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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Is Church Like High School?

At annual conference, I called for "The Year of the Nones." You undoubtedly know what a none is, as the fastest growing religious population in the US, it's someone who marks "none" when asked what one's religious affiliation is. I am praying for the nones whose names were given to me at annual conference (2315 names) and I hope that you are praying for the nones in your life, too. I also hope you're using a similar method to encourage your faith community to pray for and learn from the nones in their lives.

My colleague, Bishop John Schol in the Baltimore-Washington Conference, made a video of his conversation with his daughter, Rebecca. Rebecca is a none; not necessarily disbelieving in God, raised in the church, and a wonderful human being (I've spent many hours with her and her twin sister). But she has some issues with the church! You can listen/watch the interview at:

But whether you listen/watch the interview, one of the insights I got from Becca was around the frustration that nones--young people in particular--have with the church. They believe that church people are too judgmental. This has been documented in many well-known books, such as UnChristian (Kinnaman) and They Like Jesus But Not the Church (Kimball). I thought I resonated with their concerns but Becca gave me a new insight, particularly a young adult insight that I hadn't thought about before.

Becca implicitly compares the church's judgmental attitude with high school. "High school follows you," she said, indicating that it has a continuing impact on young adults' lives. I don't know exactly what high school was like for her but my guess is that she and many in her generation have experienced more bullying, judging and negative experiences in high school than many of us who are baby boomers. There are so many ways to bully/judge each other in high school these days, including Facebook, email, and other social media. The pain of judgment, criticism, ostracism, name-calling, etc. is more recent and fresh, and easier to do than taking someone out and beating them up as was the usual means in my day (and not so frequent then at least where I went to school).

Yet almost diametrically opposed, Becca's seemed to have an expectation of a church as a group of "like-minded people." The church community as well as our general society is more and more diverse and not adverse to sharing one's own unique perspective. The church community needs to be a place where we can learn to live with each other in our un-like-mindedness in a way that is accepting of each other and in a way that teaches us to live, love and work with all those other people in our lives with whom we have un-like-mindedness.

WDYT? Is the church like high school, too quick to judge? If so, how do we live together in our un-like-mindedness in a way that helps us all grow more like Christ?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Ultimate

One Sunday I came home from church when I was the pastor of Church of the Redeemer in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Ken and I were reporting in on the interesting things that happened that morning as we have for 35 years! I said, "A really interesting woman came to church this morning. Her name is Ann Weatherhead. She's a runner and we talked until everybody had left the building."

Ken said, "Is she related to Leslie Weatherhead?"

I said, "No." But my NO dragged out into about 3 syllables in my cynicism at such a ridiculous question. Weatherhead is a common name in Cleveland. In fact there is a Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve Univeristy so why would I think this was Leslie Weatherhead's relation?

Leslie Weatherhead was a British theologian from the World War 2 era and beyond. His famous book is The Will of God. In it he describes how basically everything is the will of God; whether it works out the way God originally intended or not, there will be the ultimate will of God. Leslie Weatherhead was a very controversial figure, shaking up the religious establishment of his day. I imagine him a bit like Rob Bell!

His grand-daughter, Ann, had never read him. So of course the first thing I did was hold a study on The Will of God. She was mortified by his dated language and illustrations but I tried to assure her that in fact he was contemporary for his time. Ann has never been quite sure where she stands with all of her grandfather's theology (her parents didn't subscribe to it at all and it was only because she came with a running friend that she even showed up at church that first Sunday) but even as I type, she is in England, checking out some of her ecclesiastical/theological roots.

The will of God is an elusive phenomenon. In Acts 21 Paul is sure that he knows what the will of God is. But then, so do his friends. Paul thinks the will of God is that he goes to Jerusalem; his friends think the will of God is that he doesn't go to Jerusalem. But Paul is a bit like Leslie Weatherhead. He believes that no matter what happens in Jerusalem, ultimately God's will is made known because what's important is that he will faithfully witness to God, no matter what happens. The will of God isn't that Paul is spared imprisonment and even death; the will of God is that God's grace is shared. Paul ultimately (an important word, I think, in describing the will of God) gives witness to God's grace--through his trials in Galilee with the political and religious leaders, through his hardships in getting to Rome (ship-wrecked and all), and through his imprisonment in Rome once he gets there. Ultimately it's all God's will.

In the end, Paul arrives in Rome where they haven't heard much--and what they've heard hasn't been good-about Christianity, but Paul takes it on as his personal mission to share the grace of Jesus with others. Specifically with those who haven't been in the inner circle. Sort of like Ann Weatherhead, to tell you the truth. She's the original none, seeking but unsure, embarrassed by less-than-spot-on Christianity, and yet a person with a heart of gold. Had she known him, she would have gone to Paul's open door. Having known her, run with her (a couple half marathons), hung out with her at the Barking Spider at Case Western Reserve University on their gospel night, I know that God's will is ultimate; far beyond my ability to express or know it, or Ann's.

What about you? How do you know what God's will is?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Be Thou My Version

I was sitting behind a worship leader during a service and I could see her notes about what the praise band would be singing next. On the paper, she had written, "Be Thou My Version." I chuckled but then wondered if this was some new contemporary song that I hadn't heard of yet and frankly couldn't quite imagine where it was going in its message. But then as the service continued, sure enough! The song they sang was an upbeat, modernized version of "Be Thou My Vision."

I've contemplated this Freudian slip of the hand and as I read Acts 16:6-10. Paul and Timothy had a plan to "turn west into Asia province, but the Holy Spirit blocked that route." So they proceeded to go another way, "but the Spirit of Jesus wouldn't let them go there either." They ventured yet on another route until finally Paul had a dream where a Macedonian was beckoning them to "come over to Macedonia and help us!" It says that "the dream gave Paul his map."

While it's important to plan--Paul did it regularly--it's also important to know when what we are doing is our version of God's vision.

I'm impressed by this story that Paul's version wasn't as big as God's vision. By going to Macedonia, Paul's world and therefore the church's witness and outreach was significantly enlarged.

Are our versions small and sometimes even self-centered, asking what we want to do instead of what God is calling us to do?

Are our versions limited to our own and people like us instead of reaching out to God's people everywhere?

Are our versions tight-fisted instead of generous in helping others?

Are our versions reflections of what we've done before and how we've done it instead of rethinking and imagining what God can do through us in new ways?

How has God given you a new song to sing? Changing it from "Be Thou My Version" to "Be Thou My Vision?"


Sunday, February 27, 2011

Are We Trying to "Out-God" God?

"So why are you now trying to out-god God, loading these new believers down with rules that crushed our ancestors and crushed us, too? Don't we believe that we are saved because the Master Jesus amazingly and out of sheer generosity moved to save us just as he did those beyond our nations? So what are we arguing about?" (Acts 15:10-11, MSG)

What does it mean to try to "out-god" God?

Out-godding God may be one of the biggest obstacles to our own ability to reach new people with the gospel. We're familiar with the consistent reports that young people think that the church people are hypocritical, judgmental and boring...maybe it was too political rather than boring. But too political, according to the reports, means that one side of things is proposed as the only way to believe if you want to be a Christian, on the right side, with the insiders. I think that's out-godding God.

How easy it is to fall into the trap of out-godding God! Recently a pastor in my home town told his congregation of farmers that unless they farm organically, they're not really Christian. (He's not long for that world...) Not to get engaged in how nearly impossible it is to make a living farming organically in eastern Washington state and how complicated the whole American agricultural system has become, given the US Farm Bill, etc., what was he thinking?

Abraham Joshua Heschel, my favorite prophetic voice of the Hebrew scriptures, warns his readers in The Prophets, that prophets can go beyond God's judgment, destroying instead of disciplining. Heschel calls it a hypertrophy of sympathy for God, or out-godding God in judgment. Jeremiah had a tendency to out-god God in his condemnation, reprimanding without reminding people of God's love; judgment instead of grace, forgetting God's love for the victims caught in the mire of complicated issues. A hypertrophy of sympathy for God is to outweigh love of God for love of neighbor; they're meant to be in balance (a trick if you can do it).

Obviously out-godding God isn't an exclusively early church phenom!

But equating any political, social, religious or economic agenda--or anything for that matter--as the only way to be Christian is to out-god God! It's simplistic and only adds burdens to those who are often the most vulnerable, even the victims, of the injustices that we decry.

Acts 15 demonstrates that the complicated issues of our religious, economic, political, and cultural lives aren't easily discerned, lived out, and finalized. In our present economic struggles, given the federal deficit, states' need to balance budgets, and the pinch on congregations to be in ministry (and federal and state leaders calling on the faith communities to pick up the slack), how do we find our way forward to make wise and faithful decisions based on our biblical and Wesleyan traditions of economic justice? And avoid out-godding God when we do? How do we find a gracious prophetic voice?


Monday, February 14, 2011

There Are Two Kinds of Christians...

In reading Acts 13:1-5, it becomes clear that there are two kinds of Christians: those who are sent and those who commission and support those who are sent. The Holy Spirit chose Barnabas and Saul to be sent (literally called apostles) and that the rest, including Simon, Lucius, and Manaen who were leaders, were to stay behind to build up the body of believers there. They were the supporters of the sent. The sent and the supporters of the sent; two kinds of Christians.

Over the years we've considered missionaries and evangelists to be people who travel to other places to people that we or they don't know in order to share the good news. But what does it mean in our world today where we don't have to go to another country or people in order to be sent to someone else with the gospel? Today to be sent means to go talk to a neighbor, co-worker or someone in our own family.

Aren't we all called to be two different kinds of Christians at the same time or at least at different times in our lives? Sometimes we are the sender and sometimes we're the sent. Unfortunately many of our churches are filled with those who don't believe they are sent to their neighbor or friend or family member or co-worker. Their faith is too "private" for all that.

The most dynamic, growing congregations in my experience are those where there are people who are constantly sharing their faith and their church with others that they know or meet in their daily lives. And then there is the need for those who are providing the support--not just for the senders but the whole congregation to keep growing senders and the sent.

We're all the sent--telling others about Jesus or at least where they can find Jesus (hopefully in our churches!). We're all the supporters of the sent--doing our part in the life of the Christian community so that all experience opportunities for Christian formation--no matter how old or young, Christian community that is open to new people and changed by them, and opportunities to grow toward God and others.

But then, you have to consider the end of this chapter that finds Paul and Barnabas forced out of town because some were afraid that "their precious way of life was about to be destroyed" by this message of Jesus.

What is your "precious way of life" that might be destroyed if you truly shared your faith and your church with others? Might we lose control over what happens there--the style of music/worship, the decisions made about what it means to be church, who comes to church and who gets attention that might be lavished on ourselves?


Monday, January 31, 2011

Stop Living in the Moment!

In Acts 7, Stephen has outraged the religious authorities and he is about to be stoned to death. Yet instead of defending himself, he recalls the story of the salvation of his people. He recounts the ways in which God has been with them through all the twists and turns of their history as a people, implying and trusting that God will be with him as he faces his accusers.

Stephen's story of salvation is an example of how he who is in the midst of a very bad situation--about to be stoned--gives credit and praise to God who has helped his people face adversity. I admire that ability to see and tell his story from the perspective of God's care for them in the midst of difficulty.

The way we tell the story of our lives becomes a lens by which we see life and define ourselves. It becomes a script for us in how we see ourselves, others, the world, and even God. Some people's story is that of how everyone has hurt them and they are victims. Others who may have even more experiences of adversity tell their stories in terms of how they have overcome; if they are people of faith, they give credit and praise to God for helping them overcome. We should be very careful how we tell our stories since we can spiral down into despair or find hope and courage to face the future.

Even how we tell the story of our church can provide a script that can bring despair or hope to us as a people. I would guess that there are no churches in the Minnesota Annual Conference who have not faced adversity in the past and yet they have perserved. How do we tell our story? What did we learn in those times? Do we live so much in the moment that we fail to remember how God has been with us in the past?

How do you tell your story in such a way that empowers you instead of deflates you? Let me give you an example. I was told when I was in the 8th grade that it was "too bad you're a girl, you'd make a great preacher." People often gasp in our 21st century context (although not everyone!!!). Yet I understand that the person who said that and people who believed it (so as not to recommend me to the seminary I wanted to go to because I was a woman) had no imagination for women in ministry. Even I didn't initially have the imagination that it was possible. But now I do. I could be the victim in my own story or I could see it as what continues to happen in our lives, faith, and culture all the time: there's so much we don't have an imagination to understand. See how far our imaginations have gone! How much farther might they go in the future? What is God waiting for me to imagine today?

So how do you tell your story in light of God's salvation history in your life?

How do you tell your church's story in light of God's salvation history?

How might we someday tell the United Methodist Church's story in light of the context of God's salvation history?


Monday, January 17, 2011

Wherever Two or Three Are Gathered...

Wherever there are two or three gathered, there is Christ...and there is conflict!

Prior to the 5th and 6th chapters of Acts, the opposition against the Christian movement was largely from the outside. It's easy for us to idealize the early church, thinking that it was free of significant internal disagreement and conflict. But people are people in the first and the 21st century and not only is Christ present when two or three of us get together, but there's also disagreement! That's what happened when the church began to grow and included a diversity of people. People gathered in Christian community from different ethnic-racial groups, languages and from a lower socio-economic condition and conflict erupted!

While we are aware of the role of decline in a local church that causes conflict, having significantly grown church in my ministry, I'm aware that conflict results when a church grows, too!

"Who are these people and why are they here?"

"I don't know everyone anymore!"

"Things just aren't the same here anymore!"

As a church that was growing, we had problems; we called them "good problems," like not enough parking, seating, coat space, Sunday School rooms, etc. As the church grew, it also attracted a diversity of people with different theological perspectives, racial-ethnic backgrounds, religious traditions, socio-economic conditions. These differences created challenges for the church to include all who needed community and their spiritual needs met. A clear focus on the purpose of the Christian movement as well as the distinct leadership gifts was essential in order to deal with their good problems.

One way or the other, differences and conflict occur when two or three of us get together, even in Christ's name. We need to stop beating each other up for that reality. Keeping our focus, recognizing each other's gifts, and including all into our midst of Christian community transcend time, people and context.

Please don't give us the gory details about the conflict, but what do you see has important in moving a community of faith through the inevitable differences and disagreements that occur when two or three of us get together?