Not just any night

I'm delivering this brief reflection tonight, Christmas Eve:

This night carries so many memories and feelings.

We remember the excitement of getting and receiving gifts.

We long for the warm fuzzies proclaimed by the greeting cards that somehow don't match our real lives.

We relish the feelings of joy and wishes for peace that fade after a few days.

But this night is more.

This night is the beginning of … a revolution.

The birth of this child fractures the status quo.

He was born not to bless our ways of doing things but to radically shift them.

It is a revolution that levels playing fields, that fills the hungry and sends the rich away, that makes the last first.

His is a revolution that redirects us from trying to position ourselves for God's favor and instead calls broken, fragile people like me and you to be his heart and voice and hands and feet right here and now.

His is a revolution that reveals the margins of life as a place where God is powerfully and mercifully active… perhaps, even more so than at what we call the center.

A revolution that embraces the poor, the broken, those who don't have it all together, and that leads kings and priests to want to stamp it out.

This child loves you so much that empties himself of power and privilege to take on your burdens.

He doesn't ask for your gold, for your Chanel, for your iPod, for your investments…

He asks for you.

He asks you to redefine your life in the light of that night in a Bethlehem stable … and that Friday on a hill near Jerusalem, and that Sunday morning outside an empty tomb.

The revolution has begun.

Are you in?


What's your desire?

37signals' "Get Real" philosophy of coding is also an online book, which applies to a lot of projects beyond software -- like transforming or starting a business, or a church.

In the "What's your problem?" chapter, they suggest that the way to write compelling software (or create compelling products or organizations) is not to out-feature the competition but to solve your own problem, so you can be passionate about the solution. And in my experience this is what many missional, emerging churches do - looking at a community and its spiritual needs, and trying to address them rather than importing a fully-developed model.

The 37signals folks conclude the chapter with an interesting quote from Malcolm Gladwell, which is about writing but could inform any organization that wants to share the Good News:
When you write a book, you need to have more than an interesting story. You need to have a desire to tell the story. You need to be personally invested in some way. That was what happened. If you're going to live with something for two years, three years, the rest of your life, you need to care about it.
As I have observed churches and individuals that share the way of Jesus, it's passion for the Gospel, an investment in living that way, that sets apart those who really communicate the message.

It's a good question all of us, as church leaders, need to ask ourselves every once in a while: How much desire we have to tell the story?


Grace notes

Hosea 11:8-11

Most times, my biggest obstacle to understanding God as a God of unrelenting kindness and mercy is -- me.

It's hard most of the time to accept that God is willing to be with me where I am, and draw me toward him, as I am able. It's more compelling, more logically God-like (meaning, how I would be if I were God) to perceive that God wants my working at being better, and my feeling bad at my failings.

What helps me remember Gods' rare, relentless grace?
  • Psalm 139. (One of my favorites. Try reading it several times, then reading it again but this time, shifting the point of view from your self to God. Bob, I have investigated your life. I know your thoughts firsthand... I always find this leads to the most amazing conversations with God.)
  • Pierce Pettis' "God Believes in You."
  • The Virgin of Vladimir (above)
  • Remembering how, even when I fail, God comes to me with a healing embrace, not a wagging finger.
  • Reflecting on the manger, and the cross. How can a God who would go to such lengths to restore God's people not be the God whose compassion has not turned warm and tender, and who has not shown that he will not execute his fierce anger?


Wired together

Genesis 2:18-25

It's almost impossible for me to imagine Adam as a solitary creature, alone in the dark night of the cosmos, except for God. I can imagine the stars in the night sky, trees and water glistening with moonlight, and the wind – God's breath – tossing Adam's hair. And God's vast presence…and a sense of incompleteness, longing for a friend.

In one of the most beautiful moments in the creation story, God notices and empathizes with Adam's aloneness. But of course! The cosmos was created because God is love, and love requires an object. And God, who created Adam in God's own image, knows instinctively that Adam, in order to fulfill his calling of imaging God's love, needs to be in relationship.

It's significant that God's solution is not just a woman, but connectedness to every living creature. He creates from the dust all the animals and birds, and invites Adam to participate by naming them. God's desire is that we be experience his longing to be united with every species, all of creation, and recognize the cosmos as good and necessary. Only then does the Creator complete humanity from one flesh, connecting us at the cellular level with people of every tribe, nation and generation.

It is not just emerging generations that are wired for connectivity! Sadly, we have spent long generations forgetting that our actions affect butterflies half a world away. We have subdued species, sometimes to extinction. We have forgotten how to work with the rhythms of nature and pushed to control it with chemicals and bioengineering. We have elevated race and clan to a primary rationale for killing our enemies.

Yet, somewhere deep in our bones, God's cry for connectedness resonates. Lord, help me to let that quiet music sooth the noise of the world!


Sense of identity

Deuteronomy 6:4-9

Our sense of identity is a complex thing. In part it is shaped long before we are aware of it, yet it is also formed every moment by the choices we make and the experiences we encounter. Yet the nature vs. nurture debate doesn't get at the totality of our identity.

The core of our identity is this: We are chosen by God. Jesus affirms it in John 15:16, when he says to his disciples, "You did not choose me, but I chose you." God created each of us to bear his image, and to reflect God's light into the world.

Just as our own life histories only make sense viewed through the lens of our families and our communities, our identity as people chosen by God is framed by the identity of God – the God who is revealed as creative, relational, and merciful, and self-identified as "love."

We know our places in our families through story. We learn how our great-grandparents came from the old country, how mom and dad met and courted. We learn about the work they did and the personality traits they carried. As these stories are told and retold around the family table or the fire, they become ours, and we know in a deeper way who we are.

The wisdom of this text from Deuteronomy is that it reminds us that those stories and our self-knowledge are incomplete without God's story. Telling God's story to our children (or our parents), writing parts down and posting them on our blogs, recalling them as we wake and work and worry. This isn't just a law to be followed. It is what the Apostle Paul called praying without ceasing, which is not withdrawing into a non-stop retreat of silence and holy words, but is living with gratitude for God's presence and gifts in the midst of life.

We can choose to live immersed in God's story, take it for granted, or run from it – just as we can with our human family histories. And we will be different, based on the choices we make.


"Perfect" love

We English-speakers "love" so indiscriminately. We "love" our spouses and kids, and the deal we just got at Target. We use the word to cover our desires, our passing fancies and our deepest attachments. Of course we know the difference, even if we can't express it.

But it becomes problematic when we try to embrace a seemingly simple declaration outside of our experience, such as "God is love." Is God's love for me, God's very nature, like the constancy of our closest relationships, like the sacrifice of those who have helped us get where we are, like my desire for the latest tech toy (which I would love to have)? All of the above? Something beyond all of these? And what about my love for God?

Take a minute to think about how you experience the love of God.

John's first letter urges us to respond to the love God has for us with "perfect love."
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. – 1 John 4:18
The very phrase "perfect love" makes me fearful. I am far from perfect, and the exhortation reminds me how far away I am. The last clause closes the case: See, if you fear, you haven't done it right!

At a workshop this weekend, Fr. William Meninger, one of the originators of the Centering Prayer movement, offered a very helpful way to think about perfection. Rather than some hyperactive, compulsive act of ours, he suggested that perfect love is the love that God has, and is. It is love that delights in the beloved without any thought to the rewards or feelings that come back to us. There can be no room for fear in this love because it's there for good, no matter what – we can't change it or reject it.

We can, however, receive it – or not. We choose to participate in it. This doesn't mean that we commit to getting it right, but by returning God's love God can make our imperfect love more and more like God's, in God's time.

Now there's a deal!


Wake-up call

The first Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 2:1-5
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

No one expects the Kingdom of God!*

The Messiah who is coming, and the reign of God he ushers in, isn't more of the same. Today's lessons make that clear. This kingdom is as different from the world we know as consciousness is from sleep, as peace from war. It is as unexpected as a flash flood, as a burglary-of-opportunity. Are you awake to it?

Isaiah's prophecy emphasizes the contrast. Who notices the hills? In our busyness, do we even take time to notice what is around us, above us? But when the mountain of the Lord is raised up above the taken-for-granted scenery that barely registers in our peripheral vision – then the peoples pay attention. So awesome is this vision that it is seen immediately as a source of justice and truth. Can you imagine the nations of the world today recognizing any authority as so just and fair that they can not only sign an arms control treaty but forget how and why to wage war? This kingdom is not an adjustment of the existing power structure, but a radically new order.

But if we don't wake up, if we don't pay attention to what is going on in and around us, we might just miss it completely, as Jesus and Paul remind us. For this kingdom that broke into the world in a stable in Bethlehem hasn't reached its fulfillment, but it continues to break in as we – God's people – wake up to the transforming potential of God's love. Can you – can I – be alive to the possibilities?

*Apologies to Monty Python.


Change of season

I started this decade of my life newly changed of jobs and tentatively dipping my intellectual toes in the water of theological education. Today I ended it journeying to a workshop on contemplative prayer and pondering my still changing vocation. Who says God isn't surprising?

My spiritual director reminds me that my 40s is the time that I am supposed to process these questions. Who am I called to be? How does God work with me? But I didn't see it coming. I figured the path would keep going where it always had gone. I thought I would be more settled, not more restless. Who knew "A New Kind of Christian" could be more than a book title?

It's my last day of being 49, my daughter teases me. Sure, there's some regret at missed moments and lost opportunities…I'm human. Mostly it feels at this change of season like I'm getting where I'm supposed to be, maybe a little behind schedule. I didn't predict the twists and turns of these last years, but I wouldn't trade the growth and challenges. There are so many whose words, ideas and friendship have literally changed my life and helped me to move toward the person I was created to be. Too many to name, but you know who you are, and thank you.

If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands, I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees of the field their fruit. – Leviticus 26:3-4

In this season, God has sent rain and sun as they were needed, allowed me to lie fallow and produced some surprising growth. I can't wait to see what he provides in the next season.


Another bite of the apple?

For all people who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature;
and they were unable from the good things that are seen to know the one who exists,
nor did they recognize the artisan while paying heed to his works;
but they supposed that either fire or wind or swift air,
or the circle of the stars, or turbulent water,
or the luminaries of heaven were the gods that rule the world.
If through delight in the beauty of these things people assumed them to be gods,
let them know how much better than these is their Lord,
for the author of beauty created them.
And if people were amazed at their power and working,
let them perceive from them
how much more powerful is the one who formed them.
For from the greatness and beauty of created things
comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.
Yet these people are little to be blamed,
for perhaps they go astray
while seeking God and desiring to find him.
For while they live among his works, they keep searching,
and they trust in what they see, because the things that are seen are beautiful.
Yet again, not even they are to be excused;
for if they had the power to know so much
that they could investigate the world,
how did they fail to find sooner the Lord of these things? - Wis. 13:1-9
I have spent the first days of this week with colleagues at our synod's Bishop's Convocation focusing on a wonderful interplay of the creation story, the peril we have placed that creation in, and our own self-care (or lack thereof) as created beings in the image of a Creator. With that conversation rolling through my brain, this reading from the apocryphal Book of Wisdom seems both prescient and, well, wise.

Few of us today view the earth and its elements or the inhabitants of the cosmos to be gods -- if we did our planet would be in far less peril. I have to admit that I have often viewed the environment as the sets and lighting for the stage on which my life unfolds -- when I think of it at all. American culture has tended to look at the environment as a background, with little intrinsic value, and at our society's worst we have seen nature as a conquered land to plunder.

Wisdom reminds us that creation is a sign of the Creator. The complex interplay of species and habitats, the self-renewing cycles of nature, the abundance of resources and the creativity to use them wisely all point to a God who provides lavishly for his world and people, who seeks wholeness and interconnectedness.

In his Bible study this week, Bob Robinson of LTSP reminded us that there is a connection between our status as creatures in the image of God and our charge to exercise dominion over the earth. As God's reflections our call is to respect the order and harmony of the creation, and to remember our interconnectedness -- humanity was not created in its own "day," but we are connected with all creatures on land, and our fates are inextricably tied to theirs and to the creation we live in. While the words -- dominion, subdue -- reflect the behavior of victorious kings, which wasn't pretty in the time the text was written, he noted that God, through Jesus, exercised a very different kind of kingship that must flow over into our relationship with the earth.

Unfortunately, many of us - myself included - think of care of the creation as something that we add on to our existing lifestyles rather than as a call to radically reform our behavior. The plundering of Africa and other colonies for precious resources, the developed world's addiction to oil, my (and our) ever expanding carbon footprints -- all point to the fact that we all are tied into an economy that sees no limits to what it will do in order to grow. Brian McLaren points out this refusal to live within our environmental, moral and social means in his latest book, Everything Must Change, and goes so far to call the system "suicidal." And in terms of the effects, he is right. Most of us don't have a conscious desire to kill our planet and ourselves, but we behave in ways that make that outcome likely.

At this late date, so long after the Fall, you and I remain in the Garden. Though it is no longer pristine and perfect, it is still God's. We're still choosing every day -- purchasing, heating, cooling, driving, lighting, disposing -- whether to take on God's role of determining what is good and what is evil, or living as creatures in the image of God who respect the order and beauty that we have been placed in the midst of. The apple is sugared over in American pie, and the serpent is you and me, our desire to consume and control. How much longer will we keep gorging ourselves?


A model for kingdom living

Some months ago, as I was preparing a discussion for our community on the nature of prayer, it occurred to me that in responding to the unnamed disciple's need for instruction in prayer, Jesus really offered instruction in living the way of God's kingdom (Matthew 6:7-15, Luke 11:1-4). The Our Father, or the Lord's Prayer, lays out some concrete pictures of how we and our world were created to be.

Hallowed be your name.

A people who believe God is holy will live in ways that reflect that goodness. Praising and honoring God flows naturally into joining God's mission to bless and reconcile our broken world, and in a culture that has many gods our living in coherence with that mission brings honor to God.

Your kingdom come...

Jesus' constant theme was that the kingdom of God is at hand, that the healing and wholeness God promised were fulfilled in himself. So much of Jesus' teaching served to open his hearer's eyes and ears (sometimes literally!) to the possibility that God's kingdom is the reality that grounds and supersedes the earthly kingdoms we live in. If we believe that kingdom is here and now, our allegiances and priorities change, and we must say:

...Your will be done.

The Our Father teaches us that we must empty our egos and desires in order to discern God's will. We are creatures with our own wills, which are sometimes very strong. We have areas of influence (sometimes very small) where what we say goes. And we like that. Yet when we can yield our will to God's, we find that sometimes we are encouraged to continue on healthy paths, and sometimes we are challenged to lay down what is not useful and life-giving.

There is even a bit of control in praying this sentence, which only appears in Matthew's version. As if God's will can't be done if we don't ask for it! I look at it this way: If God's will is unfolding, then am I living in a way that furthers God's mission or hinders it? That is what I have control of.

Give us each day our daily bread.

Living in God's kingdom, living in harmony with God's creation, means learning to live with our human limits. Brian McLaren brilliantly points out in his new book Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope what happens when we live as if we're above limits: The rich keep storing up more wealth at the expense of the poor, we consume resources and release waste with little apparent concern for what we leave our grandchildren, and the growing prosperity gap creates global insecurity that sucks even more resources for defense.

If we concede that God truly provides what we need, then we might be able to escape the anxiety that drives this cycle of consumption. This is difficult for most of us, because we live in a world of manufactured desires that just happen to coincide with products available. God does provide what we actually need. (For example, the world grows plenty of food, if we could just get it to the people who need it.) But that might be a far cry from what we want.

Closer to home, I feel differently if I ask whether I have what I need now than I do if I think (read: worry) about whether I'll be able to live out my retirement dreams the way Dennis Hopper and Ameriprise promise.

Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

We live in an unforgiving age. In the richest society in the history of the planet many go to bed hungry, and many more are one bad decision or unforseen accident away. We love to place blame. You don't have to wait long to see an example of rude, selfish or self-centered behavior. We're like the character in Jesus' parable who begs for mercy and then puts the screws to people who owe him far less than he was forgiven. Jesus says this over and over because it's true: We need to admit to ourselves that we are not who we think we are. If we are to be more like God, then we need to show mercy and forgiveness because that is who God is.

As I contemplate this beautiful prayer, I see it as a form of self-examination rather than intercession. God is holy, generous, and merciful (and so much more!). We can't pray this prayer to make God be more God-like than God already is. We pray it, instead, to change our hearts, and ask that they be made a little more like God's.


Holy slacking

I so often want to be Mary, but default to living like Martha. (Lk. 10:38-42)
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.
There is need of only one thing." (Lk. 10:41-42)
Anxiety and worry are constant companions for many of us. Bosses require. Kids demand. To-do lists grow. Financial pressures mount. The environment and the political climate are fragile. The respites we find -- vacation, family time, date night or perhaps immersing ourselves in a hobby -- are fleeting and easily undone.

Reading this story through the mental filters of our culture it is easy to view Martha as the responsible one, the doer, the "Type A," and to dismiss Mary as the slacker. Here she is getting out of work by listening to the Lord. The messages of our world are similar: He's not really doing his job, taking off for his kid's game. She'd be a better mom if she kept the house cleaner instead of playing with the kids all the time.

It's a misreading to see this story as Jesus' judgment on work or his validation of irresponsibility. Jesus is speaking on a completely different level, the level deep inside ourselves where we decide what is truly important to us.

Anyone who has thrown a party or hosted a Bible study or house church knows the work involved. It's considerable and it is important. Most of us have also been to gatherings where the host/hostess was so focused on the details of the gathering that they never really have a meaningful conversation with a guest. (If you've been to worship at my house you've seen my tendencies in this regard. Ouch!)

While Martha bustles, Mary sits in conversation with the Lord. I used to read this as Mary being the good student, dutifully listening to Jesus expound wonderful teachings. The more I read Jesus, though, I see him more conversing, challenging, engaging people rather than lecturing. He seems someone more at home at a party or a casual dinner than in a pulpit.

We think of Martha as the one with the gift of hospitality, making sure all is prepared. While that is important to allow connections to happen, it's Mary who, by honoring Jesus and being present with him, displays the kind of hospitality that marks the kingdom of God. It's not the Martha Stewart kind, with all the "good things" just so. Rather it's a place where guests and strangers (and hosts, too) are honored for who they are and attended to.

On the deeper level, this is a struggle I (and many people) face constantly. It is hard to spend time in relationship with Jesus -- in prayer/conversation, in Scripture, in contemplation -- without the worries and concerns of the day creeping in and taking over. (Right now I'm struggling to quarantine a mental image of my to-do list!) And while it gets easier over time, it never ceases to be a struggle. I have found in my own journey that practicing spending time with Jesus even if I don't want to makes the next time easier, and that skipping to attend to my tasks makes the next time harder.

What Jesus is saying here is that attending to our relationship with God is a kingdom value. Knowing Jesus does not eliminate tasks and pressures. But they pale in comparison to the blessing of being known by God. It's not that Jesus wants us to slack off and he'll cover us; though I think he is a big fan of sabbath and vacation and re-creation and other ways of living within our human limits.
Jesus' promise is that if we take the time to seek him out amid all the other stuff going on, if sitting at his feet is a priority, he will bless that time and the longest to-do list in the world won't take it away from us.


Seeing with our hearts

One of today's readings is the familar story of the Good Samaritan. Why was it that the priest and the Levite, who really should have been in tune with the injured traveler's suffering, didn't get involved? Were their religious duties too important? With their education and status, were they simply too self-important? Was it someone else's job? Were they simply scared? It's a bad neighborhood, perhaps the robbers were lying in wait for the next fool who stopped to tend to the injured victim?

What makes the Samaritan different? "He was moved with compassion." In other words he didn't see the tragic scene with his eyes or his brain. He didn't analyze the danger, or weigh the importance of his errand with the threat to this poor traveler's health and safety. He saw with his heart. He was moved by the plight of the injured victim, and he knew what he would want someone to do if it was him laying there.

And once he had seen with his heart, he didn't file the feeling away. He acted on them. He took responsibility, from bandaging the man's wounds to arranging for his care while he went on and took care of his business. Either the priest or the Levite could have done the same thing, tended to the man and seen that he was taken care of before resuming their work. But they didn't, because they lost touch with their compassion.

Jesus' summary makes it clear that it is not the person who knows about or thinks about the kingdom of God that we should emulate, it is the one who simply responds as a human being and, in the process, gives hands and voice to making the kingdom of God real in our midst.

I can think of times in my church life when I've passed by important opportunities to open the kingdom. It is easy to be deluded by the seeming importance of religious duties and just imply fail to see things as a person. I've certainly missed times to pray with, to help and to simply be present with people in the name of church -- and I am realizing how upside down that is. My prayer is to see those opportunities with my heart and simply respond, as Jesus would (and did).

The whole world's about to change

Bob Carlton posted a great meditation on St. Francis, based on David Crowder's new song, "Surely We Can Change," an adaptation of a song attributed to Francis. Enjoy!


Everything must change

Thanks to my friend Tom Kadel, I had the chance to read an advance copy of Brian McLaren's new book, "Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope." Last week Tom and I sat down for a podcast as part of his eMerge series, and chatted about the book for quite a while. Tom has our three-part conversation up on the web now. Check it out:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3


I'm back...

I guess that last post means I'm breaking four months of self-imposed blog silence. It's hard to believe that it's been that long; it goes against my nature to be that quiet.

Where have I been? Right here, all the time. But after a year of uncertainty due to the impending change in leadership in my organization, and another year of ramping up to handle some changed and increased expectations, I was tired. Add to that the fact that in my spare time (!) I was working with a great team to help form a suburban, denominational church with an emerging ethos, and quickly switched into trying to end that experiment well, and I was a little more worn out. The part of my soul/brain that has been processing the experience of the church-that-is-emerging was a little bruised.

I've, of course, been processing none-the-less. (Maybe too much. Ask my wife.) And as St. James died I joined with some friends and faithful Christians to birth a small faith community, gathering mainly in homes. You may be as surprised as I was that this actually reduced the amount of free (?) time I had for blogging, sleeping and other necessary pursuits.

While it was good to go under the radar, ultimately it helps me, my writing and my spiritual discipline to inflict some of my processing on the web (specifically, you, dear reader!). I'll try not to let four months go by again, though I'm going to try to write only when I think I have something new to say.

Two years ago when I started this blogventure, I selected "explorations in ecclesia and other adiaphora" as my subtitle. I had no idea than just how much of an explorer I'd be led to become. It's a lot of work, this exploring. It's also fun, fruitful, rewarding. It's what the late singer Jim Croce used to call "character development." Mostly, it's the path to which I've been called, me and a collection of fellow travelers. So what else can I do, but put one foot in front of the other?
O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(Evening Prayer, Evangelical Lutheran Worship p317)

Ball bearing or beach ball?

Seth Godin posts an interesting philosophy on business self-perception and marketing from Michael Brooke, publisher of a skateboarding magazine called Concrete Wave. I'm far from a skateboarder, and while many people who link to this post tagged it "inspiration" this is about business, not faith. Yet Michael's explanation of how Concrete Wave views its relationship to its industry and its audience offers some wisdom for those of us trying to figure out how the church makes sense in our liquid culture.

I was inspired by his final point:
4. Concrete Wave wishes to remain a ball bearing – small, hard to find and continually in the state of being polished. Our goal is to provide readers with a deep impression when they get hit with it. Conversely, we do not aim to be a beach ball – big, seen all over the place, colorful and yet leaving very little impression when it hits. A beach ball is very fragile indeed and must avoid challenging environments, because it requires so much air to keep it afloat. A weighty ball bearing can withstand both challenging environments along with the pin pricks of adversity.
The ball bearing is a powerful and beautiful metaphor for new church expressions, such as the micro-church I'm part of these days. We are, in his phrase, "small, hard to find and continually in the state of being polished." And it describes in so many ways what I love about this community. We are small -- small enough to connect with each person that joins us around the living room or patio for a gathering, small enough to be interdependent on each other for the ability to worship in community, small enough that each individual matters and gets to participate. We are hard to find -- moving from house to house, willing to embrace whoever is invited/seeks us out but not looking to create attention in order to be "attractional," in the Christendom sense. Being polished? Oh yeah -- in the spiritual sense, we see Christ's Spirit refining us in so many ways. And practically, we learning and adapting with each other, which produces growth and laughter and humility in ways that just "joining a church" hasn't, in my experience.

While his beach ball alternative is a bit harsh to describe the institutional church, there is some resonance. Institutions -- denominations and congregations -- do tend to create structures that then require a lot of effort to keep in shape. They can grow to the point that so much air (money, buildings, staff, volunteers, etc.) is required to keep them inflated that they develop a peculiar type of fragility. In this state they are often forced to leave very little impression on their participants because they are so dependent on their participation to keep the ball rolling.

Ball bearing communities, small and passionate, can make a deeper impression. In our case, we allow people to engage more deeply that they might in a more traditional congregation. By encouraging all voices, by allowing anyone to offer their testimony about how the Bible and prayer affect their lives, by engaging in serious discussion and practicing many forms of prayer, we make space for people to go deeper than they might sitting in a pew. (And if they don't that's OK, too.) I feel incredibly honored when people invite the group into their journeys, and tell their stories openly and honestly, and without the filters that I, for one, often have used in church. It is a sign of true community when believers can be vulnerable with each other, and while that hits hard sometimes, it is an experience to be valued and cultivated.

It's a limitation of such metaphors -- both Brooke's and my reaction to it -- that some readers have an either-or reaction. One must be better than the other; or, worse, one is totally right and the other completely bankrupt. That's not my intention here. Such metaphors are, for me, descriptive of what I and many others are experiencing, not prescriptions for what must be. Ball bearing communities because of (though sometimes also in spite of) beach ball congregations and denominations, and many are faithfully living within and enriching them. Others blaze their own trails. The key is that there is a place in God's kingdom for beach balls and ball bearings -- and lots of other shapes and sizes -- because God created lots of different types of people for them to make impressions on.

That's why I also like Brooke's first point:
1. I am not publishing a magazine – I am helping to document and foster change within skateboarding. The magazine is part of a greater movement within skateboarding. Concrete Wave exists to spread specific ideas. The more people we can spread these ideas too, the more success we achieve.
Those of us who are cultivating new expressions aren't trying to replace the institutional church, or necessarily trying to "compete" (another unfortunate result of the either-or reading of things). We sense the Spirit moving, and we're trying to notice the direction, document the journey and be a part of the movement. House churches, emerging churches, simple churches, congregations within congregations, new mission plants -- as well as denominations, megachurches, program-size congregations and small traditional churches -- all exist to share the same message of the Gospel, yet each contextualizes that message specifically for real people in real places and real life situations in these changing times. For me, and for many others I know who are on this same journey, it is not about achieving success. As we live out this message and it spreads to others, the kingdom of God breaks in a little bit, here and now.


Missing the boat?

Searching the Inquirer's website for "Lutheran" I came across an interesting AP story about the ELCA's efforts to diversify. Our church, which celebrates the 20th anniversary of its formation this year, set an initial goal of having 10% of its membership be persons of color or language other than English by its 10th anniversary...and fell about 8 percent short. In 2005 just 1 percent of the ELCA's 4.85 million members were African Americans, a "dismal" percentage, the article says, "considering that blacks constitute more than 12 percent of the population." The piece notes that the denomination has strategies in place to reach out to five groups: African, Asian, Latino, American Indian and Mideast/Arab.

Diversity is a gift of God, and the church ought to reflect the community it serves. But the experience of Rev. Lucille Mills and Rejoice Lutheran Church in Chesapeake, Va., highlighted in the AP piece, indicates that there is more at work than demographics.
Mills says most blacks tell her they are puzzled by the Lutheran tradition, and often mistake it for Roman Catholicism. Others imagine stuffy services where freewheeling praise is discouraged.

Often, she said, "they think it's inauthentic. They think it's for white people."

With "ethnic staples like hand clapping and rhythmic preaching" the church has seen black visitors, but:

"They came. They said they enjoyed it," she said. "But none of them stayed."

For minorities, the church's heritage - reflected in everything from Sunday services to church dinners - can seem alien.

"We would serve the German sausages," Gunsten said. "Food, like faith understanding, like liturgical practice ... it can be perceived as a barrier."

This underscores that fact that inclusion is far more difficult than being hospitable. Hospitality takes some steps to welcome a new person into community; inclusion requires making the church the new person's church and allowing their history, experiences and dreams to shape the church. However, the article points out that in practice that is very difficult, since if the fit isn't right many people won't stay around to try and change it. (Visit a church where the style of preaching, music and theological tenor are foreign to you, or just hidden behind unfamiliar jargon, and see if you return.) And since many churches have tried so hard to hold on to heritage rather than to change with the community, the gaps in some cases are almost too large to bridge.

There's another issue not tapped by the article. It states that from 2004 to 2005 the ELCA lost 79,000 members -- 80% of the baptized membership of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod, in just one year. That loss is not because people of other ethnicities are not coming to the church. It is because the traditional white, northern European base is dying off without replacing itself. I've read that nearly 90% of the youth who grow up in the ELCA through high school have left the church by their early 20s. And this is another fundamental disconnect.

While we have not paid attention to racial and ethnic diversity, we have also ignored the changes in the culture at large. The average age of the population in the Philadelphia area is 37 -- the average age of Lutherans here is at least 20 years older. Many of the majority of 20-somethings (who were not raised in the church) who would happen upon a "Lutheran" service would likely be as puzzled as the visitors Mills describes. I've talked to a number of 20-50 year old Lutherans who have visited evangelical churches recently, and they report that the worship is more engaging and there are lots of the young people missing in their churches. While some have commented that they like the intimacy of their church and don't like the scale of megachurches, none have said anything about the theology they experienced.

We are in the midst of a cultural shift with profound ramifications, which many thinkers call "post-modern" because it comes after the recognized "modern" era. Frost and Hirsch note that some of its features are a preference for rawness over refinement, action over theory, a concern for human wholeness over ideology. ("The Shaping of Things to Come," 134) And yet the ELCA's research person, paid to keep an eye on culture for the church, says in a March brienfing for church leaders: "I will spare you my views on post-modernity, other than to say I dismiss it as little more than a hyper form of modernity." (See the pdf posted here.) The paper goes on to contrast with modern evangelicalism, but the postmodern, emerging activity across the evangelical world (and occasionally in the mainline) isn't on the radar screen.

There are some moves, for example the ones noted in this article (ht: Chris), to adapt to cultural practices. The article contains some hand-wringing about the loss of tradition, and has insight from retired clergy, that congregations either hold too tightly to their Lutheran heritage and become irrelevant to many, or break out of that mold and throw away their Lutheran core. Rather than an either-or, there is a more balanced way to look at this: If the liturgy, doctrine and ethos we define as "Lutheran" doesn't do its job, which is to point people into relationship with Christ, then maybe we need to find ways to earn their attention, demonstrate for them God's love and grace, and once we are in relationship with them form them to live as grace-filled followers of Jesus, forming and re-forming ourselves in the process. That seems close to the spirit of Luther, even though he did things differently in his historical context than we will do in ours.

It seems we're facing a challenge similar to the one posed to the apostles in the controversy over circumcision in Acts 15. Can we find a way for people to join us while still being true to themselves as they were created, or must they become like "us" to join the faith and "our" church? More importantly, how can we follow God's incarnational impulse to become like "them" to welcome and include -- for our sake as well as theirs?


You're hired!

The Feast of the Ascension
When they were together for the last time they asked, "Master, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now? Is this the time?"

He told them, "You don't get to know the time. Timing is the Father's business. What you'll get is the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit comes on you, you will be able to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world."

These were his last words. As they watched, he was taken up and disappeared in a cloud. They stood there, staring into the empty sky. Suddenly two men appeared—in white robes! They said, "You Galileans!—why do you just stand here looking up at an empty sky? This very Jesus who was taken up from among you to heaven will come as certainly—and mysteriously—as he left." -- Acts 1:6-11, The Message

The Ascension is an often-overlooked festival. Because it always falls on a Thursday, it doesn't make it onto many church worship cycles. And it is a puzzling story:

  • Jesus' followers, to the end, are clueless -- now that you've been brought back to life, are you going to establish Israel's glory and make yourself king?
  • Instead, Jesus rebukes them (that's not for you to know) and charges them with a task that is as confusing as it is overwhelming. Go to the ends of the earth? Why, we Jews can't visit Samaritans without becoming unclean, much less other heathen people!
  • Then, instead of explaining, he simply disappears, shrouded in mystery. No wonder the disciples just stand there, jaws dropped, staring at the sky! But two angels appear and chide the followers about not getting it, again.

Indeed, why would Jesus, having conquered death and proved who he is, not establish his kingdom there and then? What's the point of leaving the disciples -- again?

This action takes place at the critical juncture between the two parts of Luke's witness, his gospel and the book of Acts. It's a transition between Luke, which delves deeply into Jesus' invitation to living a changed life in God's kingdom, and Acts, which shows the Holy Spirit guiding the fledgling Church out of its comfort zones (again and again) and empowering its people to do the improbable and sometimes impossible to bring God's kingdom about. (Theologian Justo Gonzalez goes so far as to say that we've got it wrong calling it The Acts of the Apostles; it should be The Acts of the Spirit, he says.)

Jesus' ascension isn't an end. It marks a new phase in God's plan, through which his people, the Church, with the Spirit's guiding and empowering, continue Jesus' work to bring about God's kingdom, which itself is a chapter of God's still-unfolding work of creation.

In other words, in this text Jesus is saying to his followers, then and now: God has established a kingdom that is very different -- and so much better -- than the social, economic and political orders of this world. I've poured out my life showing you how to live in God's kingdom; I've taught you, mentored you, coached you. I've set you free. Now, apprentices, its time for you to go out on your own! You're hired! You can continue my work, modeling the kingdom of God for all who will listen -- and you must. But you can only do it following me, through the Spirit.

You and I have are as frail and unseeing as this original band of followers. We are in many ways handicapped, not having known Jesus in the flesh and hearing his story encrusted with centuries of tradition and interpretation, not all of which is helpful to us today. Yet Jesus calls us to take up his work, to tell the world that the kingdom of God is at hand, and to live that kingdom. He calls us to be apprentices and to help others to learn from him. Are we willing to join him?

In what ways is God's Spirit stirring in you to help you live in the kingdom and share it with others? In what ways would you like the Spirit's power, direction and support to join Jesus' work? Ask Jesus for the help that you need.


Where are the artists?

"After the Storm 1," Copyright 2007 Robert Fisher.

Over at the Emerging Leaders Network, Brian Spahr is asking about the role that arts and artists play in church. He riffs on a catalog he received featuring "All the art you will ever need" -- a collection of lame "Christian" clip-art. He laments:
I mean, I have read about it in art history class and have seen some of the great art that was produced back in the day, but I have never been a part of a church community where “art” was really valued. Everywhere I have ever been it feels like the accepted norm was that “All the Art You Will Ever Need” has already been created.
I've been thinking a lot about this lately, and here's what I wrote as a comment to his post:

I hear you, Brian. As I've visited churches I've noticed that what pass for screens are almost uniformly awful -- too much bargain clip-art (especially the ones that spin and flash), no sense of design, WAAAAAAAAAAAAY too much text, images just plunked down. I've run across a few that seem to get the power of clean, simple design, mostly in emerging circles. (I asked a seminary colleague what course drummed the aesthetic sense out of future pastors, and he assured me it was an artifact of their undergrad work. :) )

Isn't this "already invented" mindset broader than art and technology? Wouldn't you say that the way we bank on "a new hymnal" (little of which is really new, and with which one can happily go on doing exactly what one has been doing) to comprise liturgical creativity sends the message that all you'll ever need for worship is already created and packaged? Don't we sometimes transmit the feeling that all the revelation and all the theology you need are already done?

Now that you've got me thinking about this, I have to say that I have met far fewer artists than, say, accountants in the church. Writers of the intellecutal processing variety (like me), plenty. Poets and novelists, not really. Musicians, sure. But we encourage the ones who play piano or organ and like choral singing... what about the teen learning to drum or the midlife guy picking up the guitar again? Songwriters? See poets. Some painters, though most seem to have a troubled relationship to the church. I've known some fiber artists, but there wasn't a place for them out of the quilting circle...

At our late congregation, we tried mightily to inspire people's God-given creative gifts. We made space for people to write prayers, mash up images for screens, make videos or slideshows to work with a theme we were covering. Artists and crafters made stations from time to time. We opened up the space up front for a team to design "environments" for the church seasons, from an evergreen and a stump lost amid a forest of white, electric-lit tress for Advent/Christmas, to planting seeds that grew into tomato plants during the "green" summer. Anybody who could pay or sing could be part of the band. And many people responded.

We have to start taking art seriously. As technology allows people to easily take and share photos, mash up images in Photoshop, make iMovies and slideshows, create and arrange in Garageband, etc., the "already invented" idea won't cut it... it already doesn't for many people. As these tools allow young people to feel affirmed in their natural desire to literally write and paint and film and snap their hearts out through virtual self-publishing, they will demand that from the church... or just go their own way. But what an opportunity we will lose if we don't allow them to express their faith through their art.

Now, it's your turn. What do you think? How can we re-energize the ancient and historic connection between the church and Christians and the arts? How can we better involve artists in worship and church work and play?

Shedding expectations

David Fitch, a pastor, church planter and professor, has posted a great Top 10 list of expectations one must shed (in his opinion) in a "21st Century Missional Church Plant." It's not as funny as one of Letterman's, but it includes some great wisdom from a veteran church planter that any "church person" looking at getting involved in such a community ought to think about.

Fitch's list isn't all that surprising, but it does show how deeply the assumptions we have about church run. As a long-time churched person starting to explore a less traditional faith community, I see a lot of myself on both sides of Fitch's list. Maybe you will, too...
1.) Should not expect to regularly come to church for just one hour, get what you need for your own personal growth and development, and your kid's needs, and then leave til next Sunday. Expect mission to change your life. Expect however a richer life than you could have ever imagined.
To be fair, one shouldn't expect this in any church community. But the consumer focus of our culture often spills over into the religious realm. In every congregation I've been in there were people who suffered from empty mug syndrome, just waiting for the pastor/leadership or a program to "fill them" so they could go back to their lives. Fitch's key point -- "Expect mission to change your life" -- echoes Dallas Willard's critique of the church and spiritual formation. Too many people want to fit the Gospel into their lives, rather than have their lives changed by the Gospel. And in some cases, unfortunately, the church accomodates rather than challenges.
5.) Should not expect a raucous "light out" youth program that entertains the teenagers, puts on a show that gets the kids "pumped up," all without parental involvement. Instead as the years go by, with our children as part of our life, worship and mission (and when the light shows dim and the cool youth pastor with the spiked hair burns out) expect our youth to have an authentic relationship with God thru Christ that carries them through a lifetime of journey with God.
He's onto something here. In many cases we've outsourced our kids' spiritual formation to the church instead of taking responsibility for them. I regret buying into that when my kids were young, expecting Sunday School to teach what the church should have been helping me to teach. St. James was a rarity among Lutheran churches in having Sunday School during worship. I think it was a weakness in our program -- and I really supported the parents who wanted their children to be in worship instead of in class. I believe that seeing their parents and other adults practicing their faith and taking worship seriously is an important lesson for children with lasting implications for their spiritual development. But it's a real challenge to shape worship experiences that can include children, at least some of the time, and also equip parents to help in their kids' formation.
10.) Should not expect arguments over style of music, color of carpet, or even doctrinal issues... Expect mission to drive the conversation.
I about fell off my chair laughing when I read this one. One worship committee I was apart on had lengthy discussions -- anually! -- about the color of the foil wrappers to be ordered for the Easter lillies and pointsettias at Christmas. I never got to make decisions about carpeting a sanctuary, but I have been around more worship wars and doctrinal debates that I care to. At our recent synod assembly there was little mention of the poverty and violence that plagues our region, but people lined up at the microphones to debate resolutions dealing with ordaining people in same sex relationships. Too many people look in at debates such as these in our denominations and judicatories, and at the insider/outsider divides and "we've never done it that way" arguments in our congregations, and just shake their heads and walk away, when the mission of God might just engage and inspire them!

Fitch doesn't number his last point, which neatly summarizes the shift in expectations he is talking about:
Should not expect that community comes to you! I am sorry but true community in Christ will take some "effort"and a reshuffling of priorities for both you and your kids. ... (A)ssuming you are a follower of Christ (this message is not for strangers to the gospel) you must learn that the answer to all those things is to enter into the practices of "being the Body" in Christ, including sitting, eating, sharing and praying together.
Amen. Reshuffling our priorities is an important spiritual discipline for our time, one our churches need to learn so that they can instill deeper practices into God's people. And that's not a matter of parlimentary procedure, or a full schedule of programs, but living together in relationship and sharing meals, worship, service and prayer.

An African story of grace

Tim Frakes has completed a new documentary for the ELCA on the twenty years' war in Northern Uganda, called "Ready to Forgive: An African Story of Grace." It's a powerful story.

Tim writes:

This is an African story of God’s amazing grace. Northern Uganda has been at war for twenty years. Those most affected, a tribal people known as the Acholi, or Luo people, endure rape, torture, and child abduction. Thousands have died. Others are missing. Two million people are displaced.

Most live in squalid camps for internally displaced persons, protected by government soldiers they often fear more than the rebels. Despite all this, the Acholi are united in the belief that the only real solution to the problem is reconciliation and forgiveness. The Acholi are ready to forgive.


Formerly known as...

There's a flurry of activity going around the missional/emerging blogsphere, incited by an interesting post by Bill Kinnon called "The People Formerly Known as the Congregation." A number of people have jumped on the bandwagon, including Emerging Grace, whose "The Underlying Issues" takes a less polemical approach. Jamie Arpin-Ricci links this impulse with the stumbling attempts in the so-called missional church movement.

Bill's and Grace's posts react to the disillusionment, pain and hurt that some people have experienced at the hands of the personality/program/empire church. Bill acknowledges that his screed is intentionally strong in order to raise questions and stimulate dialogue, and it certainly has.

Underlying both is what I think is a growing sense among some people in the church that the institution has moved perhaps a little too far from God's mission to other agendas, and that spiritual life exists outside of and in some cases in spite of the Church.

The pain the Bill and Grace (and others in the conversation) write about is real. I know a number of people who have been used and abused by churches and leaders. Some find other spiritual communities, others hang around the periphery afraid to commit again, yet others simply stay home. I've experienced some measure of that pain and try hard to move past it, but it's there sometimes. But what is going on is more than a reaction by the wounded and disgruntled.

I also know people who are simply losing interest. Some have stopped doing jobs in the church -- teaching, singing, cleaning, etc. -- and finding nothing else. Others are moving into the empty nest and aren't finding rituals, spirituality and grounding for their phase of life. Others are disappointed that church is more about busyness than any sense of living the kingdom of God. Still others are young people who find the church they grew up in doesn't speak to them anymore.

Add in the people for whom the Church has no credibility because of prosperity gospels, clergy abuse, political agendas and the like, and the across the board declines in church participation make sense.

Bill complains about the churches that treat people only as numbers, not as people. This resonates with some of what the media reports about churches focused on numbers and rapid growth. But people get ignored as well in small congregations, where its hard to be known or have your voice heard if you're not part of the founding family. And in congregations of all sizes where the church jobs you do are more important than who you are. In my tribe I have seen churches where new members are assimilated into a prevailing set of values -- not just the Gospel but norms about dress, behavior, worship styles, etc. -- instead of having their dreams and gifts valued. Once upon a time, people would bide their time and wait (maybe generations) to help shape an institution, but today many will just get angry and move on, as Bill suggests.

He also grumbles about the "supposed leadership" in churches. Anti-clerical to be sure, but not an uncommon reaction these days. Leadership has been changing in our culture for decades, and while "leaders" still head most organizations, many are flatter, more participatory, and open to adaptation than they used to be. Over the same time, the role of pastor has changed less, and our hierarchies are less able to adapt to the changes in "the people being led."

There's a small but growing number of people who are looking for something different from the church than it has been used to providing.

Despite what seems to be an increasing desire for black-and-white answers in our culture, this emerging group wants guidance, not dictates. This does not mean anything goes, but it does mean that, in the postmodern world, many insights on a question yields a richer answer (not confusion, as many traditional answers would suggest). Business has known this for a long time...

TPFKATC are looking for spiritual guides, not expert professionals to be Christians for them. Pastors who help them ask and process questions, not just provide answers and judgments. Guides who are walking on the journey with them, not "religious" who are better than them. This is NOT to diminish the value of clergy and religious orders that are set apart to pray for and serve the world. But the current system often sets up a dualism that causes "lay" people to think they can't possibly have answers that have value set next to the educated experts, and that diminished the whole Church.

In a world of increasing poverty and divide between the rich and the poor, TPFKATC are beginning to wonder why we can't feed the poor instead of bureaucrats, and clothe the naked instead of adorn edifices. It is not that most think that buildings and bureaucracies should be eliminated, but the current system often requires congregations and individuals to spend most of the time, talent and treasure on themselves.

This emerging group is also asking why all this time, energy and money doesn't result in more spiritual maturity and evidence of the kingdom. Too often congregational conflict reveals people born, raised up and active in the church who are only concerned about being born, raised up and active in the church. (I was once told in a former congregation that I was less important because my grandparents hadn't gone to the congregation.) And too often when people ask to grow they get jobs to teach and lead instead of time and effort to disciple them. As the Christendom system declines, it is taking more and more resources to sustain itself.

Grace notes two other very important aspects of what is going on. TPFKATC are tired of being passive, dropping in to get their cards punched while they pay professionals to be Christians for them. They're tired of using only the gifts hierarchies identify and permit, rather than the ones God gave them. They're tired of having lots of tasks but wanting more meaningful roles. An example: Lutheran liturgy has a lot of opportunities for congregational response. But a worship leader pointed out once that most of the responses consist of "Amen" and an occasional "Lord have mercy!" and an occasional offertory prayer. "Why do the people up front get all the good words?" he asked.

She also notes that TPFKATC see the that involvements in church programs and activities are not the only measures of spirituality, and in fact can get in the way of being in relationship with people yet to come to faith. Christian community is a great thing, and many of TPFKATC desire it, but the current system often makes it insular and apart rather than incarnationally involved in the greater community.

If one is satisifed in the church as it is, it could be easy to dismiss TPFKATC as a small number of disgruntled, dissatisfied people. That's a typical modern response... they must be wrong, becuase otherwise I'd be wrong. Instead, imagine the possibilities if out of this pain and disillusionment we could find ways for the Church to be more inclusive, more engaged, more missional.

TPFKATC are not trying to tear the Church down. They are calling the Church to be what it was created to be -- a community giving flesh to the kingdom of God, a community making disciples not members, a community committed to mission and not maintenance.

Jamie has it right when he turns the focus on The People Formerly Known As... to "The Community Coming to be Known as Missional." Listen:
We are the Community Coming To Be Known As Missional, but we are not there yet. We acknowledge our weakness and foolishness, as it is the weakness and foolishness of God. We are flawed, broken, proud and afraid. While we are committed to becoming this community without apology, we acknowledge that our becoming is dependant on the whole Body of Christ. While we believe we have something to offer the whole Church- something critical and prophetic- we also acknowledge that we need them equally as much. Above all, we need God- Father, Son and Spirit- to complete in us what we are created to be.


Not playing the game

One of the things that gives many people difficulty with Christ's passion is that, brought up on charges, he refused to mount a defense. In a culture that defines itself by competing and winning, Jesus didn't even play the game!

Kester Brewin has a great series of posts exploring this reality as part of the Via Crucis 2007 grid blog. It starts here. He notes that when Paul goes to Jerusalem (Acts 21-22) he mounts a passionate defense, aimed, Kester suggests, at his ultimate goal: a confrontation at Rome. While he is in a similar situation to the one Jesus found himself in, "Jesus remains virtually silent before his accusers. He simply refuses to defend himself. Others make claims about him; he simply says that that is what they are claiming."

In the series he draws some compelling parallels: Paul's insistence on making a play at Rome with Judas' attempt to force Jesus' hand and provoke political Messianic action by betraying him. The strategic move to reign in Christianity as a state religion by the master tactician, Constantine. The church as "strategic organization." All these are set against the reality of the Cross:
At Golgotha, God declares the end of strategy.
God will not play our power games.
God is.
God loves.
There is no win or lose.
Ah! To play, perchance to win. That is the way our culture thinks and breathes. "Do or do not. There is no try," as Yoda says. Certainly there is no "be" -- unless it involves consuming some "meaningful" possessions and becoming successful enough to "serve."

Kester parses the message of the Cross and comes to this point: Jesus' refuses to engage the games of strategy that tried to trick him, betrayed him, tried him and crucified him. Because all those games are expressions of Self. We play them for our own motives, our own gain -- even if we pretend to count them as loss, as the hymn says. Self "pretends that it is powerful and influential," Kester says, and nowhere is it more insidious when that pretense is on behalf of a good cause. So we play insider-outsider games in the Church (for their own good, you know), and sometimes end up trying to beat the media, government, and other expressions of culture at their own games.

Yet -- I listen to Jesus on the Cross. Listen to love poured out in a way more likely to prompt people to say "loser!" than "lord!" And I look at my strategies -- removing mental clutter, "getting things done," communications plans, nurturing a worshipping community.

From the Cross, Jesus says to me: All these gains are loss unless you empty yourself. Because if you are full of yourself, there is no room for Me... Lord, have mercy!
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross! -- Philipians 2:5-8 (NIV)


Done! Next?

To: members@church.com
Sent: 1 April 2007, 14:37 (GMT -5)
Subject: Next gathering

Fellow questers,

In recent months and years, we've been on a journey, searching for a way of being the church that fit with our sensibilities and experiences. We've been forming questions about who God is and how we relate with God. We've been questioning the nature of the church and its snuggling up to the state, and wondering how to do better than just shine the pews. We've experimented with Emergent(tm), missional, alternative and other models of worshipping and serving.

I thought we were making good progress. However, in the bookstore last night I discovered that these issues had already been resolved:

I picked up a copy for each of you, so we can suspend our quest and get back to being good little sheep.

Now on to more important matters: Where do you want to have brunch next Sunday?


Stepping forward

The congregation we've been part of, St. James Evangelical Lutheran Church, is closing at the end of the month. (You can read our story here.) This is part of the reason I've been on a blog-fast. It's amazing how much work, and how emotionally draining, closing a church is.

St. James is a great church. Our laid back authenticity and fun, ancient-future, rockin' worship has attracted an ecclectic bunch of folks, some of whom have moved beyond the traditional Lutheran style, some of whom have intentionally steered clear of it, and some who really like that but like the community more. We've jokingly called ourselves the "island of misfit toys." And I think there's some truth to that.

Time after time, I would hear both newcomers and veteran members remark that there's a spirit (I should say Spirit) to St. James that they haven't found at other churches. For me, that meant finding a sense of adventure and creativity after slamming my head against the glass ceiling of "we've never done it that way before" in other congregations. For others it was the ability to wear jeans (yeah, I love that, too), or to play and sing music in their heart language, or our openness to people bringing their coffee and their kids into the sanctuary.

I remember the first time I visited. I wasn't so sure about the "praise" music (which we've balanced with a lot of fun and profound music, old and new, since then). But I was captivated when, before ending the prayers, the pastor talked about little Sarah and her medical problems. Then he went back and brought Sarah and her mom up front, and people came out of their pews to lay hands on them, and those that couldn't reach to Sarah and Laura laid their hands on the person in front of them. I don't recall what Pastor Paul said, but I'll never forget how the prayer for healing was the people's prayer, and what it felt like to really be the body of Christ. I knew then that this was a community I could be part of.

It's that authenticity that people have responded to at St. James. It's a place where you can be who you are in the presence of God. And there's so much of that I will carry with me wherever I go in the church, or in life:
  • Baptizing the Gallagher clan around a plastic kids' pool in Peace Valley Park.
  • Celebrating Communion after a community dinner at the Blue Dog.
  • Having five or six teenagers make up half of the worship band.
  • Watching Ernie take Clara's hand during a particularly rousing version of "Cry of My Heart" and dance with her in the aisle; and the more subued version we sang at her funeral.
  • The time Steven, then a teen, opened the prayers with "What's up?" (and dared to say that some situation he prayed about "sucked" -- which it did)
  • Cutting a plastic serving plate and wearing it around my neck to be John the Baptist for Bibleween (head on a platter -- get it?) -- though I still don't get the dalmatian costume the pastor wore.
  • People fretting that we couldn't have communion on a week without a pastor present.
  • Abandoning worship practice in mid-stream when a water leak caused Brighten Place (a facility for persons with brain injury) across the street to be evacuated, then singing for hours to the guests being warmed and fed in our fellowship hall, until the wee hours.
  • Dispersing into the community on the first Sunday in September to do Labor for the Lord service projects.
  • The look of joy on the kids faces when they'd get their hands on the evergreen branches to help us remember our baptisms.
The institution of St. James will enter the church triumphant after 150 years. It has a storied history, most of which I know nothing about because St. James was doing a new thing by the time I arrived. In so many ways, despite its history, we're losing a church that was only beginning to achieve its potential. But I'm proud that, faced with the choice of digging in to maintain a building and an institution or stepping forward to find places to do God's mission, we're choosing the latter.

The spirit of St. James will live on in the lives shaped for mission and the quest for authentic community and passionate spirituality that many of us are moving on with. Some of us are going to other congregations. Some of us are meeting in homes seeking a simpler, more flexible expression of church. Still others are discerning where God is leading. Some are doing all of the above. And what is the spiritual life but listening noticing where God is acting, paying attention to where the Spirit is blowing, and picking up and going when we're sent?

If you're around the area, please join us for our celebration of ministry coming up on Sunday, Feb. 25, beginning with music at 3:30 p.m. Directions are here. We hope to see you.

Crying over spilt milk

It's been a rough month. This week we received our last home delivery of milk and juice from Rosenberger's Dairy. Rosenberger's was the last dairy in our area to continue to tradition of "milkmen" bringing milk, butter, eggs and more right to the door.

I can still remember the excitement in our house when the truck from Martin's would pull up on Glenside Ave. and the milkman would bound up the steps with his metal carrier with a couple of quart bottles of milk (the ones with the paper seals), a carton of eggs, a pound of butter and on some special occasions a quart of buttermilk for my grandfather. Though, truth be told, it wasn't as exciting for us kids as when the guy with the big cans of Charles' Chips showed up. By the time I was in high school, all of these home delivery services had stopped in our area of the Philly 'burbs.

So I was excited to find, after being in Bucks County a while, that Rosenberger's still delivered. When we started with Rosenberger's many years ago, they even brought the milk in half-gallon, returnable glass bottles! I swear that you really can taste the difference, that milk in glass bottles is so much better than milk out of those waxed paper cartons. The milkman didn't come to the door anymore -- who'd be home? -- and the milk, OJ and iced tea would appear early in the morning. Then they switched to plastic bottles, but we stuck with it, because there was something so comforting about knowing that these essentials would arrive, like clockwork, every other Friday morning.

Business being what it is, though, the dairy decided enough with this. It's probably very hard to convince folks to get milk delivered when they're stopping at the convenience store for everything else -- hard to get them to pay another bill, expensive to track and manage. Probably, I say, because I was convinced. So last month they announced they'd end the routes but give their drivers the option to buy their routes, and this week our driver, Bryan, left a note saying that it'd been fun, but he was on to other work.

So now we have to remember to put milk on the store list -- lots of skim and a container of whole for my wife's coffee. It's not like I'm going to give up milk. I hardly drink much, anyway, just the odd bowl of cereal and with Girl Scout cookies. But it won't be the same lugging the plastic home from the store, and I'll always remember how much better even skim milk tasted out of glass.

That's kind of how I feel about the other big change in my life this month. More about that in the next post.