Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Serve God, Save the Planet: an Hour of Work, a Day of Rest

How Do We Get Our Sabbath Skills Back?

'We confuse working with living' Matthew Sleeth pg 99.

In this chapter Matthew Sleeth writes about both the importance of physical labor and of actually observing Sabbath.

In my limited experience the American Church is terrible at Sabbath. I've suggested that the church I serve observe Sabbath by not shopping on Sunday's for a month. There were many baffled looks, quizzical looks, and some open verbal skepticism as to the practicality of such a thing. (to be honest, I too am so used to thinking about sabbath as 'day to go to church' and not 'day to be at rest and refrain from producing and even being a consumer' that the very next week I went home and ordered a pizza. What a great 'lead-by-example' guy I am!

Sabbath came up again in a recent Sermon Talk-back Session on John 5 in which Jesus asks a paralyzed man, lying by the pool of Siloam if he would like to be well. after telling the man to pick up his mat and walk, (it is Sabbath) a Sabbath controversy erupts.

So we started talking about Sabbath. The discussion was a combination longing for the rest and simplicity of a real Sabbath, tail-chasing about what we could and couldn't do if we actually were to try to observe sabbath, some confusion about Saturday Sabbath and Sunday Sabbath, and some 'spiritualizing' of sabbath, (an internal practice that doesn't necessarily connect to skills or practices put to use externally.) The sharing was honest and open and real and we learned a lot but what I learned was how confused we are about sabbath as honestly and earnestly as we want to obey God.

It seems to me that we have in a few short years since Sunday Commerce laws were relaxed, we have lost the skills to observe Sabbath. We don't even know how to begin to think about it.

I think that Matthew Sleeth begins to approach the re-establishment of Sabbath skills by putting both work and sabbath together. I sometimes wonder if on some level we have a hard time conceptualizing Sabbath because we aren't quite convinced of the value of our work. Yes, we are getting a pay-check, but what are we creating?
Perhaps we would be more clear about how to do Sabbath is we were more clear about the purpose of our labor beyond getting the bills paid and the retirement fund safely nestled for the future.

Which, by the way, is seems to be suggested by Jesus own answer to those who are angry about the healing on the sabbath. Jn 5:19 the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. I hear Jesus saying, 'God, my Father is still working, creating life, and so am I.' Perhaps if we were clearer about how our vocation fit into the on-going creating and redeeming that God is still doing, we would also be clearer about how to practice sabbath. If our vocation doesn't give us a clear connection, perhaps an avocation will.

Which is what makes the Christian's engagement in Creation Care seem absolutely vital to me. As I read Genesis 2, God created us to serve and protect the rest of creation. We were made to be engaged in the rest of creation and not alienated from it as we so obviously are. I have begun learning about, preaching about and practicing creation care, not only because of the damage I see humanity doing to God's glorious creation, but also because I think the Bible tells us that unless we are engaged in caring for creation, we are not quite fully human the way God created us to be.

So what am I gonna do with all this mental wandering and pondering?

1. As a Pastor, physical labor isn't commonly demanded of me so; come spring, we are going to do some gardening in our back-yard.
2. We are going to do some gardening in the form of trash pick-up in our neighborhood.
3. I have already stopped shopping on sundays. Instead we invite friends over for dinner or gather with extended family for dinner and game night.

How do we get our Sabbath skills back?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Will Our Children Have Faith Part 3: A More Dynamic Theology

One of my continuing concerns is not being clear on what we desire to achieve through our catechetical (educational) efforts. Our aim, I suggest, is to form Christ-like communal persons and communities. This implies for me clarity of faith, of how we are to perceive God. Many people have unhealthy images of God that need to be healed. (46)

One of Westerhoff's concerns is not only the 'school paradigm' in the church's catechesis,but also the wide variety of theological options offered to church-goers today. We need 'Theological Essentials' according to Westerhoff.

Westerhoff seems to suggest a level of biblical and theological engagement on the part of every disciple (not just us 'professionals') that is rare in my experience and difficult to cultivate. To make it plain (and I say this with much love) very few adults have time or inclination to devote to study and discussion of the bible and theology. I've been a pastor for 11 years (in New England) and adult bible study/discussion opportunities have been poorly attended whenever and wherever I've been a pastor (which may say more about me than anything).

In practical terms what I think is more confusing for the average church-goer is not the wide variety of theological options that come from theological institutions; liberation, neo-orthodoxy, post-liberal, etc, but the wide variety of theological options that come from popular culture. For example,take a peek at this partial list from Brueggemann that I found here:

1. Everybody lives by a script. The script may be implicit or explicit. It may be recognized or unrecognized, but everybody has a script.

2. We get scripted. All of us get scripted through the process of nurture and formation and socialization, and it happens to us without our knowing it.

3. The dominant scripting in our society is a script of technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism that socializes us all, liberal and conservative.

4. That script (technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism) enacted through advertising and propaganda and ideology, especially on the liturgies of television, promises to make us safe and to make us happy.

5. That script has failed. That script of military consumerism cannot make us safe and it cannot make us happy. We may be the unhappiest society in the world.

Brueggemann's 'script' equals my interpretation of Westerhoff's 'theology'.

A church that is not actively engaged in learning, teaching and practicing the faith will not only be unable to 'flip the script' that is, discern its theological script in opposition to the social script, but it will also be unable to recognize the cultural idols, religions, faiths and spiritual scripts that Brueggemann suggests are forming us at every moment of every day.

In other words, we are failing to be church because we are allowing ourselves to be formed more in the image of popular culture than we are being formed by faith in God.

What to do in order to encourage a more dynamic faith?

1. Longer Sermons. Yup, I said it. 15-20 minutes a sunday will not offer enough of a script to undermine the cultural script, especially since there is little to no participation in other study/worship opportunities throughout the week.

2. sermon's as dialogue. So I am not suggesting longer lectures, I am suggesting more time spent engaging together in the Word of God. I begin with questions, open ended, and simple... What three things would you tell someone who doesn't know anything about Jesus? What five things would you say about God? What struck you as strange or curious about our scripture reading today? Did you feel challenged or threatened by the reading? What about the reading made you feel that way?

3. Devotions. I write devotions for most of my sermons. They most often follow up on the major themes or points of every sermon.

4. Action. Every sermon leads to action. Every lesson leads to action. Every Bible discussion leads to mission, ministry, action. What are we going to do with what we have discussed? What would the belief that we have discussed today look like in action?

5. Mentoring. Folks who want to join the church enter a One year mentorship that involves bible study, participation in ministries, a mission project, and classes with the pastor.

What would you do to encourage a more dynamic theology that 'flips the script?'

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

On My Way to a Sermon on Deuteronomy 30: God's Gonna Cut You Down

'What three things would you say about God?' I asked my 9 and 7 year old sons.
He's cool,He's nice, He's loving...
I just want to say right off the bat that I try really hard to use gender non-specific language in reference to God. I refer to God as Heavenly Father AND Mother, and really try not to say 'He' too much. We even sing an inclusive language Doxology in church. So where all this 'HE' stuff is coming from I don't know.

But for today, it's the adjectives; cool, nice, loving that I'm thinking about. I'm glad they've got the idea of God as 'loving.' But 'cool' and 'nice'? Especially when we get these edgy descriptions of God, like in Deuteronomy 30 where God offers both blessing and threatens destruction. God watching and waiting to either be our best friend or our worst enemy. I knew guys like that in high school. Since I was a small guy, I liked having them on my side, and occasionally one of them would befriend and protect me in gym class. But you never knew when they were going to change their minds from the friend to the enemy. That isn't a good feeling. So you had to watch yourself around them. And you could never really relax, even when they were on your side.

Jim Wallis of Sojourners will sometimes mention the Bible he had in seminary (I think) that he cut all of the verses and stories about money out of, to show people what was left in the bible when we ignored them. What would happen if I cut out all the angry, threatening, dangerous God stories?

And don't give me that, 'That is the Old Testament God' stuff.
Mt 13:49-50 This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

It's in the New Testament too. So we've got to deal with it.

I think that if we smooth off the rough edges of the Threatening God, we are left without justice, righteousness, even resurrection, which is the vindication of the wrongfully murdered faithful (at least, initially as I understand it). Without a serious and slightly menacing God, we are left with God as a grandfatherly butler therapist, waiting behind the scenes for us to need a favor, but not capable of demanding our allegiance or obedience. God without some menace is a God who we just don't need to take that seriously, and if the research reflected in Kenda Creasy Dean's Almost Christian is accurate, that is the God too many Christians worship and most American's like to think about.

So I'm gonna preach in favor of an angry God (very carefully I might add).
The questions to consider; What is dangerous about preaching a Threatening and sometimes Angry God? What is missing in our faith if we skip over these stories of God's anger, destructive power, and menacing presence?

And somehow I'm gonna work some Johnny Cash into it, because as I was reading Deut 30, this song came to mind.

"God's Gonna Cut You Down"

You can run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Sooner or later God'll cut you down
Sooner or later God'll cut you down

Well you may throw your rock and hide your hand
Workin' in the dark against your fellow man
But as sure as God made black and white
What's done in the dark will be brought to the light

Go tell that long tongue liar
Go and tell that midnight rider
Tell the rambler, the gambler, the back biter
Tell 'em that God's gonna cut you down
Tell 'em that God's gonna cut you down
Tell 'em that God's gonna cut you down

Serve God Save the Planet Part 4 Chapter 6

This time chapter 6 'Too Much Stuff'

On no subject is Jesus more clear than on materialism: a life focused on possessions is a poor and misguided life. Over and again, he urges us to seek a spiritual path and a life of loving one another... Real treasures do not rust, run low on power, become obsolete, clutter up closets and garages, or rack up credit card debt.

Consumer Therapy is the default faith of a good many folks who call themselves Christians. We find more solace in shopping and purchasing, and devote more time and energy to it, than to prayer, devotion, study and worship. If we were to total up hours spent in a practice of faith compared to a practice of consumerism I bet we would be shocked.

I don't say this from a position of moral superiority. I struggle with it too.

I think that what Matthew Sleeth does here is get right to the heart of true Stewardship. In the mainline church tradition we tend to think that stewardship is giving money to the church.

What I have struggled to do in year after year of ministry and sermon after sermon on money and material possessions is to suggest that the simplest stewardship decision is giving money. The challenge is re-shaping our desires so that we are not wasting money on constant consumer actions that affect the environment in production, transportation and then disposal. Our desires will not be reshaped if we are spending more time in devotion to the mall gods by listening to their television advertisements and little to no time in prayer or bible study.

I would further recommend for those interested in this a book by Luke Timothy Johnson 'Sharing Possessions'

Although I disagreed with Johnson's initial argument that Christianity was not an ethic, his exploration of the importance of material goods and biblical survey on the topic was excellent.

I would also recommend William Cavanaugh's 'Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire'

Sleeth challenges the American Consumer Creed which tells us that we have the right to purchase whatever we want and use our money however we desire with this simple and direct statement:

The Christian is not at liberty to do whatever he likes. Christians are constrained by conviction to think about their lives, their actions, and their responsibilities...

How much we have, how we spend, how much we spend, all of these bear greater testimony to our true faith than the God-talk we utter.

So I'm going to do three things

1. Clean out the clutter, getting rid of the stuff I just don't need (in as environmentally responsible way as possible.)
2. Learn to live with less by filling my time with things that last; reading, music, family, service to the community and Creation
3. Observe a sabbath, on consumerism, not shopping on Sundays. Instead, we are inviting folks over for a Sabbath meal, focusing the support of relationships instead of the quick satisfaction of consumerism.

What can you do you pry yourself from the hold of consumerism?

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Almost Christian Review Part 3 or 3 Ways to Live Faith with our Children

If teenagers lack an articulate faith, maybe it is because the faith we show them is too spineless to merit much in the way conversation. Maybe teenager' inability to talk about religion is not because the church inspires a faith too deep for words, but because the God-story that we tell is too vapid to merit more than a superficial vocabulary...

If the God of Jesus Christ is a missionary God who crosses every boundary -- life and death and space and time -- to win us, then following Jesus is bound to be anything but convenient. Jesus Christ doesn't tinker; he tears down walls, draws up new plans, makes demands... (Dean 36-7)

Jn 5:2-3
Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda…Here a great number of disabled people used to lie — the blind, the lame, the paralyzed.

Charles Campbell, in his outstanding book, The Word Before the Powers, wonders that if one of the ways the Principalities and Powers, the Systems of Domination, keep us under their thumb is by keeping us busy, tired, and diverted. Kyle Childress

My poor kids go to church every sunday (that they are with me.)
They have learned John 3:16 and 17, the 23rd Psalm, The Beatitudes in Matthew and are working on the 10 Commandments.
But aside from going to church I don't think they see me put what I believe into action enough.
How does knowing the verses and the prayers invade my normal life, make me different and challenge me to follow Christ and share the gospel.

This is one of the growing edges for my church. We have lots of outreach ministries; clothes closet, oil program that provides heating for struggling families, food closet, Summer Lunch Program, lots of really good things. But most of these things are ministries of a few. We need to find ministries for many. But it is not just a matter of participation. It is a matter, I think, of getting out of our normal routines and comfortable lives to be immersed in ministry that serves others and allows us to gain a new perspective on our own lives, ethical and spiritual.

In order to lead my church there, I've got to accept the challenge myself, so here are three challenges for me:

First a simple daily practice (outside our devotions)

We wash the dishes by hand. This gives us an opportunity to talk about conserving water, caring for creation, and pray together to the God who created all things...

Second, an occasional practice

Go through all the toys and cut them in half (at least). We will sell these in a yard sale and use the money for a ministry. Throughout we will talk about what Jesus said about possessions, being satisfied with less, the effects of the production and shipping of all these toys on the environment, a local or global ministry we want to be a part of, whether the local food closet or Kiva.org which others in our church highly recommend. The point is to interrupt the process by which my children and I are being transformed in Consumers and intentionally open ourselves to be Christians, who are transformed by a giving and sacrificing Christ.

Third, Direct Action

The boys are 9 and 7 there aren't a lot of ministries they can volunteer at. I can't take them to Rhode Island Food Bank, they can't have volunteers that young for insurance reasons. The same with many other such local missions.
But we will start, with others in our church, to clean the trash from a piece of public land in our neighborhood. Again, we can talk about caring for the earth as God's creation. We will also research some volunteer projects for the family that are fairly close to home. Although someday we might plan a 'volunteer vacation'.

Any suggestions?

Monday, February 07, 2011

Will Our Children Have Faith Part 2 No More Sunday School

'There is a great difference between learning about the Bible and living as a disciple of Jesus Christ...Faith cannot be taught by any method of instruction; we can only teach religion. We can know about religion, but we can only expand in faith, act in faith, live in faith. Faith can be inspired within a community of faith, but it cannot be given to one person by another. Faith is expressed, transformed, and made meaningful by persons sharing their faith in an historical, tradition-bearing community of faith.' (Westerhoff 19)

Reading this book sometimes frustrates me. Westerhoff suggests, as noted earlier, that the current 'schooling-instructional paradigm' is simply not effective for nurturing faith in children and youth. But exactly what the alternative is, Westerhoff doesn't really explain. Except to suggest that it is the church. The church is the place not sunday school.

So I have this idea that we should completely disband the Christian Education Committee and have every other committee carefully consider and intentionally plan how its duties and responsibilities teach the Christian faith.

So Finance would start with; what do Christians believe about money? House would discuss; How do we create a hospitable space? Deacon's would talk about what communion means. And then they would discuss how what they do nurtures faith in children, youth, and new adult Christians. Everyone would do Christian Ed instead of a committee and a team of teachers.

'tradition bearing community' that is the phrase that interests me.
Sunday School leave the tradition bearing to one committee. But as Christians we believe that every member is given by the Holy Spirit gifts that make the church the body of Christ, gifts for the good of all. It takes every member for the church to be, it must take every member for the church to nurture the faith.

Now, I'm not actually disbanding Christian Ed. I can't do that.
But I am thinking that the church needs to see 'Christian Nurture' as everyone's responsibility and not the duty of one committee. Perhaps my frustration is part of the churches frustration. We just want some new answer, when what Westerhoff is trying to tell us is that there are no easy answers. Sunday School is not the easy answer to passing the faith on to our children, because there is no one easy way to do that.

So, in trying to make sense of what Westerhoff suggests about a tradition-bearing community as opposed to a sunday school:

1. Be clear about our Christian beliefs and the Christian Practices that follow from them.
2. Find the connections between these beliefs/practices and the duties and responsibilities of the committees. Which may mean that duties need to change if they don't reflect beliefs/practices.
3. Intentionally plan projects, activities, actions, that embody beliefs/practices and achieve the responsibilities of each committee, and that include children, youth, and families in a meaningful way.

What do you think?

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Serve God Save the Planet Part 3 Chapter 8

Television: More Real Than Real

...the average American watches 1,700 hours of television annually, while the average shcool-age child attends only nine hundred hours fo classes a year. by the time the typical person in our country reaches age seventy-one, he will have spent a solid ten waking years sitting in front of a television.

Imagine meeting God and answering the question, 'What did you do with your time on earth?' You are handed a time sheet that details the seconds and decades of this precious gift called life. (109)

Sleeth's point in devoting a chapter on television is three-fold.

First he points out that the purpose of television is to sell us things.
The more things we buy, the more impact on the environment; from the energy to produce and ship the product to the trash that goes in the land-fill, consumerism has an adverse effect on the environment.

Second he points out the amount of electricity we use in sitting in front of the television

Third he points out the spiritual damage. The time we spend watching television is time that could be spent nurturing family relationships, enjoying creation, and serving others.

We watch way to much tv in our house. We have started to turn it off more often. Instead we play games, read, and we have family devotion time that includes discussion and sharing.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Faith in God is NOT a massage: Almost Christian Review Part 2

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism makes no pretense at changing lives, it is a low commitment, compartmentalized set of attitudes aimed at 'meeting my needs' and 'making me happy' rather than bending my life into a pattern of love and obedience to God. (30)

Which reminds me of a song recorded by a folk trio called Cry, Cry, Cry featuring Dar Williams called Lord I Have Made You A Place in My Heart by Greg Brown

Oh Lord, I have made you a place in my heart
Among the rags and the bones and the dirt.
There's piles of lies, the love gone from her eyes,
And old moving boxes full of hurt.
Pull up a chair by the trouble and care.
I got whiskey, you're welcome to some.
Oh Lord, I have made you a place in my heart,
But I don't reckon you're gonna come.

I've tried to fix up the place, I know it's a disgrace,
You get used to it after a while -
With the flood and the drought and old pals hanging out
With their IOU's and their smiles.
Bare naked women keep coming in
And they dance like you wouldn't believe.
Oh Lord, I have made you a place in my heart,
So take a good look - and then leave.

Oh Lord, why does the Fall get colder each year?
Lord, why can't I learn to love?
Lord, if you made me, it's easy to see
That you all make mistakes up above.
But if I open the door, you will know I'm poor
And my secrets are all that I own.
Oh Lord, I have made you a place in my heart
And I hope that you leave it alone.

I believe Almost Christian to be a dangerous book, not just for youth ministers, but for churches. It suggests that many of us who would call ourselves 'disciples' are more interested in 'feeling better' than in allowing our lives to be bent, which means we aren't really disciples at all. At best we are like Peter, hanging around for the reward and running when the following Christ costs us something. Or, as the song suggests, we will make a little guest room for Christ, but want him to leave it alone. What Christ wants to do is Extreme Home Makeover, not hanging new curtains.

In The Peaceable Kingdom, Stanley Hauerwas comments that one of central duties of the church is to teach us that we are sinners.

Almost Christian causes me to wonder if the mainline church in an effort to remain 'relevant' or at least 'successful' or well, open, has lowered significantly the bar of discipleship. There are easier and less costly ways for folks to feel better about themselves, the shelves are full of self-help books and Oprah is incredibly popular. Talking about sin and suggesting that folks are twisted out of the shape God intended for them, and that church is about bending them back into the image of God, that is dangerous. People might not come if that is what they will hear.

Almost Christian suggests to me that we aren't being the disciples Christ calls us to be and that the church has lost is mission and focus, serving the god 'feel better' instead of the living God who burns away the chaff.

I found a quote from Walter Brueggemann
'Israel (the church) under threat is never an easy 'therapeutic' community, and faith in Yahweh is not a massage. It is the embrace and practice of a destiny that make costly demands in the name of Yahweh.

(Essay: Always in the Shadow of Empire. Book: The Church as Counterculture)

What do you think

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Will Our Children Have Faith: Reviewing a 'Classic'

'Will Our Children Have Faith' is not a new book by John H. Westerhoff, III. It was first printed in 1976. I inherited it from a mentor and have found it a very brave critique of Sunday School Culture. You will find much that is challenging in it such as:
To be Christian is to ask: What can I bring to another? Not: What do I want that person to know or be? It means being open to learn from another person (even a child) as well as to share one's understandings and ways. To speak of schooling and instruction leads us in other directions and to other conclusions. Should we not ask: Is schooling and instruction in a Christian community necessary for education? Or is living as a Christian with others inherently educational? If we attend to being Christian with others, need we attend to to schooling and instruction? By focusing on schooling and instruction we have ignored these issues and questions that are so important for Christian faith. (17)

Westerhoff is criticizing the 'Sunday School' model for trying to take a public school model and apply it to teaching our children faith. In so doing we focus more on creating or finding curriculum, training teachers, training 'experts' in Christian Education, etc. Is applying so much attention to these matters we have placed time, energy and financial resources in a model that simply does not work. In placing so much attention on who will teach my children and what book will they buy and use we are ignoring the most important question, which leads to the most effective teaching model; how am I living my faith with my children? We do not need curricula and classrooms, we need parents and other adult Christians to devote time and effort to their own faith formation and to creating and maintaining relationships with the youth of the church, so that these youth see the adults learning, growing and practicing the faith.

We are trying this to put some of this critique to good use at my church. While we do still have the standard sunday school class on sunday mornings before worship, we are now also planning our second 'Christian Family Nurture Project'. For Lent we are going to focus on Communion in worship, in a special adult study and with the children of the church. We are going to bake bread to use in communion, and go out together to visit various church members and take communion to them. The plan is that not only will we be talking about what Communion means, but showing the children what Christians virtues it shapes in us, such as; forgiveness, generosity, and hospitality. The point is not to simply teach information, but together to practice the faith and to create strong inter-generational relationships.

What else do you think we could do to focus less on Sunday School and focused more on living the faith concretely with our children?

Monday, January 31, 2011

Serve God Save the Planet Review Part 2; Chapter 5

'When asked by pollsters, 90 percent of Americans identify themselves as 'kinder than average.' If we say we care about the least in the kingdom, if we identify ourselves as 'kinder than average,' if we see ourselves as responsible stewards of nature, then we are content. Contentment does not result in change.
The content mind is one of the greatest obstacles to a rich spiritual life. The content mind is a proud mind. It has nothing to learn; it has an answer to everything and no more questions to ask.' (62)

If you are wondering what this quote has to do with Creation Care I don't blame you for the quizzical look on your face.

One of the strengths of Serve God Save the Planet is the connection that its author Matthew Sleeth makes between personal spiritual growth, discipleship and Christian Environmental Ethics. The quote above is included in chapter 5 a Sleeth addresses the gap between concern and caring and action. It includes some interesting exegesis of the parable of the good Samaritan and some compelling statistics about the affects of pollution on the respiratory health of America's children.

What I really responded too was Sleeth's call to action, a call which the Church needs to wake it from its therapeutic and emotionally malaise. We are not called to simply have beliefs and be a part of a supportive community (although these are an important component of being church together). We are called to go into all the world carrying a cross and a story of God's amazing, sacrificing love which urges us to repent and live lives of active mercy and justice. Sleeth's firm but gentle critique of a church in the rut of inaction is refreshing...

To move from thought to action, we must feel some discomfort with who we are... he says on pg 73 and he is talking about the environment but he could also be talking about poverty, human trafficking, shrinking sunday school attendance, and the list could go on and on.

I have long felt that a church that engages in learning about, practicing, teaching creation care would find that the process would challenge other areas of our lives as a church and as disciples that have atrophied. But that the practice of creation care would also inspire deeper and more authentic and intentional forms of spiritual discipline, faith formation and service.

the question that haunts me is this; how do you a grow a church that attempts to cause discomfort and not simply be comfortable and comforting?

Friday, January 28, 2011

Almost Christian Review Part 1: 3 Actions which challenge Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

'Apart from 'being nice,' teenagers do not think religion influences their decisions, choice of friends, or behaviors. it does not help them obey god, work toward a common good, compose an identity, or belong to a distinctive community. Teenagers do value religion as being personally useful: in addition to helping people be nicer and feel better about themselves, religion can provide comfort amid turmoil, and support for decisions that (by and large) teenagers want to make anyway....Why do teenagers practice Moralistic Therapeutic Deism? Not because they have misunderstood what we have taught them in church. They practice it because this is what we have taught them in church

Once again I am behind the 8 ball in writing reviews on books that I'm reading, although I am a bit closer with 'Almost Christian'

What is most challenging about this book in my opinion is summarized in the phrase quoted above; 'Teenagers do value religion as being personally useful' Although it would be really fun to take a poke at Joel Osteen in my experience this is shockingly just as true a statement for the shrinking mainline (of which I am a part) as it is the burgeoning mega-church culture. Instead of the gospel challenging it is comforting, instead of the gospel calling us to action, it is warm thoughts to get us through our day, instead of re-orienting our lives to living in the kingdom, the kingdom is shoe-horned into cracks and small places between everything else we already do, prioritize and believe. And lets face it, there are much more effective sources of self-help and emotional bolstering than than church; such as Oprah and the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. So it seems ingenuous to me to preach the Gospel as being good for our self-esteem and our productivity and our happiness, when the core of the Gospel is a cross and its sacrifice.

So I've done three things to start to challenge Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. It has begun with the language I use.

1. Instead of talking about 'getting new members' I have started talking more about gathering and nurturing new disciples. We aren't here to feel better about the membership list, we are called to fish for Christ-followers.

2. Instead of talking about 'joining committees' I have started talking about igniting a passion for ministry. We don't just need people to fill a slot on a committee. We need to facilitate experiences where people can serve and make sacrifice for others and in that experience both share the love of Christ and gain experiences that challenge their world-view, assumptions, and personal idols.

3. Challenged people to stop talking about 'what church does for me' and begin to talk about what 'church has taught me about serving and sacrificing for others' and what opportunities the church has provided for me to serve and sacrifice.'

Do you think MTD is as dangerous as Dean suggests?
What needs to change in mainline church to shock us out of our self-centered faith?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Serve God Save the Planet Ch. 4 Technology, Social Networking and Babel Tower

I know, I'm behind the 8 ball as usual. I don't blog on the latest publications, I'm something like 5 years behind getting to this book. Why chapter four? that is where it started to get interesting for me.

'We have forgotten that we have far more in common with the honeybee than we do with our SUV of DVD...Do you know in which direction the Milky Way traverses the sky? As the phases of the moon progress, does the light go from right to left, or left to right? Can you identify a greater number of trees or cars? If the Bible says God knows every flower and bird, why do we spend so much effort knowing the names of man-made items. Maybe we're paying attention to the wrong things.' (60-61)

Matthew Sleeth, MD

Should the church and its leaders be embracing technology, devoting time, energy and financial resource, to facebook pages, websites, twitter and worship services that feature prominently videos and images, OR, should we be presenting a respite from all this technology and an alternative way of being together. I know, I sound like a Luddite.

What I think is beautifully done in Sleeth's book is that he manages to do some really interesting exegesis, as I will show in future posts, give some really creative options for becoming more environmentally conscious, and he also tackles food ethics, consumerism and our technologically obsessed culture. And he shows quite clearly how they all are connected.

In this case our increasingly technologically focused lives are also using more and more electricity, getting less exercise and spending less time with the people and the creation God created us to relate to in order to be fully human (he says, typing on his laptop, while his kids play DS).

I think Sleeth is suggesting that all of our obsession with cell phones, social networking, video games, etc, takes our attention away from the things that really keep us connected to our humanity, such as the world that God created for us to live in. Could all of this technology, social networking, ipod-ing, Word-of-Warcrafting, be a Babel Tower we are constructing, hoping to reach the heavens, when the connection to God we need is right in the backyard?

And if so, is the church really presenting an alternative to this idolatry it if follows suit by using more and more technology in worship, in ministry?

So I again I ask, should the church jump into all this technology or abstain from it? Is there a middle way?

5 Things I will Say About Jesus; Answering the Question Who do You Say I Am, On My Way to a Sermon

Five Things I will Say in Telling Someone about Jesus
1. Crucifixion
2. Resurrection
3. Incarnation
4. Revelation
5. Prostitution

We played a game in our family devotions the other night. The boys, aged 8 and 6 were challenged to say 3 things about Jesus. Mom had to say five things (she is still pretty new to this Christ-follower thing.) They made me say 10 things since I'm the professional (wink, wink).

It was an interesting exercise because it showed me what I still had to teach my kids, how much Mom has learned in a few short years and how beneficial lists can be to organizing thoughts. The list above is not what I thought of that night, but the question has been haunting me ever since and I came up with my top five list (think John Cusack's High Fidelity)

1. Crucifixion: Obvious answer really. This is where Paul says to start. N.T. Wright suggests (I can't remember where to be honest) that the cross was Paul's answer for every question and problem of the early church.
I would want people to know that Crucifixion makes us look sin square in the eye. We can't hide from it.
Crucifixion also puts God's great love for us front and center.
Crucifixion challenges the power of empire and reminds us of the danger of violence in word or deed.
Jesus was God's power incarnate, but that incarnation was service and sacrifice, not violence or greed. People who think that Church or religion is about wealth, power, and controlling the masses need to hear about crucifixion.

2. Resurrection: Resurrection for me is about God honoring the faithfulness of the disciple. Resurrection gives me hope so that I can follow Christ even though it seems like a bad idea to; forgive seventy times seven, turn the other cheek, put away my sword, sell all I own and give to the poor, touch lepers, order pizza with whores, etc, etc. I wouldn't have the courage to do all this (I'm still trying to do all this) if I didn't have the hope that grief and pain I get in this life, trying to do these things wasn't the whole story, and that someday, this insignificant life would be honored with resurrection because i tried to be faithful every day. Christ was faithful and obedient to the degree of self-sacrifice. God defeated human sin symbolized in the cross and the separation it caused between Creator and creation with resurrection. God empowers us with the hope of the resurrection.

3. Incarnation: Now you will really see how poorly I did in systematic theology. I'm sure more could be said about incarnation that what follows. but to me incarnation is about presence. The fact that Jesus is not just a man, but the Word of God made flesh means that presence is important. God loved us enough to be like us, to stop calling for us to come back through the prophets and just come take us by the hand and lead us back. For me Incarnation means I have to do more than have ideas about the Trinity, I have to embody what I believe. So incarnation pushes me to do more than pray about someone or something, or write a check for someone or something, and roll my sleeves up and get dirty practicing God's love.

4. Revelation: Probably what I mean by Revelation really should be called repentance, but that would mess up my cool '-tion' thing that I got going on. Jesus words have authority. Jesus shows us how far we have fallen from being the humanity God intended us to be, and challenged us to repent of all that. But Jesus also gives us wisdom to turn and follow the way which is life in the Kingdom of God. Jesus confronts sin but also delivers the good news we are loved. Revelation challenges me to be honest with myself and others, and also to be merciful with myself and others.

5. Prostitution: I threw this in here for what I hope is a bit of a shocker! While Jesus came to call everyone, rich and poor, morally upright and morally bankrupt into a relationship with God, the Jesus I read about in the gospels spent most of his time with outcasts, expendables, the sick, the poor, the forgotten... all the wrong folks. Which reminds me of two things; I have to occasionally risk a good reputation in order to go be with the wrong people, that is what Jesus did. This discipleship thing will definitely take me out of my comfort zone and cause me to do things and be with people that society around me will not approve of, and I will not always be popular. this isn't a popularity contest, it is a faithfulness marathon.

This certainly isn't an exhaustive list. More things could be said, should be said and probably could be said better. But this is my list. What do you think? What is on your list?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Sermon John 21: Do You Love Me? Reflecting the Love of God

Why does Jesus ask Peter three times about love.
I think Jesus has his doubts about Peter

This is the Peter, you recall from last weeks sermon, who didn’t want to accept Jesus call to follow by laying down his life and picking up a cross.

More importantly this is the Peter who talked a good game just before Jesus arrest; he would fight and die for Jesus. But when the soldiers showed up Peter ran and hid. And when confronted by someone who recognized him as one of Jesus’ disciples he denied knowing who Jesus was…. Three times.

Frankly I’m surprised that Jesus would sit down to breakfast with Peter.
I don’t think I would have.
Why would I open myself up to that kind of disappointment again.
Why would I trust only to run the risk of betrayal again.
I don’t need to stay up all night thinking about how Peter’s fear or distractions got the better of him
I trusted this guy to be the rock of the church,
But he was too busy fishing to get started

I don’t want the pain of being stabbed in the back again

I’m tired of stickin my neck out for this guy,
Taking his hand when he sinks in the stormy sea
Going out of my way to find him when he is lost in Galilee
Giving him a catch of fish even…
A gift he definitely doesn’t deserve
and this is the kind of thanks I get
is him saying he doesn’t even know me.

We don’t know if these thoughts ran through Jesus head as he was quizzing Peter
But they would be running through mine

And this little imaginative exercise gets us to the really uncomfortable center of this story.

The risk that God took in loving us
And the long history of disappointment.

We may operate under the assumption that God loves us because we are decent folk
But that isn’t the story the bible tells

Adam and Eve chose to listen to the advice of the serpent
And you tell me how hard it is to keep on loving someone who
Listens to the advice of a bad friend,
And insists on making bad choices and then
Calling you for consolation

Israel is freed from slavery in Egypt
God smashes their shackles
And breaks their chains
And leads them across the red sea
And how do they thank him?
By complaining about the menu in the desert
And wishing they could go back and put the chain on again

You tell me how much ingratitude hurts
Does it make you feel like being loving?

The love that is recorded in the Bible is a risky and costly king of love
It isn’t the magical and mysterious emotion that makes everything seem beautiful
It isn’t the high of dopamine washing through your brain

The love of God in the Bible is soul wrenching, gutsy work.
Love isn’t about emotions or chemicals
And it isn’t reserved for those who have earned it or deserve it
Or even return it

As Rob Bell says, God loves us just the way we are, and too much to let us stay this way

The love of God is a gift given not for who we are,
But for who we might be,
To transform us into the beautiful creation we were meant to be

From Genesis to Revelation we are given story after story of God’s great undeserved love for us
Like Jesus love for the lepers, willing to risk his own health
Like Jesus love for the woman caught in adultery,
willing to sacrifice his reputation
Like Jesus love for the Geresene Demoniac, willing to lay aside safety.
Like Jesus love for the Romans, choosing to die instead of fight back.
Like Jesus love for Peter, willing to be betrayed again
In the hope that God’s love will transform them
Into the beautiful creation they were meant to be.

It is kind of strange really,
That not only does the Bible redefine love,
From chemical reaction
And sappy emotion
To this selfless, risky choice, over and over and over again

But also, that when you stop and consider it
The Bible seems to suggest that there are lots of good reasons NOT to love
Because this kind of love costs something, perhaps everything.

The story is told that Clarence Jordan, that great Southern, social prophet, visited an integrated church in the Deep South. Jordan was surprised to find a relatively large church so thoroughly integrated, not only black and white but also rich and poor; and this was in the early sixties, too. Jordan asked the old country preacher, "How did you get the church this way?"
"What way?" the preacher asked. Jordan went on to explain his surprise at finding a church so integrated, and in the South, too.
The preacher said, "Well, when our preacher left our small church, I went to the deacons and said, 'I'll be the preacher.' The first Sunday as preacher, I opened the book and read, 'As many of you as has been baptized into Jesus has put on Jesus and there is no longer any Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, males or females, because you all is one in Jesus.'
Then I closed the book and I said, 'If you are one with Jesus, you are one with all kind of folks. And if you ain't, well, you ain't.'"
Jordan asked what happened after that. "Well," the preacher said, "the deacons took me into the back room and they told me they didn't want to hear that kind of preaching no more."
Jordan asked what he did then. "I fired them deacons," the preacher roared.
"Then what happened?" asked Jordan.
"Well," said the old hillbilly preacher, "I preached that church down to four. Not long after that, it started growing. And it grew. And I found out that revival sometimes don't mean bringin' people in but gettin' people out that don't dare to love Jesus." (As told in Hauerwas and Willimon, Where Resident Aliens Live, Nashville: Abingdon, 1996, p. 103).
That is the bad news.

But maybe it is also good news.

Maybe Jesus challenges Peter with three questions about love
Because he sees in Peter the ability to love
Yet unrealized potential, but great potential nonetheless
Perhaps he knew that the image of God
Lying dormant in Peter, was the image of risky, self-sacrificing love
That God could give Peter the power to love others
And to teach others to love
Perhaps Jesus knew that Peter could be the rock upon which the church would be built.
Perhaps it wasn’t doubt, but belief, or hope.

Belief and hope that Peter would respond to the challenge
Throw off his own fetters of fear and self-preservation
The comfort of the life he knows at the seashore
The convenience of going back to life the way it was
To go out and take the risk of carrying God’s long story of risky love to the world.

The challenging question remains,
Do we dare love Christ this much?
The inspiring promise remains
The love that protected Adam and Eve
That guided Israel in the desert
That healed the lepers
Sheltered the shamed woman
That forgave peter and embraced him
That shocking, world creating, life changing love
Is waiting for another Peter in this day and age
Looking for another disciple to say

Yes Lord, I love you
Despite the costs,
Including the risks
Because of the hope it brings
I love you

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Love, Peacemaking, and Potluck: On My Way to a Sermon

I used to write sermons by trying to discover itch and then the scratch of it.
For instance, one possible itch of the Parable of the Good Samaritan would be the apathy humanity can have toward those who are other, outsiders, outcasts. The scratch is that all humanity is outside of God's will for us, but still we are accepted by Christ. Therefore as outsiders welcomed into God's grace, we are called to embrace the outsider.

I suppose I still do this to an extent. But the other day I found a really interesting blog called the hardest question I really wish I'd thought of this myself. Various bloggers write posts on the coming weeks lectionary. There are lots of blogs that do this. What I think is unique is that the bloggers are highlighting the most challenging, perhaps even offensive lessons to be drawn from the readings (this is my take on it, the folks at the hardest question might want to put it differently). So this is what I am looking for as I write a sermon now. What will be the hardest thing to hear in the lesson, what will challenge us most, be the most difficult to carry out, what is the painful change being commanded of me, in this story.

So I'm on John 21 for this sunday.
Jesus makes a post resurrection appearance to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberius. He loads down their empty net with fish and then invites Peter to breakfast.
This is followed by Jesus questioning Peter's love three times.

do yo love me, feed my sheep.

I found it difficult to identify anything terribly troubling in all this.

Until I started to think about Jesus inviting Peter to breakfast when Peter had denied even knowing him less than a week before. That kind of love goes way beyond sentimentality and romance which is the popular understanding of love. It is risky and probably stupid, to trust someone who has let you down, disappointed you and stabbed you in the back.

John is closing his gospel with a picture of Jesus being reconciled with the person who hurt him the most. Love is redefined from chemical reaction in the brain or sappy emotions to a courageous act of forgiveness and the reforging of a broken relationship. We build the church on this kind of love in action. This is the foundation of the church's ministry of peace-making, to be willing to create peace, day after day, week after week with the one's we love and who sometimes let us down, hurt us, betray us.

I found this quote by Thomas Merton. I'd read it long ago, and have never forgotten it:
As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another, because this love is the resetting of a Body of broken bones. Even saints cannot live with saints on this earth without some anguish, without some pain at the differences that come between them… It is principally in the suffering and sacrifice that are demanded of men to live together in peace and harmony that love is perfected in us.

What will I do with this lesson.
Start inviting more folks over for lunch after church, or dinner during the week. Not necessarily just in the case of a break in the relationship, but just to build strong relationships and in so doing to give and receive the love of Christ.

Friday, January 14, 2011

On My Way To a Sermon; Lay Down Your Life, Take up Your Cross;

For What will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?
matt 16:26 (to read the whole passage follow this link)

It seemed pretty obvious to me from the outset that these word's of Jesus were meant to challenge and inspire an apathetic faith and urge the disciples to greater depths of service and sacrifice.

But it was an uncomfortable message to try to craft for two reasons:

1. Every church has a core, some say 20%, who do all the work. Will a sermon urging more sacrifice, more service, really inspire devotion or will it instead just sound ungrateful for their efforts and inspire a feeling of 'never being good enough.' So the challenge; do not soften the challenging edges of Jesus' words, but do so in such a way that also offers grace to those who do devote great amounts of time and energy to the ministry of the church.

2. The first discomfort leads the second; that the faith Jesus intends to inspire would be perceived as effort, will, work. To me, this is the balance that is so difficult to strike when it come to teaching, not to mention living the faith. On the one hand we can become so focused on doing the right thing(s) that we forget that gift of grace which is given and not earned. this leads to Christian service which is simply self-serving. On the other hand we can become so enamored of faith as belief that we observe very few practices of the faith.
Jesus was not teaching that we had to earn grace, but that to follow him is to go where he goes and to do what he does (as best we can) So how to strike the balance.

while watching a television show about helping hoarders clean their homes, one of the home owners said, 'I thought you were coming to help me, not take away the things I love.' That seemed to me, to somehow bring this passage into focus. Christ isn't simply saying, 'do more.' Christ is saying, choose carefully what it is that commands your time, attention, passion, finance. If these are focused on things that ultimately will not deepen your relationship with God and with humanity, best to lay it down and replace it with something that will deepen one's faith and connection to those whom Jesus devoted a life to.

Something else that entered my mind as I was working on this sermon was a quote from Kenda Creasy Dean's book Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church. 'If the church is going to make sense to adolescents, then our ministry must be predicated on passion-the passion of Christ, the passion of youth, and the passionate faith that is made possible when these two things come together.' (22).

This is what Jesus is trying to inspire, a passionate faith, in the face of a passive faith.
These words of Jesus challenge a church that is so focused on self-help and self-esteem that it has lost its true mission, which is to see God's purpose done in the world
These words of Jesus challenge a discipleship that is assumes it already knows the right answers to the doctrinal questions, but is not put into action in any intentional way
These words of jesus challenge the church that as satisfied with 'be good' and
be nice' to accept the challenge of the cross.
These words of Jesus challenge a discipleship that treats the church as ok when it is convenient, but not all that important, not something to sacrifice for, with a warning of the consequences of an apathetic faith, the loss of life.

How has this affected me?
What do I need to lay down? despite my story, I watch too much tv. So the formation of this sermon has challenged me to lay down TV and technology time. Let some of it go.
What will I pick up as a cross? To start I am going to take some of the time spent in front of TV and Computer memorizing and meditating on the beatitudes. There are other things I will do. game night with the family, reading, when the winter is gone, a walk in the woods. Ultimately it will lead to a family practice of service in the community, like cleaning trash from the side of the road and inviting others to join us.
Picking up the cross does mean service to others, but for me picking up the cross begins with time for devotion and prayer, which will strengthen me for works of service.