Thursday, May 31, 2012

Trinity Sunday Sermon: "Come to the Table"

With Trinity Sunday coming up, I decided to share a sermon I gave on Trinity Sunday 2009

“Come to the Table”
Isaiah 6:1-8, John 3:1-17
June 7, 2009
Trinity Sunday
First Christian Church
Minneapolis, MN

A few months ago, my partner Daniel and I were invited to have high tea. A friend of mine this in an auction and she invited serveral of her friends to the event, including me.

I was not looking forward to it.

I had this fear that I would have to learn to how have tea. I was scared that I would not hold the tea cup in the right way and that I would make a fool of myself.

Well, the day came and Daniel and I went to a suburban house in Richfield. A woman in her 50s or 60s came to the door dressed quite nicely. We went in and sat down at a table that was adorned with nice china. It was all nice, but I was nervous. Finally, it was time for the tea and the cookies. But instead of worrying about if I had to have my pinky up or not, what happened was rather surprising. The circle of friends gathered and started sharing what was going on in their lives. My fears subsided as I realized there was less concern about getting things right than there was about the relationships that were happening at that moment.

The Sunday after Pentecost is called Trinity Sunday, when we focus on God as the Three in One: God the Father or Creator, God the Son or the Redeemer, and God the Holy Spirit or Sustainer. This Sunday is an interesting Sunday for those of us who belong to this tradition in Christianity called the Disciples of Christ. Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of what became the Disciples, did not focus on the Trinity. The reason was that there was no mention of it in the Bible. Since we were a people of the book, it made no sense to spend time in a concept that was not mentioned in the Bible.

And he is right of course, if you read the Bible, especially the New Testament, you will not find the word, “trinity.” The concept of Trinity is not a biblical per se, it’s a doctrinal statement that came later in the life of the Chrisitianity. So, since it was considered a doctrine, and we Disciples tend to be non-doctrinal, the Trinity doesn’t get talked about a whole lot among Disciples.

Now, one doesn’t have to believe in the Trinity to be a good Christian. However, it is a way to think about the nature of God, a way to explain God. There are a lot of different ways to try to describe God and the Trinity is one of those ways. The Trinity also reminds us how we are to be church, how we are to be God’s children in the world. For some reason, the Trinity has me thinking of food and tea, tables, mission and grace.

In the John text, we introduced to Nicodemus. We find out that he is a Pharisee and is intriguied by Jesus. He comes to visit Jesus under the cover of darkness to find out more about this man. I can imagine him walking down the streets at night, trying to make sure no one sees him and then going to a door on a side street and knocking the door. One of the disciples opens the door and leads him to a room where Jesus is sitting with tea or coffee at the waiting. Nicodemus sits and the two converse among many, many cups of tea. Nicodemus was well versed in the law and believed he had done all the right things. But Jesus starts talking about being “born again” and about how being born of water and Spirit. Jesus tells Nicodemus that it is not about one has done for God, but what God has done for us; how God loved the world so much that he sent Jesus to live among us.

What happens during this late night visit is the beginning of a relationship. Nicodemus is captivated by this man named Jesus, and begins to get closer to him. We later see the Pharisee stand up for Jesus and after the crucifixion works with others to find proper burial place for Jesus.

In our Isaiah text, we see that a person is being called by God to a mission. Unlike the quiet setting found in John, this story seems rather frightening. There are angels with several wings that don’t seem like those gentle versions we see on television. We can imagine a loud voice calling the person to do this thing for God. And the person replies that he is not worthy to do carry out God’s mission. And then we have this odd vision of one of these horrid looking angels getting a fiery coal and placing it on the person’s mouth as a sign of his now being made clean by God. Once he was made clean by God, the person in this story can now claim in a strong voice, “here I am! Send me.”

If there is one thing I want you to remember, is that the concept of the Trinity is about seeing God as a God that wants to be in relationship. God is in relationship within God, and God wants to be relationship with all of creation, including humanity.

There is a painting by Andrei Rublev, a Russain artist, that shows what the Trinity is all about and gives a clue into what it means to be church. (show the painting).

Gathered around a table are three figures reprenting the Trinity. You can see the three seated around this table and sharing each others lives. Notice that there is one seat that is open. It’s an ivitation to come and sit with God.

God is not about trying to do the right thing. In some ways, many people are like I was before that tea party, worried that I would do the wrong thing. But God is more interested in having a relationship with us.

Sometimes we are afraid to be in relationship with God. Sometimes we feel that we are not worthy and sometimes we just stay away. But just as God cleaned the writer in Isaiah, we are made clean by God through Jesus Christ. It was through the life death and ressurection that we are made clean and called to do God’s work in the world.

As members of First Christian, we have been in the midst of a study called Ubinding the Gospel and we have been implored to learn to share the good news of Jesus with others. I can imagine, that at times, we might feel not up to the task. We feel ashamed that we are not sharing the gospel with others and feel unclean.

I want to challenge you to see sharing the good news not in the form of a task that one should do, as some boring task of duty, but as engaging in a relationship. It’s about sharing our lives with each other over a cup of coffee. It’s about inviting someone to dinner and seeing how your family and friends are doing. Evangelism isn’t not about trying to accost someone with the good news of God, but it is going out in the world and being in relationship with people; sharing our lives with each other. And since God is part of our lives, we will share that part of our life as well.

I want to read something to you: it’s the mission statement for First Christian. “In response to the grace of God, the mission of First Christian Church is to be a Christ-centered presence, to share the Good News of Jesus Christ, and to witness through service to God’s World.”

We don’t go out and talking about how we encounter God because we have to. We do it in response for what God has done for us. God has in Jesus showed that God loves us. In response that we are loved by God, we can be a presence in the world, being in relationship with our friends and neighbors and even strangers. We seek to get to know people and get to know about their hopes and fears and seek ways to help them and to just be Christ to them. We seek to be in relationship when we serve food to the hungry at St. Stephen’s shelter. Being church is not about a building or committee, or pews or an organ. Those are all nice, but church is about a table,, where the Trinity invites us to come and share our lives and where we are so in love with God that we want to go out and invite others to the table.

And that’s what we do every week, don’t we? We come to this table where we are reminded of God’s love for us. We don’t have to worry if we are worthy, God has already made us worthy, God has made everyone worthy.

I want to leave you with a final image. As many of you know, there was a time long ago, when I was a member of this congregation. I remember the first time I visited this church, Labor Day weekend of 1996. I went to the service and then came home to do some other things. Later that evening, a I heard a knock on the door. There was a man in his 50s with a loaf of bread and a packet. The man was from First Christian and wanted to thank me for visiting. The man was Garry Hesser, who is a member here. I was invited to enter a relationship and decided to take up the invite. I would remember later on having conversations with Garry and Martha Harris over tea as we talked about the nature of God.

God is not calling us to duty; God wants us to be in realtionship with God and with each other. God is about having tea with friends and sharing our lives. We are invited to the Table. Come to the Table. Be yourself. Feel free to invite others. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The painting is called The Trinity, by Andrei Rublev.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Slouching Towards Detroit

Fellow Disciples pastor Steve Knight shared a good post yesterday on the need for more missional communities, which is a fancy way of saying we need more new churches.  Why?  Beside that whole Great Commission thing, it's also because at least in mainline churches, we are growing smaller and smaller.  Here's a graph that Steve showed about our denomination, the Disciples of Christ, over the last decade:

The picture it shows about the denomination is not pretty.  (It's even worse for Episcopalians.) It shows at least over the last decade a steady decline.  As Steve notes, it doesn't show the number of new congregations added (which is now over 700), but you can't really deny that things in the Disciples of Christ are not well.

Steve starts talking about how the Mainline churches are a lot like Detroit, something that I commented on back in 2009.  As I thought about that more and more, I've started to think that if this analogy is true, mainline churches are in big, big trouble.

Comparisons to the largest city in Michigan hit home for me because Detroit is only an hour south of Flint, where I grew up.  I've seen the decline of the auto industry close up and I've seen how cities like Flint and Detroit have slowly declined and lost their luster, becoming shattered hulks of their former selves.  I've seen how these places knew the decline was happening and half-heartedly tried different schemes to bring back the shine, only to have those attempts fail.  I've seen the hope that somehow, the glory days would come roaring back, not knowing how, but just believing that it would.

The thing is, you tend to get used to the decline.  Things get a little shabby here and there, but we trick ourselves into thinking everything is okay...until it isn't.

Something similar is happening among the mainline churches.  We see the decline happening,  and we try again and again to try this scheme or that scheme in the hopes that it will right the ship.  But we really don't try hard and in someways we just expect that somehow, someway the glory days will come back.

What does this have to do with church planting?  Everything.  I'm not advocating we plant churches for the sake of saving mainline churches, thought that could be a result.  I am advocating planting churches to spread the good news of Jesus Christ.  But the problem here is that in some ways we in the mainline stopped believing in spreading the message of Christ.  We got comfortable and pursued of other agendas.  We plant churches, but sometimes the whole endeavor seems half-hearted, like we are doing something just because it seems right.

I've noticed over the years how hard it is to get people in mainline churches animated when it comes to new churches.  Plans to give money to church plants are met with skeptism.  If we have a meeting dealing with homosexuality? We get a full house and people getting all passionate.  Talk about new churches?  Crickets chirping.

This is not me just spouting off.  I've seen how people have responded in my various roles when we start talking about new churches and it seems that people just don't seem when it comes to new churches.

None of this means I'm going to give up.  I've seen utter decline and I want to see mainline Protestantism be vital in the coming decades.  But, mainline churches have to stop being comfortable with decline and be willing to give up everything to save themselves- not in the hope of getting back to the glory days, but to something new and better than before.

One more auto story.  In 2006, Ford decided to place everything it owned, down to it's blue oval logo, in hock in order to get a loan to keep the company going.  

That move was prophetic.  Two years later, the economy tanked and Ford's crosstown rivals, General Motors and Chrysler were bankrupt and running to Washington to be saved.  Ford was able to weather the storm.  Earlier this week, Ford's credit was raised from junk status and scion Bill Ford was able to get his family's logo back.

Ford was willing to let go of everything in order to survive.  It was a risky move for this century-old company to do something so bold, but it paid off in the end.  Ford is a much stronger company, more competative, coming up with some cool cars that people want to drive.

Are mainline churches willing to do something that ballsy?  Are we willing to sacrifice, to lose ourselves for God's kingdom?

I don't know.  I hope so.  Let's not get to comfortable with decline or expect easy solutions.  That roads leads to Detroit and don't want that.  Trust me.

Photo: Areial view of Michigan Central Station, Detroit's main train station from 1913 until the end of Amtrak service in 1988.  The intervening 25 years have not been kind of the grand building. The website notes, "Most of the interior has fallen victim to 'urban miners' who break in to steal any stone accents, wire and even copper tubing and bricks to sell as scrap. The removal of these materials causes extensive damage throughout, resulting in the interior being completely destroyed. Urban guerrilla artists have taken advantage of the vacant wall space." You can see more photos of the building by going here.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Constitutional Amendments and the Church

This fall, Minnesotans will go to the polls to vote on two constitutional amendments.  The first one would ban same-sex marriage and the second one would require photo ids before a person could vote.

Now I have my own opinions on the amendments and I'm not shy about sharing them (I'm strongly against the first and somewhat in favor of the second).  However, when it comes to the context of church and in my role as a pastor, I am less comfortable in telling people how they should feel on this issue, let alone how they should pray.

Recently, during a time when prayers were being offered, someone asked prayers on both amendments and stated their viewpoint.  It was a little bit uncomfortable for me, mainly because the prayer focused on one side of the issue and because I knew there might be folks that had differing opinions on both issues.

Normally I would say something about how we are the Body of Christ and that at the communion table we are a diverse bunch but united together in Christ.  I would say something about how churches have people from all walks of life and we need to be aware how to be church amidst the differences.

I would say all of this...but in these polarizing times, I've come to believe that we don't even see the church as a place where different people come together.  Churches are becoming like everything else in society: filled with people who tend to agree with each other.  So maybe it wasn't so odd to see someone stating their views on a political issue as if there were no other folks who might disagree; they might believe that church is just "for us."
I'm not advocating that we never talk about politics in the church.  But is there a way to talk about these issues without claiming that God is only on our side?

I don't know the answer to that.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Oh Look, Shiny Things!

I’ve always struggled a lot over what might seem very basic things. I always have but for most of my life I didn’t get it – I didn’t understand that it could just be part of the way my brain works and that I can’t force myself to be different. I think that’s what I used to do before – try to force myself to be the way I thought everyone was supposed to be. Now my attitude and approach are very different. I am aware of the every day struggles but I relax into it. I don’ t sit back passively but I don’t force myself either. It’s more like try to gently steer myself into another direction. And sometimes frankly I don’t even have the energy for that. For me this is a much more peaceful and sane way to live.
-the blogger called "autistica."

One of the things that I've started to notice since my diagnosis of Aspergers is how scattered my brain is.  It's really hard for me to focus on one thing for any amount of time.  Taking medication for ADHD helps, but my brain is still a mess.  If you were looking over my shoulder while I worked, you would see me jumping from one thing to another, reading this article here, going back to write this story there, all the while just taking in stuff and never just sitting still.

All of this makes it very hard to do work.  It's not impossible, it's just that it's difficult.  This leads me to wonder how the hell am I able to handle a full-time job and a part-time job at the same time.  For some reason, it works, but it isn't easy; it's kind of like the old saying about Ginger Rogers, she could do anything Fred Astaire could do, except backwards and in heels.

Actually, there is a more fancy name for what I'm dealing with executive function- something that those of us with Aspergers tend to lack.  Here's how one blog defined it:

  • emotional control – being able to manage emotions and control behavior
  • response inhibition – the capacity to think before acting and choose an appropriate response
  • flexibility – the ability to deal effectively with changes in plans, transitions, and obstacles
  • working memory – being able to hold information in memory while performing complex tasks
  • sustained attention – paying attention and staying on task despite distraction or fatigue
  • planning/prioritization – knowing how to formulate a plan and what’s important/what’s not
  • task initiation – the ability to begin tasks in an efficient and timely fashion
  • time management -  working within time limits or establishing a schedule to meet deadlines
  • organization – the ability to create and maintain systems and keep track of information/materials
  • goal-directed persistence – the capacity to set goals and follow them through to completion
  • metacognition – self-awareness and self-monitoring skills
 Of course, one can learn to minimize this. It's something I'm still learning to do.  The above quote deals with executive function in kids, but let me tell ya, it's there in adults as well.  And we have to learn how to control this scatteredness in the workplace if we want our jobs.

How do others deal with this?

Monday, May 14, 2012

For the Spirit Tells Me So

When I was coming to terms with being gay, one of the obstacles that I had to deal with is the role of Scripture in my life and how it squared or didn't square with my sexuality.  I remember reading the book Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? and being shown the story in Acts 10 about Peter meeting the Gentile Corneilus.  Peter had a hard time coming to terms that a Gentile should receive the same message he had received as a Jew.  Peter had some understanding of Jewish law and he knew that Gentiles weren't welcome.

None of this made sense to Peter, so he went up to the roof to sort things out.  It was there he fell into a trance and saw a sheet being brought down from heaven.  He was told by a voice to eat the animals found on the sheet.  Peter, a good Jew, knew some of those animals weren't kosher.  He refused, but the voice comes back and says what God has made no one should call unclean.

Peter goes to meet Corneilus and tells him the good news of Jesus.  It was then that the Spirit was poured out among the Gentiles gathered and Peter asks, “These people have received the Holy Spirit just as we have. Surely no one can stop them from being baptized with water, can they?”

Scripture is not something we should ignore as Christians.  It is definitely a way we learn about who God is and our place in God's world.  But what about experience?  Can God speak through our own lives as well.  Can God be doing a new thing in the lives of others?

Catholic scholar Luke Timothy Johnson writes about how Scripture is not the only way that one can look to authority when it comes to dealing with issues like homosexuality.  He notes how Americans changed their minds radically about slavery in hearing stories about slaves in the American south:

Our situation vis-à-vis the authority of Scripture is not unlike that of abolitionists in nineteenth-century America. During the 1850s, arguments raged over the morality of slave-holding, and the exegesis of Scripture played a key role in those debates. The exegetical battles were one-sided: all abolitionists could point to was Galatians 3:28 and the Letter of Philemon, while slave owners had the rest of the Old and New Testaments, which gave every indication that slaveholding was a legitimate, indeed God-ordained social arrangement, one to which neither Moses nor Jesus nor Paul raised a fundamental objection. So how is it that now, in the early twenty-first century, the authority of the scriptural texts on slavery and the arguments made on their basis appear to all of us, without exception, as completely beside the point and deeply wrong?

The answer is that over time the human experience of slavery and its horror came home to the popular conscience—through personal testimony and direct personal contact, through fiction like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and, of course, through a great Civil War in which ghastly numbers of people gave their lives so that slaves could be seen not as property but as persons. As persons, they could be treated by the same law of love that governed relations among all Christians, and could therefore eventually also realize full civil rights within society. And once that experience of their full humanity and the evil of their bondage reached a stage of critical consciousness, this nation could neither turn back to the practice of slavery nor ever read the Bible in the same way again.
 Johnson then goes to the book of Acts to see how the early church dealt with accepting Gentiles:

I refer to the account of the Acts of the Apostles (chapters 10–15) concerning the church’s decision to include Gentiles in the church without requiring them to be circumcised or to observe the Mosaic law. Luke’s narrative shows how God moved ahead of the human characters in accepting Gentiles as righteous, and how difficult it was for the church’s leaders to learn what God was up to. It shows, however, that Peter and Paul and James were open to the truth God wanted them to learn. They paid attention to human narratives—testimonies—that spoke of God at work among Gentiles in ways that not even Jewish believers in a crucified messiah could appreciate. The apostles had to be shown how the same Holy Spirit who had come upon them also came to those very unlike them, people whom they regarded as unclean by nature and evil in their practices. When shown the evidence of transformed lives, they saw and accepted what God was doing.

Accepting Gentiles as beloved of God was, to be sure, but one step, however dramatic and difficult. Harder still was finding a way for Jews and Gentiles to live together, sharing table fellowship in a world that took the body symbolism of eating at least as seriously as that of sex. Compromises on both sides were required for the church to remain united despite such important differences (Acts 15:20–21). Acts provides an example for us of the church discerning God’s activity in human lives, being obedient in faith to God’s self-disclosure in such stories, and then reinterpreting Scripture in light of the experience of God.

I suggest, therefore, that the New Testament provides impressive support for our reliance on the experience of God in human lives—not in its commands, but in its narratives and in the very process by which it came into existence. In what way are we to take seriously the authority of Scripture? What I find most important of all is not the authority found in specific commands, which are fallible, conflicting, and often culturally conditioned, but rather the way Scripture creates the mind of Christ in its readers, authorizing them to reinterpret written texts in light of God’s Holy Spirit active in human lives. When read within the perspective of a Scripture that speaks everywhere of a God disclosing Godself through human experience, our stories become the medium of God’s very revelation.
 Some of my favorite bloggers especially when it comes to politics tend to also be social conservatives.  Rod Dreher and Ross Douthat have made worthwhile defenses in what they believe is the traditional church understanding on same sex marriage.  (Worthwhile in the sense that they were thoughtful responses even if I don't agree with them.)  Both writers tend to make an appeal Scripture and tradition on this matter, two areas where there seems to be a strike against same sex marriage if homosexuality in general.  

But experience matters as well.  Not in the sense in legitimizing whatever we do in our lives, but in seeing how God might be speaking in the lived lives of people, like Corneilus and seeing where God shows up.  

Experience can be faulty, but so can Scripture and Tradition.  We live in an imperfect world with imperfect ways of understanding God.  But God is not simply found in the pages of the Bible or in the traditions of the church.  God is living and breathing in the world and we have to have the eyes to see and the hearts to believe.


Monday, May 07, 2012

We Can't Be Friends

It was about 20 years ago, that I attended a large Baptist church in Washington, DC.   The church was an odd mix, or at least it would be odd today.  Evangelicals and liberals were somehow able to worship together, along side a healthy dose of members from Latin America and Asia.

The church decided at some point to hire a pastor to the join the good-sized multi-pastor staff.  The person chosen was a woman with great pastoral care skills.  At the time, there was a bit of controversy because she was pro-gay and some of the evangelicals in the church weren't crazy about that.

I was at a meeting where a member of the congregation stood up.  She was one of the evangelical members of the congregation and she had what could be considered a "traditional" understanding on homosexuality, but she spoke in favor of calling the pastor.  You see, the pastor had been involved with congregation for a few years and the two had gotten to know each other.  "We don't agree," I recall this woman saying when talking about the issue they didn't see eye-to-eye on.  But this woman was a good friend and she saw her as the right person for the job.

What's so interesting about this story is that I don't think it could happen today.  Churches like the one in DC really don't exist anymore.  Evangelicals and liberals have sorted themselves into different churches and don't really know each other.  Which only makes it easier to highlight differences and demonize each other.

When it comes to the issue of gay rights the two camps talk past each other, having very different objectives that the other side just doesn't get.

For liberals, this is about equality.  Framed by the story of the civil rights movement, they see any attempt to block same-sex marriage or gay clergy as akin to denying African Americans the right to vote.

For evangelicals, this is about conscience.  They feel they must be faithful to what they believe the Bible is telling them when it comes to sexual morality.  They see any approval of gay sex as going against God's commands.

These differences were there 20 years ago, but I think there might have also been more opportunity to come together and meet the other.  Our self-selected society allows us to basically pick our friends instead of trying to build bridges with those who might be different.

Why am I telling this story?  I don't really know, except that maybe I would like us to find ways were we can learn to disagree without being so disagreeable.

Civility is all the talk in our political culture, mostly because it seems like we have less and less of it.  We have made it a civic value, but I want to lift up the fact that it should also be a moral and biblical value.  We have to learn ways to respect and honor one another; not papering over our differences, but finding ways to still care for each other even when we disagree.  Evangelical church planter Tim Keller said it best a year ago:

AMANPOUR: You talk about polarization between left and right. It does seem to be extreme, at the moment, in the United States politically, socially. Is there any hope that that can change, do you think?

KELLER: It will start if we stop demonizing each other. I -- my -- my -- my elderly mother once said that up until about 15 years ago, if you voted for a different person for president and the person you voted against became president, you still considered him your president. He said -- she said 15 years ago, that changed, that if you voted against that guy and he became president, you actually act as if he's illegitimate. And I'm not sure that is a big social and cultural difference. We -- and it really means the other side isn't really just wrong, they're kind of evil. And that's pretty bad.

MANPOUR: I have to say that many would say the church plays into this highly acrimonious debate -- public debate, not all church, but certainly some parts of the church. What should the church be doing different?
KELLER: At the very least, we should be creating individuals who know how to talk civilly. The gospel should create people who say, I'm loved by God but I'm -- I'm a sinner. So there -- there should be a certain humility and graciousness about the way in which you talk to everybody. As an institution, most of the churches have lost a lot of credibility. So I think my job is to create individuals who can participate in civil discourse.

AMANPOUR: You're saying institutionally, the church has lost credibility?

KELLER: The mainline church identified with liberal politics, the Evangelicals have identified, at least they're identified in people's minds, with conservative politics. The Catholic Church has had the sex scandals. And so institutionally, each church has lost credibility. So I think it's our job as individual congregations to care for the poor, to produce civil -- people who speak civilly, to just serve our neighborhoods and serve people and be careful about speaking ex-cathedra, you know, about these great political positions on issues.
 I would disagree with Keller in that I do think the church has a right to speak out on issues and there are some issues where we have to be clear where we stand.  But that doesn't mean we don't try to look at our sister and brothers as if they are evil.  We can find ways to be civil in maybe in some way speak to people about what church is all about.

What a witness that would be.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Repost: In the Middle

The following post is from April of 2008.  In light of the recent goings on at the United Methodist General Conference, I thought this might be a good post to share again.

I've been a mainline Protestant for about 16 years. I grew up in the evangelical and black churches and found the mainline churches a breath of fresh air...for a time. In many ways it still is a better option than what I grew up with, but as I stayed, I started to notice that a more liberal Christianity had some of the same blind spots that their more conservative brethren had.

One thing I've noticed is how much many progressive Christians talk about the importance of community. I agree with that. But at some point, I've noticed that for some community is less a place where there are people with different thoughts and backgrounds, than a place where everyone thinks the same and where no one has to be challenged with a different viewpoint.

Carroll Howard Merritt shares in this post about how good it is to be in a place where she can preach what she wants to preach. She notes:

I’m in a progressive church now. There are very few things that I can’t say here, as a peace-loving feminist. I spend a lot less time worrying, and a lot more time ministering. With that freedom, my preaching’s gotten much more authentic and a whole lot better.

And I can’t help but notice that my writing’s gone from a crashing, swirling, damned-up pool to a steady, flowing stream, because I’m not calculating the consequences of every word. My mind has more space to think. I don’t have to worry about losing my job if someone takes the time to read what I have to say. I have more creativity here, I sense the Spirit moving more.

This leads me to thinking. Maybe the Spirit is moving, but maybe it's also that she is in a place where everyone agrees with what she is saying. It's easier to be "prophetic" when you are preaching to choir.

She also is frustrated by those who are looking for a middle way:

So, is there any way that we can move our discussions from looking for some sort of middle ground to allowing freedom for people? Instead of rushing to moderation, could we each forge a path where we are and have a vision for more than one way? Or is that an inherently liberal position?

You know, I’m just concerned about all those people who are trying to find their way. I know there are members in our church who couldn’t attend most congregations in the country. But they’ve found a path to God in our progressive Christian community. And, I admit, I’m concerned about me. And other leaders on this path. Because it’s just so much easier when we don’t have to pretend to be a moderate.

Her concern is that rushing to the middle leaves out those on the edges. I can understand to a point, but what about those who are truly in the middle? Not all of us are out protesting at abortion clinics or at a peace march. We have our issues, but we aren't as strident those on the edge. In many cases, we want the church to focus on worshipping God and feeding the hungry instead of fighting the latest battle in the culture wars. I think sometimes there is a rush to the middle because some of us don't want a repeat of what we see in the wider culture, where everything is seen in the terms of red/blue, liberal/conservative.

And maybe instead of seeing this as the middle, it's more about trying to live in true community. You see, when I think of community, I think more of something like living in a small town or your family. You have relatives you love and those you don't care for. But they are all part of the family and you try to live together. My problem at times when I hear churches talk about "community" it's really about creating spaces where everyone thinks just like you do. But in my view, that's not community.

Community is when you can worship with an old man who doesn't condone you being gay and yet cares for you and likewise.

Community is when you can still love your fellow pastor even when they rant about the President or the way and you happen to have opposite views.

I think the "middle ground" is a place where we can see all of our differences and yet see Christ in each other. That's community.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Leviticus Revisited

Methodist Blogger Morgan Guyton gives the best understanding of what Leviticus 18:22 meant and what it might mean for us today.  Here's a snippet:

In 1956, United Methodists decided that Paul’s admonition in 1 Timothy 2:12 not to “permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man” had an appropriate application in the early church that is no longer binding today. We decided to ordain women to the ministry, thus officially proclaiming patriarchy to be obsolete. I do not think that God’s mercy and love have been compromised by having female clergy. I have been blessed tremendously by the particular form of nurture and exhortation that female pastors can provide. Likewise, following the best Biblical interpretation I can muster, I feel that the concerns that once made homosexuality a legitimate threat to the fabric of ancient patriarchal society are no longer applicable today. I am open to being persuaded otherwise, but please give me more than a list of verses plucked out of context or an abstract argument about the nature of gender.
 Read the whole thing.  He makes one of the best Biblical cases in a long time, one that goes beyond the "let's-be-inclusive" trope that too many of us too easily use.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Hospitality: Still at the Starting Line

I've been an avid reader of Frederick Schmidt's blog for nearly a year now.  I've really enjoyed his columns which urge us to ask what it truly means to follow Jesus in our modern world.  Today he takes on some proposed changes in the Episcopal Church.  One such proposal asks that communion "ought to be offered knowingly and in principle to anyone and everyone as an act of hospitality."

To which Schmidt replies:

The Eucharist is an act of hospitality? I've heard the arguments. It's an evangelistic opportunity. It's inclusive to offer it to everyone. To suggest that it's just for the baptized is exclusionary.
There's a problem with those arguments: The Eucharist is for the baptized and it is exclusive. It's for people who faced the darkness and said, I "renounce Satan and the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God," then faced the light and vowed, "I turn to Jesus Christ" and I accept him as my Savior.

To erase those boundaries by offering the Eucharist as an act of hospitality is to erase the demands of the Gospel. It trivializes baptism. And it finally erases the reason for being a church.

Boundaries may sometimes feel as if they exclude, but they are, in the first place, the only way we have of saying what it means to belong, to commit, to follow, to journey into Christ. If you haven't made that commitment, it doesn't mean I don't love you. It doesn't mean that God doesn't love you. It doesn't mean your mother doesn't love you. It means you haven't begun that journey.

Coffee, as an act of hospitality, is available in the narthex.
Now, I think hospitality is an important thing for the church to be a taking part in.  I've preached it often.   I've heard the same arguements and I've even made those arguements.  Disciples and Episcopalians have different understandings of the communion, but at its base, Schmidt's argument is far more sound.

I'm not saying we should not be welcoming to people and I'm not saying that we should not be hospitable to all those who enter the doors of the church as well as those outside of the church.  When it comes to issues like welcoming LGBT folks, we should be hospitable.

But I wonder at times if we have basically jettisoned the "meat" our faith in order to have the rest of society like us.  Hospitality is a vital value, but too often Mainline churches tend to leave it at that.  We talk about welcoming folks and being inclusive, but we then go no further.  Sometimes I wonder if we've made hospitality an idol and in the end destroying the very thing we want to welcome people to: the church.

The whole topic of the gathered community has been heavy on my thoughts for about a year now.  I've been wondering what does it mean to be church and how we are called to be a light to the world.  We talk about mission, but without discipleship, without being formed by Christ and the community of believers we are left with nothing more than doing good works.  When Jesus called people to follow him, he was asking them to take a pretty hard journey.  Are we willing to share that part of being a Christian with others?

Hospitality is good and important.  But it's time that Mainline churches get past the starting line.