Thursday, June 28, 2012

You Gotta Serve Somebody

It’s been interesting watching my Facebook feed today in light of the Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act.  What has made it interesting is seeing a number of mainline pastors kind of be so nakedly partisan.

I guess it shouldn’t shock me.  Mainline Protestantism has long ago jumped into bed with liberal interests in the way that Evangelicals have fooled around with the Republican party.

But while it might not be shocking, it is a little sad to me.  It’s just one more confirmation on how Mainline churches are just as beholden to ideology as evangelicals have been.


Thursday, June 21, 2012

I Miss the Old Mel White

I recently read an interview with Rev. Mel White.  Most of you know him as someone who grew up as an evangelical, was a ghostwriter for many big evangelical stars and then came out as gay.  I remember hearing about him in the mid-to-late 90s and back then he was kind of the SpongeBob Squarepants of the gay community.   I mean that SpongeBob thing as a compliment, because he just seemed so darned positive, when it seems like most gay men were known for snark and bitterness.  He was kind of a breath of fresh air to me and I was amazed and applauded his attempts to meet and even persuade his some of the people he used to work for.  Yes, it might have been hopeless, but there was something wonderful about how he really tried to do that whole “love your enemies” thing that Jesus talked about. This leads me back to the article I read.  The positive Mel White of old is long gone.  What’s left is a man that’s pretty pissed off at the church and when I say church, I mean the whole church.

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Friday, June 15, 2012

Autism and Contemplative Worship

Last night at church we held our first Summer Evening Worship. As many of you know, First Christian shares space with a UCC congregation and a Lutheran congregation. I shared an idea with the pastor of the Lutheran church about having a contemplative worship service during the summer and she took to the idea. We decided to do service based on Prayers Around the Cross, a contemplative worship service designed by Lutheran musicians at Holden Village in Washington State.

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Monday, June 11, 2012

Regarding Sharon Watkins' Pastoral Letter

Last week, Sharon Watkins, the General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) released a pastoral letter regarding the denomination's stance on homosexuality. It was sent to all churches in the denomination and late last week, a letter came to the church where I serve as Associate Pastor. You can read the letter and watch a video by Watkins by going here. All in all, I think it was a good letter. What is what I would have liked to hear? No. But I think it is what I needed to hear. Keep reading...

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Sermon: Water is Thicker Than Blood

“Water is Thicker Than Blood”
Mark 3: 20-35 and 2 Corinthians 4:13 - 5:1
June 10, 2012
First Christian Church
Minneapolis, MN

Earlier this year, I chaperoned my parents as we travled to Puerto Rico so that my mother could see her relatives.  It was a good trip, I got to see my Uncle Salvador who still doing well in his mid-80s.  

But while it was a good trip, it was could be a bit draining.  Since my parents can’t walk as well they used to, I need to make sure that there are wheelchairs available at the airport to get the between gates.  You learn pretty quickly that it is not easy to arrange all of this stuff.  At times, it feels like dancing and you have to try to make things work.  

As much as this can be tiring, I don’t mind doing it.  As an adult, children start taking care of their parents in the same way that their parents took care of them when they were young.  I can still remember when we would go on long trips, especially trips see my Dad’s relatives in Louisiana, Mom would have the back seat in the car prepped for me with a big pillow and a blankets.  Somehow they were able to make a long trip enjoyable.  We do these things because it’s what family does.  Parents take care of the children and children take care of the parents.  Like anything, families are not perfect and shouldn’t be deified, but families are important institutions in society.  The taking care of each other benefits the society as a whole.  

We talk a lot about family in our world today.  We talk about family values, working families, gay families, straight families and families breaking down.  All of this talk about this basic unit of humanity shows we place a lot of emphasis on blood relations.

The funny thing is, that Jesus doesn’t always seem to have the same fascination.  It’s not that Jesus doesn’t care about families, but Jesus doesn’t talk about them as much as we do.

In today’s Gospel passage, we see Jesus’ mother, Mary and his siblings coming to where Jesus is preaching, teaching and healing.  They aren’t coming to cheer him on, no, they are fearful for him.  They think he’s gone crazy.  “He’s gone out of his mind,” the passage says.  I can imagine them sending a message to pass along to Jesus.  Hopefully they can say something to draw him away from the crowds and get him to listen to them.  Maybe, they can drill some sense into him.

But Jesus does something strange.  Instead of being a good Jewish boy and going out to see his mother, he instead asks a question: who are my mother and brothers?  He then looks around the crowd and finally says, “Anyone that does the will God is my mother and brothers.”

Jesus rebuffs his own flesh and blood.  He doesn’t drop everything he’s doing to respond to them, instead he is telling them that he had to be about God’s will.

If we read other passages in the Gospels, we find that time and time again that Jesus seemed to not to plave family first, if he placed it anywhere at all.  Matthew 10:35 says that Jesus has come to divide families.  Luke 14:26 says that if you don’t put God over family, one can’t be a disciple of Jesus.  Maybe in one of the most distrubing passages in the Bible, Jesus rebukes a man who says he wants to follow Jesus, but needs to bury his father first.  Jesus just blankly says that the dead sure bury the dead.  If you are going to follow Jesus, you are going to place family second.  Jesus tells us God is either first in our lives or nothing at all.

Is Jesus saying we should not respect our families?  Yes.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this gives people license to treat their siblings or parents badly.  That’s not the point of this passage.  

That said, God is calling us beyond what is comfortable and into seeing a far more expanded definition of family.  One that is not bound together by blood, but by water. Well, water, bread and a little bit grape juice.

When Jesus talks about whomever does God’s will is family, Jesus is talking about what would be called the church.  Church is in many ways a family, not one where people are related as blood relatives, but one where we are related through baptism and communion.  Last week, we saw the very first baptism at SpringHouse.  We saw Salem Lutheran’s pastor baptize little Naomi in our common baptism space.  As those drops of water fell on her small head, we saw a formal welcome into God’s family, the church.  It is in the church where people from different walks of life will come together and will support each other.  Baptism is a way to welcome one into God’s family to be reminded that we are loved by God in a way that a mother loves her child.

But seeing the church as family, means that our biological families take second place.  Following God’s will can be disruptive and unsettling.  Follow God over family might mean that a young person might forego taking over the family business and become a pastor.  It might means disrupting the family life at home to give temporary shelter to someone who doesn’t have a home.  It might mean disrupting the “dignity” of worship to include persons with mental illness or autism into the life of the church and into our worship services.  There are other examples.  My point is that following God means that our staus quo and the status quo of the world is forever upset.

As a kid, I was always puzzled by something in church.  Growing up in the African American church, it never made sense that people called each other “Sister So and so” or “Brother So and so.”  That didn’t make sense to me.  None of these people were related to each other, so why did they call each other brothers and sisters?

It wasn’t till I was older that it made sense.  No these people weren’t related by blood.  But they were part of the church and they were bound together by more than blood.  They saw themselves as a family, larger than the ones they came from, where people pledged to be in community with each other and to treat those outside of the church with love and care.

The church is God’s very odd family.  We are bound by baptism and communion, where a bunch of people who don’t always argee on everything and even squabble a bit (like any family).  We are an imperfect gathering, but we come to bear each other’s sorrows and joys and go out to take care of the hungry, the lost, the outcast and the sick.  

We are family.  We are the family of God.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Shower the People

The pastor of a Disciples of Christ congregation in Colorado shows another way to help a church turnaround from decline: simply love the people:
When I came to Mountair I had a close friend tell me to do nothing but love people for a year. I didn’t like that advice much. I saw so many things that needed to change! I don’t like the status quo. But by the grace of God (and my respect for my friend) I heeded his advice (mostly). I spent a year listening to stories, making hospital visits, doing my best in preaching and Bible studies, holding my tongue on many things I knew needed to change. In that year a funny thing happened–I learned to truly love and care about our elderly congregation and they learned to love me as well. When love enters the picture it changes things. I still knew many things needed to change and that people wouldn’t like many of the changes, but I also knew I didn’t want to hurt people in the process. So we began tackling one thing at a time. To me it felt like we were trying to put out a fire with a thimble of water at a time. To them it felt like I was spraying them with a firehouse. But in the midst of that tension we loved each other. Another thing I’ve learned along the way is that momentum matters. As we changed something and the world didn’t end people were more willing to talk about changing the next thing. As they saw success happening–even a little at a time–it made them more willing to move into the next challenge. I can’t lie, at times it’s been excruciating taking what to me is such a slow pace, but the thing that has kept me from turning into the proverbial bull in the china shop is my love for the people. It’s been two years and nine months. In that time we have reformed some unhealthy leadership structures, had elders go from sharing a communion meditation in the service once a quarter to seeing themselves as leaders in the church, moved from a “no” to a “probably” disposition in regard to change, spent $25,000 updating the building so it wouldn’t be a deterrent to reaching the people in our community, began a Missional Community where people are taking the initiative to engage our surrounding community, become a church of 50% long-time members and 50% people from the community, agreed to spend money from savings to hire an Associate Pastor to help us move into the new ministry we’ve been dreaming about, and had the older people give permission for me to run with some new things that will hopefully make Mountair a presence for the gospel in our community for decades to come. It’s seemed slow but a lot has happened in two years and nine months, and we’ve loved each other in the process. (And what I’ve written here is really only a fraction of the story.)
I think this is something we almost never hear about when we talk about trying to rejuvenate declining churches. We tend to blame the people in the pews more than we love them. I am reminded of the response of a member a few years ago at a church board meeting. I shared a story about mainline churches and how they need to change and the man responded that he was tired of hearing how things are his fault. Congregations can have a role in the success or decline of the congregation. While churches must change, that doesn't mean we forget the people. We have to learn to love the people we serve, which is probably the only way to lead a church towards change. via Another Way to Turn a Church Around. PS: This was a good excuse to use one of my favorite James Taylor songs.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Repost: What Does the Lord Require?

Originally posted in November of 2011.

A few weeks back, I happened to be browsing the religious website Patheos and came accross a blog post by Greg Garrett called "God Commands Compassion, Not Evangelism." The title fascinated me and the excerpt was even more interesting: "Christianity is not about praying in a certain way, or believing a certain thing, or making converts, or building a nice cabin at church camp." The excerpt spells out what this post is about but here is a part:

In my book The Other Jesus, I talk about how Christians are called to do more than praise God, although I believe we are called to do that. We are called to do more than tell people what God has done and is doing in our lives, although I believe we are called to do that. We are called to do more than invite other people to be in relationship with that loving God, although I believe we are called to do that. The larger message of the Bible is about participating in the reality that God wants to bring into being to replace the sinful mess we have made, and a large part of that participation is about reaching out to those who are in need. God's advocacy for the downtrodden against the powerful is clear throughout the Hebrew Testament. A wonderful way to read the Old Testament's sections on the patriarchs, the subjection of their ancestors in Egypt, and their deliverance in Palestine is through the lens of God's choice of the poor, the outcast, and the unexpected to be the recipients of His love and grace. Youngest children (not the oldest sons, expected to inherit everything), women (of no social value), and exiles (not even part of a society) are chosen by God for special roles.

  I would agree with Garrett that our faith is about a lot more than making converts or getting people to heaven. I think that if we say we love Jesus, but don't try to care for the poor or alien in our midst, well our actions speak a lot louder than our words. Having said that, I do take pause with Garrett's words. I get the feeling from him that all that faith is about is social justice. Again, working to help those who are homeless or making sure that all are welcomed at God's table (the inclusion of GLBT folks) is important and valuable. But our faith in God is about more than that, or at least it should be. In his latest column, Frederick Schmidt writes about the "Issue-Driven Church." This kind of church is one that is driven by the agendas of the day:

In many ways The Issue-Driven Church thrives at the denominational level, among judicatories, within church agencies, and Conventions, Conferences, and Synods. But local parishes are often drawn into the orbit of The Issue-Driven Church. And even when they aren't, local congregations are forced to do their work in an environment that is often shaped by The Issue-Driven approach to doing church. That's part of the reason that an increasing number of churches are omitting any public indication that they are affiliated with a denomination. They simply can't pay the price of owning an association that drives people away before they ever get acquainted with the community. Now none of this is to say that the church doesn't need to address issues. Anyone who has read the prophet Micah or heard the story of Jesus won't think for a moment that you can take the Gospel seriously without finding yourself at odds with the world around you. The Christian life is not about hiding out with your rosary waiting for comforting moments of enlightenment while the world goes to hell in a hand basket. Speaking out against racism and sexism, the exploitation of the helpless—there's a long list of issues that show up in what might be considered the contemporary business of doing justice and loving mercy. But there is a difference between speaking to issues and being issue-driven.

Schmidt then goes on to describe what is the big problem with issue driven churches or to put it more plainly, the logical result:

The problem, of course, is there is really no reason to be part of a church like that—apart from the opportunity to somehow engage the issues. And, if you reflect very deeply on it at all, you will eventually conclude that the church is a dispensable vehicle—even for engaging the issues. In the meantime, as a result, life in the church has become like life everywhere in America, except for hymns and rituals: "Issues are Us." Issues divide us and there is often little more that brings us together. The nation is facing the twilight of common dreams and the church is a house divided.

If a church is only about the issues, at some point people are going wake up and realize that the church isn't needed. Why be part of a faith community in order to support your favorite cause? I don't begrudge those who feel called to speak out on issues. And while I lean more to the right, I have no problem with someone in a congregation who believes their faith calls them to urge for more government funding. The problem is that churches and people can glom on to issues and make that the grounding of their faith rather than Christ. Justice is important, but it flows from the life, death and ressurection of Jesus. Christ has to be the unifying force in our community, not our stance on Social Security. So much in our society is splintered and factured according to partisan lines. The church needs to be a place where people can see a different vision, one where people come together despite different opinions and views and seek to do justice-not because it's an issue, but because they are called, gathered and sent by the living God.

What Does It Mean to Be Prophetic, Revisited

Alan Bevere again picks up the the theme of being prophetic in a post today:
I have spent some time this week in the Old Testament prophetic books. I do not find it surprising that most prophets are not accepted in their own time. Their cutting words of truth at best fall on stopped ears. Then, in order to reinforce their words, they resort to symbolic acts which, if committed in the 21st century West, would be more than sufficient cause for them to be put away in special places reserved for people who walk naked in public (Isaiah) and who eat paper (Ezekiel), and walk around with an oxen yoke on their neck (Jeremiah). The people of God today have no more clue on how to recognize a prophet than the ancient folk. Every time I hear someone referred to as prophetic, it's only because they are speaking words that the hearers who so designate them agree with. But that's precisely the problem.
Back in February, based on another post by Alan, I asked what it meant to be prophetic:
Which has led me to ask this question: what does it mean to be prophetic? The reason I ask is that I think a lot of folks have an idea what it means to be prophetic that I think is a bit wrong. I will see a pastor who will get up and talk about some of the major issues facing our world and it is billed as “prophetic.” But more often than not, what I hear is more of a political agenda than it is calling the church to present the Kingdom of God. Since I move around mainline/progressive Christian circles, I tend to hear what sounds like a churchified version of the Democratic party platform, but I’m pretty sure that a lot of what might pass as prophetic in evangelical circles just mirrors the GOP agenda. So, what does it mean to be prophetic? What does a prophetic church look like? I have to think that it’s more than a party platform sprinkled with lots of Jesus. I’d like to know, because what I see passing as prophetic kind of falls short.
I have to ask again: what does it mean to be prophetic? I tend to agree with Alan, if we met a modern day prophet of God, no one would really like him or her. I don't think they would say things that would basically piss off everyone. Have we misread the prophets of the Bible? Have we read Amos or Micah, with their denuciations of wealth and their concern for the poor and confused it with a political agenda? Have we approprated these words to give us comfort and to use as weapons against others who don't agree with us? I don't have the answers. I do think that the words of the prophets are harder to understand than we think they are.