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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.

(Jesus-Father-Advocate)

(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.

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Yearning To Live God’s Love

This is part of an ongoing series on the Holy Spirit section of the PC(USA) Brief Statement of Faith, Intro found here

  • In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing: here
  • To witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior: here
  • To unmask idolatries in Church and culture: here and here
  • To hear the voices of peoples long silenced: here
  • To work with others for justice, freedom, and peace: here
  • In gratitude to God: here
  • Empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives: see below
  • Even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

Empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives

As we break this section down I will skip the “empowered by the Spirit… live holy and joyful lives” parts.  Not because they aren’t important, but because I hope that I covered them last time in the “in gratitude to God” reflection (we could always say more but I’m trying for a series of reflections and not a whole book!). So without further ado:

We Strive

I’m a big Yoda fan.  I even have an authenticated life-size Yoda statue (which is a lot easier than the same for Chewbacca).  I am as quick as any to quip, “Do or do not, there is no try.”  But… do I really think that is true? Certainly there places in scripture (and our faith communities) where we draw lines in the sand and make it clear you either do this and you are one of us, or you do not – and you are not.  But to say do or do not is to presume that the task is do-able, and that we are absolutely clear what the task is.  And so I ask: is the way of Jesus something we can do?  Is it helpful to say we will either or not do what Jesus asks of us?  Or do we, rather, try.  We try to serve Christ in all we do… or maybe to say that in a slightly stronger way.  We strive.  We yearn.  Our bodies lean in to the way of Christ.  We crave to live as Christ would have us.  And yet we know we will not perfectly do it.  We will not achieve it.  We will not be “the way of Jesus” we will be the best approximation of that way that we can muster.  In this word, strive, we combine accountability and affirmation, confession and pardon, aspiration and settledness, prophetic calling and gracious inclusion, the way we do not and the way we do.

We strive.  Not “I try” but “we strive.”  It’s stronger than me alone or simply a tacit veneer of hope that something like Jesus will happen in me.  We strive acknowledges the claim Christ’s way has on all that we are, while granting us grace to fall short.  When we “do not” it does not mean that Christ is not still at work in us and through us.  It means that while we set out to live a life that is beyond our ability Christ delights in our efforts no matter how short we come of whatever goal we aspired to live.  As Thomas Mertonsaid, “the desire to please God is in fact pleasing to God.” (loose quote, full quote footnoted below).

Serve Christ

I want to say one and only one thing.  I am convinced that scripture is clear (or as clear as it ever is), if you wish to serve God (through the way of Christ) than to do that we must serve each other.  We love God by loving our neighbors.  We serve Christ by living in service to the whole community of God’s creation

Daily Tasks

What a powerful two words: daily tasks.  We don’t serve God by going to church, by worshiping, by being in Sunday school or a mid-week Bible Study, by going on a mission trip, or…. whatever.  We serve Christ in our daily tasks.  All that stuff we just named that sounds like the programmatic life of the Church – that’s all just practice.  It’s like a homework assignment of writing out spelling words.  But we do not write out spelling words for the sake of busy work.  We do it to make them a part of who we are so that when we go to use those words we can do so naturally, instinctively, and without thought.  They become a part of us for their use in our daily tasks.  We mistake Church as an end (a goal) in itself far too often.  It is simply meant to be a community of formation for the REAL TASK.  Living in service to Christ in our daily tasks.  How are you serving Christ at school?  At work? At play? At home? On the road to these places? At the waiting room for a Dr.’s appointment?

Let us rephrase that question in light of our whole reflection: how are you striving to love the people you encounter each day?

This is what we commit our lives to look like: God’s love being poured out in chance and intentional encounters every day of our life.  All the other things we do in God’s name? They live in service to that goal and not the other way around.  The goal is to live the love of God and the way of Christ towards our neighbors in our daily tasks, and whatever it takes to keep us directed toward that goal… is church (intentional community of faith).  And anything else?  Is probably either a distraction or directly counter to who we believe ourselves to be called to be.

Empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives.

Thanks be to God.


This prayer is a great gift, these words sit – among others – above my desk as a constant reminder:

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” -Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude

Diagnosis: take a year long break from Church

This is part of an ongoing series on the Holy Spirit section of the PC(USA) Brief Statement of Faith, Intro found here

  • In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing: here
  • To witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior: here
  • To unmask idolatries in Church and culture: here and here
  • To hear the voices of peoples long silenced: here
  • To work with others for justice, freedom, and peace: here
  • In gratitude to God: see below
  • Empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives: forthcoming
  • Even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

————————————————————————————

In gratitude to God

You have heard it, somewhere and some when. If you are like me – you have said it. “I have to go to church meeting.” I’ve slipped and said it, but usually I try to catch myself and say instead, “I get to go to a church meeting.” I get to worship. I get to go to bible study. I get to witness resurrection in the midst of mourning the death of a loved one. I get to…

I’m amazed at how often we feel like faith or church or mission is a burden we carry. (Sometimes with good reason but often because we are approaching it from the wrong mindset.) And I don’t disagree. Having to wrestle with faithful ways of living in my life is more challenging that just… not caring. That’s not what I’m talking about here though, I’m talking about those times church has begun to feel like one more obligation in a week that is already over-flowing.

What does it mean to take seriously the notion that we “work with others… in gratitude to God?”

Our life together in faith is not meant to be an onerous burden. Strangely enough I have always found church fun. From choir and hand bells to Sunday school and confirmation – church feeds me. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be a part of a community. And yes there are days it doesn’t feel that way, but mostly it does. However the moment it ceases to be that for a protracted amount of time… that needs to be addressed. I remember talking to Cynthia Rigby, professor at Austin Seminary, and she mentioned a time when she recommended a church member stop reading the bible for a whole year. She did this because that person had turned reading the bible into an obligation that was killing their spirit. They weren’t feeding abundant life with their reading – they were crushing it under the weight of “I ought to do this.” So she told this person to knock it off, to stop reading it, and I say: great advice.

We are called to serve – to work – together in gratitude. With joy. If we have lost the sense of awe and gratitude to be trusted with this work than an essential ingredient of ministry and calling is missing, and we have to stop and take pause.

Listen to the Psalmist in Psalm 8:

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.”

The Psalmist is awed, humbled, and empowered. I am nothing. And yet God has entrusted me with everything. I have been granted the privilege of responsibility. This is to work in gratitude to God.

So… how do we get that?

Maybe you are in touch with that now – maybe you are living this phrase. In that case, let your let shine!

Maybe you are close, maybe its there but you don’t quite realize it. Would it help to just recall the ways you have been blessed by companionship in community, and the way you have been a blessing to others.

Maybe you are holding yourself back because you fear it, but if you just let loose a little you will realize how much joy you are experiencing from ministry together.

Maybe you are there – and you don’t even know it. Name it; claim it.

There is another response – a deeply faithful response. Maybe you need to knock it all off for a bit. Taking Cindy Rigby’s story a step further I have recommended that before. That someone just take a year off of church… or from leadership or from programs or missions or… whatever it is they are doing that has lost that sense of awe, privilege, and gratitude – and has instead become an onerous obligation. And you know what? It’s biblically faithful. (or at least I think so.) Right before the Exodus commandment to keep one day in seven reserved for Sabbath it talks about letting your field lie fallow one year out of seven (Exodus 23:11). Sometimes we are dried up and we need to stop and just abide and rest. We need to let the dust settle, scatter the structure to the wind, forget about seed and harvest and just wait… and see what comes up again next year. Maybe you need to take a year off of church.

There are many ways to gain that sense of gratitude in service. None are right or wrong except in so far as they are right for you, for this time. But what I am getting at – what I think our Statement of Faith calls us to attend to – is that our work together is meant to be work that feels like privilege, a joy, and a reason for gratitude to God for the opportunity – I get to do this. And if we aren’t there – it’s time to take stock and figure out how to, because this is all about abundant life: for you – for your neighbor – for all God’s creation.

Thanks be to God.

Addendum (the next day):
A congregation member sent this clip to me in response to yesterday’s blog post (which get emailed to the congregation as devotionals of sorts). Spot on: “we GET to play baseball today.”

Even more spot on with the idea of taking time away: I occassionally lament that Michael Jordan left basketball for that whole misadventure with baseball. What would his stats be, how many more championships we would have won if he hadn’t done that? But when your spirit needs you to “take off” and go on a misadventure that is the the RIGHT adventure for you, than that is what you have to do. Who knows, maybe those last three championships don’t happen without him taking his break.

Living in the Tension: A Sermon on the Sacrifice of Isaac

“Don’t Mind Me While I Rip Out This Page”
Sermon by Andrew Kukla
First Presbyterian Church
Boise, ID
June 29th, 2014

Psalm 13
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O LORD my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken. But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.

Genesis 22:1-14
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”

 

So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.

But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”

After this reading, do we say: thanks be to God?

Don’t mind me while I tear this text right out of my Bible (sound of tearing paper). Haven’t you wanted to do that before? Not just this text but lots of texts, haven’t you wanted to rip them right out and never read them again? The Bible is not a comfortable book to read. And don’t worry that was just last week’s bulletin I ripped so we’re okay.

One of the things that really scares me is that someone might preach this text nonchalantly. You know that somewhere out there at this very moment this text is being preached straight up and literally while being unassaulted by the horror of it all – as if God tests us this way, and that isn’t something we should question. That scares me. I don’t know what we do with texts like these that paint a less than stellar picture of God. A horrible picture of God. And us.

I do think that I am amazed this story, and those like it, are still in the Bible. I mean think about it, they have to be able to fix this one. The editing room floor is a good place to start. This story was passed on for centuries in oral tradition and written in scrapes and fragments and pieced together and translated and re-translated. Surely in all that re-scribing of the text we have had ample opportunity to smooth out the edges. As much as I dislike this text I have to say I am amazed by the forerunners in faith who continued to keep stories like these in the Bible, after which we do say: this is the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God. There has been plenty of time to alter scripture to be more palatable, more marketable, a better story to get people on board.

Several years back – probably about 6 years now – I was watching a Chicago Bears game. I am a Chicago sports fan and no matter where I live I always will be. I’m a diehard fan of the Cubs, Bulls, Blackhawks, and Bears. So I was watching a game and Nate Vasher – who was a cornerback for the Bears and one of my favorite players at the time – intercepted a pass. I’m sure we were losing at the time; we have done that a lot. And he intercepted the pass and we all got excited and then he fumbled and lost the ball back to the other team and in my frustration I pounded my fist against the ground. What I would come to learn soon was in that moment I fractured my wrist. Now two things about such injuries when you are a preacher… first, shaking the hands of everyone after worship with a fractured wrist is really painful. It is particularly so when you have a lot of ex-Navy folk who want to make sure to give you a good firm handshake. Secondly, when you get that wristed casted you get asked A LOT what happened. And I would tell people – because I have this honest streak – that I was in this alleyway and saw a little old grandmother being mugged and I stepped in…. ok, I would tell them what really happened and – now I’m sure you’ve done this and so have I –they’d respond, “really???” And I’d want to say, “No, I just made that up because it makes me look so good.”

It occurred to me back then that I should make up a better story because people would like it better, and so would I. And I remember that every time I read a scripture story that is hard to understand, or particularly one that is violent and oppressive like this story of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son at God’s command. I think of that because I realize that they could have written a better story, if this was just about what they had wanted to write. There is something deeply faithful about the sacredness with which we have held to stories of God and God’s people and in which we have been unwilling to make God or ourselves look better in the telling. As we go through Genesis this summer you will notice that the first families of faith aren’t really reputable people. Abraham’s winning and faithful characteristic is that he says yes to everything and questions nothing. In other times and places this would have made him complicit with evil (and one can and should argue that here in this particular story). Abraham, the yes-sir / yes-ma’am, is considered a hero of faith because he is on the side of God and we presume the side of God is good. Jacob lies, steals and cheats his way into the story – and does those to his own family. But we will tell his stories as our stories of faith and it is from his lineage that we get Israel and our own forerunners in faith. These aren’t lifetime movies or hallmark specials. The Bible is not a family friendly book. Do you remember last year when the History channel did the Bible miniseries? One of the early critiques I saw was that it wasn’t fit for children to watch. I remember thinking, “well duh!!” The bible has rape, murder, genocide, anger and petty jealous – this from God’s side of the story. One should not engage scripture unless you are ready to get real. Surely we are clever enough that we could have come up with a better story. But somewhere in these texts we have sensed a holy wrestling with God. Somewhere in these texts there is an unfolding story of who we are in relationship to God and who God is to us. And if we have learned nothing from these texts we ought to learn to cut ourselves a break when we get it wrong. Because the people have always gotten it wrong.

I ask one more thing of you Abraham, who I have drug all over the ancient near east. Who I have kept waiting for my promises to come true, who I have watched have his family split in two at odds with each other, who has done everything I have asked. Now I ask you to take this child, whom you love and you longed for, this child who you went through so much for, take this child and kill him as an offering to me.

I want nothing to do with that God.

I will not stand up here and tell you to believe in that kind of God. I will not stand up here and play mental gymnastics to explain how this story is okay, because it’s not. What I will do is ask a hard question of us: Is there good news in this kind of story? Is there any redeeming quality to this story?

After seminary and before I pastored my first church I felt a calling – an Abrahamic kind of journey calling – to spend an extra year as a hospital chaplain doing a chaplain residency in downtown Atlanta in a program that could have you working as many as 100 hours a week when you were the weekend chaplain. 1,000 bed hospital with 2 level one trauma centers and a children’s hospital across the street as the only chaplain on overnight shifts. It was a hard year – an emotionally difficult year. There were nights where all you did was death. I recall one weekend shift that from start to finish I walked with nine different families through the death of a loved one. Nine deaths without sleep… when you do that you begin to feel more than a little ashy.
In the midst of that journey you are doing residency work to look at yourself and your interpersonal baggage and how you work with your 6 colleagues and their baggage and that is draining as well. And in the midst of that my wife and I were in year three of trying to have our first child. Now it’s hard to feel the sting of that now because… well now we have four kids. But at that time we were doing the 28 day rollercoaster of did it happen, did it happen, no it did not. And we were in year three of this rollercoaster and like so many who have fertility challenges we had to watch other people be excited about new kids and then news stories about people who had so many kids they didn’t want and on and on and in the midst of that you wonder, “why on God’s green earth can we not have a child?” This journeying took us to doctors and eventually me to what became radically successful reproductive surgery. But I wasn’t there yet…

All three of these streams came together in Holy Week – itself an emotional time. And I remember being in the conference room with the other resident chaplains and our supervisor and we are talking about stuff and it all just broke inside me.
I started sobbing. I was experience the very real death of God for me. And I was experiencing the dilemma of what it means to be the spiritual care for people when God was dead to me. What, and how, can you mediate death with people when you yourself are feeling that God is dead? How can you provide spiritual care when you have no spirit and feel dried up inside?

And all this comes pouring out and these wonderful people who I work with who were friends and comrades in a hard journey began to utter – sorry I can’t sugar coat it – all kinds of crap. Theological platitudes. Nice sounding hallmark cards. How it was going to be okay, how it would all work out according to God’s plan… all the stuff we had been trained to never say, because there is nothing you can say in that kind of moment. And as my colleagues – who I love to this day because we went through a kind of formative hell together – because my colleagues were saying all this I was now feeling worse… its like heaping up ash on someone who is already burned up inside. And then they left…

And I said to my supervisor who was still there – and I’ll never forget this part – “Robin, they’re so unhelpful. And I’m learning how to be a better chaplain right now. And I don’t want to learn from this. I don’t want to learn like this…”
And she didn’t say a word.

I could imagine. (If I’m doing any theological gymnastics I’m warning you it’s about to happen.) I could imagine a well-meaning writer trying to get someone into the angst of that moment saying I was being tested by God.

I could imagine, because I heard and watched and participated in my colleagues who are good and faithful and caring people heap all kinds of theology onto the hell I was living on my Mt. Moriah moment, so I could imagine afterwards saying something like this is the word of the Lord… thanks be to God… and attributing all kinds of motives and causes and results from this story. I could imagine trying to tell it faithfully and mucking it all up. Because there isn’t a good way to tell those kind of stories. It is so easy to try to domesticate those kinds of stories. But we all have these kinds of stories. That’s my point here.. the point is not my story. But our stories. Because if we learn nothing from Abraham we have learned that on the 10th time and the 11th time, and I’m sure on the 12th time when it seems like we have it all together (finally) something else happens that we find ourselves tested and tried and strung out as we stumble into a Mt. Moriah hellish kind of moment. And I look back on it – on my version – and I ask, “Did God put me (do that to me) there to learn something?” And the answer, I believe, is no and the answer is yes.

Because God IS a god who unsettles us, God is a god who tries to break us out of unhealthy patterns and idolatrous myths and practices and God puts us in places to try to understand the deep resources of life in a world that has a lot of death, a lot of hurt, and a lot of harm. And sometimes that feels cruel… is cruel. And sometimes we aren’t really sure how much God is involved in all of that but we do know – on some visceral level – that God is in it all somewhere. And in this midst of that hard challenging news… I also think there is a thread of good news to this story.

The thread of good news is that when we end up in those moments – God is right there with us. You hear that in the end… and then Abraham saw a ram. The Hebrew words for saw and provide have the same root. God/Abraham saw a ram, and God has provided it. God provides a way of life. “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”

We will end up in Mt. Moriah moments. We will end up in hellish places that it feels to us that God has led us to dead ends. We will end up in moments where we aren’t sure if God is worthy of our belief, and we will end up in moments where our life or the life of one that means more to us than our life is at risk, and in those moments you cannot get rid of the existential angst, the anguish, and the feeling of death. But you can hear a word that you are not alone. That God is with you working in that hell to provide a way out… a way to life.

On the mountain of the Lord, in the midst of hell, in the challenge that will come in each and every one of our lives – the Lord will provide. Amen.

–Charge and Benediction (call it addendum 1)
The Supervisor of my chaplaincy, her name was Robin, is a beautiful soul. And she would always say we have to live in the tension. Life pulls us into difficult places; we get caught between different truths, between challenge and adversity, a rock and hard place. And as chaplains, as Christians, we are called to live in the tension of those moments. We are not called to resolves the tension but in the midst of that tension to be a presence of love and care. I cannot resolve Abraham’s story. I am not called to. But we are called to enter these stories free of our go-to theological platitudes and full of love to remind ourselves, our neighbors, and the world that even in the midst of hell God is with us and that you are – we all are – the object of the greatest love that ever was, is, and ever will be. So go into the world with whatever peace you can muster. Amen.

Preaching Good News as the Great Perhaps

I have read a LOT of articles about the actions of the recent Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly.  I have read a lot, I have seen even more posted.  I hit my limit last night; I’m not clicking on them anymore.  (So yes, if I were you I would not be reading this right now.)  I made that call last night and thought to myself, “back to preaching the Good News!”

…And then I stopped short.  Because that wasn’t at all fair.

What I love about my church is that we are willing to speak out loud what we believe.  We are willing to imagine that the gospel does in fact meddle with our lives and views, be they social, political, or theological.  And we are willing to be wrong.

I love that and I have to recognize that for a great many people preaching the Good News is EXACTLY what the General Assembly was, is, and will be doing.  We are preaching liberation from injustice, and seeking to offer blessings and forgiveness and dialogue towards a worldview more God-open to the many ways God is at work.  Many would view this work as evangelism: preaching the good news of the Gospel which embraces those who have been marginalized and oppressed.

But…

Many others hear that news as bad.  Many hear it as a departure from the established patterns.  Many hear it as an affront to their faith, their politics, their attempts to love their neighbors – our neighbors.

And you know what?  That has always been true of Good News.  It sounds so easy.  Oh – preach good news.  Okay, I got that.  But it’s hardly so easy.  The Pharisees were an incredibly faithful group of people.  They helped sustain Jewish faith for centuries of tough times.  They had good news.  But they differed with Jesus about what that is, or how we live that Good News.  The conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities in his faith (for he was a Jew too) isn’t because one of them was unfaithful and the other was faithful, the conflict was about two radically faithful people with a different understanding of what is good, or how to live that good.

And the issues compound.  Paul preaches to Philemon that he cannot own a Christian slave and so he must free Onesimus.  Is that Good News?  I bet it was to Onesimus… not so much to Philemon.  And Paul isn’t very gentle with him; in fact he is rhetorically manipulative.

8For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love… 14b in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced… 21Confident of your obedience… 22One thing more—prepare a guest room for me.

I love that last part… oh yah, and I’m coming to check on you too.  Paul gets what Paul wants.  But this dilemma doesn’t just involve Paul or Jesus, the cases abound.  Look at the Biblical mandate for Jubilee.  Jubilee is radically good news to the dispossessed who will get their lands back, but not so much the people who have accumulated those lands and slaves and worth… by the work of my hands and intellect and good management I obtained these lands and now I just have to give them back???  Is Jubilee good news to most of us in Presbyterian Church which, while not exclusively so, tends to be privileged and wealthy?

There is a struggle with this word good.  Part of why I am always hesitant to use it for God (read that here).  Good news rocks the boat.  Good news unsettles established tradition.  Good News breaks the rod of the oppressor, the yoke we carry, but also the structure and institutions we are invested and empowered by.  This is hardly Good News for all people.

Did the General Assembly do Good News work this week?  Will time tell us that we were out in front on justice, or off the path?  I do not know.  I have my passionate thoughts on the subject but that wasn’t was this line of thought is about.  What this is about is recognizing that our call to preach Good News is rarely comfortable, and if it feels comfortable to you (or me) – we are probably doing it wrong.  It wasn’t comfortable to Jesus.  It wasn’t comfortable to God.  It wasn’t comfortable to Paul.  It wasn’t ever meant to be comfortable… it was meant to liberate us from the structures that comfort some at the expense of others.  Maybe we acted rightly.  Maybe we acted errantly.  What I am grateful for is a church that is willing to be wrong.  I am grateful for a church that will to go on record for justice at the risk of its own life.  I am grateful for willingness to stand in the tradition of prophets, apostles, and reformers.  And I am grateful for the humility to understand that we will yet need reform.

Yesterday I learned a phrase for the first time, “I go to seek a Great Perhaps.” (attributed with some dispute to the last will of writer François Rabelais.)  I think there is something very reformed about this.  I think as we preach good news we are always (as those who see through a glass dimly) at best those who are seeking something of a great perhaps.  Those willing to dare that we might just be approximating God’s will and God’s good news for the world.  But are also doing so through human understanding, with limited language, social baggage, and our interpretational lenses seeing and hearing what we want to see and hear.  We dare to act, because otherwise what good are we?  We act with humility, because we know we have erred and will err again. We seek a great perhaps endeavoring to be Good News.

So… preach the Good News?  I’m trying.  You are trying.  We are trying together – thanks be to God.

Church: Not What I’m Supposed to Do

I just read a short article in a subscription I receive called Journal for Preachers.  It was about whether bad singers should be allowed in church choirs.  As I was reading it my mind jumped to a conversation I had years ago with my father.  We were talking about the idea of “passionate worship.”  My father said that the definition for him of passionate worship is that he is actually willing to sing the hymns.

My father married the daughter of a musician (and church organist) who is herself a wonderful vocalist and then they preceded to give birth to 4 kids all of whom did multiple musical things from choirs to bands to musicals growing up – and now the grand-kids as well.  But my dad is not what you would call “musically inclined.”  He confessed that he knew he didn’t have a anything close to a good voice but if he felt like everyone was singing such that no-one would hear him then he would actually sing.  This was – to his mind – passionate worship, when the experience of worship overcomes his natural inhibitions.

So my head is connecting various dots (as my head is wont to do particularly when I have some administrative task I really need to be doing).  I’m reminded of a piece by Greg Jones on holy friendship (a subject he talks about in various places including here) in which he says one of the great gifts of the church is that it gives us the opportunity to become friends with people we otherwise might never meet because we have nothing else in common.

Again… I’m struck by a theme there.  There is something about church that connects us, not with what we want, but with what we never knew we needed.  Sometimes our spiritual journeys presume that it should be dictated by our wants and needs, our gifts and talents.  But it may be that such compatibility is an idol that keeps us from a deeper sense of community and a more whole sense of our own identity.

We are ready to limit our experience on our predetermined satisfaction.  But what if our community of faith (be a church or some other entity) didn’t connect us in with the right places, people, and opportunities… but instead helped us to let go of the whole notion of “right?” It encourages us to foster abilities we didn’t think we had, connects us to people we didn’t think we had anything in common with, and calls upon us to passionately engage tasks that we previously thought joyless or “beyond me.”

The community isn’t about compatibility with what I already know about myself, but people and experiences that put me in touch with parts of myself I haven’t yet come to know.  And our calling, your calling, isn’t necessarily about what you are good at, or even what you most want to do, but it’s a calling to something that is – as of now – outside of your experience.  So it is that Moses, who might just be the least capable and least willing person to call to rescue the Israelites from Egypt, is also the perfect choice.  Because no-one else has as much learn about himself, and as much personal healing with his own past to undergo in that journey than Moses did.  Moses needs the Israelites as much, if not more, than they needed him.

So how is God calling you out from your own comfortable compatibility to learn and grow in the community of faith?

A Journey of Discovering Myself

If you have been around me for very long at all this won’t come as a surprise to you because you’ve probably heard me say it.

I’m a strong introvert and something of an academic.  I grew up happily playing in the sand by myself during recess.  I read books by the light of my closet until 2 am every night.  (Unless my parents caught me and made me go to sleep.)  I started out college as a secondary education / math major.  I then changed to Philosophy with the intention of going to seminary and on from there to do PhD work… still teaching but at a different level.  I was on the road to stay true to who I think of myself as being: an introvert who prefers to only know and hang out with a small very close group of friends and have esoteric debates just for the sake of it.

Then very early on in seminary my plan went all amuck.  I felt called to have the kind of conversations I love in school rooms… in the church.  I felt called to walk with an entire community – rather than a small group or classroom through conversations of faith that were hardly esoteric but real and on the ground rubber meets the road theology.  Stints as a missionary in the Philippines and hospital chaplain exacerbated that – they forced me more out of my introverted and academic shell.

I preached about that in my former church and people said, “No way you are an introvert… you talk so much!” (I do, guilty as charged.)  But I’m an expressive introvert.  I need alone time but in a small group of people I’m quite capable of thinking out loud and ad nauseam, and then needing to take a nap to “recover.”  So yes, I’m an introvert.  But how, they asked, did you feel comfortable preaching in front of 450 people?  Well it’s a journey.  You do not step out of a closet where you were reading and immediately jump in front of a crowd with all eyes on you.  One step at a time.  God found me and God challenged me.  God challenged me to do what I was meant to do for a living, not what I was good at.  God challenged me to go far outside of my comfort zones, to walk in cultures I hadn’t experience, and to people I didn’t know.  And I’m still not good at it – but I’m better.  I have been stretched and once stretched I did not return to where I started.

So why am I saying this?  I’m saying this because earlier today I put on my clergy robe and stole and accompanied a friend (I would likely have not gone if it wasn’t for her, thanks Marci – friends do that for you) to the House chambers of the Idaho State legislature where we sat silent in the gallery with many others.  Sat a silent vigil to let them know that we would not forget that they would not let us speak to why we believe it is essential that Idaho seek to protect the basic human rights of our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender neighbors.  Now I don’t even like to call myself Reverend or Pastor (let alone Rev. Dr., I’m just plain Andrew in my congregation) because this shy introverted academic starts feeling all pretentious when I do so.  So what was I doing in full religious professional get up at the capital being a strong (?) advocate for social justice?  This isn’t me… is it?  Truthfully I’m not a good one.  But I’ve stopped being willing to be silent in the face of injustice for the sake of keeping the peace.  That kind of peace isn’t worth keeping.  So I’m out from my own closet.  I’m out to add my voice to others who are out of their closet, and many others who aren’t yet.  I don’t do it because I’m comfortable doing so… I do it because my discomfort in being a social advocate is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING in comparison to the fear with which my brothers and sisters are forced to live their lives because their very humanity is put in question.  I do it because God says to me, “Yes you are your brothers – and your sisters – keeper.”

Does it come natural?  No.  Am I good at it?  No.  Am I trying?  Yes.  Because the world can’t afford not have us all try our best to put our voices forward for those who have had their voices stripped from them.  Have I offended some of my friends and companions along the way?  I’m sure of it.  And no I am not proud of that.  I wish there was another way.  On top of being an introverted academic (and not doing a good job of either of those these days– thanks be to God) I’m also a people pleaser.  But my frustrating and challenging journey with God keeps taking all the things I say that I am… and challenging them.  It’s why I call this blog Wrestling with Discipleship.  Like Jacob wrestling with God… I have come out limping.  And I think I am the better for it.  God took my names for myself and gave me a new one.  I didn’t get here overnight, and I’m not anywhere near where I might one day be.  Who knows where God may take me, what God may do through me, and what I might help to make come about in this world.  I hope… I hope its light.  Not light for me – but for those around me.  That I may not limp alone… but that we might limp together – no longer quite who we imagined ourselves to be at the beginning.

I know I will not always be right (thus the limping), nor will I always correctly interpret why God has chosen to make me limp (thus the need for others to journey with me, and make me go where I wouldn’t otherwise go).  But this much I think I do know.  The world is a better place when we are willing to open ourselves to encounters that change us and move us and challenge us than it is when invest in armor to protect ourselves from whatever (or whomever) may come our way.

Thank be to God.

The Challenge of We

When I did my Doctor of Ministry work my focus was discipleship.  Mainly how our focus on membership in churches was detrimental to our more primary task of discipleship.  The two do not need to be mutually exclusive, but it often works out that way.  The focus by the end of my research was on our welcome of new members to our church community and how that process relates to discipleship.  If I were to sum up my whole paper in a couple sentences it would be something like this:

  • The task of the church is to follow in the way of Jesus with our whole lives serving as a source of shared challenge and mutual affirmation to the way in which we are called to live.
  • We do that by walking together as we follow; discerning together God’s calling, inviting others to follow with us.  That is we create a culture of discipleship with the intention of getting others to join us on the journey (not very different to Jesus’ own group of twelve disciples – sadly we often use the crowds that follow the disciples as our church model rather than the circle of disciples themselves).
  • The invitation to new members (followers) is not an invitation to a set of beliefs but this corporate journey; we aren’t seeking right thought but shared action.  And the commitment to an individual community (membership) is to say that in my larger discipleship journey I am declaring my intention to live that out for this time and place with this particular group of people.
  • The task of the church then in that moment of initiation is not about informing new people but nurturing their sense of belonging – it is about cultivating a sense of “we” in service to our shared journey in the way of Jesus.

The concept of “we” is an interesting one, mostly because we are very tempted to towards a way of them and a way of me.  Early on in the process I became very attuned to such language.  When you talk to someone and they say something about you or they – this person generally doesn’t feel like they belong.  I went through that myself last year as I became a part of a new community of faith.  I watched myself slowly stop saying “you all do this,” or “your history has been,” etc.  And begin to say “our” and “we.” In moments of conflict our temptation to do this is even greater.  We distance ourselves (intentionally) when we say “they are doing this” or the “the session decided” or “you all thought.”

We do this when we do not belong.  Now to be fair sometimes we don’t belong because the leadership doesn’t care to have us belong.  We do not get a voice, and so we don’t really belong.  We aren’t following together in the way of Jesus – we are following the voice of those with power as they follow their discernment of Jesus’ way.  Other times we do not belong because we do not seek to belong.  We seek to protect ourselves or keep our independence; we aren’t willing to compromise “my” way to “our” way.

Being we is hard work.  Being me is much easier, and seeing it as them versus us is a constant challenge. The way of we is harder yet because I do not mean that when we are “we” there is uniform agreement (see the last post on being assimilated).  Rather the joy of we is that we bring our different perspectives to bear on a common journey, and we stick with that journey even when me doesn’t agree with the decision of we. 

I will give perhaps my two favorite examples.  John 6 and Matthew 19.  In both cases Jesus taught hard lessons about the kind of journey he invites us on (you might check out the end of Luke 9 as well for examples of people not ready to make the commitment of “we”… but I’m trying to resist make this list really long but do note that there “we” doesn’t tell someone else they don’t belong, it is the me that decides it is not ready or able to be “we”).  In John 6 many disciples left offended – they stopped following. I do not think Peter and the twelve are any less offended. But their sense of belonging – commitment to Jesus’ way – means that unlike the others they stayed in for the journey.  “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69).

Similarly Peter (I think, but it’s a loose interpretation) has regrets about leaving everything behind (personal possessions at least) to follow Jesus when the rich man (Matthew 19) is told to sell all and give it to the poor.  What is the different between this man and Peter?  The next day Peter still follows, and the other has slunk back into anonymity.  Maybe he does it in the end, maybe he follows in Jesus’ way eventually.  But he wasn’t yet ready to commit to the way of we. 

As “we” we seek common good.  Humility calls us to think our voice and opinions hold no more weight than anyone else’s.  We belong regardless of whether we are entirely happy with where we are going or not. We give our best effort even when it’s not the effort we would have chosen.  We take responsibility not for ourselves but for the whole and we recognize that all parts or inter-dependent.   We is a challenging way to live.  It challenges me.  And yes, I’m to challenge it.  That is part of we: there is no passive role in the journey.  No-one is just along for the ride, we are all given an active part.  There is no “they” in a community of we.  We are they.  This is what it means to belong – it is a combination of commitment and ownership.

So are you taking on the challenge of we?  Are you empowering others to live into that roll?  Are you listening, and speaking, and then listening (and hearing) again? Do you belong and make spaces for others to belong as well? 

These are questions we need to ask ourselves every day and they are the question I find at the center of my quest to wrestle with discipleship and my calling to follow in the way of Jesus.  Thanks be to God. 

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!

A Gettysburg Address, of sorts

A week ago an idea was put forth by a seminary colleague of mine: the Gettysburg Address sermon.  November 19th marks its 150th Anniversary.  It is considered one of U.S. history’s greatest speeches, and its only 272 words long.  If one of the greatest speeches ever was 272 words why do we need so many many more?  So the challenge was put forth.  What if on November 17th, in honor of this great moment in history, we preached sermons that were only 272 words long?

The challenge intrigued me.  I want to do it.  I’m not preaching this Sunday so I cannot now, but I imagine I will take the challenge at some point in the near future.  It is amazing what happens when we begin to make sure every word counts in what we say.  It’s the opposite of the way I preach now (I don’t write sermons out so I don’t know how many words I use).  And maybe for this reason alone I consider it a good idea – we need to change it up now and then.  After all God is always doing a new thing!

However, the subject of the remainder of this post isn’t the idea of a sermon of 272 words; it’s actually the Gettysburg Address as the sermon.  What happens to these words when we preach them in our churches?  What happens to these words when the battles which we reference are the wars of words and theology and scriptural authority that occur and split and mangle the Body of Christ today?   When the grave yard in which we stand is our own empty pews?

—-

About church splits there are many theories.  The diversity is too great to hold our deep convictions about God together in unity.  Questions about power, authority, and whether we are bound together by sets of laws or by a common vision that will not let us go.  The role of tradition and how we honor the past without becoming its slaves.  And how we pass on our convictions while also granting freedom of conscience?

These questions plagued our nation, and they haunt our understanding of church today.  When I teach Presbyterian history I talk about the civil war.  Whether we admit it the church has always been formed by the society around us and this was true of slavery.  The church split even as the nation split.  We could not, however, simply fight a war and establish unity again (yes I’m over simplifying).   But it took the church over 100 years to end that rift, if we even did.  And when I think on that I think – maybe the literal battle fought by blue and grey wasn’t any dirtier than the hundred year’s war the church fought.

Is there another way?  Is unity worth the blood and tears?  Apparently Lincoln thought so.  But he also thought it gave us responsibility.  Responsibility to make that sacrifice worth it.  Responsibility to pass on the gift of freedom, the gift of shared experience in freedom, the gift of people invested in being freedom for the generations to come.  Does this preach in our churches today?  I don’t know yet… but I have a sense it does…. There shall be a new birth of freedom, indeed.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.


It should be noted that the post above is divided into three sections, each 272 words long.  Not exactly the assignment but I still enjoyed the process.