The Irrelevant Church is an Irreverent Church

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How many churches will look like this?  How many realize the role they have played in this outcome?

(Image courtesy of followtheflammias.com)

(Image courtesy of followtheflammias.com)

Salvation through Jesus Christ is a timeless message.  It never fails, and will never be antiquated.  For almost two thousand years this message was disseminated to the world through the Church.  Through the hard times, the lean times, the fat times, and times of great success… the Church has seen them all.  Up until now it has weathered all the storms and come out intact, but the tides are turning, and we have yet to battle the storm that is irrelevance.  The Church, under visionary leadership throughout its history, has been able to keep itself relevant by addressing the trials of the day and the needs of people.  During the darkness of Middle Ages, it commissioned art, encouraged literature, and patronized music.  It created a culture that still speaks to the core of humanity.  During a time of extreme violence and plague, it developed a theology that personified sin and evil in the figure of the devil, giving people something conceptual to “defeat” in the struggle to survive.  The Protestant work ethic helped an infantile United States grow and flourish by feeding the notion of economic capitalism.  Manifest Destiny expanded the borders of the United States from coast to coast, driving exploration and providing opportunity for success.  These are but a few examples.

Not that these examples were not without negative consequences, and they were, but they demonstrate the capability of the Church to innovate and look ahead rather than just become a reactionary entity.  Now the Church Universal, with ripple effects through every Christian denomination, is threatened with being irrelevant, and going softly into the dark night.  How can this possibly be the future of the institutional vessel of the Light of the World: Christ himself?  If it will be actualized, then it will be because we have allowed ourselves to become irreverent.  Yes, irreverent, turning our backs on Christ, his Gospel, and our duty as disciples.  There is nothing that shows a greater lack of respect for our Lord than squandering our spiritual gifts, ignoring the plight of the lost lambs, denying our fundamental duty to make disciples, and allowing the Church to serve us rather than serve others.  Yet this has been the critique against the Church for the past several decades, and the response has been to maintain the status quo.  It is no wonder that my generation has left with no desire much less an intention of returning.  Now my younger sister’s generation never went, and sees nothing but a monolith of hypocrisy.  We are in trouble.

I cannot claim to have THE answer, but I know that an answer lies in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.  Jesus did not sequester himself in the Temple, the House of God for all Israel.  He traveled around, met people where they were, and interacted with them in the context of their daily lives.  That is why Jesus attended the wedding at Cana, met a woman on her daily trip to the well, and found himself invited to dinner parties.  He was in the midst of the people and engaging them in the things they did every single day.  He did not wait for them to come to worship, yet this is precisely the modus operandi the Church had adopted.  We are losing ground to Secularism, because Secularism is with the people Monday through Saturday, and now even Sunday.  Secularism does not hold them to a higher account, to loving their neighbors and praying for their enemies.  It certainly doesn’t require them to repent of their sins or call them to reconciliation.  These things are spiritual work, and they are not without personal cost.  Secularism is easy and without the high price, and so it will win out every time, if the Church does not make itself speak as clearly.  Christ continues to speak into the heart of every person.  Christ is the only one who can offer us a means to not merely survive, but thrive in the sufferings of this world.  The question is whether Christ is being muted or silenced through the mouthpiece that is the Church by our refusal to translate Christ into the linguistics and cultural vernacular of this day?  To hold the Gospel of truth, grace, and eternal love hostage to the internal wants of the Church is to refuse to heed the call of Christ to make disciples of all nations.  For this God will surely hold us all accountable.

Grace in This Place

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(Image courtesy of blackmeetswhite.blog.com)

(Image courtesy of blackmeetswhite.blog.com)

There is this phrase I find myself repeating more and more often in the Emergent Worship service I lead: “There is grace in this place.”  It means there is a sanctuary, a safe place to explore, to feel, and to encounter.  There is no judgment, no condemnation for any person.  Grace abounds, that unmerited favor of God for all people who seek forgiveness.  It is liberally given not just by God Almighty, but by me as a model for all of us gathered there to imitate.  It grieves my heart to know that the Church is known for being a place of judgment, hypocrisy, and stigma.  We are all washed clean by the same blood of Christ.  Here all people should be able to be loved, forgiven, and freed from the guilt they bear.  The Church has a lot of work to do to overcome the judgmental image we have all too readily cultivated.

We are not the gatekeepers of God’s grace.  Christ came to break the barriers, and unlatch the locks, all that we might fling open the doors and gather in the people.  Do we offer that grace to one another?  Do we seek it?  Grace is not something people instinctually desire because grace is divine, not of our nature.  Yet we have been created to embrace it and bear it for others as redeemed vessels.  My denomination was once known for its theology of grace and being a people of grace, willing to forgive anyone anything, and we were right to do so.  However, more and more there seems to be a dry well where grace once overflowed.  “This is what is right.”  “You are wrong.”  “It’s just evil.”  “That’s not appropriate dress for church.”  And so many other grace-denying statements flutter around the Church like moths to the only light source, tainting the atmosphere and obstructing the illumination.  We have failed to acknowledge our own need for grace.  We have stopped articulating our unwavering desire to grant grace to all who seek it.

Since when is clothing able to obstruct the view of Christ in another?  How does the presence of a beverage in the sanctuary prevent my glorification of God?  When did this become my personal pew?  We get caught up in the minutiae and drag persons along with it.  Humankind is messy.  We can be unpolished, spill things, and flop down in the closest available seat.  Underneath the supposed breach in etiquette lies a person, a beloved child of God, struggling with burdens hidden beneath the surface.  A single mother working long, hard hours just to provide for her family cannot fathom walking any further and slips into the closest empty seat just to let her aching feet rest for a precious hour.  A man battling with an aging body and diminishing mind can no longer win the struggle with clothing to present the polished appearance he once prized.  A young person, over extended and exhausted from their studies, desperately needs the caffeine in their coffee cup to function, to bring enough awareness into the brain to hear the Word God has for them this day.  And what do we see?  We see what we want, rather than what God sees and calls us to notice.  Grace can help us to look beyond appearances and into the heart.  There we are all very similar: imperfect, but loved.  Is there grace in your place of worship?  I refuse to allow anything less than that in mine.

Willing to Wait for Divine Justice

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Somewhere in the future of all humankind sits a throne, and upon this throne will sit the King of kings.  He will judge every person who ever was, is now, and has yet to be.  We must all account for ourselves, our actions, and how we lived our lives.  Those who place themselves firmly in the grasp of God’s grace entrust that the salvation of the cross will be sufficient to cleanse us of our failures to live in accordance with God’s will.  Sometimes when I encounter someone who wrongs me, I picture that throne.  Not only does it require me to recognize that nothing I could ever do to another person could compare to standing for God Almighty and being confronted with one’s own sins, but it forces me to acknowledge that I myself am not without guilt, for I too have things for which I will need to account to Christ.

(Image courtesy of galleryhip.com)

(Image courtesy of galleryhip.com)

Somewhere there sits a throne where justice shall prevail, where no one can side step justice because of their wealth, their prestige, or their luck.

Somewhere there sits a throne where someone other than me has to bear the burden of making things work out, healing the hurt, and righting the wrongs.

Somewhere there sits a throne where my advocate is seated, knowing all that has been perpetrated on me, my deep sufferings, and the way I have been battered by the will of others.

Somewhere there sits a throne that will overflow with the presence of God, overturning the perversion of justice this world holds true.

Somewhere there sits a throne before which I long to kneel, to prostrate myself in worship of my Lord, and entrust myself into his mercy.

Somewhere there sits a throne where wrongs are made right, and I can be made perfectly whole once more.

Somewhere there sits a throne where my enemy can be transformed into my sibling in Christ, and reconciliation will be fulfilled.

Somewhere there sits a throne that is bigger than my pettiness, my sore feelings, and my bitterness, and there they are put into perspective so that I can see the bigger picture.

Somewhere there sits a throne that means that the things of this world: sin, death, and sorrow, have all passed away, and the reign of God in the Kingdom to come has begun.

Somewhere there sits a throne where all people are made equal, and we can no longer assert dominance and conjure notions of superiority.

Somewhere there sits a throne where I can see justice in forgiveness, and accept the grace of God poured out on others with whom I may have a grudge, and who hold one against me.

When I find myself yearning for earthly justice and the pleasure of vengeance, I picture that throne.  More than that, I picture the one who will be seated upon it, and I allow his peace to wash over me, the promise that God knows and will act justly.  I relinquish my grasp on my pain and sorrow.  I let my suffering slip from my hands and out of my heart.  In its place I let the balm of Gilead seep, washing over my fractured form and tormented spirit.  Justice belongs to the Lord, and I belong to him as well.  If I am willing to entrust myself into his care, then I have to trust the justice there too.  There is power in the name of Christ who will sit upon that throne, and there is comfort in the image.

Potentiality

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Raising a child is having a close encounter with potentiality.  Potentiality is defined as a quality that can be developed to make someone or something better, and in humankind that quality is potential itself.  We have been divinely created to become more than we are at birth, to grow and mature into something wholly different from an infant consumed with survival and unaware of the interconnectedness of the world.  I caught of glimpse of this potentiality the other evening when I watched my five-year complete thirty-five addition problems, which I honestly was not sure he could do.  He surprised me, and in doing so delighted me.  Perhaps this academic triumph was foreshadowing of something to come, perhaps it was a fluke, but in that moment it was wonderful for just being what it was.

(Image courtesy of listofimages.com)

(Image courtesy of listofimages.com)

While human culture seeks to direct our potential into specific outcomes, i.e. economics, intellectual pursuits, and civic duty, Christ’s culture encourages us to direct our potential into specific persons, i.e. God, our neighbor, and the lost lambs of God.  Both have communal implications, but only Christ’s culture is centered around interweaving our lives with our faith in order to manifest grace in world.  We have a myriad of options available to us as we grow and mature, but we must make a conscious decision to pursue holiness.  Every professing Christian has the potential to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, impacting the world around them and making tangible change in the lives of others, which ultimately draws others to Christ.

I catch glimpses of this all the time from my vantage point of the pastorate.  I see it when a church member suddenly find their ministerial niche, applying their unique combination of gifts, graces, desire, and will to be a vessel of Christ for others.  Like when one women decided to start a prayer shawl ministry that has outlasted her tenure at our church.  I see it when someone risks embarrassment or being uncomfortable to greet someone and get to know them, eventually investing in them and becoming their companion in Christ.  These small moments reveal potentiality, the possibility that something will happen or exist in the future, and the one who dives into the possible will be made better, holier than they began.  Somewhere along the way in my life, God saw potentiality in me to be ordained clergy, calling me along a path I never knew could have been made mine.  I would never have imagined I could ever be who I am today, and I am sure that I cannot fathom who God will help me to become before I pass away.

So it is that we must be vigilant for those moments that reveal potential.  We must embrace them, as well as celebrate them.  For even if a moment remains a flash in time, that it ever existed at all is a sign that God is working, moving in this world.  Potential is about timing and opportunity, but it is also about desire and willingness.  Are we committed enough to Christ to explore our potential?  To push beyond our current boundaries and preconceived notions to explore what can be in us and because of us?  The Church once embraced becoming so much more, and it grew until it spanned the globe with power and authority.  But then much of that was abused or allowed to settle, rather than being reflected upon and pushed to grow bigger, go deeper.  Now we are in a time of renewal or die, rediscover our holiness or waste away into obscurity.  Every one of us who place our salvation in the nail pierced hands of Jesus Christ must seek to fulfill our potentiality with the help of God.  All of us must join together to multiply our potential and pool our God-given means.  This is bigger than any one denomination, or any single local church.  Our mission is more than global, as it expands across time and space.  There is the limitless potential through faith in Jesus Christ to radically change the word through radical love.  Can you see it?  Will you reach for it?

What You Can Do

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(Image courtesy of blog.lrei.org)

(Image courtesy of blog.lrei.org)

This post preempts one I had been composing for today.  It comes because of timeliness, a response to a question a church member posed on Facebook: “How can I better show my support?”  It is a worthy, touching, and humbling question.  When a church member stops to consider their pastor(s) and take the time to be intentional about seeking how to better support us, it can be a moment of affirmation.  It can also be an opportunity for possibilities to be explored and mutual growth to emerge.  The Church exists when two parties, both professing faith in Jesus Christ and called to specific roles, come together to work through service for the mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ.  These two parties are clergy and laity.  We are called to our roles by God, and called to be together in community.  We complement one another, and allow for a fuller vision of ministry.  How we interact makes all the difference in the world as to our success at our mission.

Clergy are far out numbered by laity, and that is all right.  We do not need a one to one ratio, and the ratio of clergy to laity should be carefully considered and prayerfully discerned by a local church in consultation with the episcopal hierarchy.  In my denomination’s case, that would mean being in dialogue with the District Superintendent and even the Bishop presiding over the geographical Conference.  That being said, no matter what, clergy should support the laity, and laity should support the clergy appointed to provide a very specific kind of leadership to which clergy are called and ordained.  That support may look very different from local church to local church, but it should have some very specific characteristics.

First, clergy support should always include prayer.  Clergy pray, and while sometimes it feels very much like a “Hail Mary” football pass kind of prayer, we do pray.  We pray for guidance, assurance, the people we serve, the church entrusted into our care, and for a whole multitude of other things.  Do you pray for us?  I hope so.  We need your prayer.  Not only does it connect us through our mutual love of and relationship with our Lord, but it helps to keep us focused and centered on Christ and our discipleship.  Prayer helps to move our natural inclination to be self-centered to one of being Christ-centered, which will always include looking after others, including clergy.  It serves to refocus us off of ourselves, and encompass those we are called to serve, love, and walk beside on the path of discipleship.  Prayer is the beginning.

Second, we need your presence.  There is nothing so disheartening for clergy than to put in all this prayer, study, work, effort, and hope and then have no one show up.  Without being mellow dramatic, I can honestly compare it to Jesus being abandoned in his hour of need.  Our hour of need as clergy is definitely Sunday morning.  We spend all week working towards that crucial hour of worship.  We plan and prepare, pouring ourselves into pastoral prayers, sermons, and liturgy, but if the laity do not show, then to what end?  We need you there, and we want you there.  It is not just about listening to us, but allowing us to fulfill our call to be conduits of God’s Word for that day.  To craft a sermon takes a minimum of fifteen to twenty hours.  Many of us go far over that simply because we want to get it just right.  We are honoring God in our preaching, but we are also fulfilling that prophetic role to speak God’s truth and love to God’s people.  It is a sacred duty, and our life’s work.  Yet it only comes to life and fruition when it is received by God’s people.  Otherwise it is stillborn, and we mourn the loss of what the Holy Spirit might have done with our verbal offering.  When I stand in the pulpit and look out into a sea of faces to whom I have pastored, and with whom I have laughed, loved, and struggled, I grow in confidence and my passion for my role swells.  I become more effective, and I feel our connection growing, making us more capable of accomplishing our mighty, mutual task.  This goes for everything from committee meetings to special worship services to Bible Studies and even fellowship events.  The clergy have to be present, but your presence testifies to value and commitment, and that is priceless to us.  We are in this together, but only when we draw together.

Lastly, make this relationship more than one of church business.  Clergy must maintain a professionalism, making sure that certain boundaries are not crossed and ethics never compromised, but we do like to have fun.  We love to laugh, share a meal, and be normal people, too.  We enjoy being part of more than just births, baptisms, and deaths.  I love it when people swing by my office to check in and see how I’m doing!  I enjoy seeing people around town, and having them introduce me to their family and friends.  There is nothing like hearing the claiming when being introduced by someone as “my pastor.”  We want to be your pastor.  We want to be part of your lives for the ups and the downs.  It helps us to know you better, and serve you when you are most in need.  We are in this together, and sharing more than an hour on Sunday morning makes it real, makes it manifest.  We claim you, and to be claimed in return is powerful and profound.  It gives us courage and edification.  It makes us feel loved, a gift when things get dark and difficult as they always will in ministry.  It sustains and brings hope to those who often feel so drained, despite our love for what we do and for whom we do it.

How can you better show your support?  Pray for us. Show up, and show some of that agape love we are always talking about in the Church.  It’s more than monetary gifts and food offerings.  It’s about being in relationship such that you look back on our time together and see a bond worth lifting up in gratitude.  Some people do this with seeming effortlessness, and others have to strive for it.  No matter where you find yourself in that dichotomy, I hope you will strive to embody Jesus for your pastor, so that they can feel enriched and enlivened to do the same back for you.

A Benediction for the Close of the Day

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(Image courtesy of esperanto.wunderground.com)

(Image courtesy of esperanto.wunderground.com)

As the day draws to a close, my God,

My prayer rises to you.

Receive this gratitude for one more day,

Of a life that has been filled with grace.

May I have been a witness to your goodness,

A proclaimer of your mightiness.

It is only by your benevolence that I can stand,

That tomorrow I will rise to meet a new day.

Whatever trials that come, may I lean on you in humility.

Watch over me as I rest, and speak your will into my heart.

Use the stillness of my body and mind for your purpose.

I long to know what you would have me do with the gift that is tomorrow.

Let me hear you with all that I am,

And likewise fulfill your call.

Amen.

The Depths of Sin

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On Saturday, the 3rd of January 2015, a Jordanian pilot by the name of Muath al-Kasasbeh was killed.  Perhaps it would be more accurate to say he was executed by ISIS militants who captured him when his F-16 fighter jet crashed.  But the bottom line is that he was murdered by sin.  Locked inside a cage and doused with gasoline, Muath al-Kasasbeh was burned alive.  Before his immolation, he looked like this:

(Image courtesy of ibtimes.co.uk)

(Image courtesy of ibtimes.co.uk)

His captors and killers filmed his death.  The video was made into a propaganda film by ISIS posted on various sites on the internet, and is readily available to be seen.  I have watched the video in its entirety.  It is a gruesome, and I would argue a necessary, reminder of the depravity of humankind.  It shows the depths of human sin, just how vile we can be when we are filled with senseless hate, rage, and the desire to inflict pain without consequence.  I wish I could say that I have never encountered such sinful acts before, but that would be a lie.  I knew all too well what humanity is capable of through my studies of the Holocaust and Christianity.  Yes, Christianity.  Christian history reveals that those who bore the name of our Lord Jesus Christ were not only capable, but all too willing to torture and kill.  We did it to outsiders in the Crusades, and we did it to our own in the Inquisition.  We did it to our neighbors, the Native Americans, in the United States of America: commanding them to convert or die.  Christians are not exempt from sin.  There were people who worked in the concentration camps during the week and worshiped in church on Sunday.  The heartbreaking truth is that deep within all of us lies the ability to do these atrocities.  Every human being is capable of evil, because we are all prone to sin.  The vast majority of us will never perpetuate sin like that which killed Muath al-Kasasbeh, but we all need to know that sin is alive and well in the hearts of humankind.  It makes the call to make disciples of Jesus Christ all the more imperative.

While Christians do sin, we are confronted with another way, a holier way in our faith: the way of God Almighty, embodied in the ministry and life of Jesus Christ.  We are offered grace for our sin, and shown another way to go forth to live out our forgiveness.  While I have to acknowledge that I am capable of the evil actions that killed Muath al-Kasasbeh, I am empowered to resist them, and seek another way to live.  At a time when people ask if Christianity is still relevant, I watched the horrific death of a man who was a devout Muslim, and thought, “God, we need the faith of Christ more than ever.”  So it is that I watched the film.  I prayed for the man who died, his killers, and those who suffer because of this act.  I pray that we can find another way, and the courage to follow it.  I pray that we can use the outrage of such diabolical acts to fuel our desire to be transformed people of peace, rather than retaliatory people of vengeance, spreading the violence in a war of wrath.  I mourn Muath al-Kasasbeh’s death, and pray that God will reunite him with his loved ones who suffer and mourn now in the Day of Resurrection to come.  If we needed a reminder of what unbridled sin can look like, we have it.  And, if we ever thought we were incapable, then let us heed the warning of the prophets and Jesus that we are wrong.