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

Journeying to the Cross: The Irrational Reunion

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[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

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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!”

Lent and the Strangeness of Being Christian

lentI’m writing this column around 2:30pm on Ash Wednesday. We’ve completed two of the three services we’re offering today. It’s been a busy day of activities and our night will end just as the day began – with a worship service reminding us that we are dust and to dust we shall one day return.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” You know, sometimes it’s strange to be a Christian.

This is only my third Ash Wednesday in the role of “pastor.” I’m in my very first appointment and in many ways I’m still learning what the title of “pastor” really means. For example, Ash Wednesday reminds me that as pastors we have the duty and delight to tell people, “I invite you, in the name of the Church, to observe a holy Lent.” Maybe I’m still young and a little green, but there’s a part of me that shudders every time I declare that the words I’m about to say are on behalf of the whole Church universal. Yet every Ash Wednesday I tell people that contrary to what direction the cultural winds might be blowing that day, we are expected to live a life of holiness.

Lent is a season when our priorities shift. It is no longer an option to remain bland, “Christian when it’s convenient,” pew-warmers. Lent reminds us that being Christian means change – even when it hurts.

When everyone else is worried about being comfortable in life, Christians spend a season trying to remember how uncomfortable the Christian life can be. Strange indeed.

One of strangest things about Ash Wednesday is the way the Christian life demands physical touch. When I look into someone’s eyes, move their hair to the side, and rub my thumb on their forehead in the shape of a cross it’s a very intimate moment. The miracle of the Incarnation is that Christ is most fully found in the physical and tactile ways of being human – holding sweaty hands in a hospital room, finding blemishes of make-up left on your collar reminding you of a hug someone shared that morning, having your shoulder soaked with the tears of another person, tearing bread from a loaf to place into the mouth of a person who does not have full use of their hands, and yes, rubbing a little dirt on the forehead of each other. Being Christian means we share the full human experience with each other, and when we do so, Christ is among us. There are a lot of things you can do by yourself but being a Christian is not one of them. Very strange.

Lent also reminds us that no matter how hard we try, we won’t make it out of this life alive. This is a time when we are constantly nagged with the reality that whatever magic pill we’re taking, cosmetic surgery we’d love to get, or anti-aging remedy we’d like to try, nothing will stop the process of death. I was keenly aware of this today as we were imposing ashes at a local assisted-living facility. It struck me about halfway through the process that here were two young pastors under the age of 40 telling a room full of senior citizens that they will one day return to dust. The look in their eyes as they graciously received the ashes told us they knew the meaning to those words better than we did. After the service I went to a nearby sink to wash out the bowl we used for oil. One of the residents from the service came over to me on her cane, took my plate, and insisted on hand-washing it for me. I was just going to give it a quick rinse but here this saint of God stood, leaning on her cane, and gently and lovingly washing and drying the bowl. I didn’t have to ask her about the theological meaning of God’s hospitality – I could tell by the way she treated that dish she had years of experience treating other people the same way. You see, as I was relishing in the irony of telling senior citizens they were to one day return to ashes, she embodied the way we are called to live as we journey together through life – in loving service to each other.

I hope you’re season of Lent is going well. And by “well” I mean I hope it also hurts a little. No one ever promised being a Christian would be easy. All we’re promised is the unfailing love of God and a few friends along the way as we learn share in the beauty and strangeness of the Christian life. Thanks be to God!

Journeying to the Cross: The Power of Temptation

lentThis is a series I’ll be adding to weekly for during the season of Lent. The posts are short devotionals written for our congregation that will be printed in our weekly worship bulletins as an extra resource for the season.

Week 1: The Power of Temptation

17th Century English theologian Matthew Henry writes: “Many dangerous temptations come to us in fine colors that are but skin-deep.” It can be easy to think temptation is always a choice between good and evil, right and wrong. As long as we choose the good, we remain good people.

But what happens when temptation presents itself as a choice between two things that are good? What then?

I once heard a preacher tell a story about teaching a small group when the topic of temptation came up. Those gathered in the study sat and talked about temptation with examples like not lying on their taxes, turning down a second piece of pie, and not punching out the person that made them mad. They boasted about their abilities to avoid temptation and make good choices while admitting how tough it can be to resist that extra piece of pie or punching out that particular co-worker. They were very pleased with their examples of faithfulness.

The pastor noticed one of the members of class sitting at the corner of the table who remained silent during the discussion. He asked him, “Rob, do you have any examples you’d like to add to the discussion?”

Rob just stared at the table and began to speak:

“I’ve been offered a job – a promotion – where I can make double the salary I’m making right now. I’ll get a company car and a spending account that’s more than I could ever spend. The only thing is I’ll miss my kids’ ballgames and recitals because I’ll be traveling 4-5 days a week. I want to provide a good living for my family – financial security means a lot, right? But I just don’t know what to do.”

Everyone in the room went silent. Never before had they heard a story of such real and powerful temptation. Lent is a season that reminds us of our priorities and the temptations that inevitably follow. May we draw close to God in all of the decisions we face.

This Week’s Suggested Readings:

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16

Luke 4:1-13

Romans 10:8b-13

The Risk of Becoming a Consumerist Church

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A friend of mine posted this picture on Facebook a couple of weeks ago. Initially I laughed at the idea of a church offering “Hip Hop Praise Jam” and “Gregorian Chant Liturgy” in the same morning. Then I laughed especially hard at the name of the church: “Consumerist Church of the Sacred Demographics.” The icing on the cake for me was the sermon title: “God Has a Wonderful Cafeteria Plan for Your Life.”

Finally it hit me — this is exactly how most of us approach doing church. And then I stopped laughing.

Some will say that it’s important for churches to offer something for everyone. They will tell you that the object of plugging into a church is to find the niche that connects most with you and churches should go above and beyond to have a niche for everyone.

I am not among those who would say these things. The temptation to become a consumer-driven church is real and we need to be careful lest we become nothing more than franchised shopping centers of religion.  

Setting Up False Inferiority Complexes

One of the reasons we shouldn’t push all churches into niche ministry is because many churches simply cannot engage that sort of approach. If you’re a United Methodist, you’ll know the vast majority of our churches are classified as “small churches” (membership < 300). Small churches simply do not have the resources to pull off a vast array of niche ministries. And pushing them to do so by mimicking whatever great, new church plant down the road is doing, will inevitably sets up an inferiority complex.

It’s time we start admitting that much of the amazing work the Holy Spirit is leading in a particular church simply cannot be duplicated and mass-produced.

This is why we need to take a moment to slow down so we can tell the difference between our biblical mandate and our American capitalistic drive.

A biblical mandate says to go into the world preaching, teaching, and baptizing. It says we are to disciple one another in the ways of Jesus. Part of carrying out that mandate is learning the lay of the land and prayerfully discovering how the ways of Jesus can be lived out in a particular context with particular people. Our American, capitalist drive says if certain methods work well in one place, all we need to do is duplicate those methods everywhere and we can franchise the way to be church. In other words, a biblical mandate cares about people first while a franchising mentality cares about methods and results first. Churches of all shapes and sizes can put people first by uniquely and faithfully seeking to engage the communities they are in using the resources they already have. Other peoples’ ideas too often become warmed over leftovers that don’t fit outside of the context they are in. And that’s okay.

It’s Okay Not to Offer Something For Everyone

I know this may feel a little counterintuitive. If we want to reach people, don’t we need to offer something that will connect with them? Well, yes and no.

Churches need to peddle faithful worship as as a way of connecting people to God. This can be done through whatever style best fits the context of the church. And it’s okay not to offer multiple styles — in fact, it’s often better when churches stick to only one style and do it very well. Research done through the UMC Vital Congregations Research Project shows that multiple worship styles have a positive correlation ONLY in congregations that worship 350+ — this accounts for about 5% of all UMC congregations (click the link and go to p. 39 for the data).

In other words, most churches are better off choosing one style and doing it very well.

Programs offer another conundrum. On the one hand, you need to offer basic formative programs for children, youth, and adults. On the other hand, you can find yourself trying to be the Wal-Mart of churches by offering something unique on every aisle for the average person to choose from. When is enough enough? I don’t know the answer to that. But I do know this: maybe we should think of our programs more as a means to form people as disciples of Jesus, and less as a means to attract outsiders. Ministries are not advertisements or commercials — they are faithful ways we seek to serve others and be formed as disciples. People may well be attracted to faithful ministry. But the purpose of ministry is not primarily to attract.

Jon Taffer is the host of Bar Rescue on SpikeTV. It’s a show about turning downtrodden bars around into profit-making businesses. I personally think it has a lot to say about how we approach doing church as well. In one particular episode, Taffer goes in to help a bar that specializes in offering a little something for everyone. This bar is a hodge-podge mess of a business with no real identity because it wants to be something for everyone and ends up not doing anything well. Taffer makes a profound statement during the episode when talking to the bar owner. He says: “Bars can’t be something to everyone, they need to be everything to someone.

So your church doesn’t offer something for everyone — you’re in good company. How about we try harder being everything to something and trust God to take care of the rest…

 

Lessons on Leadership from Adam Hamilton’s Sermon at The National Cathedral

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Like many proud United Methodists I watched the Rev. Adam Hamilton give the sermon at the National Prayer Service last Tuesday. The service was in the historic National Cathedral and celebrated our religious diversity in America. To have a United Methodist pastor give the sermon for such an event is a pretty big deal, so I made sure to tune into the live online feed.

I think most would agree that Adam did a fantastic job. The sermon was well-crafted with great flow and a powerful call to action at the end. Somewhere around the halfway point, it occurred to me that much of what he was saying about leadership applies to leaders at all levels of the United Methodist Church. The call to action for the President and leaders in Washington also serves as a summons to lead faithfully in our church – even if it means getting over some of our personal issues in the process.

Adam offered three ideas for leadership that we all could heed as we serve in our local churches, annual conferences, and denomination.

Idea #1: “At our best, we are a humble people. And we remember the call to have compassion for the least of these.”

Part of what makes humility so hard to locate in ourselves is that it requires that we do not boast about how humble we are. Being a humble leader means we faithfully lead in such a way that others can say that about us. It means we approach leadership as a means of service and not a grasp for power. No one “owes” us power – we are called to an authority that recognizes the greatest among us will be those who are willing to serve others.

This is tough when our church is designed around a democratic process that invites political maneuvering and manipulation. We learn far too early that those who “win” are those who know how to use their power to fix the game. It’s no wonder we find ourselves living in a deep fog of distrust of one another. Instead of engaging those who hold different opinions, we would rather surround ourselves with like-minded people who parrot each other’s opinions. Instead of giving up our platitudes and stands in humility for the common good, we would rather exercise power and win at any cost. Trust is at the core of what it means to be connectional and our lack of humility is a major reason why we cannot seem to trust each other.

We also need what Adam calls, “a courageous compassion for the marginalized.” It’s time we stop giving out of charity and start giving of our time, money, and efforts out of a missional calling. It’s easy to give out of a sense of liberal guilt – giving a little to others because it makes us feel better for having so much. If we are to be the church, then we are to go to the margins of society and live there with the people. We need to learn to speak with those who have no voice, not because we somehow know what is best for them, but because we have shared a story, broken bread, and lived with those who live on the margins. Only then will we reclaim our prophetic voice as a missional church.

Idea #2: ”…the importance of having a vision.”

Adam notes that Harvard Business School professor, John Kotter, said: “two of the most important tasks of any leader are to cast a compelling vision for the future and then motivate and inspire people to pursue it.” This applies to leaders whether we are working in the local church, annual conference, or denominational level. It is the act of articulating a clear and compelling vision of where we want to go, our preferred picture of the future.

Theologian Walter Brueggemann calls this the prophetic imagination. Essentially we are called as the Church to tell the truth about the world as it is, and cast a vision for the world as God intends it. This vision is lived out through worship, community, preaching, prayer, and sharing in the sacraments. I would dare to say the greatest challenge we face in our local churches, annual conferences and denomination is we lack a faithful and prophetic imagination. No matter what context we live in, there is an alternative vision God would have us live into. Transformation is a hallmark of our Wesleyan tradition and the task of leaders at all levels is to help us all live into the world as God sees it. Casting a compelling vision that inspires others means telling the honest and hard truth about where we are while also articulating the possibilities of where God would have us to go. It is probably the single most difficult challenge of leadership at all levels.

Idea #3:  “To be a leader is to invite criticism”

This is the word of hope and challenge for all leaders. Effective leadership means getting past the idea that somehow we can please everyone in the process. We need humility to undertake this challenge. But we also need the support of each other to make the tough decisions, take the unpopular stands and speak the convicting words of change. This also means we have to be humble enough to take the criticism. No one person has all the answers and much of what we are facing will require we move forward in faith trusting that God will reveal answers as we go. But we need to learn to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves while having Teflon skin in the process.

We like to say the mission of the church is to “make disciples for the transformation of the world.” I would reword that a little. The real mission we’re trying to live into is the idea that a life of discipleship can change us into the sort of people who will help welcome the Kingdom of God. This requires us to be a people who daily seek to “knock holes in the darkness” (borrowing again from the Hamilton sermon, which in turn borrowed from a Robert Louis Stevenson story) with humility and a courageous compassion for the marginalized as we cast and follow a clear vision of the world as God intends it to be, no matter the criticism we invite along the way.

No one said leadership would be easy. Heck, no one said discipleship would be easy. But with God’s help, let us begin the long and difficult journey together.

 

This post originally ran on the website for The United Methodist Reporter on Friday, Jan. 25, 2013

2013: A Year for the Prayer “Help. Wow. Thanks.”

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I’m a book person. I love to read. My wife tells me I own too many books. But I can’t help it, it’s a passion for me. You can imagine my joy when on Christmas morning I woke up and unwrapped a couple of new books I really wanted.

One of the books I received is the new book by Anne Lamott, “Help, Thanks, Wow.” If you’re not familiar with Lamott, let me be the first to tell you to put down your newspaper, go online and order one of her books. Besides being a fantastic writer, Lamott is a recovering addict who found faith later in life. While her fiction is good, I’m particularly moved by her books on life and faith. If you ever hear me preach in person, don’t be surprised when an Anne Lamott quote sneaks into the sermon. She brings a perspective on faith that is informed by real life — a tough life no less — that just moves me more than most any traditional theological writing can.

In her latest book, Lamott writes:

“I do not know much about God and prayer, but I have come to believe, over the last twenty-five years, that there’s something to be said about keeping prayer simple. Help. Thanks. Wow.”

I like that. Conversation with God can begin in those three words.

Help: I cannot get through life by myself — no matter how much I like to think I can.

Thanks: By God’s grace I am blessed beyond measure and this is not by my efforts alone.

Wow: The world, its people and life are all beautifully made. We cannot help but celebrate and bask in the wonder of it all.

As we begin 2013, can we declare a moratorium on our platitudes and issues? Can we say “enough” with the political grandstanding and divisive conversations? Can we try harder to search in the midst of our frustrations for God’s grace? After all, grace has this way of surprising us. Can we pledge, here at the beginning of a new year, to set aside our prejudices and frustrations and look for God’s presence among us?

The ancient story is told that some disciples were sitting around questioning their elder hoping to gain some insight into the meaning of life.

“Where shall I find God in life?” the disciples asked the elder.

“God is with you everywhere,” the wise elder replied.

“But if that is true,” the disciples asked, “why can I not see this presence of God?”

“Because,” said the elder, “you are like the fish who, when in the ocean, never notice the water.”

Lately, some people have questioned where God is in the midst of life and even tragedy. Let me put that question to rest by saying this: God is with us always no matter what. So maybe our prayers of help, wow, and thanks are not so much a beckon for God to show up as they are a reminder for us to stop and look for God in the middle of where we are. I suppose we’ve got a fresh calendar and the endless possibilities of a new year to find out.

[This column originally ran in the Macon Telegraph on Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013 ]

 

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