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Does Member Language Make Sense for the Church?

While I was at the National NEXT Church conference I ran across several conversations about the language of membership in a church not making sense.  The idea of membership – the argument goes – is antiquated and institutional.

The conversation is familiar, it is one I picked up about 8 years ago and it led into my Doctor of Ministry with a focus on discipleship and how member language may subvert the church’s calling to make, and send out, disciples.  I want to try to distill some of those thoughts:

My initial frustration was that member language makes the church feel any social group – rotary, the YMCA, a soccer club, a country club.  We pay a service, we get a card: we are a member.  Furthermore I have “membership” cards to everything from my favorite yogurt place to Pet Smart.  I constantly am reminded of this when I stop at gas station I use frequently that has a membership card (I don’t have one) and before you pump you have to hit a button either for “loyalty card” or “continue without loyalty.”  I always feel judged when I hit the latter.  Is church just a place seeking your loyalty and your dues in order to be included?  Furthermore if you work towards what you measure and we measure members, not disciples, than isn’t the church working toward the wrong telos?

The church is not a social club.  A word from a great sermon by Nadia Bolz-Weber:

“To some this may a sign that the “church is dying” …society will still have the Fortune 500 for profits, and non profits for service and day care centers for children and the ELKS Club for socializing and Starbucks for overpriced coffee and many other things we may not ever be. But we should never judge ourselves as the church according to these things because you know what the culture around us will NEVER do? Preach the Gospel, administer the sacraments and proclaim forgiveness of sins. You know why? That’s OUR job.

 You can catch the whole sermon here.

Add in to this critique of looking and acting like a social club that generations of people today are skeptical of institutions or wish to create new ones.  In today’s culture anything that feels rigid and formal and promotes the church as a place where you have to fit yourself into us in order to be an “insider” just feels wrong.  I can understand, in this light, the desire to do away with the member word.  I was one of those people.

But I’ve tipped my hand when I said was.

Two things emerge from a cascade of thoughts:

Peter Block’s research on belonging (I highly recommend his book Community: The Structure of Belonging).  His work on community is not about the church but I find it the most captivating argument about what a church needs to be in order to really BE church.  In the foundation presentation of his thesis he presents a two-fold understanding of belonging.  The need to foster a sense of belonging to the community that causes a sense of place (I belong here) and a sense of responsibility (I own the mission and seek the welfare of these people).  We make a difference in our community, and make communities of difference, when we belong to them.

Member: send it away or claim it in a healthy way I do think we are all in for the work of creating this kind of belonging (both these kinds of belonging).

Secondly.  Its Jesus.  Pesky, makes my life difficult, Jesus.  Jesus certainly reached out to the masses, healed insiders and outsiders, and frankly more outsiders.  Jesus preached on the street to any who overheard his gospel.  But Jesus also called disciples.  From out of the crowds of undifferentiated masses Jesus calls individuals. Jesus called those disciples to committed relationships (just take a gander at the Luke 9).  Jesus required “dropping nets” and leaving behind and committing to a community of transformation.  I recall often the words of A.B. Bruce author of The Training of the Twelve.  He says that the apostles in the Acts are capable of audacious faith because first they spent significant formative time committed to be in the presence of Jesus and community of discipleship around him.

I may not love the member word.  But the word isn’t as misplaced as I once thought.  I came to an articulation of membership like this: Discipleship is our lifelong journey of wrestling with God, and God’s people, in how I am called to live my faith.  Membership is the particular community I choose for this time and place to help me do the ongoing work of discipleship.

Maybe what our bigger problem is when we think the membership word draws a line.  Us | Them.

Jesus doesn’t practice this kind of community.  Instead he seems adept at ever larger concentric circles of community.


(The Twelve Disciples)

(“many disciples” (John 6:66 indicates a ring beyond the 12))

(The crowds // onlookers, over-hearers… admirers)

You get the point.. ultimately this is an unbounded set. Emphasis on unbounded!

So maybe our member word isn’t the problem.  The problem is that we make too little, and not enough of it, in the practice of the community of those who follow in the way of Jesus. The community that is, somehow, the Body of Christ.

I am the Resurrection

I have been involved in many conversations of deep hurt the last week. I have felt overwhelmed.

I have been in many conversations about ministries (church and non-church) experiencing formlessness and void, crisis about the future. I have felt overwhelmed.

The world is experiencing much violence and fear from every side. I have felt overwhelmed.

Today, in the dark sanctuary of my congregation, light was shining through the stained glass windows and they are wonderfully designed such that the window for “I am the Resurrection” is 10x brighter than any other window. Dazzlingly bright. (I cannot do it justice here but I have tried with a couple of phone pictures.)

The window spoke to me. Is speaking to me.

Do not fear.
Be still.
I have come to give you life.
You are not alone.
You are my beloved.

I am the Resurrection.

resurrection 1

resurrection 2

Home: A Sermon on the sordid families of Abraham

From today’s sermon on Genesis 29’s story of Jacob’s brides (you got that right, more than one and double it again if we are talking mothers of his children) but really its a sermon on the repetitive story of Genesis:

Robert Frost defines home as the place where, when you go there, they have to let you in.

The family systems sickness that is passed through the generations starting with Adam and Eve (I was told later I created a new notion of original sin) and working through the generations of Abraham’s children is the belief that we are in a competition to earn God’s love. We keep defining “home” smaller and smaller so we have to let fewer people in to the circle of God’s love out of fear that there isn’t enough or that we will be out earned by the other.

The Kingdom of God, Heaven, Chosen Land, Chosen people, New Jerusalem… etc, etc are all just different words for home. And God’s home is to the ends of the earth and there is room and love enough for all. We all have a home in God’s heart. The question isn’t how do we earn it, or be worthy of it. The questions we have to answer is how do accept that we really are loved by God without need to earn it, and how are we making that same love palpable for all we meet?

You are loved; we are loved; we all are loved. Open your heart to call the world home, and let everyone in.

The Giving Tree or The Taking Boy

Okay so now and then I let slip that I do not like The Giving Tree. People love it. I get it. So here you go, why I don’t. You will have your reasons why I’m over analyzing, but it’s what I do and… I really don’t think this is a reach but it’s right there in the story:

The message that we read in the story of the boy is that happiness is procured from money, working all the time so you have no time for play, a family (he seems to not to end up with), having a house, and going to far away places to find what you don’t have. All this at the expense of the life and vitality of your friend who appears to be codependent and lives only for the happiness of the boy who apparently has no thought of the happiness of the tree.

By the end the dead used up remains of the tree are, we are told, happy to have served the whims of the boy who appears to have never found happiness because here in the end he is sitting alone without friend or family on the stump of an old dead tree.

The end.

Yes that is harsh.  But I really do think this story is a damaging narrative cloaked as a sentimental and benign children’s tale.  So some further thought before you go to it’s defense:

Yes the tree gives. But the boy takes. This is the groundwork for almost every imperialist culture ever. Imperialists take advantage of generous people until it’s too late to change the dynamics of the relationship.

There is a reason Jesus’ death is said to be “once and for all.” It’s that we do not require sacrificial death from our neighbors in order that we might live… and yet, sadly that still isn’t true.

The hidden sadness of this book is that you cannot buy happiness. Happiness is not external and no amount of chasing after it will “find” it.

This book more than any other reminds me why I love the triune love commandment from Jesus: “love the Lord your God… and your neighbor as yourself.” These three work in concert and balance. You can’t do one or two to the exclusion of the third if you are following in Jesus way. To love God but not neighbor? Misses the point. Self-love to the exclusion of others – no way. But also: to love neighbor without any care for self stands outside of Christ’s calling. In our care and service to one another we have to be able to care for ourselves as well. We live interconnected lives building each other up – not one at the expense of the other no matter that we claim the other “desired to make those sacrifices.” This is the way we defend imperialism, slavery, patriarchy, racism, and the subjugation of the environment, etc, etc, etc.

So there you have it, why whenever someone reads or mentions The Giving Tree, all I hear is The Taking Boy.

The Surprise of Being Beloved

All through Lent I’m preaching on the Matthew periscope of the temptation of Jesus in the desert.  This is being done in conjunction with a curriculum we are also using in small groups throughout the church.  This Sunday before Jesus is “led by the Spirit into the wilderness” we are hearing the voice of blessing in Jesus’ baptism. As a secondary text our study also provides the voice of Jesus in the parable of the prodigal son. It is this text that began speaking to me and became the lens through which to talk of blessing and celebrating relationship with God who looks on us as “beloved.”

Matthew 3:13-17

13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Luke 15:11-32

11Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.17But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 

20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 

25“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on.27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”


We come to this parable, or this parable gathers us in to it.  Now parables are not meant to be taken literally – they are stories that often back us into a transformed understanding of the world and the deep truth of God’s participation in creation.  This story doesn’t have to be about families, it doesn’t have to mean that the father is God, nor should “father” and “brother” makes us think only of the men in our midst. Our interpretation and wrestling should focus more on the heart of the story – the deep truth it is mining on our behalf – rather than any of the particulars.  At its heart this story is about celebrating the return of one who is lost; it is about restoring relationships and celebrating them without bitterness and judgment. Now that reminder given… I’m going to now break my own previously stated rule… and pay some attention to particulars.

We Presbyterians… or really any churchy folk – we make good elder brothers.  We pay attention to his story for we know him all too well.  We are so often the ones who feel we are doing everything we should be doing; who is getting it all “right” and yet… somehow we don’t feel the love.  Somehow all our right answers aren’t connected to the Spirit and vitality that is meant to be ours.  We are lost in our own righteousness. (Sitting outside in our bitterness even, denying ourselves the celebration because the wrong people are being allowed in.)

We also tell the story of the younger brother because we are all that younger brother – or at least we know we should claim to be him in our more honest moments… when we can stop being the elder brother long enough.  The younger brother who chases after a different life – for whom the grass is always greener on the other side.  The younger son who flushed it all down the toilet.  And we become crippled with shame and feels far too unworthy… of love, or our adoption as sons and daughters of God.

However I was intrigued me this week was the story of the father, the untold part of his story.  I was intrigued by that because we got to this text through the study that is shaping our Lenten Journey – Temptation in the Desert, and title of the section we are working on today is The Surprise of Being Beloved.  I heard that title and thought of that surprise and immediately my head jumped to another snappy and provoking title, Philip Yancey’s book What’s so Amazing about Grace?

These titles were swirling in my head and I’m reading this story and thinking about the father, what is like for him? What was it like when his son came to him and said, ‘hey pops, I would like you to give me my inheritance now because you are kinda like – dead to me – and I’m ready to be dead to you and call this thing we have going between as done.  I’m going out on my own.’

What was it like in the days and the weeks and the months after his son left, after they went through that awkward transaction – which I’m sure the father went through with a daze about him wondering if this was really real.  What was in like that night staring up at the ceiling unable to sleep because he is no longer whole? Part of him has rejected him and I’m sure he is wondering things like: what did I do as a parent that my child walked away?  Did I not love him enough, did I not say it enough, and did I not appear to want to know his story, to hear his hopes, to support his dreams.  Was it really necessary for him to just cut me out?  Where is he now?  What is he doing now?  Is he okay now?

And you know as well as me that this wouldn’t just be a night time thing.   In the day time he’d catch movement in vision, “was that him… no, no it’s someone else.” Looking through the faces in the crowd wondering if somewhere just around the corner… if just around the corner the child of heart is waiting.

And then there is this, in our claiming of this story as our story the death may well have been literal.  Far too many parents have born the burden of their child’s death.  A death that is experienced over and over. You do not lose a child once, you re-experience that lose, that death every life transition you should have gone through with your child.  You are re-visited by the pain, the lack, the death happening all over again.  Why? Why has this happened?

A question whose answer never comes… cannot come.  It is a question that lacks an answer all together.  My child is gone.  Cut out.  That should be me celebrating over there… with him… but it won’t ever happen.

I realize that there are unloving families out there.   I realize for some the idea of father is not one of love, and the idea of mother may be no better.  Our brokenness knows no bounds.  But for the sake of this story the father is the father wants nothing but to love the son, to behold the son and embrace the son, and be.  With the son.  This father is father of countless families where death struck, this father is the mother of countless lost sons.  The parent here yearns to simply love her child, his son, our brother.

This typology of parent, if you will, this form of the idea of parent for you Platonists out there, this norm or ideal or whatever you will.  This father wants nothing but to love the son.  And why not.  Wouldn’t I want the same?  Wouldn’t you?  This, child of you – heart of your heart, bone of your bones – flesh of your flesh – wouldn’t you do anything to find a way to be in relationship – to share lives, to seek the good of each other?

This father has carried death with him, for a part of his being has been dead… lost in sorrow, and he wants for nothing more than his child to crawl back from the grave – out of the mists – to say help me.  Father?  I am home.

In this light, when I think about what’s so amazing about grace… What is so amazing to me about grace is that it’s not surprising at all.  Grace isn’t a surprise.  Grace should never be a surprise – not from God’s side at least.  For Grace is who God is, this parent – this father, mothers, brother, sister, friend – this one, this holy and loving one can be nothing other than Grace.  It is foundational to God’s being, at the core of God’s character – God is love.

God who is creator of all that is, all people, all places, all things – these are all the children of God.  And God exists to all of them as love, God years for nothing more than to be in relationship to all that is and love all that is and to celebrate that relationship for its intrinsic value regardless of what has been – or will be – the character of that relationship.  All is worthy of God love by virtue of the nature of God’s love.

To (very loosely) paraphrase the prophet Hosea in chapter 11 giving voice to the inner wrestling of God with God’s inability to be anything but love to God’s children.  ‘I am angry with my children, Ephraim and Israel.  I am angry that you turn from me and cut me out and go away from me – but how can I simply let you go?  How can I let you come to ruin?  How can I act out of my anger?  Because while I am angry and frustrated and feel thwarted in my desire for your well being by your clumsy choices… my heart is yet kindled for you – over and over and over again compassion bubbles up from the depth of my being for you… and am I not God.  Is this not how it works, and has worked from the beginning.  I am God.  And I love.  And I forgive. And I celebrate your return no matter how often you depart from me.  I can do no other.’

God chooses love every time.

Grace in God is not surprising.  This is what I think every time I hear the son proclaimed beloved in the waters of baptism.  This is what I think when I hear a story that even the most wayward among us, even the betrayer and the forsaker among us (and within us) are pronounced beloved.

As I think about a father’s heart broken by the separation at the hand of his son.  And there is nothing surprising about grace from our father, welcome from our mother… except for us.  Think about this with me for a moment, its seem that from this story I understand that there are two and only two impediments to Grace we can experience and neither of them come from God or are about God.

The impediments to Grace are:

  • Our own inner self that says to ourselves: I am not worthy.
  • And our brother.  Our brother who is all too quick to say – he is not worthy.

In this equation we cannot conceive of love because we think worthiness matters. We think that even though over there outside of the house is our brother who is as worthy as can be, but feels no love.  His inheritance was not the assurance of God’s love and forgiveness and the fruit of his spirit is not Grace.  And I stare into that abyss and what stares back at me is a challenge for the church.  How often has the Church as an establishment been the elder brother who sought to deny reconciliation for our wayward sibling?  Not just the resentment of this story but we further yet and run down the road to intercept this…. this former family – this son yours we no longer claim – and stop him from crawling before our parent telling him that he isn’t welcome that God has nothing but anger in God’s heart towards you who sinned before God and your family and the world, “you shouldn’t come home.  You would not be welcomed there.”

That abyss stares out at me from the elder brother who knows much of worthy and little of love.

The impediments to Grace have nothing to do with God and everything to do with us.  These two fold broken hearts – the worthy and the unworthy.  The first part of us plays the elder brother preventing others from experiencing the love of God because we have deemed them sinners, unworthy of celebration.  And the other part is that seed of unworthy in our own heart that is perhaps even the genesis of this judgment of unrighteousness.  We are both children at the same time and the younger – wayward son – within us does not feel we are worthy of love. We cannot conceive of being the receiver of the unsurprising love of God.  And so we are doing everything we can to prop up a sense of worth in our constructed world to try to get parental approval – to earn what we cannot believe we already have.  After all, if we haven’t earned it how can it possibly be ours?

God is love. There is no other way God can be. And to our split selves of unworthy shame and worthy judgment a nothing but loving God speaks.

You were dead… and now you are alive.  You were lost to me and now you are found.  The father in this story says nothing about tomorrow, the father in this story being told to us by THE beloved of God says nothing about contingencies or worth or expectations to being welcomed.  Not even a pause.

We create applications for God’s forgiveness.  And God tears them up.  How?  How could you possibly imagine that you aren’t worthy of my love.  You are my child. My creation.  I know you inside and out.  No matter how frustrated with you I may get I will always love you – you will always be my child. You can deny me, but I will never deny you.

You are my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.

Thanks be to God.

We Will Not Be Assimilated

A collision of three occurrences over the last three days:

  • On Saturday in a conversation of Presbyterian colleagues some offered a need to have a clear and coherent theological identity.  The most extreme version that got offered was a call to have a core belief that made it easy to say who belonged among us and who did not based on their agreement with that common core belief statement.
  • A coke commercial that I originally found a bit banal (and then realized was still prophetic) offering America the Beautiful in many of the diverse languages (and images) you will find spoken in our country – and then a reaction of some strongly against that notion because “people should speak English here.”
  • Two blocks from my church office this morning a group of advocates gathered (and I am sad that I was not with them this morning) in silent protest on the steps (and inside, many of whom were arrested, updating my post already here is an article on this mornings protest) of the State Capital building to “Add the Words, Idaho” asking the legislature to add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the Idaho Human Rights Act thereby protecting our LGBT neighbors from discrimination and the insecurity of knowing that who they are at the core of their being could be held against them in livelihood and liberty.

add words

(This picture is from a few weeks ago when I joined friend and collegue Marci Glass as part of the “Add the Words, Idaho” Rally also on the steps of the Capital.  Here is a sermon I preached the next day that reflected on this experience among others.)

All three of these cause the same reaction to me.  Whether we are talking about the church or the country I love, we are not the Borg (sorry folks – Star Trek reference, a race of aliens that forced all civilizations to become a part of their collective consciousness).   We do not – or should not – seek to assimilate the world.  We are at our best when we celebrate diversity.  We have admirable ambition when we seek to protect the minority and their right to be a part of us without having to become “like us.”

There is a particular insidious narcissism that we can name as either Exceptionalism or Zionism that seems to think who we are is the best, and the best we can offer is to convert – assimilate – the other into the exceptional reality we already have.  (This narcisissim is made worse because we also add fear – we fear those not like us, the twin emotions of fear and superiority create a very dangerous blend)   Whether it be our brand of Spiritual Truth or the particular expression of our national identity, we are sure the best one can be is what we have to offer.

What I love about my understandings of both the United States and the Presbyterian Church is that I believe it is central to who we are that we DO NOT have a cookie cutter look of what is central to who we are.  We do not seek to melt away differences to become uniform, but we seek to bring connection to very diverse perspectives, cultures, and expressions of liberty, truth, goodness… whatever.  We are in the business of building bridges across divides and not in removing those divides.

Is this harder than assimilation?  Absolutely.   It is easier to sell a clear product.  It is easier to offer an existence in a group of people who think, look, and act similarly along similar goals.  It is easier to have a common language, currency, and worldview.  Life without the need for translation is easy…

But I also think that is a sad reality – and ultimately rather boring.  I am reminded again that in the first creation story of Genesis God did not say let “me” make “Adam”.  God said, “Let us make humankind in our imagine.”  Singularly we do not reflect God.  Together we do.  Even God wasn’t singular in the story.  Creation was meant to reflect a rich diversity of goodness.  I am similarly reminded that our nation is not a democracy where the tyranny of the majority rules, but a Republic whose role is as much to protect the minority from the majority as anything else.

We are not Borg.  We do not assimilate otherness – we celebrate it.  And this does take work.  Work at overcoming fear, and expanding our boundaries, and finding common bridges across differences that are their own blessings.

I do not want to think I can only gather in God’s name around a single sentence of clear Truth – what a small God that world is.  I love that my kids go to school with kids whose first language isn’t English because the realize the world they live in every day is VERY VERY SMALL compared to the rich diversity of all creation.  And forcing other people to live in fear of their safety because we don’t like who they are or because we think who they are somehow threatens our way of life?  That is terrorism.

We are not Borg – we do not assimilate – we celebrate.  Thanks be to God, and thanks be that we live in a country that aspires (in its better moments) to let us.

A New Year’s Eve Reflection

I tend to think that most nostalgia about the past is born of poor and selective memory (we mostly only remember the good parts or remember how we imagine it was).

On the flip side there can be memories so painful we become stuck in the horror of it all, unable to imagine goodness. Such memories become too powerful and infest our minds stealing the real joy that is there.

Somewhere between these… Life is.

There will almost always be reasons for great joy and heart-wrenching anguish. There will be stories of hope and transformation amidst ongoing struggles with injustice and systems of power and abuse so deeply rooted they seem too entrenched as to be immovable. Our daily lives are a mix of wondrous mystery, dis-eased anxiety, unnoticed miracles, and unaddressed abuse to self and others.

I understand we cannot remember it all. But on a day of remembering may we seek authenticity: lament and praise. Claim hurt and hope. Notice milestones lived and paths yet untaken. May our memories of the past be whole so that our hopes for the future may be realistic, and may we avoid hyperbole – either with perfection or perdition.

Tomorrow is not a clean slate, but it is a new day where new choices and new directions may be taken (as all days are). Let us make the most of it – in deed and not words alone. Happy end of 2013 to you all, and a Happy New Year!