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.

An Unusual Shepherd

My colleage at Community of Grace, Bryan Allen, had an interesting take on the Good Shepherd. When we usually hear of sermons on the Good Shepherd we have an image of God taking care of us. Bryan had a different take. He showed a clip from the recent movie version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe where Lucy and Susan are attacked by two of the Witch's wolves. Aslan and Peter run to the rescue. Peter draws his sword as the two wolves circle him ready to pounce. Aslan pins one of the wolves and says the fight is now equal. With the odds now more fair, Peter is able to slay the wolf and save his sisters.

Byran commented that God is not the Shepherd that is just there to be our Santa Claus, but is with us, supporting us, and empowering us.

This reminds me of the time my mother taught me to ride without my training wheels. At some point, she sat on the porch and watched me as a fell again and again. She didn't budge, but just told me to try again. After a while, I got it and was riding without those wheels.

It does make you wonder. Maybe God isn't simply taking care of us, but equipping us for the journey, reminding us that when life is harsh, God is there to even the score and defeat evil.

A different kind of shepherd, indeed.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Sunday Sermon-Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 7, 2006

I was filling in for the minister last Sunday at Lake Harriet Christian Church. This was the sermon I gave. The picture is of Tammy Rottschaefer, the Associate at Lake Harriet who gave me the impetus for the sermon.

“On Pastors and Pastures”
John 10:11-18, Psalm 23
May 7, 2006
Lake Harriet Christian Church
Minneapolis, MN

I have to “blame” our Associate Minister, Tammy Rottschaefer for this sermon. For a while she has commented on the problem with parts of the church today in that we don't know how to be church together. Somehow, all that talking about being church, sunk into me. For the past few months, I've been thinking about what it means to be church at this time and place. I've also been thinking a lot about what it means to be a pastor, a question that has been on my mind since I was ordained nearly four years ago.

Well, I usually like to preach from the Revised Common Lectionary, and I found out that today is called Good Shepherd Sunday, hence all the sheep you see on the table. The text today all focus on God as the Good Shepherd. We just heard Dan read probably one of the most well know Biblical texts, Psalm 23. In the gospel text, we see how Jesus calls himself a Good Shepherd, that lays down his life for the sheep. Now, sometimes when people see this text, they think it might relate to people like me: pastors. In fact, the word pastor is derived from a Latin word which means shepherd. So from early on in this history of the church, pastors were thought of as people who took care of a flock or congregation. And there is a lot here about how a pastor should act: giving their lives in service to others. But that would be a limited understanding of the text. As Christians, which means, followers of Christ, we should see this text as a key to understanding what it means to be a community of faith. And I think it gives great insight as to what it means to be church in the early years of the 21st century. And it's important to ask what it means to be church in light of the current time, not what happened 20 or 50 years ago. This is a question we must continue to ask as the years go on.

This week, I came across two things that relate to current events. The first thing I stumbled across was a speech given by former Senator John Danforth. Danforth, is a lawyer and represented Missouri for several years in the US Senate. He is also an ordained Episcopal minister, and as of late, has been concerned at the mixing of religion and politics, particluarly in the Republican party, of which he is a member of.
In a speech to the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay and lesbian organiation, the former Senator and current pastor, expressed dismay at those who use issues and events, like gay marriage, abortion and the Terri Schiavo case to divide Americans. He notes that the very meaning of the word religion comes from the same root as the word ligament, meaning that religion should be something that brings us together, not tear us apart.

Which leads to the other event that occurred this week. I was listening to public radio and there was an interview with another Episcopal priest who was planning to talk about the Good Shepherd and another major event : the verdict and sentencing of Zacharias Moussaoui, who had some role in the 9/11 attacks. He was sentenced to a life term in a SuperMax prison in Colorado. If religion is something that should bind us to each other and to God, Moussaoui was the living embodiment of the opposite. He bragged about wanting to hurt Americans, he taunted the families of victims. He made a mockery of the Islamic faith, by associating it with his homocidal fantasies. As he was sentenced, he made one final taunt saying that America had lost and he had won. The judge in the case, exploded, probably after holding her rage in for several years, condeming Moussaoui and saying that he “would die with a whimper.”

What is religion all about? What is faith all about? What is church all about? Is it to bring people together to each other and to God, or is to drive people apart, splitting the so-called holy and so-called profane?

I think if we look around the world today, these questions are being asked in various ways by various religions, be it Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and so forth. I tend to think that at least within the framework of Christianity, the way these questions are answered depends on how we look at God and how we look at the other.

In today's texts, we see that God and Jesus are looked on as shepherds that take care of creation. When I read these texts, you see a God that is willing to give up God's life for his sheep. In the twenty-third Psalm, we see how God is with us through the good and bad times of our lives. The God we see here isn't one of a judge that is waiting for us to slip up, but of a caring being, who is gentle and loving. I don't know about you, but that gives me comfort. When I was younger, I was told by adults, not my parents, that you better be good because any slip means God was going to get you. To know that there is a loving God that care for a messed up sheep like me, gives me hope. But I think these passages have much more to say than about God being a caring shepherd. Since we are called to follow Jesus, these verses tell us how we a community are to live in the world. I believe that we are called to be shepherds to each other, to give of ourselves for the other, regardless of who that person is. I think that is what bothers Rev. Danforth: those who profess loudly of their faith aren't living that out in service to the other.

Mr. Moussaoui wants to sacrifice his life: but only to hurt and divide others, NOT in service to others.

To be church in this time and place means being a community that welcomes people regardless of where they are on their walk in life. It means being hospitiable instead putting up walls. It means reaching outside these walls and being in service to others, even if they don't believe the same things we do.

It also means responding in love to the whole world. Why? Because the Good Shepherd cares for the sheep. God is loving and in Christ gave of godself on the cross. And that's not easy. I have to admit, it's not easy wanting to love or forgive someone like a Zacharias Moussaoui, who wanted to hurt people. The minister interviewed on public radio said as much. We all knew where we were on the dark day nearly five years ago. And this congregation was touched by that day: a former member's son and a nephew were either in or near the World Trade Center that day. A girlfriend of the son was on the 106th floor of one of the towers. She didn't make it. We have every right to be angry, that's human. To be a follower of Christ doesn't mean we put of happy faces and ignore our own feelings of injustice. But we hold those feelings of righteous anger in tension with God's call to love-even the enemy.

There is an argument going within religion in general, and Christianity in particular. The argument is whether religion is to bring us together or rend us apart. There are those who see God as less than a caring shepherd, than as vindictive judge, looking to punish those that don't follow a particular dogma, which usually mirrors the dogma of those people. Sadly, these people want to limit who is welcome. In the extreme, some want to physically hurt people. Others seek to hurt people emotionally, which may not leave scars we can see, leave damage nonetheless.

Lake Harriet is the midst of its Stewardship Drive. Now, on one level, this about how much we can pledge for the coming year to fund various ministries of the church. But on another level, it's also about what kind of church we want. Do we want to be a church, that follows Christ's examples and seeks to love and serve the world, or will we be a church that closes the doors, not to mention our hearts, to others.

What does mean to be church? What does it mean to be a shepherd to others? Let us discern as a community those questions. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Prayer Request

The person in this photo is the other co-pastor of Community of Grace, Bryan Allen. He's a newly ordained pastor and a damn good one at that. Since none of us get paid right now, he happens to work part time as a teacher in a local suburban school district. About a month ago, Bryan found out that he was losing his teaching position. This means he is looking for some kind of work. Finding a job as a teacher in Minnesota is pretty hard at this moment. He working in the interim at a local coffee shop to make ends meet, but he would like a better paying job.

Please pray for Bryan as he searches and pray that he has stregnth in this journey.