Mad Libs Prayer of Love & Joy

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We are in the midst of a worship series in our Emergent Worship service on the Fruits of the Spirit.  Our Scripture for each Sunday is “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  There is no law against things like this.  Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified self with its passions and its desires.  If we live by the Spirit, let’s follow the Spirit.  Let’s not become arrogant, make each other angry, or be jealous of each other” (Galatians 5:22-26 CEB).  Each week we focus on one or two of the fruits in detail.

The week we did Love and Joy, I wanted us to ground those concepts in our relationship with God and emphasize that is maintained through prayer.  However, after one person told me that praying is boring, I decided to search out a new way of praying.  I made a Mad Libs prayer card that we handed out during worship, filling it out during a time of musical reflection.  It was a big hit, so I’m sharing it.  You can do it like a traditional Mad Libs, plugging in the blanks, then going back to read it.  Or you can read along and fill it in as you go, with some notion of the prayer you are composing.  There’s no right or wrong way, and it can be a different prayer each time you do it.  I and the people of #Emergingat945 hope it will be a means of grace for you, and nontraditional one at that.  See?  Prayer can be fun and exciting.

Mad Libs Prayer Cards

Mad Libs Prayer Cards


Loving God,

You pour out blessings upon me,

and offer me a joy unlike any earthly happiness.

Help me to _____(one of the five senses)_____ this truth.

Let me be grateful for what you have done for me,

and may I show it through _____(a way of loving another)_____.

There is nothing that can replace your infinite love for me.

I want to know joy, instead of _____(a negative emotion)_____,

which threatens to overwhelm me at times.

Open my heart, and speak your truth of hope and salvation into me.

Uplift me from the depths of _____(a painful place or situation)_____,

and let me discover a whole new way of being in this life.

Out of the darkness I rise in an upwelling of your love,

And though I am not without burden,

I can sense you in _____(a positive influence, person, or place in your life)_____,

and I know you are with me always.

Thank you for knowing me by the name _____(personal name or title)_____,

and calling me back home to you.

Amen.

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Shaking It Up: First Starbucks, Then the World

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It’s not uncommon for me to stop by the local Starbucks and grab a coffee when I’m out and about in the morning.  Even though I’ve already had one cup of coffee at home, I enjoy the diversity of a tall Pike Place coffee from the flavored k-cups of my domicile.  So yesterday morning I had to run a few errands, and then I hit up the Starbucks which was on my way back to the church office.  I was driving a larger rental vehicle, a minivan no less, rather than my normal peppy mini-SUV.  It obviously wasn’t set up for my phone to bluetooth in my various music caches, so I was listening to the satellite radio Electronic/Techno station rather than my mix tape equivalent of eclectic music I set aside specifically for driving.  At least the minivan had some surprisingly good bass.  I felt slightly out of my element, slightly off kilter.  As I walked into the Starbucks, one of the regulars, Shawn, noticed that my five year old son wasn’t in tow, and asked where he was.  I told him that the Little Man was out and about with a friend.  Everything was not normal, and it was obvious.

As I waited in line, I made the decision to not get my regular order.  I cast aside the notion of getting the tall Pike, and embraced one of my former favs: the grande nonfat Misto.  When it was my turn and I placed my order, you could see the shock register on the barista’s face.  But she didn’t say anything to me.  I could not help but smile as she placed the order with the other barista at the helm of the espresso machine.  His head whipped up, “You mean she doesn’t want a tall Pike?”  She shook her head no, and he glanced at me, then cast a look her way as if to say, “Are you sure?!”  He shrugged and started on my steamed nonfat milk.  A third barista walked by and wished me “Good Morning.”  She noticed that I didn’t have my tall Pike and started to grab a tall cup to make it, when the first barista had to tell her that I had ordered something else.  The third barista actually asks if something is wrong.  Now I’m chuckling, “Nope, God is doing a new thing, and I decided to follow suit.”  They are all smiling, but it’s tinged with confusion and maybe even a little discomfort.  Maybe it was my decision to speak the name of God.  Maybe it was my breaking with tradition and established routine.  Either way, with my Misto in hand they all wished me a good day and I departed.

(Image by Sarah R. Wastella)

(Image by Sarah R. Wastella)

As I got into my massive human being hauling rental vehicle, I took the first sip of my Misto.  The creamy taste was alien to my palette, which has become accustomed to pure, black coffee.  The second sip was better, almost nostalgic.  I used to drink that beverage all the time several years ago.  It was a my “go to” at Starbucks, but that was before I gave up cream in my coffee and embraced the world of black coffee my parents always enjoyed.  Things had really changed in a couple of years.  Maybe the rest of the world wasn’t rocked when I shifted my crucial coffee routine, but going back was not as easy as I had imagined.  I had settled into a new norm, and had apparently taken others there with me.  Those baristas are used to people who constantly mix it up with their beverage orders, but those of us who are stalwarts, drinking the same thing with regularity make things easy, predictable, and comfortable.  I shook things up today, and for no other reason than I was shaken up by circumstances outside my control.  My mention of God had more to do with what God is doing in me and my life than my beverage.

I got engaged when just a month ago I was telling people I had no intention of getting remarried ever.  My son who had been adamant up to two months ago that I should not ever get married again much less date, is telling everyone he encounters that he is getting a new step dad, and he loves him.  My Emergent Worship service is bearing fruit, and touching lives.  I am preparing next month to begin the final phase of the ordination process, and hopefully culminate in my ordination next June, thus ending a journey that began seventeen years ago with a call from God.  Through all this change, this flux in my life, my faith is growing stronger.  I am praying more, and with greater gratitude than ever before.  I am writing again, and it feels like coming home, but moving into a different room than the one I left.  Maybe this one has more closet space and a better view.  God is always at work in the world, the question is whether we are willing to let God work in our lives.  I want even more than that.  I want God at work in me, so that one day God will be free to work through me in radical ways.

Life is change.  It is evolution, growing, stretching, and adapting.  It is about dealing, coping, and even embracing that change.  Change can be scary.  I choose to look at all these insane changes in my life as occasions for God to work, and bring me into the Promised Land where I am looking more and more like Christ everyday.  The Promised Land is more than a geographical place with GPS coordinates.  It is a state of being where we are in a profound relationship with God the Father, doing the work of discipleship in God the Son’s name, and allowing God the Holy Spirit to perfect us in God’s almighty and endless love.  It is not an easy journey, but worthwhile doesn’t being to convey it.  It will take everything we have, and give us more than we can imagine.  I suspect there will be a lot of tall Pikes along the way.  It starts with a sip and step.

Christ Redeeming Culture

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There was a Christian ethicist named H. Richard Niebuhr who lived during the first part of the twentieth century.  He is most well-known for his book, Christ & Culture (1951) in which he puts forth various theories about how Christ interacts with culture.  Sometimes it seems as though Christ is against the culture of society, offering a critique and exposing the institutionalized sin therein, but this is not the only possibility.  Niebuhr himself proposed alternatives such as Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ the transformer of culture.  I am discovering that Christ can also redeem our culture, that which was once pejoratively labeled secular.  There remains an unspoken belief that the secular things of this world are antithetical to the sacred things of God, and this is transmitted in many of the policies of the Church.  Many churches reject popular music being played in worship.  Others refuse to utilize trending digital technology and social media.  Some reject the modern standard of relaxed dress, and insist through peer pressure rather than an explicit dress code that all who enter into the church building conform or face condemnation in hushed whispered tones and unspoken looks of disdain.  It would appear that there is a long history of the Church setting itself up in opposition to secular culture, but what about our concept of redemption?

I believe that there is nothing beyond the transformational power of Christ.  The Psalms declare the mighty power of God unfolding in the action of redeeming: “O Israel, hope in the LORD!  For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem” (Psalm 130:7 NRS).  Leviticus provides for redemption of land: “Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land” (Leviticus 25:24 NRS).  Even Revelation is prophesy about the day when the whole earth shall be redeemed, when the old things shall pass away and new things emerge from heaven: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:1-2 NRS).  So why do we operate as though secular culture is the exception to God’s redemptive rule?  Why should the Church abjectly reject anything cultural that did not explicitly have its origins in the Church?  If that were the case, then Jesus should never have performed his first miracle at a wedding celebration, for no where in Scripture is a wedding reception or party commanded.  Parties are a cultural aspect that predates the Church of Christianity, and even Judaism.  Yet Christ redeemed it not only with his miracle, but first with his presence.

I did not grow up with secular culture in worship, but the compartmentalized existence of my childhood (i.e. this is church, this is school, this is work, and that is home) melted away as technology made it easier to be an integrated person.  I can work from home, go to school online while hanging out at Starbucks, live stream worship, and control my house lights from a mobile device.  Boundaries are blurred, and I can take my culture anywhere with me, accessing it with the touch of a screen.  But we in the Church seem to have sequestered Christ, locked him in a brick and mortar prison, refusing to let him touch the secular as if it were unholy evil.  Christ cannot be corrupted.  Touching the secular will not destroy his holiness.  During his earthly ministry Jesus did visit synagogues, the sacred learning centers in cities and towns.  He also visited the Temple in Jerusalem, the holiest site of offerings, sacrifices, and worship of God.  Yet the vast majority of his time was spent in the secular realm of people’s homes, the commercial districts, the shoreline where fishermen congregated, and along the landscape of hills and valleys.  It was there that Christ used parables of everyday events to communicate the Kingdom of God and the Gospel of salvation.  If his presence was not enough of an act of redemption, then his utilization of these cultural norms in his teaching and preaching is.  Jesus put a Godly spin on everyday things and cultural norms.  People could no longer look at a mustard seed and not recall the metaphor for faith.  Even the cross, a cultural means of enacting capital punishment, was redeemed into a symbol of faith and triumph over sin and death.  Somehow we have lost this truth, and most certainly is evangelical power.

It is time we recall the tenacity of Jesus in redeeming all things.  How he took what people knew and felt comfortable with and made them conduits for entering into the spiritual realm.  Christ forgave sinners and told them to go and sin no more, but never told them to reject their culture and vilify it.  Instead he sent his followers back into the secular culture to engage the people there.  They took common meals aka. dinner parties and made them sites for worship in homes as the people reenacted the Last Supper in the midst of their meal together.  The Apostle Paul used his secular job as a means to meet new people and speak Christ’s truth in love, converting untold numbers of people, and planting churches all over the Roman empire.  New Testament authors used the secular mode of writing letters to outline the conduct of Christians, which has called us into that deep and profound communal love known as agape.  If we allow our creativity and our love of Christ to fuel us, then we can put a Christian spin on anything.  We will never eradicate secular culture, and I personally do not think we have to, because God has empowered us through the Holy Spirit to be vehicles of redemption.  Clergy do this when they preach and use antidotes and personal examples in our sermons.  When I hear the song “Lean On Me” by Bill Withers, I think of Paul’s emphatic plea that Christians “bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2 NRS).  That song is considered secular, but more people know the lyrics to it than the hymn “Blest Be the Dear Uniting Love” by Charles Wesley, so teach them to think of what they know in a whole new way, a holier way.  Maybe we can show the generations that refuse to enter into our midst that we do not reject and hate what did not start in the Church, and model that we do not reject and hate them because they are not currently part of our fellowship, or born and raised in the Church.  Maybe we can surprise them and make them wonder if there is more to us than they thought.  And just maybe in that space we create through our unexpected response to secular culture, Christ will be brought closer and more readily received into the hearts of many.  Is this not our task, our duty, and our divine call?

Finding the Strength to Bear Fruit

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Over and over the Bible speaks of bearing fruit.  Even Jesus commands us to “bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8 NRS).  Yet I have been pregnant, and I have given birth; I know that it is not an easy task.  It involved incredible amounts of energy and devotion.  Whether we are bearing fruit or children, bringing forth something new is never easy.  As clergy, I am often told that I must bear fruit in my ministry.  Sometimes that fruit is readily tangible and can be objectively quantified, i.e. attendance in worship, professions of faith, active small groups, etc.  Other times it is more intuitive or hidden from view, and thus remains subjective, i.e. seeds planted, lives touched, grace granted, etc.  Both kinds of fruit are important, even vital for Christianity, and both have been a goal for me to strive towards personally and professionally.

There was a time when the Church Universal drifted from each Christian bearing fruit.  It focused the burden more squarely on the shoulders of clergy.  While we should be an example and set the bar for bearing fruit, we cannot be the only ones to do so.  Honestly, some of the most impactful and repeated bearing of fruit is done by lay persons.  If every one of us took seriously Christ’s command to bear fruit “thirty, sixty, and hundred fold” (Mark 4:20b), the Kingdom of God would be that much closer, emerge that much more.  But it is exhausting.  It will drain you, and can even overtake you.

A year ago I was blogging daily, posting ponderings, devotions, and prayers constantly.  It was a good thing, and most times a joyful one.  It pushed me to attend to my own spirituality, and produce fruit in my Bible reading, prayer, and theological reflection.  Then life got even more complicated personally as well as professionally.  I was locked in a legal battle born out of a sin that forever fractured my family.  I started a new worship service in a style that is rarely seen in United Methodism, and it required more creativity, innovation, and planning than anything I had ever done liturgically before.  Slowly I started to skip a day of posting to my blog here and there.  Eventually I started taking Saturdays off entirely.  Before long a day became a week without bearing fruit.  Next thing I knew my blog was suspended.  It would lie fallow for almost half a year, as I focused my time and energy on bearing fruit in the Emergent Worship service entrusted into my care and leadership.

Then God started to speak to me through others.  Every now and then someone would ask me what happened with my blog.  Or they might ask when I would start doing it again.  I would say that I needed time to rest and that I felt like I would do it again, I just never said when.  More and more I was making the excuse with regularity.  Several people told me how much they missed what I had been doing, that it had been part of their daily devotion with God.  That is a humbling thing to hear.  As clergy I understand that I have a duty to the laity entrusted into my care and the church to which I am appointed, but suddenly I felt this responsibility from God to speak beyond the geographical boundaries of my appointment.  Perhaps my blog was also ministry to which I am being called.  I heard the testimonies of the fruit it had borne for others.  Could I do that again?

The Holy Spirit often speaks most loudly through the vessels we know and love.  My parents started telling me I needed to start again.  Then my fiance did the same thing.  “But it was so exhausting,” I would whine.  They did not care.  The answer was always the same, even while worded differently: “You are called to this.  It matters, because it makes a difference.”  Who am I?  There are more capable, better qualified, and more faithful disciples than I.  Then the voice of God spoke back against my objections: “Your struggles resonate.  Your authenticity is your gift.  I am your strength.”  One of the best things about being pregnant was knowing that it would be over in nine months.  I made a lousy pregnant woman.  Yet here was God asking me to jump back into a practice that require faithfulness and discipline for much longer than nine months.  I am one to constantly argue with God, but I didn’t have much to say back this time.  God was right, and those that allowed themselves to be vessels of God’s truth to me were also.

So when you wonder if your encouraging words matter, they do.  Not just to me, but to every person.  Sometimes you are doing more than offering a compliment.  Sometimes you are fertilizing the ground that God desires to bear fruit.  Sometimes your support gives courage to those whose heart is weakened with doubt.  Sometimes your words are as holy as those within the Bible, calling the wayward disciple back to the path of Christ.  We take strength from God first and foremost, but sometimes that strength comes through human vessels, conduits of Christ in our image.  Take the time to speak words of comfort and hope.  Be intentional about your acts of kindness and mercy.  You just might be the means through which fruit comes into this world.  You just may be the way in which Christ expands the fruitfulness of a Church that has lain fallow for far too long.

Making Space for All

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They crowd around the table, clamoring for a little more.  They cannot get enough, and who can blame them?  Grace tastes amazing.  I smile as the children run and youth coolly walk down the aisle as soon as the Postlude begins.  Worship is over and the leftover consecrated Communion elements are free to an open stomach.  Some of the youth stand with a hunk of Hawaiian bread, breaking off pieces and dunking them into the chalice.  The younger children devour their over-sized piece, smiling with a mouthful of a tangible sign of God’s grace for them.  I think to myself, “This is what the Kingdom of God looks like: joy in gathering at the Lord’s table and enjoying what God has richly given to us as a family.”  Sometimes I can hardly get to the table, and I am glad that there will always be sufficient space at the table for all who desire to join in the Kingdom to Come.

So what do we, who are called to service in Christ’s name, do about making space at the table here and now?  We exclude, and for this I and countless others mourn.  We allow our sinfulness to build gates through which some will never have the key to enter.  We set up passwords that require people to hide themselves and create false images in order to be acceptable, but not accepted for the imperfect people God loves in spite of ourselves.  There should always be an open seat at the table.  There should always be Christians willing to scoot down and crowd together so someone new can fit in.  Church should be a place where we serve up grace in an endless buffet, but how many find this resonating in their personal experience?  It is the sinfulness of humankind that wants to hold others back, keep them out, and refuse to see Christ in them.  It is our corporate sinfulness that prevents us from setting aside everything that we consider a reason for denying someone the grace of the Lord’s Table and his transformational Supper.  Lord, forgive us.

Yesterday, I and hundreds of other United Methodists gathered together to do the work of the Church in holy conferencing at the Annual Conference of the Virginia United Methodist Church.  Clergy and laity from all over the Commonwealth of Virginia descended upon the city of Roanoke, and set about prayerfully considering what God would have us do.  Some discussed, some stayed silent, but I choose to believe that we in our own ways discerned.  Three resolutions were being considered and voted upon for submission to the General Conference, that world wide gathering of United Methodists which takes place once every four years.  It is the forum for doctrinal change, and homosexuality is the hot topic.  One resolution sought to remove a single line from our Social Principles, statements on controversial issues, but not church law, not doctrinally binding.  It says, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”  This one line has been used as a chain to lock doors, a velvet rope to deny access to the sacraments of God, and whip to beat those who are no more sinful than anyone else.  There is no hierarchy of sin; it is all equally harmful, against the will of God, and able to be overcome by the selfless offering of God in Jesus Christ upon the cross.  God boldly proclaims that the blood of Christ is sufficient to cleanse all sin, and save every sinner: “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Corinthians 12:9 NRS).  Who are we to place an asterix there?

As clergy, I was asked to cast my vote, and thus take a stand.  I have struggled with this issue since I was fourteen and my first, but certainly not my last, beloved friend told me they were gay.  I know what Scripture says about homosexual sex, the act not the personal identification and identity.  I know that many things are prohibited there as well.  Things I have done.  Things I continue to do.  Things that I struggle with every day.  Why do we single out this one thing?  Why do we villainize one group so voraciously and vocally, and remain sinfully silent about other acts that cause irreparable damage, suffering, and brokenness?  As someone whose life has been irreparably damaged by sinful heterosexual sex, I lament that the Church is all too quiet about the sin that destroyed my family, stole the future promised in a covenant before God, and will forever cause suffering for my son, but is all too eager to pounce upon homosexuals.  Even to the point that just admitting you are homosexual, whether you practice that sexually or not, can be cause for persecution, exclusion, and disdain that borders on unholy hatred.  Lord, forgive us.

I found myself, in a moment of movement in my heart of the Holy Spirit, that same Holy Spirit that has resided within me since the day of my baptism as an infant, recalling that the Law of the Old Testament came from God, the Father.  It was good, as it was holy, but we sinful people took it to a dark, sinful place.  We perverted it to hurt people and make them suffer for their sins, rather than find grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation with God.  This culminated and was embodied in the people of the Pharisees in Scripture.  They took the Law to such a dark place that healing those that had suffered a lifetime was evil in their eyes, even if the healer was God God’s self.  So it was that Christ came to us to help us see another way of understanding what God was doing in the Law, as Jesus said: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17 NRS).

I pondered if we had become modern-day Pharisees, if we had lost sight of the people of grace we had always understood ourselves to be as United Methodists.  If our core theology is that God is a God of grace, limitless and overflowing for all people who desire it, then is that reflected in what we say, what we do, and how we conduct ourselves as servants in the Houses of God we keep in our communities?  I thought to myself, “No, it is not.  We have singled out one group of people.  We have enlarged the speck in their eye, and denied the log in our own.”  For that passage in the Social Principles never explicitly mentions much less condemns adultery.  We all sin.  Every human being whether heterosexual, homosexual, pansexual, or asexual, sins: “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22-23 NRS).  However the text goes on: “They are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith” (Romans 3:24-25 NRS).  By faith we are healed, receiving the grace God has promised, and faith is not limited to our sexual expression or lack thereof.

And so it was that I found myself voting in a way I had not anticipated.  I want to make space.  Space is for relationship with others and their relationship with God.  Space is for giving the Holy Spirit room to move, speak into our hearts from which come evil intentions (Matthew 15:19).  Space is allowing time for God to work in and through people to transform us, all of us, even those who already bear the name of Christ and the carry the Holy Spirit.  Space is for helping all people lost or wandering to find their place at the table.  I know what Scripture says.  I know that there are places where I could and have been denied fulfilling God’s call to preach the Word.  I know there are places where my beloved bacon and shrimp are off limits.  I know there are places where a multitude of actions are condemned.  But I also know there are places where there is no division in Christ.  I also know there are places where what pollutes this temple, my body, is what I allow to come forth, not enter in.  I also know there are places where all the actions are forgiven through Christ.  I was being challenged, would I stand so another could sit at the table?  Would I release my grip a little, and allow for more space?  God help me, so I did.

Maybe I did the wrong thing.  I do that a lot, even when I am trying to do right.  Maybe God will not be pleased.  I know I have displeased God innumerable times and I’m only thirty-four.  But I cling to the cross, the promise of grace.  I recall the smell of honey on that Hawaiian bread transformed through holy mystery into the body of Christ.  I remember the taste of fruit of the vine that is the blood of the new and everlasting covenant in Jesus Christ.  I shrink before the recollection of being one of those who pours out water on the heads of those who seek to be baptized, as God simultaneously pours out the Holy Spirit and grace prepared upon a cross two millennia ago.  God help me, I tried to embody that grace.  I tried to let the Holy Spirit work through me.  I don’t have any idea if it will make a difference.  I do not know if I will succeed at making space for all people to gather in Christ’s name, experience his salvific touch, and taste the grace of God.  I just have this hope: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6 NRS).  I did what I did out of love: love of God, love in Christ, and love of all people without distinction.  The vote is taken, the motion passes.  It goes on to General Conference for consideration in 2016.  I can only sit back and wait to see what will unfold.  I, this sinful, imperfect person who wants to be a faithful disciple of Christ, continue to pray and seek to love…

“And now, O Lord, what do I wait for?  My hope is in you.  Deliver me from all my transgressions.  Do not make me the scorn of the fool.  I am silent; I do not open my mouth, for it is you who have done it” (Psalm 39:7-9 NRS).

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.