a certain one of those "intolerable" songs may have got someone off drugs, or helped them see God in a new way, I don't know. What I do know is that you or I can say that's not our preference, but we sure as hell should never say it's intolerable.

I don't think God gives a rat's ass how we worship. I don't think God cares if we have a service complete with an organ bigger than Jesus, or with a praise band. What matters to God is that we come together to remember the One who has given us life, life abundant, and then go out and bring God's message of love and shalom to a world that sorely needs it.

If God doesn't care, then why the hell should we? If someone wants to sing "Great is the Lord", then let it rip. If they want all the smells and bells, then more power to ya. But don't get into this silly pissing match of which worship is more holy. God doesn't give a damn.

Listen, what matters is that the worship we do mirrors the lives we try to lead. In the Bible God gets angry at those who worship and yet treat the poor with disdain. I didn't see anywhere we God is angry because a church chose to sing "Open My Eyes, Lord."

At times like these, I am thankful for Community of Grace's cantor, Dan Adolphson. He also comes from an evangelical background, but is trying to get people to accept blended worship. Dan is musically trained and can go from Michael W. Smith to Bach like no one's business. He did a wonderful rendition of Sandi Patty's "Was it Morning Like This" on Easter that was beautiful. It sure as hell wasn't intolerable.

So, to those who get in a snit about contemporary or traditional worship, I have to say this: please get a life. I think God has more important things to deal with and so should you.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Behold, the Microchurch! (Or Nanochurch)

Members at a recent service.

Community of Grace is tiny. We have eight members. Count 'em. Eight. We have people who attend on occasion, but it is these eight that are the regulars. For a while, that bothered the pastors, because we wanted the church to be this "growing" church. Some of us might have even thought we would be a mainline Protestant version of a mega-church.

But that hasn't happened, and it has led the staff to be depressed.

On May 11, the church had a meeting just to find out where we are at. Over and over again, the message seemed to be that maybe it's okay to be a small church for now. Jim, our moderator, chided the staff (me included) for being so caught up in the numbers game. In his eyes, we were doing fine.

I have to say, hearing all this took a ton off my shoulders. For a while, I felt we had to be this growing church, like all the stories I hear about other new church starts and have hundreds in worship with a paid staff and anything short of that would be a failure. But Jim was reminding us of that old "where two or three are gathered" line. God's Spirit is still with us even when we are small in number.

I think I'm more than fine with CoG being a small church, even a nanochurch. Maybe in this time of bigness that has filtered into church life, there needs to be space for small communities of faith.

At that May 11 meeting, some commented that people who have visited in the past didn't like the smallness. They wanted to be anonymous; to come and worship without being known. Frankly, I don't understand that kind of worship. I mean, is that even church? Church to me is about community, it's about a group of people that are there for you when times our rough and celebrate when things go well.

Community of Grace will never reach those kind of people. But I do believe we can be a place for people who want to be part of an intimate community that worship, prays, laughs and cries together.

I came accross this interesting article about Micro Churches and realized that this is what Community of Grace is all about.

Small can be good.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Sunday Sermon-Fifth Sunday of Easter: May 14, 2006

The title of this sermon lends it's name from recent song of the same name from the Irish-rock group, U2. They also happen to be one of my favorite bands.

“Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own”
John 15:1-8; Acts 8:26-40; I John 4:7-21
May14, 2006
Community of Grace Christian Church
New Brighton, Minnesota

Ten years. I've lived in Minnesota for an entire decade. It's hard to believe that 10 years have gone by so fast. In those ten years, I've dealt with -32 below temps (and that was the air temp, NOT the windchill), going to seminary, graduating seminary, getting ordained, getting new jobs, losing jobs, helping to gather a church, falling in love, falling out of love and falling in love all over again.

There has been a lot of good and bad that has happened in the past 10 years, but there has also been some very bad times. You see, in November of 1996, I got pretty ill; bad enough that ended up in the hospital for two weeks.

It started as the flu. I was working at a local coffee chain and just felt terrible. I took a few days off and thought I felt better. I worked a few days and then got ill again. This time it was worse. I could not keep anything down and spent most of the day in bed. At some point, I started having trouble breathing. I later found out that it pnuemonia. When my Mother found out, she wanted to know if she and my Father should drive from Michigan to Minnesota. At first, I said no, but in the middle of the night when I could hardly breathe and in the midst of pain, I told my parents I needed them.

Within a few days, I was in the hospital. I found out I had a massive infection, with fluid surrounding right lung. I was given antibiotics intravenously around the clock and the doctors inserted a tube on my ride side to drain the fluid around my lung.

In time, I got better. I gained back the 30 pounds I had lost (and then some, I might add) and was able to eat and just be normal.

I gleaned a lot of this experience, but for time's sake I will share one. I tend to be a person that feels ultimately responsible and like to be very independent. No one will tell me what I should do. I didn't want to depend on anyone else for help and would get mad when someone did have to help me. When you are so sick that you can't get out of bed, you learn to let others help you. When my parents arrived, the took care of me like they did when I was a little kid. I spent Thanksgiving of 1996 in the hospital and I was dreading spending my favorite holiday in a hospital room without my mother's good cooking. Instead, my mother made a meal for me and brought it to me. Even though I was in the hospital with tubes stuck in me nine ways from Sunday, it was one of the best Thanksgivings ever. I am ever thankful my parents for their kindness. I know parents are supposed to do all this, but nevertheless.

I'm telling you all this because the texts we have today all seem to talk about community in some way. Our gospel talks about vines and branches, the reading from Acts shows Phillip guiding a foreign visitor the good news of Jesus and the text from First John talks about the importance of a community in loving each others. These passages seem to go against the prevailing wisdom that spirituality can be a solo activity. Instead it is a communal practice where we learn from each other. Even on a grander scale, it seems to talk about an interconnectedness that is missing in contemporary America.

In John, Jesus tells his disciples to abide in him. He talks about God being the one who cares for the plant. Jesus says he is the vine and we are the branches and that apart from the vine, we are powerless.

The thing is we don't like to hear that. We don't like to hear that we can't really make it on our own. I think of all the people who don't like to hear this are pastors, because we think we have to do everything for a church to survive and thrive. We can get so busy trying to keep a church a float, or at least thinking we do this, that we forget about Christ. We forget to abide in the One who gives us life.

But more is going on here than a lesson for pastors. As I said earlier, we live in a very divided time. Around the world today, lines are being drawn: Palestinian against Israeli, Middle East versus the West, gay versus straight and so forth. Here in America, we talk about “Red America” and “Blue America,” terms that were coined six years ago to describe those areas considered more conservative and those more liberal. These passages seem to talk, if not demand that we love each other.

Not only are we so divided, but we live in a time where we think we can be spiritual all by ourselves. We tend to think we can experience and understand God all by ourselves and not need anyone else
The God that we serve calls us to love each other; to realize that we are connected to the other and to God in ways we can't imagine. When we refuse to love and respect the other, when we think we don't need anyone's help, God is prevented from working in our lives and we wither like a branch on the vine.

A few days ago, many of us came together for an important meeting of the church. In that hour and a half, we learned a lot about ourselves. One of the things we found out is that we are a small church, a micro-church if you will. You can't be anonymous at our church because we are too damn small. Some who have come by want to not be known. They want to slip in and slip out and not be noticed. You can't do that here. There are many who think church is about showing up for service on Sundays and never interacting with those around you. While they might think this is sufficient, I tend to think not. You see, church isn't really about what I do. It's not all about the good music (sorry, Dan) or about the fabulous preaching. It's about the community. Sometimes I think what makes worship possible and alive is the time after worship when people meet for coffee or go out to dinner together and when we do prayer requests. It's in these times that we really get to know each other and community starts to happen. Without community, worship is just a rote exercise, and God is very distant and impersonal.

The Ethiopian enuch didn't get the passage of scripture he was reading until he started talking to Phillip. And it was Phillip who baptized him. The eunuch didn't come to understanding all by himself, but only when he was relating to another.

To be a follower of Jesus means having to be in fellowship with others, even those who you don't like. Lone Ranger Christians don't really exist.

I want to end with a song that has been on my mind recently. It's a recent song from the Irish rock group U2, called “Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own.” The song is about lead singer Bono's father who had recently died. What struck me about the song was the fact that too often we feel we are on our own. I know I do. I know there are times I feel like it's all up to me to keep this small community running. Of course that is pure fantasy, because we are a community that works, prays, laughs and cries together In reality though, we wouldn't be where we are in life but not for those who helped us along the way. Maybe it's fitting that these verses appear on Mother's Day, the day that we remember our mothers, alive and no longer living. We are reminded we wouldn't get very far without their help. Heck, we wouldn't be without them. As the U2 song goes, it is because of others that we sing, that there is an opera within us.

I don't think I would be who I am without my parents, my those whom I hold so dear to me. Without the life, death and ressurection of Christ, we would not be who we are as a community.

We called to be branches rooted in the vine that is Christ. Let us go and love each other and those around us. Amen.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

It's Not That Bad, It's Not That Bad, It's Not That Bad...

For those of you who are new to this blog, you may not know that I'm clinically depressed. I've been on antidepressants for a few years with some good cognative therapy thrown in. When I first went on what I jokingly refer to as my "happy pills" I didn't think I was really that bad. I mean, I knew people who were really depressed, but not me.

Oh, but my best friend and housemate Erik would beg to differ.

No, I'm not the kind of person that spends the whole day in bed, and I don't go into crying spells, but I do get into those times where I either get really angry, or get really down on myself. I'm not talking about just having a bad day; I'm talking about getting stuck in the deep well that seems pretty deep.

I was having one of those days today. I can't get into all of it, but I can say it has to deal with the trials and travails of dealing with a new church. It put me into downward spiral.

It was tonight as I was talking to my boyfriend, that I realized something: in my mind I knew things weren't as bad as I thought, but my brain was forging ahead spinning out of control with dire thoughts.

That's kinda what depression can be for me: I know that things aren't so bad, but it's like my brain in hard-wired to think the worst and it's hard to get out of that.

So, I'm trying to use some cognative therapy and tell myself things aren't that bad. I also told my boyfriend to remind me that things aren't so bad. That isn't easy, but it might help the grey matter see things differently.

So I'm trying to do that, and I am feeling a bit better.

Why am I telling you this? I don't know. Maybe to let you know what it's like to live with depression. And maybe to show that we pastors don't have it all together. Most of the time we are barely keep it from flying apart. If there is anything I want to show is that pastors are unbelieveably human. Too often pastors act like they have to be perfect when all that God wants from us is to live in God's forgiveness and share that with others.

Nope, it's not that bad.

And that's good.