Monday, May 29, 2006

opey's dei

Pam and I saw The DaVinci Code this evening. I had low expectations, based on reviews I had seen, and the movie surpassed those low expectations. I have to admit that I can't get much beyond seeing Ron Howard (Opey from Andy Griffith) and Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump) as key figures in the modern historical quest for Jesus. Setting all of that aside, some other thoughts: Pam and I agreed that the book was a bit more of a page-turner than the movie; I thought the Albino was the most fascinating character; and I'm glad I don't work in public relations for the Opus Dei organization. I did give a response to the novel over a year ago in a college setting, and I am going to go back and find my notes. I also plan to spend some time on the movie in light of this Sunday's Pentecost Gospel text that the "spirit will guide us into all truth" (John 16). For now, I invite those interested to check out the following links: Rodney Clapp, N.T. Wright, Ben Witherington, and Peter Boyer. Clapp places the movie in a cultural context, and draws analogies with the Left Behind series; Wright sees the movie as a neo-gnostic expression of a postmodernist fantasy; Witherington views the movie as a teaching opportunity in light of our biblical illiteracy, and Boyer reports on the probability that evangelicals have been coopted in the marketing of a film that needed some kind of boost or buzz in the culture.

I give the movie a B minus, but back when I was grading exams I had a reputation for being lenient. The B minus is based on my general goodwill toward Opey and Forrest. Do I think the foundations of western civilization are going to crumble? No. Do think the feminine has been suppressed in western Christianity? No doubt. Do I recommend that you spend your eight and a half bucks on The DaVinci Code, when you could eat a plate of chopped barbecue at Spoons, or buy the latest copies of the Sunday New York Times and No Depression, or go to see your favorite local minor league baseball team instead? Hey, if you were traveling below the North Carolina state line you could buy 12 Krystal Hamburgers for that same eight and a half bucks. Now that would be a quest...

the unnecessary pastor by eugene peterson and marva dawn

Click to enlarge

Eugene Peterson has had a profound influence on many pastors and members in mainline and evangelical churches. He is perhaps best known as the translator of The Message. He served for almost three decades as a Presbyterian pastor near Baltimore, Maryland. Marva Dawn is an independent scholar whose ministry has increasingly been among mainline churches around issues related to worship. Her best-known work is Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down. This book is a compilation of lectures given in Vancouver at Regent College. Here are some learnings:

1. Ministry and spirituality are always local.
2. The glittering image of ministry is the desire and compulsion to please people, and the corrective is to present our authentic self.
3. The application of ministry is to fill in or improvise the missing parts of a play that we have been given.
4. In jumping on cultural bandwagons we are tempted to give up our "deep symbols". We are called to recover our deep symbols and to pass them along to the next generation.
5. Paul is the church's first and most enduring pastoral theologian.
6. Scripture shapes the imagination and forms life. Biblical language evokes and regenerates, and its use of metaphor is accessible to a wide range of people, not just to the elite.
7. Privilege is a breeding ground for pride. Jew and gentile are a part of the community as a gift, and so are we.
8. The principalities and powers that stand against biblical ministry are technology, money and competition.
9. Sound teaching comes from the greek "hygein", or hygenic. Sound teaching cleans up the messes we make in our lives, and leads us to health.
10. Scientific knowledge depersonalizes. Wisdom personalizes and orders. Science teaches people how to fulfil expectations and pass exams. Wisdom teaches us how to live.
11. Our culture thinks organizationally and functionally. The gospel thinks personally and relationally.
12. Character is more important than charisma.

Next up: Ancient Future Evangelism by Robert Webber.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

emerging churches by eddie gibbs and ryan bolger

Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures

This summer I will be reading a number of books on leadership, spirituality, the church's mission and the future, for our own congregation and its decision-making processes, and for my own learning. I will share some of the basic learnings on this blog. I began with this work, which is on the emerging churches. I won't offer a definition of what an emerging (or emergent) church is now, because that is a part of the discovery process. A few learnings for now:

1. Three core practices of emergent churches are identifying with the life of Jesus, transforming secular space into sacred space, and living as a community.

2. Out of these three core practices flow a number of other essential activities: welcoming the stranger, serving with generosity, participating as producers (rather than as spectators), inspiring creativity, leadership as a function of the body (as opposed to a more hierarchial model) and taking part in spiritual disciplines that are corporate and individual.

3. While emergent churches are planted in the soil of postmodernism, they depart from postmodern in that they do claim the necessity of a metanarrative: the mission of God (missio Dei).

4. Emergents reject most forms of dualism (sacred/secular, contemporary/traditional, clean/unclean, etc.).

5. Emergent worship engages all of the senses, but it is not a form of escape from the world. It is an engagement with the world.

6. Emergent churches are decentralized: the small group is the essential meeting of the community.

7. The primary apologetic of the emergent church is not the use of critically formulated words but an embodied life. People are more interested in what we do than in what we say.

8. However, in our ministry with the world it is important that we name the name of Christ as our motivation, rather than delivering social programs in a generic or civic way.

9. People want to be a part of the planning process and they want to share their gifts.

10. A "fast-food industry" model of planting church franchises does not inspire creativity.

11. A critical question: can emergent worship be sustained? It often works best in a monthly or quarterly pattern, rather than weekly.

12. Emergent spirituality is eclectic, with a preference for the liturgical over the hyperactive adrenaline rush of modern worship.

I am going to try to limit the learnings to no more than twelve ideas of concepts. Hopefully, over the summer, some patterns will emerge. Next up: The Unnecessary Pastor: Rediscovering The Call by Marva Dawn and Eugene Peterson.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

unclouded day

Go to Dualtone Records, where you can listen to Johnny Cash singing "Unclouded Day". More below:

"WHEN I BEGAN TO PUT THIS PROJECT TOGETHER, MY INITIAL IDEA WAS TO CREATE A BODY OF WORK COLLECTIVELY INSPIRED AND DEDICATED TO APPALACHIAN GOSPEL MUSIC…But then the project took on a life of it’s own. The Carter Family was a great influence in this work’s genesis, but through investigation, I discovered a world of lesser known songs, just as touching and beautiful as any penned by my great uncle, A. P. Carter. I discovered Washington Phillips, a gospel-blues singer who recorded in the 1920’s. I found Arizona Dranes, whose gritty and characteristic voice is reminiscent of Janis Joplin or Bonnie Raitt, although she recorded in the early 20th century. I found many inimitable bluegrass musicians, contemporaries to Bill Monroe and Flatt and
Scruggs, whose amazing talents have largely been forgotten. In making song suggestions to the artists on this project, I handed out a wide variety of music…Some of the artists had their own idea for a song to record. The only criterion in song choice was that the song be Gospel from the South. The result was this piece of music you hold in your hand. All of the music here has simple instrumentation, with focus on the vocal and the message within. I am quite grateful
that my father is on this project…Through his desire to record one more song during the
session he did for me in June of 2003, I am honored to present his recording of Unclouded Day. It was the first session he recorded after my mother passed on. Listen to the tiny voice inside, my mom always told me. In creating this project, I have found that voice, at times, speaks through a song or lyric of heartfelt inspiration. It is there. If you listen…The Voice of the Spirit."

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

the best short story ever written

An excellent piece on Flannery O' Connor's short story, "A Good Man Is Hard To Find", from one of my very favorite magazines, Oxford American.

Read it all.

Monday, May 22, 2006

a calling into the world (john 15)

Kristen Johnson Ingram is a writer and teacher of writing who lives in Oregon. Her avocation there is winemaking, and in an essay she reflected on a memorable experience. Kristen had a group of ten friends over for a tasting party, to sample her homemade wines, including some made from cherries and plums. After they had tasted several, including her masterpiece, a pinot noir---she was very serious about this----her thirteen year old son entered the room and said, “I made some wine”.

She and her friends looked at each other with indulgent smiles. How nice? Her son went out to the feed shed, where he had stored the wine made from wild blackberries. He didn’t know much about winemaking, and really had no equipment, and therefore the project was all contained in a pickle jar, that was also filled with leaves and thorns.

His mother thought, “we’ll just sip a little”. She also thought about avoiding the twigs and the seeds. We don’t want to hurt his feelings”.

Then Kristen tasted the wine and she immediately thought: this is the best wine I have ever tasted. Her son had closed the jar before the fermentation process was finished, so it actually crackled like champagne. Years later, if she went back to the moment, she could still taste the delicious, dark liquid.

Her son stood there, proudly. I saved the best wine for last”, he said. Like in the Bible. And like the Bible says, the whole world is my vineyard.”

Kristen listened to her son. I don’t remember that in the Bible. About the world being the vineyard”, she said, as she ran her tongue around the rim of the empty glass, hoping for one more miraculous drop.

Well, it sort of does”, her son replied. And his mother had to agree: It sort of does. (from Weavings, September/October, 2001).

We’ve been working through a series of three sermons within one chapter from the gospels, the 15th chapter of John. It begins with the rich imagery of the vine and the branches, an image that would have been obvious to those who labored in vineyards and enjoyed the fruit of the vine.

We began with the core conviction that a friendship with Jesus is foundational. I am the vine, you are the branches”, he teaches his disciples. We draw our strength, our life, from him: I am the vine you are the branches and apart from me”, he says, you can do nothing”.

Next, we reflected on his command and invitation that we should “love one another”. To make the point negatively, we cannot love Jesus, whom we have never seen, if we do not love our brother or sister, whom we have seen. Said positively, we experience the love of God through God’s people. Christianity is always incarnational---it takes on human flesh.

Now we conclude with a necessary implication. We are connected with God, and we are in communion with each other for a larger purpose: a calling in the world. You did not choose me”, Jesus says, “I chose you”. I appointed you to go and bear fruit”.

What does it mean to bear fruit? We can go back to those who heard this teaching for the first time, the disciples of Jesus. They would have heard these words and placed them in their Mediterranean context. The fruit of the vine produces figs, grapes, olives. These finally become food, oils, wine. But vineyards are primarily for the purpose of making wine. I am not an authority on wine, but Pam and I have close friends who are winemakers, who have reminded us of the old question, “how do you make a little money in the wine business? You start with a lot of money.”

It is not accidental that the scriptures are filled with the imagery of vineyards and wine, with the cycles of planting and nurturing and harvesting, with celebrations where wine is freely poured and enjoyed. When those who listened to Jesus heard his references to vineyards and wine, they would have immediately made the connections: the labor, the cultivation, the pruning, the growth, the fruit, the abundance, the feast. In a vineyard one experiences life in all of its fullness.

And so Jesus makes the claim, of himself, that he is the vine. I have come that you may have life and have it in abundance, he had announced to them. To abide in Jesus is to remain connected to him. When we lose that connection, when the branch is severed from the vine, there is no life, no growth, no fruit. I want you to abide in me”, he is saying. I want you to remain connected to me”. Why does he say this?

The reasons go deeper than mystical experience and personal piety. We remain connected to the vine because that is the way we bear fruit. And here the inward spiritual grace becomes an outward and visible sign. The natural consequence of a healthy root taking in nutrients is that it produces something wonderful. It bears fruit.

Jesus had been with the disciples for some time----a significant amount of time with just a few people, hidden mostly from the crowds, investing all of this time in twelve people. He was teaching them about friendship with God. He was instructing them in prayer. He was opening the scriptures to them. There were good days and bad days. Sometimes they got it, and sometimes they did not. He also sensed that there were dynamics going on between them. There were struggles over who would sit in the places of power, over whose voice would be heard most clearly, struggles, by the way, that continue to be with the church. And so he gave them a command and an invitation: love one another.

But it was always about more than an individual’s spiritual life, or a group of people and their love for each other. He wanted the disciples to bear fruit, he wanted their lives to make a difference.

What does it mean to bear fruit, for a winemaker? A winemaker would want to make enough bottles of wine for her own enjoyment, and maybe to share with others, and maybe for profit. Bearing fruit would mean a number of bottles of wine, a number that we would count. But bearing fruit also has to do with what is inside the bottles. We could make a large number of bottles of wine, but what is inside them could be mediocre. Or, at the other extreme, we could spend all of our time making a very few bottles of wine that are exceptional, but only a few people would enjoy them.

Which is bearing fruit? I want to suggest that bearing fruit is making wonderful wine that can be shared at feasts and celebrations but also in everyday life, at common meals. To bear fruit is to be sustained through the highs and lows, the ups and downs, the amazing and the ordinary.

And for this reason it is sometimes difficult to measure our fruitfulness. I love the insight of Oswald Chambers:

Our spiritual life cannot be measured by success as the world measures it, but only by what God pours through us—and we cannot measure that at all.

“What God pours through us”… I like that.

When I hear Jesus say that “ I appointed you to go and bear fruit”, a word occurs to me: accountability. We are accountable to Jesus, for the life we have received from him. Sometimes accountability can be measured, and sometimes it cannot be measured. What is important is that we allow the grace of God to be poured out through us. We allow the inward and spiritual grace to become an outward and visible sign. The wine is to be shared, following the example of Jesus, who said, at the Passover feast, this is my body, given for you, this is my blood, poured out for you”.

He wanted the disciples to bear fruit, he wanted their lives to mean something. He did recognize that the world was a vineyard. Catherine of Sienna was a 14th century Italian spiritual guide, who wrote a series of dialogues or visions. In one of them she reflected on the meaning of the blood of Christ, poured out for her, and the responsibility we have in receiving that gift. In her vision God hires workers to labor in the vineyard of the church---we think of Matthew 20 here---each worker has a vineyard, a soul, in which some things are pruned and uprooted, and other things are nurtured. The vines within each person are all engrafted into the One Vine. But then she says, “everyone is joined to your neighbor’s vineyards without any dividing lines. They are so joined together, in fact, that you cannot do good or evil for yourself without doing the same for your neighbors (from Weavings, September/October, 2001).

How are our vines joined together, and what does that have to do with bearing fruit?

Many, many people in this congregation are developing a friendship with Jesus. Prayers are being said. The scriptures are studied. And many, many people express their love for one another. There are calls of concern in sickness, and there are occasions of celebration in health. There is play and there is deep sharing of life. There is a connection and there is a communion.

There is also a calling, and this flows naturally from all that happens here. To be honest, I prefer not to be the judge of whether we are bearing fruit. God will take care of that. There are some things we can measure: How many are served through Room in The Inn? 300 homeless men and women. How many are served through the weekday school? Almost 300 children. How many are served on a typical day at the medical clinic at Cap Haitian, Haiti? About 250. How many persons in recovery meet here on a given Monday or Friday evening? 200. How many people of all ages come on a Sunday morning to study the scriptures in a classroom? More than 500. How many people gather to worship God here on a given Sunday? Sometimes 600, sometimes 700, sometimes 800 and sometimes 900. How many people of all ages sing or play an instrument as an offering in worship? All told, about 300.

Sometimes we can measure the fruitfulness. But sometimes we cannot measure it. A homebound member is visited, and there is prayer and communion. A young child from an at-risk family is tutored. A struggling family is able to keep their electricity on. A man with a chronic illness is supported by his Sunday School class. A couple struggle with alcoholism within their family. A young adult discovers a purpose for her life. A couple feel supported as their son is in Iraq. A woman reflects on the joy of knowing that God has led her family to this church. If we look closely enough, we do recognize that the whole world is our vineyard.

My inclination is to want to measure the fruitfulness, because I am caught up in the American way of wanting to quantify everything. There is a discipline to that, a discipline that makes us more efficient, perhaps even better stewards. But the harvest, finally, is God’s to judge. He will measure our fruitfulness. He simply calls us bear fruit.

I invite you to discover, or rediscover, the abundance of the Christian life: It is a connection with God. It is a communion with each other. And it is a calling to bear fruit in the world.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

lauren winner on teenagers and sexual ethics

Lauren Winner, author of one of my favorite memoirs, Girl Meets God, writes about a complex subject. Read it here.

Friday, May 19, 2006

bearing fruit (john 15)

Jesus says "I am the vine and you are the branches"
and I know that the gospel touches my life
through prayer and scripture.

Jesus says "Love one another as I have loved you"
and I am aware that the gospel touches my life
through fellowship and worship.

Jesus says "I appointed you to go and bear fruit",
and I acknowledge that the gospel touches my life
most abundantly as I am sent out to witness and serve.

There is something natural about growth.
The branches cannot grow apart from the vine,
But it is also true that the vine cannot bear fruit
apart from the branches.
Indeed, the vine exists to bear fruit.

How am I being called to grow?
In what areas of life am I bearing fruit?

To be a Christian is to bear fruit.
A Christian's life reflects the love of God.
A Christian's life represents the love of God.
A Christian's life reveals the love of God.

The visible signs of God's presence surround me.
God reaches out to me in creation.
As I reach out to others, I exercise the gifts
that have been placed within me.
God reaches out to me in covenant.
As I reach out to others I embody the truth
that I have been blessed to be a blessing.
God reaches out to me in Christ.
As I reach out to others, I encounter Christ
in the hungry, the stranger, the poor.

Why is life in the world so difficult, so unsettling?
Why am I more content to enjoy a personal relationship with God,
or the security of those closest to me?

Do I...

doubt the gifts that have been placed within me?

sense that the covenant is really exclusive and restrictive
rather than inclusive and expansive?

relate to a Christ who is found more often in stained glass
and pastoral scenery than in the margins of my ordinary experience?

I have been called to bear fruit, to reach out, to serve and witness.
As I reach out in Christ, I discover that God truly uses my gifts.
As I reach out in Christ, I recall a covenant that is for all people.
As I reach out in Christ, I learn about a Jesus who belongs not to the church
but to the world.

To reach out is to experience connection,life, growth.
My isolation from others is transformed into reconciliation, through Christ.
My gifts help to restore life, as people receive provisions for body and spirit.
My growth occurs when I am stretched beyond the familiar and the known.

Life in the world is life with God.
In the world I participate in the creation,
I renew the covenant, I encounter the Christ.
In moving out I discover that
what is most worldly is most spiritual.
In reaching out I find that my giving
is met by the One whose gift,
Jesus Christ,
is for me
and for all people.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

a non-judgmental evangelical

I realize, in my heart of hearts, what I am looking for: a non-judgmental evangelicalism. Is that possible? Is it possible that one can hold firmly to a high view of scripture, a deep passion for Jesus Christ, the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, and the necessity of being in a visible fellowship with other believers, and at the same time not have a need to judge the behaviors, motives or perspectives of others?

Can't God do the latter? Don't we have enough confidence to believe and expect that God will give the judgment, and within the constraints of His mercy? I am not speaking here of secular tolerance, or of partison politics; neither is finally acceptable to me as a Christian. Neither is the excessive focus on single-issue morality, which brings out the worst in every branch of the Christian family. I am wondering about something quite different. I am wanting to go deeply into the heart of the gospel itself, into the life and actions and teachings of Jesus Himself.

Is it possible to be a non-judgmental evangelical?

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

communion as life together (john 15)

Years ago I was giving the congregational prayer in a worship service. That church had a large circular altar at the front of its sanctuary, and a number of people would come each week to kneel at the altar rail, where we also received communion. Sometimes children came, which was nice. On that particular morning I realized that our older daughter, Elizabeth, was kneeling next to me. She was a child at the time. As I began the prayer I felt a tugging at my robe. The prayer continued, the tugging continued. It was a little distracting, but finally I completed the prayer. The organist began to play, people were rising to return to their seats, and she looked at me, and in all seriousness asked, “Does this mean we’re not going to get any juice and crackers?”

The sermon this morning is about communion, although we will not be having juice and crackers. Next Sunday at 8:30 we will share Holy Communion together. Today we focus on the communion that we share in relationship with each other, as Christians. A couple of weeks ago we looked at our connection with God, which we also described as a “friendship with Jesus”. This morning we will think about our communion with one another as God’s people.

In the scripture we have both a command and an invitation: Love one another, Jesus says, as I have loved you. The statement is repeated in verse 17: Love one another. The theme of love is central in John’s Gospel, and in the letters of John: For God so loved the world; God is love; I give you a new commandment, that you love one another; since God loved us so much, we ought to love one another.

The word love is absolutely at the heart of the gospel, the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is also a word that has a common usage in our culture. We are exposed to something that passes for love at every turn. A few years ago lists of country music song titles were circulating, and maybe you came across some of them. Do you remember this one? “I’ll tell you lies to win your love, and that’s the truth”. Well, that sentiment isn’t limited to country music; it could be on MTV, or on the latest reality show, or on Friday’s soap opera, or even in the arranged marriages of the rich and famous, but it’s not love. It is self-interest. And yet there is something about love worth rescuing here, something worth recovering, in the church and in the culture. For Christians, love never been about self-interest but instead self-giving; in the words of Jesus, it is about “laying down one’s life for one’s friends”.

This morning I want to redefine love as communion, as an experience of community, Jesus reaching out to people through people. If God is love, then God’s people make God’s love visible. Again, in John’s Gospel there is always something visible, tangible about God’s love. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…Jesus, among us, in the flesh. And in the letters of John there is this statement:

No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us (4. 11-12).

How can we believe in an invisible God? How can we experience the presence of God? As the Message translates it, “if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and his love becomes complete in us…perfect love”. God’s love becomes real, visible, tangible, concrete in the experience of Christian community.

This love is a gift, but we must accept it, and this acceptance involves overcoming certain obstacles. One obstacle is the belief that I can live the Christian life on my own, without community, apart from communion with others. In a book entitled Habits of The Heart, a study of values written in the 1980s, Robert Bellah interviewed a young woman who is named “Sheila”. Sheila is asked about her religion, and she responded:

“I consider myself religious, but I don’t go to church. My religion is just my own little voice. I guess you could call me religion “Sheilaism”.

More recently, Robert Putnam wrote about the values of our culture in his work Bowling Alone. The simple thesis of the book is that more people are bowling than ever before, but fewer people are involved in bowling leagues. We are bowling, but we are bowling alone.

The first obstacle to community is individualism. Another obstacle to communion can be our own pride, our own sin, our own self-centeredness, however you name that. A minister in another state shared this experience, from his congregation. He had become close friends with a couple in the church, both in their mid-thirties, with one daughter, who was in elementary school. They were a wonderful family.

On the daughter’s eighth birthday, the father brought out a beautifully wrapped package, and placed it before his daughter, who was the apple of his eye. I want you to have this”, he said to her. It is a coin collection that was given to me by my father and mother on my eighth birthday. It is not worth much—fifty or sixty dollars, but it means to world to me, and I want you to have it”.

A couple of days later the father suffered a massive heart attack and died while seated at a desk at the office. Everyone was in shock, including my friend, their pastor. They got through the services and the first few days as best they could.

A few days later the young mother took her daughter to see her grandmother. They were sharing a conversation, the young girl in her grandmother’s lap, when the little girl said, “Guess what? My dad gave me this coin collection”. The grandmother recoiled, “that’s my coin collection; he didn’t have any right to give that away; you need to bring that back; it belongs to me”. And then she added, “don’t come back until you bring that collection”. The mother and daughter departed, stunned.

The next morning the grandmother was in the office of the minister. She told him the story and then asked, “what would you do?” He thought long and hard. “I don’t like to give advice, but you’ve asked, and I owe you this much. You could lose your granddaughter over a $50 coin collection.

"So here is what I would do. If I were you I would rise up out of that chair and walk to my car, put the key in the ignition and drive straight to my granddaughter’s house. I would knock on the door, and when I faced my granddaughter and her mother I would say “ I apologize. None of us is doing very well with this. The coin collection was very special to us, that’s why we gave it to our son, and it was also very special to our son, which is why he gave it to you. I want you to have it. Can you forgive me?”

The grandmother listened to my friend, and then looked at him and said, “hell will freeze over before that will happen”. Fifteen years have passed, and they are still not speaking to each other.

We need community, we need communion with each other. On the way to communion there will be obstacles to overcome. I like the practice of open communion that is a part of our Methodist tradition, echoes found in the words of the Charles Wesley hymn, “come sinners to the gospel feast, let every soul be Jesus’ guest”. Everyone who responds to the invitation is welcome to come to the table. In the language of my daughter, years ago, there is juice and crackers for everyone. The only barriers are those that we ourselves construct.

We come to the Christian faith by different paths. Some are overtaken by an undeniable sense of God’s presence guiding them in some direction—that is the connection with God. But for me it happened like this---I was impressed, drawn into, overtaken by a small community of Christians who included me and accepted me: a young adult/college Sunday School class of four people, including the teacher; a work team that helped to build a storefront church in Brooklyn; a Sunday evening worshipping congregation; a Bible study group on a college campus. My way into the Christian faith came through other Christians. I experienced the community, the communion, and then I made the connection.

In reflecting on the first portion of John 15, I spoke of a friendship with Jesus and the importance of speaking and listening to him and questioning and learning about him, experiences that happen in prayer and reading scripture. That is connecting with God.

What about our communion with each other? We are a large church, and the communion that we share has to happen in smaller groups: Sunday School classes; ChristCare groups; Women’s Circles; Disciple Bible Study; Mission teams; Choirs. I cannot overemphasize the importance of being in a small group. We need a connection with God, but we also need a communion with each other, and the scripture teaches me that we cannot have one without the other.

The gospel is both invitation and command. He is the vine. We are the branches. And so we are connected. And the life that flows from the vine into the branches is a life of love. There are no individual, solitary Christians. We are grafted into each other, into the tree of life, to use another image from scripture, into the body of Christ, to use yet another. I cannot be a Christian without you, and you cannot be a Christian without me. For some reason God designed it all in just this way. And so a part of our conversion is into the communion, the body, the believers, the household of God.

In his spiritual classic Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing from a Nazi prison cell, reflects on the communion that we share with each other, and on our temptation to take our life together for granted. Listen to him:

“It is true that what is an unspeakable gift of God for the lonely individual is easily disregarded by those who have the gift every day. It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brothers and sisters is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let the one who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let us thank God on our knees and declare: it is grace, nothing but grace that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brothers and sisters”.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

communion with each other (john 15)

A Christian is a person who loves God and loves the neighbor.
A Christian is a person who opens herself to receive God's great gift, love.
A Christian is a person who follows Jesus, the love of God incarnate, made flesh, made visible, among us.

I believe in love.
I know about love.
I can talk about love,
sing about love,
think about love,
search for love.

And yet there are times when I have difficulty with love.
I like to be the one to define what loves means.
I like to be the one who places limits on love.
I like to be the one to determine the conditions of love.

Followers of Jesus are immediately gifted with love.
Followers of Jesus are immediately confronted with love.
Love one another, Jesus says, as I have loved you.
Jesus feeds me when I am hungry; that is love.
Jesus clothes me when I am naked; that is love.
Jesus touches me when I am unclean; that is love.
Jesus welcomes me when I am a stranger; that is love.
Jesus heals me when I am ill; that is love.
Jesus forgives me when I sin; that is love.
Jesus restores me when I am broken; that is love.

I would like to love others as Jesus loves me, but what if...

They reject the food and clothing that I give,
or do not deserve them;

They draw away from my touch,
or refuse my hospitality;

They cannot break free of illness,
will not accept my forgiveness,
do not desire reconciliation?

Then I have offered a gift, but that gift has been squandered, buried, rejected.
And in some sense I feel rejected also,
because my love comes from deep within me.
My love express who I am.

As I live in Christ, I feel rooted, secure, connected.
As I live in Christ, my weaknesses, failures, shortcomings,
are accepted, through faith,
as my strengths, victories, achievements.

As I live in Christ
I find that I am drawn to his people,
the body of Christ.
As I live in Christ,
I bring Christ to others.
As I live in Christ,
I see Christ in others.

In my love for others
I come to understand something
of Christ's love for me, for...

I reject the bread of Christ
I want to clothe myself
I fear the touch of the master's hand
I would like to make my own place
I dread the process of healing
I question the possibility of reconciliation.

I know how I have responded to the love of Christ;
how will others respond to my love?

As I offer the gift I take a risk.
As I offer the gift I am vulnerable.
As I offer the gift I become a new person.
This is precisely why love is so frightening
and so wonderful.

The reality of love guides me toward connection, life, growth.

As I love others,
I am connected to them,
I experience communion with them.
As I love others,
I know life as if is intended to be lived.
As I love others,
I grow as a person.
I am called out of my own preoccupations and concerns
to consider the hurts, needs and longings of others.

When Jesus calls me to love,
he invites me into an experience
that is both joyful and threatening.

As I respond to that call, to love others,
I discover that I am required to give,
perhaps more than is humanly expected,
but I sense as well that I will receive
far more than I expect or deserve.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

traditional or contemporary?

Congregations are by nature messy and somewhat chaotic places. That is a part of what makes the work so frustrating, at times, and so interesting.

For example, one evening this week a group of us found ourselves discussing the contemporary/traditional worship issue for the ONE MILLIONTH time...


Here is my short take about that. I have written about it, over the years, in the Mount Tabor UMC and Providence UMC newsletters, and I post some of my own thoughts, if for no other reason than there can be a little plot of ground in cyberspace where those who are interested might come, read, reflect and respond. And I won't have to take fifteen minutes of a committee's time in the future. I will just say, go to my blog...

My perspective is shaped by helping to begin at least two new worship services over the years, one blended and another seeker-oriented. Let me say that I have dear friends who have invested much in different styles of worship. I love and respect them, even as they would not agree with what I post below.

So here goes:

  • How the argument is framed leads to the conclusion. The current debate of traditional and contemporary divides congregations along stylistic lines by intention and generational and theological lines by default. There are some positive benefits--more people are reached, more gifts are employed...and there are some negative implications--unity within a church, for stewardship or missional purposes, becomes very difficult.
  • Traditional worship does not have to be boring, and contempory worship does not have to be trivial. These are stereotypes.
  • Young adults often appreciate traditional worship, and older adults often enjoy contemporary worship. These are also stereotypes.
  • The baby boomer demographic is a cultural match with contempory worship. A briefer service fits with weekends given to sports and Sundays in particular filled with soccer matches.
  • We have not figured out how to motivate those who attend contemporary worship to give financially. At least this has not been my experience or observation.
  • If a congregation decides to put all of its eggs in the traditional worship basket, it needs to do children and youth ministry extremely well, and it needs a very intentional evangelism focus, like Beginnings or Igniting Ministry. At least this is what we are trying to do at Providence.
  • As my District Superintendent and good friend George has reminded me, we need to be more connectional in our evangelism. In most United Methodist districts, especially in urban settings, it may be that every church doesn't need to offer every kind of service.
  • Sometimes the traditional/contemporary worship debate is not about worship at all. It is about power.
  • I agree with Marva Down: worship is not evangelism. Evangelism is evangelism.
  • Mainline churches are not very good at evangelism.
  • An important question for me is figuring out how people in a particular congregation are gifted. In some churches the most gifted musicians are classically trained. In other churches, the most gifted musicians might be jazz or bluegrass or celtic by temperament.
  • During the years I worked with a pretty amazing alternative service, I heard the following two comments with such frequency that I have committed them to memory. The parent would say 1) my child loves this service and 2) where is my child going to learn the Lord's Prayer and the Apostles' Creed?
  • The seeker service was never intended to become a destination for Christian worshippers, but a step on the path toward a believers service. Read about the history of Willow Creek for more on this subject.
  • Our discussion of worship style mirrors our cultural tendency to focus on matters of style rather than substance.
  • The Emergent movement may help us beyond the impasse. At least I am praying that this is so.
  • The best simple reading on this subject remains Tom Long's Beyond The Worship Wars, and the best theoretical reading is Marva Dawn's A Royal Waste of Time.
  • Churches do not need to offer programs or services because some church near them is doing it. I have been a proponent, especially in my last two books, The Gifted Pastor and A Way of Life In The World, of the notion that the key to renewal is discover the riches of our own tradition and context, and not to mimic what we perceive to be true somewhere else.

If we happen to be in a meeting together, and you want to talk about worship styles, and even if you want to frame the conversation with terms like "traditional" and "contemporary", be at peace. It will be okay. I will be able to do more listening, now that I have spoken here.

In the meantime, it is almost Friday, and I am looking forward to worshipping God in a couple of days, with his gloriously chaotic and amazingly faithful people at Providence United Methodist Church. If you are in the area, stop by, at either 8:30 or 11:00. If you are thinking 11:00, however, come early. As Yogi Berra said, "nobody comes's too crowded".

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

connecting with God (john 15)

I am strong.
At least I think I am strong.
I like to be in control.
I like to be at the center.
Maybe being strong is about survival,
about perseverance,
about doing what I ought to do.
But at times I am aware that I am not so strong.
At times I sense that I am not in control.
At times I know that I am not centered in God,
but in self.
When the illusion of my strength is made plain for me,
I know that I am weak,
and that I must live by faith.
When the illusion of my control is apparent,
I know that I am uncertain,
and that I must live by hope.
When the illusion that I am at the center of all things is before me,
I know that I am filled with pride,
and that I must learn to live by love.
God is my strength, I am reminded.,
When my own efforts reach their end, God's work begins.
When the wine has been poured completely, the miracle happens.
When I can see no further, my blindness is cured,
and now I see, and there is grace.
Jesus says, "I am the vine and you are the branches,
and apart from me you can do nothing".
In these words I experience connection, I discover life,
I envision growth.
Sometimes I feel disconnected and uprooted;
sometimes I feel bored and enslaved;
sometimes I feel isolated and estranged.
An experience of connection leads me to assurance and safety.
An experience of life ushers in joy and new creation.
An experience of growth integrates God and self and others into a whole.
There is a wholeness about a vine connected to the branches.
There is a wholeness about a life connected to God.
The absence of that connection is life without spirit, without breath.
My temptation is to see only that which can be seen,
tested, measured as real.
When this is the case, I fall into the trap of...
doing rather being
action rather than contemplation
busyness rather than stillness,
and I see faith as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.
My struggle is to see the whole rather than the parts.
To be created in God's image is to live fully in this world,
and yet to know that I have been created for God.
To live in God's image is to know that I have a capacity
for a more-than-human life,
or perhaps for a fully human life,
even, by God's gift,
a holy life.
To seek the whole is to search for connection, for life, for growth.
To seek the whole is to live in relationship with Christ.
To seek the whole is to live as the person I have been created to be.
This seeking requires that I depend not only on my own strengths,
that I give up some degree of control,
that I allow my life to be centered in God.
As I move toward a life as connected to Christ
as branches to the vine,
I will be nourished with a cup and a loaf,
I will be sustained with a power and a presence,
I will be led by Jesus, who is the way, the truth and the life.

Monday, May 08, 2006

eat this book

Eat This Book: A Conversation in The Art of Spiritual Reading by Eugene Peterson

Eugene Peterson, translator of The Message, Presbyterian minister and seminary professor, is in the midst of writing a five- volume spiritual theology. The first volume, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, appeared last year and was reviewed in Circuit Rider May/June, 2005. Eat This Book is now the second volume to appear, and is simply “a conversation in the art of spiritual reading”. More specifically, this is a volume on the art of reading, marking learning and inwardly digesting scripture, the word of God, the bread of life.

Peterson insists that “the Christian scriptures are the primary text for Christian spirituality.” This notion, he admits, has never gone unchallenged, for we often prefer other “texts,” most recently the prominent text is the “sovereign self.” This leads to a reliance on experience over scripture (a practice that Methodists, with our quadrilateral, would know about), and a neglect of the very content of God’s revelation. Basing his argument upon Revelation 10. 9-10, Peterson is eloquent in placing an image before us:

“Christians feed on scripture. Holy Scripture nurtures the holy community as food nurtures the human body. Christians don’t simply learn or study or use Scripture; we assimilate it, take it into our lives in such a way that it gets metabolized into acts of love, cups of cold water, missions into all the world, healing and evangelism and justice in Jesus’ name, hands raised in adoration of the Father, feet washed in company with the Son” (18).

The remainder of the book is an unfolding reflection on the process of eating the book, feeding on scripture. As we eat the book, our lives take the form of following Jesus; indeed, the purpose of scripture itself is to lead us into this life. And so the challenge is not to gain more knowledge, but to become holy people, living the Holy Scriptures “from the inside out.”

One of the primary ways that we receive the scriptures is through the practice of lectio divina, and the book’s middle section is devoted to this ancient spiritual discipline. The book’s third and final section is an analysis of questions related to the translation of scripture; Peterson reflects on the biblical languages, and on the process by which The Message emerged.

Eugene Peterson’s counsel on reading the Bible is welcome in a culture that seeks to discover spirituality apart from scripture and discipleship apart from guidance. His message that we need to become doers of the word and not hearers only (James 1:22) is welcome in a church that values credentials and degrees, and yet sometimes divorces knowledge from faithfulness. Amazingly, Peterson’s wisdom comes across without a hint of arrogance; he is seasoned interpreter of the faith, his insights honed by a lifetime of pastoral practice, his judgments also under the authority of God and the revealed Word.

I am grateful that someone like Eugene Peterson has emerged, calling us to remember who we are, pointing us toward the resource that gives life, challenging us, in the words of John’s revelation, to “eat the book.” Having spent time with this volume, I await the next three, as a guest at table would anticipate the next servings of a deliciously prepared meal.

(I wrote this review for the Circuit Rider---see link to the right. You can also order the book there.)

Saturday, May 06, 2006

a consuming fire

Over a year ago I read three long pieces in The New Yorker by Elizabeth Kolbert on global warming. The writing was measured and yet also alarming , at the same time reflective and urgent. I saved the pieces, to be read again, and was pleased that the articles have now appeared as a book entitled Field Notes From A Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change (Bloomsbury). From the point of view of both reader and writer, it is a perfect title: these are field notes, observations from the Arctic Circle and Washington, D.C., from China and Greenland, from the Netherlands and Syria. The observations are carefully made, and call forth the interpretation (and response) of the reader. The "catastrophe" is the warming of the earth's atmosphere, a fact that is universally affirmed by the objective scientific communities of the developed countries of the world.

Global warming (1998 had the highest global temperature on record, 2002 the second highest, 2001 the third highest, 2004 the fourth highest) is chiefly the result of increased carbon dioxide emissions, which largely arise from the use of electricity (39%) and then transportation (32%). The U.S. is the largest producer of CO2, although we will soon be overtaken by China. The results of global warming thus far are higher sea levels in some parts of the world, droughts in others, less ice surface (which reflects the sun's heat back) and more watery surface (which absorbs the heat). The major cause of hurricane intensity is the warmth of the waters (thus the frequency of hurricanes in these past years near, among other places, Florida and the Gulf). Stay tuned to the upcoming hurricane season!

Kolbert presents the evidence from as many perspectives as possible. She notes along the way that most often the public is alarmed, while scientists are cautious. In regard to global warming, however, the scientific community is alarmed, while the general public has largely been unmoved. She also outlines the politics of global warming: the Clinton Administration is largely seen as right on the rhetoric but politically unwilling to respond, while the Bush Administration has been at times "missing in action", to use John McCain's phrase, and at other times intentionally dishonest in attempting to confuse the public. She also notes the economic perspective: the U.S. and China are essentially at a stand-off, neither willing to act, because of competitive pressures in the global marketplace.

Other questions are posed in the book: Are humans really the cause of global warming? Will the effects of warming be gradual or catastrophic? Can anything really be done, or is it too late? Can humans adapt, as they have done so often in the past? Is this a crisis where we have adequate knowledge but not the will to act?

Kolbert dedicates the book to her three sons, and of course that is a lingering question related to global warming. We are changing the environment in catastrophic ways. I am not aware of anyone who seriously believes that our children and their children will inherit the same earth that we did. The choice, Kolbert suggests, is between action in the present or self-destruction in the future.

I encourage you to get your hands on a copy of these "field notes", to look at the world in which we live, and to ask yourself, "what kind of future awaits the inhabitants of this planet?"

Monday, May 01, 2006

a friendship with Jesus (john 15)

Once we lived in a vital connection with the earth. If we worked the ground, cared for the soil, supported the vocation of farming, we were blessed with the fruits of the earth. Now we fill our carts with produce and meats and canned goods and beverages, we run our plastic card through a scanner, punch in a few numbers on a key pad, and we have daily bread. If floods come, or ecological disaster, or famine, another market will be found. There is no longer a vital, visible relationship between what blossoms from the earth and what feeds and sustains us. We don’t always see the connection.

The setting of this very simple teaching of Jesus, “I am the vine, and you are the brances…and apart from me you can do nothing”(John 15. 5) is one of growth, life, and connection. Of course there can be no growth apart from the vine; of course there would be no life apart from the sustaining force of the vine and the visible strength of the branches.

The image, of vine and branches, helps us to understand and evaluate where we are in our relationship with Christ. How strong is the connection? If we no longer have that vital connection with the earth, but continue to enjoy its fruits, could the same be said for our spiritual lives? As individuals, we can become wrapped up in doing good things, being in the right places, observing those who are religious, selecting the right church, as we would a school or a neighborhood…without actually living in connection with Christ. North Americans are efficient, rational, problem-solving individuals. We get things done. But still, we can lose that vital connection.

Gerald Kennedy, a Methodist Bishop of the last century, spoke of this at an institutional level when he remarked that the Methodist Church was so well-organized that it would flourish in America long after Christianity had ceased to exist! And so sometimes we wonder: Where is the connection? Where are we in the spiritual life? The Anglican mystic Evelyn Underhill posed the matter this way: The interesting thing about religion is God”. And so the question becomes: what does this have to do with God? And what do I have to do with God?”

If the connection sometimes seem loose or fragmented, there is help for us in the scriptures. Jesus describes the connection with the image of a vine and branches. He uses the image both positively and negatively. First, the positive statement. It is translated in THE MESSAGE with these words: Live in me. Make my home in me just as I do in you.

It’s baseball season. Bartlett Giametti, who served as the president of Yale and later as the commissioner of baseball was once asked why the sport of baseball enjoyed such fascination and almost reverance among fans. He responded: Baseball is about getting home, and we all want to get home.” To get home is to experience connection. The spiritual life is about being at home with God, coming home to God.

Some of you know that my family lives about five hours from here, to the south. Over the years I have made that trip at different times and for varying reasons: late at night, early in the morning, in heavy Thanksgiving traffic, in the snow following Christmas, with very young children or by myself, or just with Pam, in anticipation of family gatherings, maybe a funeral or a birthday, or a reunion. I usually get down a couple of times a year, and even though we see each other infrequently---we each have our own lives--- there is a connection, there is an experience of home. The accents are thicker, the pace is slower, they don’t put slaw on hotdogs, and someone usually asks when I lost my accent!

Jesus said, “Live in me. Make your home in me, just as I do in you”. Just as the branches must remain on the vine, the disciple is to remain in Jesus. There is a mutual indwelling---we are in Christ, Christ is in us. This is what experiencing a connection is all about.

But Jesus also expresses the point negatively. The connection can be loose, fragmented, broken. There can be, in words that are familiar to us, a “failure to communicate, mixed signals, different wavelengths”. In the early years of computers I would try to do something and I would receive this message: ABORT, RETRY, FAIL.

“Apart from me”, Jesus says, “you can do nothing”. At the core of Christianity is the assumption that we have a need for God, that there is something within us that can only be completed through the presence of Christ. To be a Christian is to trust that God overcomes our weaknesses, forgives our failures, heals our brokenness. On one level it is very simple.

I am aware that many people had bad experiences early in life by hearing presentations of a simple faith that did not square with the world they actually lived in, or by being pressured toward a fundamentalism that was oppressive. Jesus is the answer”, we would be told, when no one was very clear about what the question was in the first place. I was helped by a statement, whose origin I am unclear about. Here it is: I would give nothing for a simplicity on this side of complexity. I would give everything for a simplicity on the other side of complexity.

Some people have spent their lives running away from a stereotype of Jesus, either the Jesus of fundamentalism or the Jesus of the secular scholars whom the media find so fascinating, and in the process they have cut themselves off from the One who is the source of life and healing, strength and mercy.

We can live in connection with the God who wants to give us grace, help, forgiveness, salvation. But there is a human temptation to keep God at a distance. To be a Christian is to admit that we need a Savior; it is to cry out for help in the middle of the night; it is to say, “I can’t do this on my own”.

Here is the good news: when we ask for help, there is a lot of help there. The 12 Steps movement says it this way: When we confess that we are powerless, we are put in touch with an incredible power. Apart from me, you can do nothing, Jesus says. But if you live in me, as I live in you, there is an incredible power, an amazing grace.

And if we read ahead in the story, we discover something equally astonishing. Jesus says, I no longer call you servants, but I have called you friends (John 15. 5). To be a Christian is to be a friend of Jesus, to be at home with him, to live in him, and to know that he is alive. I’ll say this as simply as a I know how: you are invited into a friendship with Jesus Christ, to experience this connection, because you matter to God. If we live long enough, we discover the importance of friendships, because in friendships we become aware that we matter to some other person, and so we try to stay connected.

How do friends stay connected? Again, simply, they stay in touch. They want to know “what’s up”, as my kids would say. Friends talk, they listen, they ask questions and they are genuinely interested in each other, they want to learn about what is going on.

What does a friendship with Jesus look like? There would be time to talk and listen. This is prayer. A friendship with Jesus is all about prayer. The late Henri Nouwen met a seeker who was having difficulty believing in God. They happened to be seated next to each other at a charity function. I’m having trouble believing all of this”, she said. He literally seized the woman, looked into her eyes, said to her, “Give me five minutes a day, five minutes a day to be silent and in the presence of Jesus…five minutes”.

We pay attention to our friends. We talk and listen. Could you give five minutes a day to spend in the presence of Jesus? Beyond talking and listening, we ask questions and learn about the lives of our friends. One evening recently I traveled with a couple of friends to an event that was out of town. Since we had time in the car together we were able to learn about each other, our hobbies, our children, our work. We laughed. We talked about serious issues. There were silences in the midst of the conversation. A friendship takes that kind of time.

How do we ask questions, how do we learn in the spiritual life? We turn to the scriptures. We open the Bible and we dive into it with our questions, and we begin to learn about this Jesus that we sing about and read about in the news media and perhaps called upon sometime in our life along the way. Here I want to plant a seed. If you have not taken Disciple Bible Study, I hope you will plan, now, to be in a class that starts in August. Disciple, more than any other Bible Study, is an exercise in diving into the scriptures, asking questions, learning about the Christian life.

Can a friendship lose its meaning? Yes. We can become disconnected. Sadly, I have friends who I would not be able to find if I wanted to. We have lost touch. I regret that. And it’s true in the spiritual life.

I am the vine, you are the branches, and apart from me you can do nothing, Jesus teaches. This is the first in a series of three messages over the next weeks. There is more to the spiritual life than a friendship with Jesus. There is our life together---he taught us to love one another. And there is our life in the world---he called us to go and bear fruit. Those are like the ripples of water that extend beyond us.

But we must begin here. The center, the core, the foundation is a friendship with Jesus, a friendship that we are called to invest in, to give time to. Jesus is the source of our strength. Speaking, listening, asking questions, learning. It is a gift, but we access the gift through the simple acts of prayer and scripture. To do these simple acts is to stay connected---“I am the vine, you are the branches, and apart from me you can do nothing”, he teaches us.

A simplicity on the other side of complexity. As we move through this life’s journey, things will happen, questions will emerge, crises will erupt, wounds will be opened and disappointments will linger. We will need the companionship of Someone who walks beside us, whose promise, “I am with you always”, is real, a friend, who gently reminds us of a simple truth, even on the other side of complexity: apart from me you can do nothing.