Saturday, November 27, 2010

the life you save may be your own

My brief reflection on Paul Elie's The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage is posted at No Depression.

Elie's project is a really wonderful way of connecting four profoundly Christian witnesses (Merton, Percy, O' Connor, Day) through the image of pilgrimage, understood as the movement from second hand to first hand experience; reading it also reminded me of a debt to two really great teachers, Stuart Henry at Duke and Ralph Wood at Wake Forest (now Baylor), and has prompted me to think about Advent, soon upon us, as a context yet again for the great pilgrimage.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

invite, share, grow (christ the king)

Christ the King is the last Sunday in the year on the Christian calendar. If the year begins with Advent and the anticipation of the birth of Jesus, it concludes with his enthronement at the right hand of God, who has highly exalted him and given him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus Christ every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord to the glory of God. The Lordship of Christ is of course the personal decision that is the doorway into the Christian faith; the simplest creed contains three words, “Jesus is Lord”.

It is one thing to give honor to a ruler or a king. We stand when someone comes into a room, or we cease our conversations and pay attention or we applaud. It is a way of showing respect or even gratitude. To say Jesus is Lord is to kneel in reverence, to stand in awe, to sing Joy to the World, the Lord is come, let earth receive her king.

But the Lordship of Christ, and Christ the King has another meaning: to conform our lives to his, to spread the influence of his love and life upon this earth. In the gospels this is called the kingdom of God. In the passage I quoted from Philippians 2, where every knee shall bow and every tongue confess, we catch the second meaning earlier in the passage, when Paul writes, “Have this mind in you which was in Christ Jesus, who emptied himself and took the form of a servant, and became obedient unto death, even death upon the cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and given him the name that is above every name…

I have been reflecting on Christ the King Sunday and what it might mean to us in a few practical ways. What does it mean to have the mind that was in Christ Jesus? How can we become more Christ-like? How can the church be a foretaste of the kingdom of God? And what does all of this mean for this season of the year?

I want to focus on three words: invite, share, and grow.

This is a season of invitation for us. We receive invitations to parties, celebrations, gatherings of various sorts. These are fun. When we receive an invitation we feel included. I want you to think of the coming weeks as a particularly appropriate time to invite. An invitation can happen in subtle ways: a friend or a relative comes for an out of town visit. You might say, “you know, this is a great time of year for our church, you can come as you are, plan to go with me, afterwards we will have brunch”. That is an invitation.

Or someone new has moved into your neighborhood. You tell them about our choir concert or lessons and carols service, or the food we are collecting for the hungry. That is an invitation.

Your child is a college student and comes home for Christmas. We have a reunion for college students and their friends an hour prior to the eleven o’clock pm Christmas Eve service, the last one of the evening. Some of them have sung in our youth choir and they are invited to sing in that service. That is an invitation.

Or someone at work has been through a difficult time. We are going to have a “Service of the Longest Night”, literally the shortest day of the year, and John Arey is going to speak in practical ways about how to make it through the long nights, the dark nights of the soul, especially during the holidays, when, the words “all is calm and all is bright” are not true for everyone. That is an invitation.

I am asking you to invite someone to our church in the coming weeks. You’re thinking about it, but already the little obstacles are crossing your mind. You say, “but I don’t want to be pushy” (you wouldn’t be). Or, everyone I know already comes to this church (maybe you need to get out of the house!) Or “everyone already has a church home” (statistics say this is likely not true).

A simple invitation is powerful. It is an expression of radical hospitality.

So, a first question: who will you invite? Of course, there is a deeper question: why should you invite someone? A great question, and a sermon in and of itself, but, short answer----in the Advent and Christmas season they will receive a gift, the hope, peace, joy and love of God, for them, and it will come at them from every direction---the music, the messages, the visuals, the warmth of other people. What a gift for someone in your life! Invite!

Another word for the coming weeks: share. It is the season of giving. As of the end of the week we had pledged almost 72% of our mission for the coming year. That is a very strong start and our next goal is to be at 80% by Thanksgiving. If you can make a pledge this morning and place it in the offering plate that would be wonderful.

I also want to highlight three very practical ways you can give in the coming weeks to address basic needs.

• Our Advent for Hunger initiative is a collection of food for the hungry of our community. Last year we collected 9.5 tons of food. In a difficult economic climate many of our neighbors are hungry, and we hope to surpass last year’s contributions.

• The Star Tree is a way to provide gifts for a 3-4 year old child in Charlotte. Each donor provides one outfit, one gift and one book. This is a project led by the Children’s Council in partnership with the Bethlehem Center, and we hope to help 110 children!

• Our Haiti Microcredit Team has received a matching gift of $5000. With an additional $5000 we hope to make 50 loans to women in Dondon, Haiti who have been waiting for over a year. A $50 gift will help each of these 50 women, and if we reach this goal we will be directly assisting over 100 Haitian women in employment that supports their families and give them dignity.

Our gifts can alleviate hunger, brighten Christmas morning for a child, and provide work for women in northern Haiti. Sharing our gifts is at the heart of this season; it is an expression of extravagant generosity. So, a second question: how will you share in this season?

When we invite others, we are living in the kingdom of God. Jesus was constantly inviting people to follow him, to listen to him, to share a meal with him. When we share what we have and who we are with others, we are living in the kingdom of God. Jesus gave his life for us, and we give because we have first received.

It is a pleasure to hear Jack Lamour’s story this morning, and as the week has unfolded I have connected him with these three words: invite, share, grow. Years ago Alice White had told me about bright young man, one of our interpreters in our clinic in Haiti, who wanted to come to the U.S. and study and then return and do humanitarian work. As we were talking one evening it occurred to me that we could become personally involved in this. And then, as a couple, Pam and I realized that we could invite Jack to live with us---we were in a parsonage with more bedrooms than we needed. We had the space in our home; the question was, did we have the space in our lives? We made the invitation, a simple invitation to come to the U.S. and attend college.

Jack responded, he came to Charlotte, and began college, and that’s where the next word comes in: sharing. Jack became a part of a congregation that shared with him: you helped him to navigate the streets of Charlotte, hosted him for meals, supported his tuition, became his friend. He started at CPCC, and then a United Methodist college gave him a one half scholarship. Jack’s has two weeks of classes, then his last final exams. He will have graduated in four years with a degree in biochemistry. Many, many of you have shared what you have and who you are with Jack. It is an amazing story, and we are all a part of it.

Invitation, sharing, growth. Jack has made the most of an opportunity to receive an education. He has been the beneficiary of the gifts of others. Now he moves into adulthood, he has grown up, and he will take what he has learned and what he will learn in the future, and who knows: maybe he will change the world?

What does growth mean for us? We anticipate the season ahead as one in which we plant seeds. We invite someone, and they are inspired, they experience the presence of God. We share a part of what we have and who we are with someone else, they are blessed, we are blessed, the world changes a little, and we taste something that seems good and right, and we want more. What does that look like?

Next week is the beginning of Advent, the preparation for the birth of the Savior. Advent is getting started, taking small steps, the story of God emerging for us. Advent culminates in Christmas, the birth of Jesus, the Savior, a celebration, the flooding of this space with life and light, every corner of the sanctuary inhabited with people who are standing in tiptoes, lifting the light into the sky.

But this also leads to something more. The glory of God that visits Bethlehem spreads to all the earth. The moment in time becomes a movement. We pray… thy kingdom, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…and then we look for the signs.

We are not there now —I talked about this last week, remember our conversation about “it is what it is” ?---but we have been given the vision and as followers of Christ the King we grow toward it. Growth is the season of Epiphany. The kingdom moves, spreads, the light floods not only the space of a sanctuary but all of life.

On Christmas Eve we are going to ask you to grow spiritually in the new year. We are going to offer opportunities to be in small groups in January, February and March. Our hope and prayer is that the crowds that gather at Christmas will become smaller communities of disciples of Jesus Christ in the new year, disciples who will help to transform the world.

• Invite, that’s radical hospitality.
• Share, that’s extravagant generosity.
• Grow, that’s intentional faith development.

In the weeks ahead, and especially on Christmas Eve we will sing the carol, Joy to the World, the Lord is come, let earth receive her king, let every heart prepare him room. Through invitation and radical hospitality, we prepare room, we make space for someone else in our lives. Through sharing, and extravagant generosity, we prepare room, we make space for the needs of others in our lives. And through intentional faith development we grow, we prepare room, we make space for the very presence of Jesus himself in our lives.

What if every one of us invited someone?
What if every one of us shared our gifts?
What if every one of us made a conscious decision to grow spiritually in the new year?
What does it mean to honor Christ as our King?
Could this be the way that God changes the world?

And could all of this lead to the fulfillment of the scripture, when every knee shall bow, every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

giving thanks: a pastor's report

1. The profound mission of education, including now English as a second language training, microcredit and water purification in a time of cholera by the Providence Women on a Mission + 1, and their safe return on Friday evening in the midst of demonstrations and protests in Cap Haitien, Haiti.

2. The Interfaith Study of the Psalms we have enjoyed with our friends at Temple Israel this fall, and their rabbi, Murray Ezring, and our emerging capacity to learn, laugh and argue in the midst of what we share in common and how we differ.

3. The Mary and Joseph Breakfast held at our church on Saturday morning for our children and their parents, and in some cases, grandparents, and the learning and fun that was a part of it all.

4. Our youth, who spent the night with the homeless last weekend and walked as advocates for their well being.

5. Jacques Lamour's testimony in our worship services last Sunday, and his upcoming graduation next month from Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama.

6. The passionate traditional worship that is at the heart of our life together, and the congregation's singing of "Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending", one of my favorite Wesley hymns.

7. A conversation among five pastors with our District Superintendent to name what has in fact become a reality over these years: a cooperative mission parish that encompasses a Liberian congregation (Spencer Memorial), a Cambodian congregation (St. John's) and Providence.

8. Planning for a Change the World series in January and February, which will focus on housing, Haiti, reconciliation, human trafficking, and hunger, set in the context of the Sermon on the Mount.

9. Planning for a Passionate Traditional Worship conference in February that will feature Marva Dawn, David Childs, Taylor Burton-Edwards, Laurie Haller and Bishop Larry Goodpaster.

10. The Advent for Hunger collection of food that will begin on December 1. Last year Providence UMC collected 9.5 tons of food during the month of December.

11. The emerging New Wine series of evening services this fall, which have included Compline and Taize expressions of worship.

12. A new young adult Sunday School class (Kairos).

13. Young adults from our church in mission and ministry beyond us, especially Jamie and Holle Wollin, who will serve in Cambodia in 2011 with the Mission Society, Dan and Courtney Randall, with GBGM in New England and a parish in Maine, and Lauren James, who is with UMCOR in Haiti.

14. The completion of charge conference, staff evaluations, most of the stewardship campaign, and a nominations process that involves between 800 and 900 persons.

15. Sharing the story of Providence's Strategic Planning process, along with Michele Fisher, for the benefit of a leadership group of younger clergy in our annual conference.

16. Meeting a former governor of North Carolina, the father of one of our members, and learning that another member of our church has been awarded a Rhodes Scholarship this week.

17. A presentation by Providence UMC's microcredit leadership at a symposium held by Pfeiffer University.

18. A Sunday lunch gathering on the subject of "Care at the End of Life" and featuring Richard Payne, M.D., of Duke University's Medical and Divinity Schools.

19. A gathering of support for the Duke Center for Reconciliation in Charlotte and the possibility of its extension into the the Charlotte area.

20. Visits, conversations and prayers with a number of members who are struggling with illnesses.

21. The anticipation of Advent worship, Christmas parties, the end of the financial year (!), a sublime Service of Lessons and Carols, and a Christmas eve filled with carols, communion and candlelight.

Friday, November 19, 2010

living in an "it is what it is" world (isaiah 65)

The vision of the prophet begins with the creative work of God.

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating;

We read in our translation “I am about to create” but it could also be translated “I am creating”. It is not that God did something in the beginning and then let it take its own course; God is always involved, always creating, always speaking. The creation of God, we remember from the Book of Genesis, has a pattern, evening and morning, the first day, evening and morning, the 2nd day, evening and morning, the 3rd day. And this has a meaning: we sleep in the night, we dream, we rest, but God is creating, God is at work, and then we awake, in the morning, to find that the work has already begun. We take part in something that God has already gotten started, and so whatever we do is not creation out of nothing. God has gone before us.

This creation of which the prophet speaks is going to be massive, nothing less than a new heaven and a new earth, and it is not going to be the same old thing, only with a different package, or a remodeling; God is going to start over, wipe the slate clean. Of course this had been the history of how God had been at work in the world: Israel remembered a great flood, an opportunity to make a new start, and Christians have always likened that to baptism, to new life, to new birth by water and the spirit.

It is a mercy that God is always giving us a new beginning, a new day. We can forget the bad stuff, wipe the slate clean. And many of us, at least some of the time, would welcome something different, something new, something better. A few years ago I began to hear a phrase: “It is what it is”. Have you ever heard that phrase? I would sometimes hear a friend or two say it, “it is what it is”. Sometime later I came across a list of the most annoying phrases in America. Number One: “whatever”. Number Two: “you know”. Number three: “it is what it is”.
Your day has been terrible: it is what it is. That repair of your computer/ipad did not quite fix the problem: it is what it is. Stuck in traffic, or in an airport? It is what it is. That task which you thought would take a day, it will take a week. It is what it is. Your favorite team is having an awful year. It is what it is.

Why do you think this phrase is so annoying? Could it be that deep down our expectations were higher. And so the prophet comes along with good news, not “it is what it is”, but “it can change”. There is a new creation. But what will the change and creation look like?

No more shall the sound of weeping be heard or the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.

Here the mind and heart of God turns toward the people of God, toward us, like a parent who voices her hopes for her son or daughter: he will grow up, she will find someone who loves her, they will have children, be happy, will find meaningful work, they will be spared tragedy, they will enjoy a long life together.

For Jewish people, with a somewhat ambiguous understanding of the afterlife, longevity was and is important. As Americans our lifespans are getting longer, and we do sometimes take all of that for granted. Most of us have access to health care, we are spared the conditions of a disease like cholera, which has threatened Haiti recently, or malaria, which has ravaged the continent of Africa. We do know children who live only a few days, or children who live a few years, like the young girl we have followed in Caldwell County, and adults who do not live out their lifetimes but these are the exceptions, not the rule. A long life: this is the promise of God. But what does this life look like? Beyond quantity, what is the quality of this long life?

They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit…
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.

All of a sudden, in the vision of the prophet and of God, we become active participants. It is no longer a spectator sport. God began creating, but now we are at work with him. God gives us the vision, but God uses us to shape it into something that is real.

You may have heard the old story about the rural pastor who was getting to know the members of his church, many of them were farmers, and one day the pastor drove out into the country, left the main highway and turned onto the dirt road, he walked up to the house and rang the doorbell, he then learned that the gentleman he was searching for was in the barn, he walked a short distance over and shook hands with the farmer.

They surveyed the land, beautifully cared for and cultivated. There was a long silence, not unusual for country people who are not in a hurry. The pastor broke the silence and to make conversation said, “it is amazing to behold the glory of God’s creation”. There was a pause, and then the farmer stated, matter of factly, “you should have seen it when the Lord had it all to himself!”

It is true that God begins the work, but we are called to continue it, to complete it. God creates something new. We participate in the creation of God. We participate in changing the world. Without God, we can’t. Without us, God won’t.

The vision of Isaiah is a beautiful dream for us, for the world. It concludes:

They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD—and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together…They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.

It is beautiful, this vision, it is poetry. But it lacks something. And what it lacks is precisely what we hear in the letter of Paul to the Thessalonians. Paul is writing one of the earliest letters to the first Christians, one of the oldest manuscripts in the New Testament, if not the oldest. The believers thought the world was coming to an end, that Jesus was returning, soon, and so they became passive, they stopped working, they became idle, and in their idleness they turned to gossip.

Now that may be a strange concept to you….gossip in the church, but you will have to imagine that at one time, in one place, there was gossip in the church, a newer translation has it, people “meddling in the business of others”. It happens. They were no longer listening to the voice of God or the words of the prophet, they no longer thought about building houses or planting gardens, maybe they had become too heavenly minded to be any earthly good, as one evangelist described it!

Both passages of scripture speak to a common experience that I believe afflicts many Christians. The world is a mess, and so we have settled in to a way of coping: I can’t fix the world, but heaven will be wonderful. And heaven will be wonderful. But the clear teaching of Isaiah, and this is echoed in Revelation 21, is that God wants earth to be like heaven. That is what we pray, every week: thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven!

We do not give up on God’s dream for this life. As I listen to the words of the prophet, it is clear to me that God does want to change the world. “It is what it is” would never be the will of God. God expresses, quite clearly and beautifully, what his intention for the world is, and by world I mean our lives, our families, our workplaces, our communities, our planet. It is a clear and compelling vision. But it lacks something.

It is a vision without a strategy, and that is where we come in, that is where we connect with it all. God leaves it up to us to develop the plans, to draft the blueprint. And so we look within ourselves----our skills, our interests, our abilities, our training, our expertise, and we get to work. We take it a day at a time, we build, which means we clear land, we lay the foundation, we plant, we till the soil and water it, we stretch our backs and dirty our hands and develop relationships, and think through the complexities of the world as we know it.

“It is what it is” is annoying, and it is not acceptable. To hear the prophet is to lean into the future of God’s dream, it will come to pass, it will become a reality, God is already creating, a fresh wind of the spirit is blowing, God is changing the world. We try to avoid the errors of becoming complacent or passive, believing that the world’s needs are overwhelming, beyond our reach, so why bother (?); or playing God, seeing it as a solo task, thinking it is all up to me, that my efforts alone will accomplish the vision.

Both errors are wrong. Without God, we can’t. Without us, God won’t. God wants to do this work with us, that is why God created us! As we seek freedom and justice and reconciliation in this world, wherever we are, God is right there with us, because that is precisely what God wants the world to look like. It is as if God left the picture unfinished, and gave us the paintbrushes to complete the work of art, or left the structure incomplete, but gave us the tools to go about it. But the end product, of that there is no doubt: the vision is clear and compelling.

If we are going to get to the holy mountain, which is where Isaiah’s prophecy takes us, the peak of what God wants us to taste and see, we are going to have to keep working, keep walking, keep running the race. Do not be weary in doing what is right, Paul encourages them, and us. Don’t accept an “it is what it is” vision of your life and your circumstances. The cure for frustration, cynicism, despair and negativity is the dream of God.

These two passages of scripture, one from the prophet, one from Paul, bring together poetry and advice, a dream and a strategy, mysticism and service, optimism and reality. They unite heaven and earth, love of God and love of neighbor, inspiration and perspiration. They bring together a gift and the command to honor the gift, and that gift is life. In all of this we hold together the dream of God and the work that we do every day of our lives. It is how, and why, we keep going. Without God, we can’t. Without us, God won’t.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

riots in cap haitien, haiti

Yesterday there were riots in the streets of Cap Haitien, Haiti's second largest city. The impetus was the experience of two realities: the spread of cholera and the presence of United Nations peacekeepers from Nepal. Haiti has no recent experience of cholera, but the disease has appeared in the country over the last month. According the the Centers for Disease Control (U.S.), the origin of the strain is South Asian. Haitians have a long and strained relationship with the peacekeepers, with the reasons being varied. It is not difficult to prompt a Haitian to express his or her feelings about U.N. presence, and the opinion will be almost universally negative (this has been my observation in Cap Haitien). As an aside, this was echoed by a United Methodist delegate from the Congo in my legislative committee at the 2008 General Conference in Fort Worth.

The protest began as residents connected the spread of cholera with the UN peacekeepers. The initial diagnosis of the disease did occur in an area where Nepalese peacekeepers were present. The Nepal government itself denies that their personnel are the source of the disease. Some argue instead that it is Hurricane Tomas, with the resulting floods that caused the bursting of some water channels. Is the Haitian protest credible? On the one hand, one cannot be certain that they are correct; it is possible that the source is not Nepalese. On the other hand, Haitians (and other poor countries) have a history of suffering from the effects of diseases introduced by outsiders.

It is possible that the rioting (with one death thus far in Cap Haitien) is also associated with the upcoming presidential elections in Haiti (November 28). And it is very likely that all of this is the result of frustration arising from a confluence of harsh experiences: the earthquake ten months ago, that killed over two hundred thousand people; the slow, almost imperceptible humanitarian response (with a few notable exceptions) at a macro level; the combination of ineffective local government in Haiti, corruption among the Haitian elite and the withholding of donor funds, again most notably the U.S. and for partisan political reasons; Hurricane Tomas; the existing daily challenges that were already present in a country that is the poorest in the Western Hemisphere; and, most recently, the spread of cholera, with the death toll now reaching over 900.

Providence UMC has a "Women on a Mission" team in Cap Haitien. They have been teaching English as a Second Language at the Haiti School of Mercy, giving ongoing oversight to a microcredit partnership with New Hope for Haiti, and as a response to immediate needs working with a Haitian physician on procuring water purification resources for several communities. Providence has a thirty year history and partnership in northern Haiti that includes a medical clinic (with 30,000 patient files), a primary school with 210 students, and a microcredit initiative with loans to fifty women (by January 1 we anticipate that 100 women will have loans). I welcome your prayers for the team's safe journey home, and also for the people of Haiti, that their cries for peace, justice and a new creation (Isaiah 65) will be heard by God, who will, in the fullness of time, come down to deliver them (Exodus 3; Luke 4).

Thursday, November 11, 2010

the "call to action" and the renewal of the church

To begin at the end: the renewal of the church will be a gift of God, and the work of the Holy Spirit.

But let's think our way to that conclusion. The good news is that almost no one is complacent or happy with the state of the Christian church in the United States (and my own particular tribe is the United Methodist expression). Evangelicals are sensing that the attractional church is a dead end; having gained the world, they have at times lost their own souls. Seeker sensitive worship met needs but did not form disciples of Jesus. The cult of celebrity fed the egos of megachurch pastors, who succumbed to the temptations of the world's kingdoms. The next generation interprets doctrinal orthodoxy as selective judgmentalism, especially about matters related to human sexuality.

The mainline church is being sustained by the greatest generation and their gifts, some of which are now endowed in larger parishes and in denominational institutions. Boomers traded self-denial for self-fulfillment, and found their way into non-institutional forms of transcendence (spiritual, but not religious). Boomers were shaped for the most part by a culture of entertainment, sports and leisure; at times the church adapted to all of this (incorporating these pursuits into its programming), and at other times the church threw rocks at the culture, imagining itself to be a righteous remnant above all of that. But again, the church simply seemed to be whining, claiming a privilege that it no longer held, reinforcing a high culture that was superior to the more popular culture of the masses, who no longer perceived us to be the mainline to any particular destination.

And so the long decline continues, and calls for renewal become more urgent. The financial crisis accelerated the need for denominational redefinition: less infrastructure was needed, and so seminaries and resourcing agencies and mission sending agencies and publishing houses have been or will be in the process of merging, disappearing or reimagining their futures. At the local level, fewer vital churches exist to fund this infrastructure, and these congregations are increasingly focused on their own communities and/or designing a unique engagement with the larger world. At the same time, the majority of local churches (the average being less than one hundred in worship) must expend all of their resources on the maintenance of aging facilities and funding the (often inadequate) salaries and benefits of clergy. In both cases, fewer resources are flowing to denominations. Call it congregationalism, but it is the future, and it mirrors the flattening of institutional life across a variety of disciplines, from business to health care to education.

My own tradition (United Methodism) is trying to make sense of all of this. The Bishops, with the encouragement of the Connectional Table in a "Call to Action", are naming the problems, and finding the solution in vital congregations. They have chosen, it seems, to place their focus not on the disease but rather on the signs of life, and have committed themselves to aligning systems that will support congregational vitality. That this coincides with the financial necessity of dismantling certain structures is providential, for they are finding allies in many other corridors of the church (studies of clergy pensions and ordained ministry, respectively, to name two examples). The pushback is coming from the institutions that are in need of strong denominational support---our more at-risk theological schools, boards and agencies and initiatives. It does not help that the trust level is so low and the leadership so divided; this is the blessing and curse of pluralism and diversity, however the reader understands that. We are, for the most part, unable to communicate with each other, and for a denomination that spends a great deal of time talking about inclusiveness, many do not sense that they are included in the diagnosis of the problem or the identification of the solution.

It helps to step back from all of this, for a moment. I confess that this is easier said than done, for if we lead the church or care about its future we are shaped by a few default assumptions that are strong and persistent, namely the crisis of the church in its human expression, the mission of the church as a human agenda, and the need for a strategic intervention...and who better to do that The new creation must finally be the work of God, in which we are surely partners, or even co-creators. And yet the disturbing reality is that God is allowing the evangelical and mainline churches to experience numerical decline, at precisely the time in history when we have the greatest access to professional expertise in areas of family systems, managerial consulting, sociological analysis...and I could go on.

Those of us who care about the renewal of the church are swimming against the stream of a number of powerful currents. We can, and very likely must redesign our systems and structures, but this will leave us with the same challenges at the local level. We can point to the great man or woman as a leader who defies our usual experience, but this will lead in the end to the cult of celebrity, and we have been there before. We will need to give a clearer rationale for God's mission that is beyond the local church, remembering that the local church may be in Monrovia or Montgomery, Duluth or Dallas. In these contexts we will encounter an astonishing increase in basic human needs, at the very time when our government seems unable or unwilling (choose your poitical preference here) to respond.

The very difficult and necessary work of the General Conference in 2012 may leave us with a structure more aligned with the church as it exists at the beginning of the 21st century, but it cannot attend to the life of the spirit that is finally our reason for being. This life of the spirit is finally our greatest asset: it includes a robust definition of the grace of God, as a lifelong process that is present in the church but also, in a preparatory way, in the world, and an expansive understanding of holiness that is personal as well as social.

Increasingly, renewal is a word we use as a substitute for a word that suggests something more forboding, namely survival. I wonder: Will the world need the United Methodist Church in 2050 and beyond? I anticipate that my own daughters will not yet be retired from the workforce by then, so this is more than a theoretical question to me. I am immersed in the structures and institutions of our denomination, so my first instinct is not to discard them. However, I must say that my answer to the question is a "conditional" yes. If we can rediscover the grace of God----in some sense this may require a purging that prepares us for the gift, and this in fact may be where we find ourselves---we can be a conduit for persons who come to the church, searching for Jesus, and do not find him. We can help them to become his disciples. If we can make a commitment to holiness in its most comprehensive sense----an inner life of humility (which may mean laying aside our agendas and listening for the voice of God in new and fresh ways), an outer life of witness (which in a postmodern world must communicate the integrity and coherence of what we say and what we do)---if we can make these commitments, we will be used by God to transform the world.

None of this reflection discounts the need for organizational self-reflection or denominational restructuring. It simply insists that beyond these tasks lies the essential work, which makes renewal possible. It is to pray "Come, Holy Spirit". And it is to know that, beyond our best efforts, the outcome will finally be within the providence of God.

After all, as we once said in the liturgy, "the church is of God, and will be preserved until the end of time. "

Sunday, November 07, 2010

from reformation to all saints to all souls

It is an important but somewhat liturgically ambiguous season in which we find ourselves, speaking as a pastor trying to hold the evangelical (at times pietist) and catholic (at times formal) sensibilities in tension with each other, and of course the temptation is alway to slide down one slope or the other. But the life, for me, is in the tension; or, as Flannery O' Connor insisted, "the mystery is in the manners."

I decided to focus pretty strongly on Reformation Sunday this year. For me that brought back wonderful memories: David Steinmetz teaching Luther at Duke Divinity School ("God hidden and revealed") and Ralph Wood leading us through Karl Barth's Dogmatics, in a seminar on Barth and John Updike at Wake Forest, and Carlos Eire in a seminar of Calvin's Institutes at Virginia. I work with a wonderful musician who was right there with us, and we processed into the sanctuary singing "A Mighty Fortress is Our God". I actually consider myself much less reformed than I once did; this could be the cumulative experience of spending time with Presbyterian ministers (who are, if you are reading, good friends), and the fact is that I am just not there. This is due, of course, to my exposure to the Wesleyan tradition, and that came to me via Albert Outler, Robert Cushman, Tom Langford and Geoffrey Wainwright, although my favorite theologian, I must confess, is actually Charles Wesley. The reformed tradition came to be something of a cul-de-sac for me, to quote a reformed church leader (and out of my polite southern heritage I will not name him); the Wesleyan way led or rather leads to life: human flourishing, personal faith, social gospel. At its best, I love it.

Still, it was a good to recall the importance of the Word, and occasions when scripture is in conflict with church, and the concept of salvation by grace, and the priesthood of believers. It is all relevant, all a part of the family tree.

All Saints followed the next day, but we observed it the following Sunday. In our congregation we name those members who have died since the last All Saints observance (sixteen men and women, and a number of very close friends among them). A bell tolls, a candle is lit, we share Holy Communion, and then we conclude each service outside in the Columbarium, where brief prayers are offered. Our Columbarium underwent a substantial renovation five years ago; it is a beautiful space enclosed by serpentine walls that bisect the property and especially the parking areas. In this way it is a gift to our congregation and community, and becomes more and more important as time goes by. Pam and I have niches, and at some point our home will be there, but of course, the Christian hope is that our home will also be with God. I told two stories in the sermon: one about performing the wedding of the grandson of a minister who was one of my saints, and another about having breakfast with Bishop James Mathews and his wife Eunice, the daughter of E. Stanley Jones, and an extended conversation with them about non-violence and Martin Luther King, Jr. I connected the latter with the gospel lesson from the beatitudes in Luke and the subsequent command of Jesus to love our enemies.

All Souls Day follows All Saints, and I confess that I don't quite know what to make of this, at least in our tradition, since it is somewhat blurred with All Saints (and so one will sometimes see persons referred to as saints in Christian liturgies who do not claim any faith or relation to God), and further since we do not believe in Purgatory (at least as we follow John Wesley and the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion). Of course it is all a mystery, but I have been helped by the brief volume of N.T. Wright entitled For All The Saints?. Again I note, however, that none of Wright's reflection made it into the All Saints sermon; perhaps another year. The service, really, was carried along by the hymns: For All The Saints, Hymn of Promise, and closing with Shall We Gather at The River.

The two Sundays, in succession, have brought to mind a number of saints in my own journey: Tom Langford, James Bellamy, Ralph Wood and the list could continue. It is the glorious company of the saints of light, the blurring of all kinds of traditions in memory and hope, in a pastoral ministry that can be very emotional and an intellectual life that stands before the mystery of it all. The idealism of a seminary student, taking notes, reading texts, sitting at the feet of theologians, is translated into the ordinary life of leading worship and preaching, giving an account for the hope that is within us: "we feebly struggle", the hymn confesses, "they in glory shine."

Monday, November 01, 2010

always being reformed (reformation sunday)

I know that on the calendar that most of us live by it is Halloween, and the sugar highs that strike at our brains render us almost helpless in thinking about anything else. I know that, but this day has another meaning as well and I wanted to reflect on that for a few minutes. It is Reformation Sunday and whether we know it or not, this has shaped our lives in profound ways.

Martin Luther lived in the sixteenth century in Germany. His father was a member of the town council, and wanted his son to be a lawyer. Luther trained for this purpose, but found himself obsessed with religious questions. One day a lightning bolt struck near him, and he interpreted this as a sign from God that he should surrender his life in some dramatic way. He became a monk. His father saw this as a waste of a good education.

While he was in the monastery, Luther trained as a professor of Bible. During this time officials would come to Germany to raise funds for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The pitch went something like this: faith is not sufficient to put you into the good graces of God; faith must be joined with good works and charity. Good works could be fulfilled by donating money to the church. In addition, you could donate money to the church and free a loved one, who had died, from the depths of purgatory. All of this was captured in a popular saying,

As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory into heaven springs!

At about this time Luther was being shaped by his reading of the New Testament, and especially Paul’s letter to the Romans. Romans gave him clear guidance: we are justified, made right with God, not on the basis of our good works, but through faith, which is a gift. This was the turning point in Martin Luther’s life: he gave up an angry, punishing God for a God of grace and mercy, whom we respond to in faith. This was for him the clear teaching of the scriptures, and it was good news, not bad news. For some reason, the church had hidden this message, buried it in the ground!

And so, on All Hallows Eve, the old English word was Halloween, the day before All Saints, in 1517, at about two in the afternoon Luther went to the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany and stood at the main door, which was something of a community bulletin board. He nailed 95 theses, or arguments, to the door, protesting the abuses and errors of the church.

These were distributed all over Europe---this was all accelerated by a new invention: the printing press! ---and Luther was literally the talk of the town. He became a popular lecturer and biblical scholar, and drew the wrath of the church. A few years later he was excommunicated, and the civil authorities also threatened him, unless he recanted. In a famous scene, when asked if he would withdraw the 95 theses, he said,

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”

Luther would later translate the Bible into German (and this influenced the later King James translation into English); he would marry a former nun, and write hymns that would influence Bach, including “A Mighty Fortress is our God”. His work and the implications of it came to be known as the Protestant Reformation, and in our family tree the branches include Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anglicans and Methodists.

That is a very brief sketch of Martin Luther and the Reformation. Why is it important to you and me? Because we are all children of the Reformation, we are all ancestors of Martin Luther, in three respects. First, Luther helped us to struggle with the relationship between the Bible and the Church. In his own time, he felt, the church had become captive to a culture of greed and had missed the core message of grace. This has been a rediscovery of the church throughout history. John Wesley as a young adult was caught in the grip of trying to please God as a missionary; he failed at this and returned to his home in London. And then he describes this experience:

“In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

I will let you in on a secret, if you promise not to share it too widely: the church is a fallible institution, and throughout history has been on the wrong side of justice and even the will of God. A catholic historian gave this analysis of the church in Luther’s day:

Night fell on the German church, a night that grew darker and darker…amongst the common people, a fearful decline in true spiritual practice into religious materialism and morbid hysteria; amongst the clergy, both lower and higher, widespread worldliness and neglect of duty; and amongst the very Shepherds of the Church, demonic ambition and sacrilegious perversion of holy things.”

But God is never without witnesses. Men and women of conscience have come along----Martin Luther and John Wesley, Sojourner Truth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mother Teresa----as witnesses to truths that had been buried in the ground, treasure waiting to be rediscovered.

And so the church is always in dialogue with the Bible. As Karl Barth, the great theologian insisted, “the church is always being reformed according to the word of God”. We always test whatever the church teaches or preaches according to the Bible, and, if this is to happen, we need to be able to read the Bible in our own language. This was a part of Luther’s reformation as well, to put the scriptures in our hands, to urge us to read them, for the formation of our consciences.

I have been in conversation through e-mail with someone in our church who did not agree with something I had mentioned in a sermon. I respected her for writing to me, and I told her so. We had a couple of meaningful exchanges. I am listening to her perspective. I mention this because she is a child of the reformation. She reads the scriptures and this has formed her conscience. Before the reformation, this would have made no sense. If the church, if the clergy taught it, it must be true.

A second gift of the Reformation: that salvation comes through grace and not our good works. This was a scandal, a stumbling block to many, because we want to be rewarded for our good works. We make good grades in school, we want to be rewarded. We do what our parents ask, we want to be rewarded. We hit our numerical target at work, we want to be rewarded. We follow the teachings of the Bible, we keep the commandments, we want to be rewarded. Right?

Well, maybe not. We are justified, made right with, acceptable to God through his gracious gift of salvation, which has nothing to do, really, with our good works. And so the mathematical equation is not God’s grace plus my good works equals salvation, but God’s grace plus zero equals salvation. Martin Luther and John Wesley and all of their descendents have claimed this to be orthodoxy, right belief.

And yet it is one thing to believe it in our heads; it is another to trust it in the core of our being in our hearts. Because most of us have that sense that, yes, God loves me, but if I do something good God will love me more! But the old saying is true: Nothing you can do will make God love you more. Nothing you can do will make God love you less. God’s love is unconditional. Paul writes, in Ephesians: By grace you have been saved through faith and this is the gift of God, not the result of works, lest anyone should boast (2. 8-9).

This is a needed word especially for a church that does a great deal of good works. It helps to articulate our motivation: we serve not for the reward, that someone somewhere will affirm us and love us; we serve because someone has already demonstrated that love, on a cross. While we were yet sinners, Paul writes, Christ died for us.

A third gift: the priesthood of believers. Luther felt that the heavy focus on clericalism was harmful to the church. It denied the calling that every Christian had to express his or her gifts in the world. Luther wrote,

“whoever comes out of the waters of baptism can boast that he is…a consecrated priest, bishop and pope….there is no true, basic difference between laity and priests…except for the sake of [the] work, but not…status.”

For Luther, the great drama was not that spectators came to watch the priest, and ponder the mystery of what that meant; the great drama is that we are all priests, doing the work of God in the world, wherever our callings have taken us. This is important. The laity’s true calling is not to try to do what the clergy or the staff of a church do. It is to connect their own faith with their participation in the world as a parent or a physician, a judge or a banker, a sales rep or a teacher, an accountant or an attorney. And so there is no divorce between sanctuary and shop, worship and workplace. There are not two classes of Christian citizens, the ordained and everyone else. There should be no privileged secrets among an insider group who has studied them and the masses who have not.

And so the answer to the question, “am I called to the ministry?’ for every one of us, is “yes”. That ministry may take us to many different places, and in a given week your faith could motivate you to tutor a child who is behind in school, or hold up a sign in Tuesday’s election, or treat an employee with compassion.

A needed word about the Reformation: it is not true that Protestants get it and Catholics do not. Vatican II pushed the church into the world, and gave a renewed importance to the scriptures and the common languages of the people. A few years ago the Catholic Church signed agreements with the Lutheran Church and the Methodist Church that salvation is by grace, through faith. And two years ago Pope Benedict admitted that Martin Luther had corrected interpreted Paul’s letter to the Romans, on the subject of salvation by faith alone, and not our good works.

In the history of Christianity we take the long view! But finally all of this is more than a history lesson. As Barth said, “the church is always being reformed according to the word of God”. This is true for us as individuals. There is a story about the twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich who was speaking to a group and afterward he was confronted by a man who had a tight grip on an oversized Bible, shaking it in the face of Tillich. “Do you believe this is the word of God for me?” he asked the theologian. And Tillich replied, “Yes, if it has a hold on you as strong as the hold you have on it”.

We are always being reformed according to the word of God. When we listen to it, allow it to speak to us and correct our errors and abuses, it is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. And so, on Reformation Sunday, more than perhaps any other day of the year, it is appropriate for us to say… This is the word of God for the people of God. And all God’s people say, Thanks be to God.

Sources: Martin Marty, A Short History of Christianity. Timothy George, “Reformation Day”, "First Things. John Wesley, edited by Albert Outler. Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church (affirmed by World Methodist Council on 23 July 2006).