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

Teaching “This Holy Mystery” Part 1: Hungering For More

art-communionutensilsThe United Methodist Church has an amazing document entitled This Holy Mystery that outlines our doctrinal and practical understanding of the sacrament of Holy Communion. Maybe you’ve heard of it or even participated in a class where it was taught. I have the privilege of leading a small group in studying this document over the next six weeks.

One of my initial thoughts in approaching this series with a group of lay people is that it might be helpful to blog about it and share it with the wider United Methodist community. Therefore, I invite you to join me for the next few blogs as I process my experience in both studying anew and teaching this fantastic United Methodist resource on sacramental theology.

Spoiler alert: I think it will have a lot to say not only about how we celebrate Holy Communion, but also how we seek to form and be formed as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Session 1: Hungering for the Mystery

An excerpt from the teaching resource written by Gayle Felton:

The story is told of a little girl whose parents had taken her forward to receive Holy Communion. Disappointed with the small piece of bread she was given to dip in the cup, the child cried loudly, “I want more! I want more!” While embarrassing to her parents and amusing to the pastor and congregation, this little girl’s cry accurately expresses the feelings of many contemporary United Methodist people. We want more! We Want more than we are receiving from the sacrament of Holy Communion as it is practiced in our churches.

The resounding response from our group in hearing this story was, “YES!!!”

We began our session by going around the room and naming 1 or 2 words they think of when participating in the sacrament. Some said, “renewed.” Others said, “forgiven.” Still others said, “strengthened and nourished.” Oddly, no one said, “bored.” I wonder how many lay people are sitting in our pews wishing we could celebrate Holy Communion more often. Where I serve, the Walk to Emmaus has served as a great source for helping people find new love for the Holy Communion. A couple of Emmaus alums in our group noted how let down they were in finding that after a wonderful weekend away where Holy Communion was so prominent, they realized just how much their local church kept it off to the side as though was not central to worship.

Frustration was expressed when clergy rush the liturgy, when the table is not carefully and lovingly prepared, when the theology expressed is questionable, and when clergy do not teach on the rich meaning and mystery in the sacrament. The laity all said they wished they heard more about the sacraments. They wished practices matched the deep meaning the sacrament had in their faith lives.

I wonder, too, if the disconnect felt has more to do with what we see as the primary focus of our worship — do we see the sermon as the primary turning point of worship or do we see the Table? For our Anglican brothers and sisters it’s the Table. Sermons are short and normally lead straight to the Table. But we’re United Methodists (and I’m in the South) so preaching and revival-style worship holds a special place in our cultural imagination. Legends are told of the great preachers of our past. Preaching is viewed as a primary skill for the ministry (and it should be).

I wonder if our emphasis on preaching has come at the expense of emphasizing the importance of the sacrament of Holy Communion?

A couple of years ago I did a very informal, unscientific poll on Facebook asking whether or not Communion would lose its meaning and importance if it were celebrated weekly instead of monthly or quarterly. Interestingly my responses were split into two categories — everyone who voted for celebrating MORE often were laity and everyone who noted the difficulty in celebrating more often were clergy. Now I’m drawing my own conclusions but I wonder if that doesn’t have a little something to do with our emphasis on preaching. In other words, do we preachers secretly enjoy knowing that our sermons are the pinnacle of the worship service? Another thought could be that with more observances comes more planning and responsibilities — is it just easier on preachers and worship teams to stay with fewer observances?

But it’s not just a critique of the place and priority we give preaching. Emphasizing the sacraments calls into question how we view worship as a whole. Giving the sacraments a primary place in worship means not only allowing, but inviting mystery to be primary in our worship. This means we have to be okay with not being able to explain our the0logy and rituals in neat, compact ways. It means being okay with allowing the Spirit to move without our putting a formula on how it moves. And it means seeing worship as something more than just entertainment or comfort where style trumps content and we think we can become full off of a steady diet of thin, shallow meaning.

Don Saliers notes that emphasizing the sacraments in such a way as to make the link between ritual, mission, and discipleship will require some change in how congregations approach the sacraments. First, he says, congregations would be forced to teach and learn more about the sacraments on an ongoing basis. We need to teach worship instead of just doing it and expecting that folks get something out of it. But we cannot marginalize the sacraments just because they’re cloaked in some mystery and not easily understood. We can still teach in the midst of mystery. Secondly, Saliers notes, preaching would need to root itself in a sacramental sense of church and world. We cannot simply preach that salvation is found in Jesus’ death. The entirety of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is the foundation for our preaching and worship. The liturgy of Holy Communion covers the spectrum of this foundation, invites us to “taste and see,” and then sends us forth in mission as we participation in the fullness of life in Christ. Thirdly, congregations would have to celebrate the sacraments with more vitality and enthusiasm. Baptisms are not meant to be rote and routine. Holy Communion is not a funeral service. We offer ourselves in thanks and praise as we participate in the very life of God’s redeeming action every time we celebrate one of the sacraments. Why would we not want to do this as often as possible???

Question: How does your congregation celebrate Holy Communion? Do you wish you could celebrate more often? How are the sacraments taught in your congregation? Do you wish they were taught more?

 

Poem for 2nd Sunday of Easter: Holiness of Doubt

Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas

“The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” by Carravagio

Holiness of Doubt

Lord, forgive.

Forgive when I think I have you all figured out;

when I mistake certainty for faith;

doubt for sin.

Mystery is the very fragrance of life with you —

enfolding

surrounding

evading.

Wonderful are the days

when belief takes the form of proof.

Wonderful, too, are the days when

form is fleeting,

chaos,

and faith is all we have to cling to.

Life is found in the in-between:

proof and mystery

form and chaos

belief and doubt.

O God,

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe…

Blessed, too, are those who still doubt…

and yet long for more.

Meeting People Where They Are on Easter

church doors

Easter Sunday. It’s the one day of the year when even the people who hate mornings will gather at an ungodly early hour to stand on a lawn, in a field, under a canopy, or maybe in a parking lot to watch the sun rise and hear a few words about resurrection.

Easter Sunday. It’s the day when music is extra special – organs, brass, electric guitars and singers alike soar in the music as though they’re heading to the very property line of the pearly gates. It’s the day when our pews are cramp, our parking lots are full, and everyone arrives at church with their best outfit on and a camera in-hand lest they miss out on the annual photo op that marks time for with our friends and families.

Easter Sunday. It’s the time of year that serves as both a Homecoming and a “seeker service” all in one. Family members long gone are back in town for the celebration. Visitors may also decide Easter is the day they’ll try a new church out for the first time. If you’re lucky, you’ll even have a few members who are visiting again – ones for whom inactivity has lasted long enough and they’re making an extra effort to be active in church again.

It’s that last part that probably captivates pastors most. It can be tough to gather on Easter Sunday, see the great attendance, and know that it will be “same ‘ol same ‘ol” the next week. The hymns sound so good when a full sanctuary sings them. The sound in the room is so much richer when there are more ears to hear. Starting next week we go back to the era of decline remembering “days gone by” when our sanctuaries were full.

As pastors we want this feeling to last. We want our sanctuaries to be full every Sunday. But how?

One of the more popular methods of attracting the Christmas/Easter crowds back to church is to promote an exciting sermon series beginning the Sunday after the holiday. Usually this is a clever series, something more accessible to all levels of faith and biblical knowledge, and packaged in such a way as to draw intrigue and wonder. This can be a really good way to encourage people to come back to church following a major holiday. It’s a great way to be invitational.

But I wonder if this method doesn’t also risk missing the mark of what it means to be the church?

You see, while promoting new sermon series to visitors and inactive members can be inviting, we operate off of the idea that our job as the church is to open our doors and draw people in. All of the risk and responsibility lies on the shoulders of those who visit with us and we continue with business as usual.

We fail to recognize there’s a difference between being invitational and being missional.

Being missional means we spend Easter Sunday asking questions. It means finding out where people are from or what’s been going on with those folks who have been active for the last year. It means finding moments to invest in others before we ask them to invest in us. This can happen either on Easter Sunday or by setting up a time to do so later.

Being missional means we spend Easter Sunday with a note pad in our pocket making a  call list for Easter Monday and Tuesday. It means we fill our pockets with extra business cards to give out. And it means we insist on being bothered over the next couple of days if that means an e-mail or a phone call or a lunch appointment with someone new (or old).

Being missional means remembering that being invitational is important but it’s not the end-game for the church. Before we worry about casting nets and reeling in new people, we should remember our first and primary calling is to be blessed, broken, and emptied out in service to others – even if they don’t immediately help to line our pews and offering plates.

A certain friend of mine called to tell me today of an experience at a church in the town where he and his wife had just moved to. He said the pastor worked hard to promote a new sermon series. He said it sounded interesting even to someone like him who attends church about 4 times a year. But he said the whole sales pitch fell flat when people smiled, welcomed him, handed him a brochure for the church, and proceeded to not ask him a single question about himself or his wife. I imagine my friend and his wife will be enjoying a lovely brunch next Sunday around 11:00am.

This story served as a harsh reminder that too often we miss the point on Easter. God didn’t raise Jesus from the dead in order to invite people to the empty tomb to stay and set up shop. God didn’t eventually call the Church together at Pentecost under the order to buy some good real estate and be inviting as sojourners passed by.

Easter is an eternal reminder of a God who is constantly on the move. It’s about a Savior who left the tomb and empty linens behind in order to search out others. It’s the good news of a Risen Savior who is on the move and who is calling us anew to join him in the streets, neighborhoods, coffee shops, bars, and parks. It’s the sort of news that demands we reach out to others on their terms for once, and not our own.

I have a call sheet for the coming week but I wish it was longer. I saw some familiar faces who have been absent from church lately and I wished I had spent a little more time asking them about their lives. I’ve got some folks to follow up with next week but I know I missed too many.

Maybe the best news of Easter is that when we put the power points and prep work aside for a bit, we could actually follow Jesus into the world around us? But we should probably get going – Jesus doesn’t stay in one place for too long.

When a Pastor Asks Questions And Offers No Answers About Marriage

church-stateIf you’ve been anywhere near a television or a computer this week, you’re aware of the eventful week at the US Supreme Court. Through the power of our nation’s legal system, the definition of marriage has come to trial and we await the decision of the court amidst the protests of many advocating their position on how marriage should be defined and/or changed.

All of the back and forth debate has led me to ask some questions about marriage. As a pastor, I’m called on regularly to perform weddings (I have 2 coming up in May). And as a young pastor, I’m still learning the ends and outs of weddings and how to be a pastor to couples as they enter into the marriage covenant.

So rather than pontificating about my theology of marriage, I’d like to ask questions about how marriages are recognized in the church and our greater society. I don’t want to express my beliefs as much as I would rather try to simple punch holes in the current system of how marriage is defined, executed, and lived out in both church and society.

Is marriage a legal contract or a theological covenant?

For pastors and Christians, this is probably a no brainer — it’s both! But slow down a bit, is it really? When couples come to a church for a wedding, they seek counseling and we teach (hopefully) that marriage is about a covenant that transcends even the legal and temporal things of this world.

But when is a couple “officially married” — after the service or when we sign the government-issued license?

And when a couple divorces, where is the divorce handled — in the church or at the courthouse?

All of this then leads us to ask, what is the primary function of a pastor at a wedding — to be a representative of God or an officer of the state?

Do we really believe in a separation of church and state or is that just something we like to say?

It’s commonplace for churches and pastors to say we believe in a separation of church and state. This separation gives room to live into the tension of being both a citizen of a nation and also a people called to be citizens of a kingdom that transcends time and space. We get offended (rightfully) when churches promote partisan political values and endorse candidates. We might even struggle with the placement of the American flag in the sanctuary, noting that worship space is not national space. We enjoy tax-free status largely because we are meant to be separate from government and not part of a nationalized religion.

But when we do weddings, who are we acting on behalf of?

And when we protest or support government definitions of marriage, are we saying we prefer the government to define marriage instead of the Church?

Tony Campolo has written a thoughtful article on the possibility for compromise in this great debate. In the article, Campolo wonders if we could remove government altogether from the definition of marriage. Government’s role, Campolo dreams, would be one where it sets up legally binding civil unions for all people so long as the unions are entered into in good, legal faith. Campolo then says churches could do the work of enacting marriages based on covenantal and church standards. This would allow same-sex couples to be married in a church that recognizes same-sex marriage without being restricted by state laws. It also allows churches who do not condone same-sex marriages to continue to do so without any interference from the government. I’m not sure if this is a good solution but it sounds hopeful.

No matter where we stand on a “definition of marriage” we all should admit to this: Our views reflect an incredibly complicated and often dysfunctional relationship between Church and State.

Rethink Easter: Chreaster Hunting Season In Full Force

reaching_chreasters_8_ideas_142271609Holy Week has begun. It’s a time where we relive and follow the passion of Jesus from his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, to the agony and despair of his final meal with his friends before his death, and then finally to the miracle of the empty tomb on Easter.

It’s a glorious time in the life of the church. By now plans have been made, bulletins are being printed, and the excitement is building toward what should be one of the biggest weekends of the year in the life of the local church.

It’s also the time of year where a special creature emerges from hibernation — the Chreaster.

UrbanDictionary.com defines Chreaster as: Those Christians who only show up to religious services on Christmas and Easter. Maybe it’s family pressure, maybe it’s out of obligation, maybe it’s just habit, or maybe it’s because it seems like the right thing to do, but these are people who attend church twice a year. And we’re about to embark on the second sighting of Chreasters in the last 4 months (or the last sighting until December?).

I’ve had the opportunity to be in a couple of clergy meetings in the last week or so. As you might expect at this time of year, Chreasters are a featured conversation topic. Usually the conversation moves in a predictable pattern. First we bemoan the existence of Chreasters (“you know those people will actually find their way back to church this Sunday…”). And then we talk about the opportunities, challenges, and possibilities of a Chreaster sighting (“What if they actually heard the Good News this time? What if they were inspired to morph into an actual church member? What if…?). As the conversation moves in this pattern, you can just see the clergy in the room licking their chops. They’ve caught the scent of fresh blood in the waters and they’re already imagining scenarios where possibilities become realities. Sermons are being honed to just the right calibration — when we fire our best shot and cast the net, we’re expecting to real in some Chreasters.

What if this Easter, we concentrated less on our hunting strategy and more on sharing in the good news of resurrection together?

I know that may sound crazy to some. We should always be invitational. We should see every Sunday as an opportunity to invite people to change their lives in light of the good news of Jesus Christ. I wouldn’t disagree with any of that. It’s vitally important that we be invitational.

But what if we began our sense of being invitational by viewing Chreasters less as creatures and commodities, and more as people made in the image of God? What if we saw Easter less as a hunting expedition and more as a communal experience of resurrection?

You see, the assumption we make in our talk about Chreasters is that we’re a privileged bunch enlightened in the right ways of believing and living and until they join us, they are not. We can’t imagine Chreasters not wanting to join our tribe once they heard about how great it is. We figure all we need to do is get the message right this time, open the doors, and they’ll come running.  The truth is, Chreasters come back on Christmas and Easter year after year, they hear the appeal year after year and they still opt out of becoming “one of us.” Maybe it’s not a sales pitch problem at all, maybe there’s a problem with the product they see?

It’s hard to hear that we don’t have it all together. And it’s hard as Christians who are used to seats of power and esteem to hear that we are still in need of grace. Pastors are also notorious for assuming we are wells of knowledge and insight. In all of our preparing, planning, and preaching we forget that we too need to hear the good news of resurrection. It’s not ours to tell, we need to hear it as well. Our churches need to hear it too. Too often we exist week in and week out in a fog of self-denial while we focus all of our energy on our own self-preservation and success. We desperately need to hear again that life does in fact spring forth from death. We need to hear again that God’s plan for the redemption of this world is on the move despite the fledgeling efforts of the Church. And if we’re honest, we should admit that Chreasters aren’t meant to be creatures we hunt as much as they are eyes and ears and voices of the goodness of God outside of our church walls.

What better day than Easter to gather with insiders and outsiders alike to hear the good news that, by the power of God, there is still hope for us all. God is not finished with any of us. This Sunday, may we listen before we speak, look before we judge, and share in the joy of new life together.

 

Journeying to the Cross: The Irrational Reunion

prodigal son
[Return of the Prodigal Son by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo 1667-70]

Dr. Fred Craddock tells the story of living in a small town where a particular teenage girl had a proclivity for living the wild life. Mind you this girl was wildly talented – she was smart and she should have been heading in great places. But she also had a wild streak. Once she was caught for underage drinking. Another time she was picked up by police for petty theft. Finally she was arrested for drug possession and sentenced to prison for a few months. What her heartbroken parents did not know was that she was also pregnant. So here was their talented and gifted 19 year old daughter, arrested and imprisoned for drugs and pregnant by way of some wild night she doesn’t even remember.

The day came when she was released from jail. You can imagine the buzz in the cul-de-sac neighborhood where her parents lived. Craddock said it seemed like every neighbor had yard work to do that morning – how else would they hang around outside watching that girl’s house when she returned home.

Finally a car pulled into the driveway and the girl emerged holding her newborn baby. The neighbors tried to act like they weren’t watching but how could they peel themselves away from this scene? As she emerged from the car, her mother came running out of the house and down the driveway. She never broke her stride as she swallowed her daughter into her arms. Tears were streaming down her face as she scooped the baby into her arms. Soon other members of the family came rushing out of the house all wading through the chaos of hugs and tears of joy as the reunion party was in full swing. They were to throw a big party that day to celebrate the return of this wayward girl.

Craddock wondered, shouldn’t this girl have come home, hat in hand, and ready to earn her place back in the family? Shouldn’t her parents have been tougher on her? How else would she learn that wild living is destructive and unacceptable?

And in his judgment of these people he confesses that he and his other neighbors all slinked back into their homes. God forbid that family might invite them to their daughter’s welcome home party.

Journeying to the Cross Week 3: When Fruit is Nowhere to be Found

fig-tree-yvonne-ayoub

Fig Tree by Yvonne Ayoub
http://fineartamerica.com/featured/fig-tree-yvonne-ayoub.html

If you’ve ever known (or been) someone who suffers from addiction, then you know the cost of repentance. Two steps forward are all too often followed by three steps backwards. You end up counting every sober day in the win column because each day becomes a celebration of progress – a sign of change.

In our most desperate moments we also become keenly aware of the fact that our hope cannot be found in ourselves. Deep down we know depending on ourselves is only a recipe for failure. Self-righteous piety might make us feel better on the outside – it might even make us look good to others – but it doesn’t cleanse the inside. We need only to look in the mirror in order to be encountered with the truth that we’re not always what we want to be, and we’re definitely not always what God would have us to be.

So where is our hope?

Any gardener worth their weight in salt knows the frustration with plants that don’t bloom like they’re supposed to. You try season after season to work with the plant. You water it and offer it the care you hope will coax it into bloom. After this fails for long enough you have no other choice but to dig the plant up or cut it down, call the mission a failure, and move on to caring for other plants who know their duty to bloom.

Now suppose you yourself are the misfit plant unable or unwilling to yield fruit. Your only hope is found in a gardener who pleads for one more season, just a little more time, one more chance to prove yourself. It’s a risk for the gardener to take because their reputation is on the line. But this gardener doesn’t care about reputations – his love for plants is much greater than other people’s opinions and judgments.

And to that we say, “Thanks be to God!”

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