{Many Questions and Few Answers Along the Never-Finished Journey of Faith}

Who Am I?

[A big thanks to Taylor Watson Burton-Edwards for a tweet today that included this article. It set the writing motors running to write this post.]

We’ve lost it. I don’t know where it has gone. It’s one of those things that we’ve lost it so subtly, I wonder if we even know that it could be gone. What am I talking about, you ask? Identity. Dictionary.com defines the word as: 1) the state or fact of remaining the same one or ones, as under varying aspects or conditions; 2) the condition of being oneself or itself, and not another; and 3) condition or character as to who a person or what a thing is. So when did we stop being people and simply become known as Consumers?

A recent article lists some of the casual ways we are no longer known as people, or humans, or even members of society. Instead, we’re simply identified as consumers. Think about it for a minute, how much of our lives are run off of the study and patterns of the so-called consumerist trends? We measure the health of our society over whether or not people can afford to live luxurious lifestyles.

[And before anyone gets too tempted to question that last statement, please know I mean just what I said. We, as Americans, live grossly more luxuriously than does probably 80% of the rest of the world].

Everything we do in life seems to have a market value to it. We brand ourselves as whatever we want to be. I was listening to one of my favorite theological podcasts recently, when one of the guests pointed out that even theologians are prone to brand and market themselves. Yes, even the Brian McLarens, John Pipers, Rob Bells, and the Ben Gosdens of the world attempt to do ministry, share thoughts, and all the while market themselves as a particular breed of thinker in order to be appreciated by their audience. It’s what sells–or at least garners attention. Churches market and brand themselves to be whatever they think will draw the most people in the doors on a given Sunday. Even non-profits do this as they attempt to raise money. I’ve been listening to the Spring Campaign by NPR (I’m proud to say their tactics worked on me and I’m now a contributor). Throughout all of their appeals you can hear the thread of a particular branding of being both non-biased and also uniquely enriching to the world of news and culture.

One must wonder what sort of effect this has on a society. The tension of being consumers drives competition. That’s a good thing, or at least we’re taught that in school. But what happens when the consumerist mentality drives us to consume each other? What happens when our lack of civility, lack of compassion, and lack of care for another is nourished by our drive to purchase and sell materials or even ideas. You see, this is where both liberals and conservatives fall off the tracks in politics because the pursuit of power ultimately drives us to promise one thing to get in, and then compromise that in the name of keeping power. If you don’t believe me just look at the last 3 years of President Obama’s administration and the look at the 8 years of President Bush’s. That’s not to say that either are bad people at all. It is to say that maybe our consumerist identities ultimately drive us to consume everything we can in order to attain power. The drive for power is ultimately the drive to master. Such an audacious pursuit leads us to believe we can actually be masters of our world.

This consumerist mentality speaks to an array of issues people of faith must wrestle with. If one of the fundamental questions of the late-20th Century was, “How are we supposed to live together in such a diverse world?” then the question facing the early-21st Century is, “What exactly is sacred?” You see, sacredness flies in the face of our politics and even our consumerist views. It means that the goal of life is not saving an extra dollar when that dollar could be spent on a more responsible product that doesn’t exploit God’s children or creation. It means that we can’t simply vote because our so-called civic duty says we should pick a side between the best of two bad choices. Instead we should all lift our political environment out of the gutters of birth certificate hunts, scare tactics and litmus test conversations. It means that we must be willing to grow beyond the ideal that our personal freedom is the ultimate goal of human life when it comes at the expense of another’s freedom.

We can’t simply be satisfied with our personal choice and freedom to make such a choice. We have to push toward the day when we don’t simply exist together, but we live in a community of love and mutual care together. This day is the redemption we’re called to participate in in our baptismal vows. It’s at the heart of what God’s shalom is. It calls everything we regard with such divine esteem into question. And there is no political argument or product we can purchase that will answer these questions for us. There’s no price high enough for something so valuable.

The Impossible Generation

[This article was published in the April/May 2011 edition of Macon Magazine]

The proverbial cat is out of the bag in many of our churches. The collective hair of the people in our pews is well on its way to being gray and everyone has noticed. Some would like to begin to sing the swan song of the Church as we know it.

I’m a pastor in the United Methodist Church and various stats place the median age of our membership at around 58 years old. Folks are living longer these days and quite often 58 is the new 48. But what do you do when most of the folks who make up our churches are 55 and older?

There have been a lot of trees killed to consume the paper needed to pen various words on how to reach out to what is being labeled by some as the Emerging or Millennial Generation. Some may think of us as Generation-Y. For those wondering at this point, this generation would include those transient and complex beings in their 20s and early 30s who might wander in and out of your congregations on any given Sunday. It’s my generation. We’re here one week and gone the next.

But despite all of our complexities, we may not be as alien as we may appear at time. To help with this, I would like to offer just a couple of statements, clues if you will, on where to begin understanding our generation and how we might view faith.

[For some of my categorical language I lean on a great article written by Scott McKnight for Christianity Today found here]

We are Postmodern (The “New World”)
You don’t need a Ph.D. to know that the world has changed dramatically over the last 20 years or so. We whimsically muse about the “simpler days” when folks went to church and no one dared to push back on the institution that upholds our society and way of life. However, these days have long left us.
We live in a reality where people question everything. Many of us in this generation can’t help it. We’ve been raised to be skeptical of everything we come into contact with. Things can actually be both right and wrong. We don’t always have to pick sides. And Christianity, at least as it’s been historically practiced in America, frankly deserves a little questioning lest we lose the edgy qualities of what life with God actually requires.

We Long to be Prophetic (or at least Provocative)
Church as an institution of the status quo will no longer suffice. Language of self-help and self-gratification cannot carry the freight of the problems of our world. Thus, Christians in my generation are seeking to not only worship and observe faith, but also to live the faith they speak of. Issues of justice, righteousness, radical care for creation and mission take center stage in this understanding of faith. And living such a faith requires a language that dares to ask questions, doubt authority, and ultimately transform the world we live in.

Praxis-Oriented (“Walk the walk”)
Speaking of living the faith, the Emerging Generation is much more interested in practicing faith than adhering to doctrine. In other words, faith cannot simply be a set of principles or doctrines one adheres to in order to gain membership. It has to be a process, a journey of sorts. And this journey is experienced together in a community that knows one truly becomes a Christian after they act like one.

Inclusive (All must be welcome)
Much of what has historically made up the Church has been ways to define “in versus out.” We work to put up barriers to separate those who are in our churches from those who are not in. You can see the obvious disconnect here. Too many of our churches say that we’re not exclusive but we don’t dare advertise ourselves as inclusive. Emerging Christians have lived in a world where public schools and colleges have long been diversified. We are among the first generations to truly have friends of different races, ethnicities, and religious backgrounds. It’s no wonder we disengage from churches where exclusivity is a normal practice.

I guess you could say that my generation, the Emerging Generation, is searching for a church as courageous as we long to be, one more interested in following Jesus than upholding institutional standards or finding new ways to establish our moral superiority through the politics of exclusion. We’re looking for a church where the community is more important than the individual because, after all, it is.

In the end, I suppose we might seem like an impossible generation to reach out to considering our diversity along the spectrum of lifestyles, beliefs, and practices. But, I can testify to the fact that we are all on a journey, searching for a place to belong, to practice faith, to grow spiritually, and to make the world a better place. That’s why I truly believe that if churches can open up to the perspective of this Emerging Generation and their ways of practicing faith, well, the impossible might just become possible.

Lost at Easter

I debate whether or not it is a worthwhile endeavor to attempt an Easter blog post. I wrote one last year. But for some reason this year isn’t supplying much inspiration. I write this on the evening before Easter and I think, in more ways than one, that maybe lack of inspiration is the tip of the iceberg of what the disciples felt. Where is the inspiration? Where’s the excitement? Tomorrow’s a big day, you know.

As pastors and leaders everywhere have prepared for Easter for days now. Sermons have long been written (or maybe are being written as we speak) and we now wait. There’s no real surprise left. The only thing that separates us from the inevitable is time now. Easter will be here soon and many of us will run the gauntlet of multiple services at God-awful early times. We’ll do our best to look our best and pray that our families make it to church in one piece. We’ll hope for that Easter Sunday bump in attendance and we’ll look forward to the joyous music we’ll share together. So where’s the surprise that is Easter?

As we’ll hear Matthew tells us tomorrow, Easter can come with an earthquake. Maybe the reason this day doesn’t carry more of an impact for folks is that we leaders have talked it out well before the due time. We’ve dissected the day down to its simplest components and left them out on our examination table waiting for some sort of life to present itself. However, no matter how hard we try during Holy Week, inevitably what promises to be an explosion turns in to little more than a fizzle. Why?

Maybe one reason is because we try so hard to “know” exactly what happens, and explain it in its simplest terms, that we don’t give ourselves a fighting chance to get lost in the mystery of it all. We’ll do the song-and-dance of Easter and hope that a few of the visitors present will come back the next week. We may try to keep things simple in order to let the story carry the day. However, I’m afraid that simplifying the story of God’s mysterious love, grace, and power has ever done it justice.

Honestly, I’m not quite sure where to end this post anymore than I know where I misplaced my Easter inspiration. I suppose on this contemplative Holy Saturday we wait for God knows what; knowing that if God knows, we don’t have to. But be careful, sometimes our greatest attempts at “finding” the Easter story in order to present it can lead to our getting lost more than we realize. And allowing ourselves to get lost in the wonder of what might (it’s still Saturday, remember) happen can lead to our being found by a truly earth-shaking reality.

40 Days That May Have Changed My Life

I’ve always felt like my prayer life was lacking. Maybe you’ve never felt this way. But I can’t help it. Every time I would go to pray, my mind would wander. If I prayed at night I would often fall asleep. I hear people talk about how deep their prayer life is. They tell me how they can just spend so much time in prayer, they can get lost in it. Meanwhile, I can’t seem to even find an opening line to say. So during the season of Lent this year I have decided to do something about it. Rather than sacrificing something out of observance, I decided I would add daily prayer to my life in the hopes to make it a new discipline.

I’ve always been taught that prayer is some sort of spontaneous conversation between you and God that wells up within you and just gushes forth in reverent, and yet moving fashion. That’s a great image unless your prayer life is more like a yard hose someone stands on that can’t ever seem to get enough pressure to water the grass, much less burst forth like a river whose dam was broken.

I decided for Lent that I would pray with help. The Book of Common Prayer offers Daily Offices of prayer one can observe throughout the day. In these offices, you can pray Scripture, including Psalms and Gospel lessons, and you have petitions, laments, and collects that guide your prayer. For those not familiar with the daily offices, they include Morning Prayer, Midday Prayer, Vesper Prayer (evening), and Compline (night) Prayer.

I found a few books that would help give me some variety in prayers as well as my new favorite way to pray: via Twitter. Virtual Abbey offers multiple opportunities for daily prayer via Twitter. You can pray live as they post or you can come back later and read through their postings for your prayer.

A strange thing has happened this Lenten Season as I’ve carried out this practice, missing some days or even doubling up on others. Prayer is no longer a means to an end–praying for reward; to get out of bad places; to feel more righteous. No. Something much more profoundly subtle has taken place. My life has quietly become oriented around prayer. On the days I forget, and that happens from time to time, I notice. And on days when I do observe an office (or even have multiple observances in a single day) nothing more happens than knowing that I’ve prayed; that I’ve had a short experience in a world that the pace of my everyday life can make me miss.

And another thing. I’ve become much more comfortable with mystery. Praying everyday and participating in a framed practice that is much more ancient than anything I know has actually helped me cope with (and dare I say, enjoy) the mystery of life. Becoming comfortable with not being in total control of my life has been one of the most liberatingly transformative experiences of my life. But that’s a post for another day.

Until then, as faithful person (or community) more ancient than I has said:

Lord, have mercy
Christ, have mercy
Lord, have mercy

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever. Amen

This Holy Mystery: Our Misplaced Methodist Identity (Finale?)

Let me begin by thanking everyone who has engaged me in this soapbox discussion via Twitter, Facebook, and this site. Good points are usually never put forth and articulated by a lone thinker. It takes a community to find good ideas and carve them into a shape that best fits a particular context in a particular time and space.

To recap, we have discussed the lack of a common Eucharistic Theology in the modern Methodist Church. And we’ve also discussed a basic theology of worship and how we misinterpret this as an issue of style.

Connecting the Threads
For a moment, let me attempt to address a question I raised in a previous post (and may have not been entirely clear in answering): What does it mean to worship? Plain and simple, we miss the true meaning of worship any time worship is seen as a means to an end. When worship is constructed as a means to an experience, or maybe worse, a evangelistic means to grow our churches, we have missed the mark. So how can we define worship correctly?

Definitions of Worship
Pope Pius X speaks of worship as “the glorification of God and the sanctification of humanity.” Irenaeus would add that the “glory of God is humanity fully alive.” This does not mean alive for a momentary “worship high” nor does it mean being alive in the so-called traditions of worshipping “like we’ve always done it.” It means that through regular corporate worship, we are transformed by affirming our identity as the Body of Christ. Slowly but surely our identities are changed through the regular practice of worship. Worship is not about creating experiences for participants, but rather about creating space where divine experiences can happen as acts of grace through the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, style takes a back seat to substance and regular practice.

Why Weekly Eucharist?
If the Eucharist is the visible symbol of the incarnation, and the means by which we gather together to share in the grace given through such a mystery, it is only logical to practice the sacrament as often as we can. Maybe logical is a bad word. How about faithful? Practicing the Eucharist is not necessarily the measurement of our faithful worship, but it is an identity marker by which our worship is understood to most visibly and faithfully tell the story of the gospel and share in the grace of God poured out on all of humanity (note: this is one reason why an “open table” is such a powerful testimony to the inclusivity of the gospel).

Final Thoughts?
I’ve wondered lately whether it is better to push for a decision from “on high” that all Methodist congregations should practice the Eucharist every week on the Lord’s Day, or whether we should approach the issue on a congregation-by-congregation basis. I’m still not sure I have a clear answer to that one. I do know that wherever I serve, I will lovingly and firmly push that we creatively think of how to incorporate this practice on at least a weekly basis in various forms of worship. And I know more people like me who are doing this very thing in their contexts as well. At least forums like this makes sure the issue remains a conversation topic. So I guess that’s a start. I guess slowly but surely we’re inching closer to making a reality those wonderful words declaring that we, by the grace of God, “might be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.”

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