What is Church — Guest Post 4

Today’s post is written by Joshua Wilson.

Raised in Miami, Florida, Josh loves strong coffee and arepas. After moving to Gainesville in 2005, Josh fell in love with area but still roots for any and all Miami sports teams. He started to work with the Trinity UMC Youth Group in 2008 and loves it. His favorite things are hanging out with his sons, painting, and practicing to qualify for the US Olympic curling team (if there’s one thing he can do, it’s sweep).

What is Church?

“Home is people. Not a place. If you go back there after the people are gone, then all you can see is what is not there anymore.” ~ the internet

I recently visited the church I grew up in…or maybe I didn’t.

I started attending Sunday Services when I was in sixth grade. My dad wasn’t into religion but said “you gotta have morals” so every Sunday morning, he would drop me off at the church down the street from our house. I sat with Mrs. Horton, a little old lady who taught English at my school. She called me her “church child.”

I eventually started to go to youth group, not because I really wanted to go but because a friend practically twisted my arm. Doug, the youth pastor, was an artistic, guitar playing, slightly ADD role model. Long hours talking about real life began a search that led me into ministry. He also turned me on to hair gel, bolo ties, and puffy shirts…not my finest look, but, hey, it was the 80’s.

At youth group, I met people who would have long and lasting effects on who I was. And this is where my concept of church was starting to be formed.

My history with this church continued on through adulthood, eventually working there as first a youth ministry intern and then Middle School Youth Director. I got married and had both of my children baptized there.

So when the Trinity Youth Group traveled down to the Keys for a weekend retreat, I contacted my home church and arranged for us to stay overnight in their youth building. The next morning, I woke up before everyone else and walked around the grounds that witnessed so much of my becoming who I am.

The buildings stood empty as I walked through them. Nothing had much changed but I couldn’t help but feel that the church I grew up in wasn’t there.

And maybe it was never there.

What is church?

The church is not a place. If anything, it is a people making a place. If you have ever played cowboys, astronaut or pirate or whatever else when you were a kid, then you understand the idea of making a place. No matter where you are, just a bit of imagination can transport you to your lonesome prairie, your rocket, your pirate ship or your deserted island.

So, church is a people, dreaming about a place, imaging a place into reality…a place where we are family in the truest sense, accepted and loved. We all yearn for a place of rest and hope, a place to know and be known by others…heaven on earth. So, the church is a people trying to make heaven a reality on earth.

Sometimes, we get it wrong. Well, a lot of the time we get it wrong. Maybe even most of the time. But at our best, the church is a cathedral made of people, a chapel of arms and hands, feet and heads, a people who together form a house in the shape of healing and grace that was first shown to them by God.

The church I grew up in wasn’t there on that morning in South Miami. That’s good news. Because when those buildings are long gone, the Church will still be standing. When Trinity UMC in Gainesville, Florida is long forgotten, the Church will still be standing.

Ephesians 2:19-22 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the  apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being  the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

 

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What Is Church? — Guest Post 3

Today’s guest post on what is church comes from Dr. Janise McNair, PhD, ECE.

Background/Bio
I have attended church since childhood. Not the same church, but always a protestant church. I started out in a Methodist church, then my family moved around a bit and we attended the protestant church service on different military bases. While in college, I attended a Baptist church, and now I’m in a Methodist church again. As far as other religions go, I have enjoyed learning about the experiences and importance of other religions through close relationships with friends of various international backgrounds. But through it all, I have pretty much stayed influenced by the long line of churchgoers in my family that have had a positive impact on my life and the lives of others.

What is church? Well, that’s a difficult question for me. Or maybe I should say it is an easy question with a very long, complicated answer. For me, church is so many things and also a few, very specific things. I wondered, should I write about THE Church, a church or my church? I struggled with where to begin and where to end. I decided to begin here. Church, for me, is a gathering place that helps prepare me to go out and do good things. The church gathering is a chance to set myself away from the busyness and noise of my life and to sit and think about how I’m doing, how I can improve, how to pray for/mourn/celebrate with others and how to be inspired to do something more. Church is turning off the cell phone, not checking email, not answering the door, not thinking about the grocery list or the next meal or the next deal or the next call. Church helps me focus on the right things.

Church, for me, is learning about scripture. The Bible is an ancient document from the Middle East, written by men, translated and canonized by the elite, and reproduced thousands of times, but it is a document that has taught me so much about human nature, the human spirit and God. It teaches me in ways that challenge me, but also in practical ways that influence how I relate to my family and how I relate to my community. It’s good. The more I learn and understand how things work, the more I’m able to figure out how to do the right thing, and also to figure out when the church is not doing the right thing. I enjoy being in a church where I’m taught by people who have studied scripture in a lot of detail with a lot of context. I love to learn from people who have a life experience with the scriptures that gives a personal perspective to how they apply it to life in general, and to their own lives in particular.

Church, for me, is also an opportunity to worship together. First, let me say that I think worship can happen anywhere. It can happen in my car while I listen to or sing a certain song. It can happen on the beach, when I see the majesty of a sunset. It can happen in a small group of people who have gathered to pray for someone. It can happen in a huge gathering of noisy people who are all praising God. I think it can happen any place under any conditions because Jesus is everywhere accessible, ready and willing to connect.

Worship in a church gathering has been a learning experience for me. Some time ago, I used to sit in the pew thinking about what I was or wasn’t getting from a given church service. Even at a good church, I would get distracted when something wasn’t quite what I expected, and that would become the focus of my thoughts. At some point the thought came to me, “God is not sending me to church for what I can get out. He’s sending me to church for what I can put in.’’ So, I tried to approach worship differently. I started to bring worship with me by praying on the drive to church. I prayed for the choir and musicians. I prayed for the preacher. I prayed for the church as a whole. I prayed for my wants to take a back seat for a while so I could experience God’s presence. When I remember to follow this practice, worship in church is always meaningful and moving to me, no matter what tries to distract me.

Lastly, Church, for me, is community. Standing next to other people, shaking someone’s hand, looking people in the eyes and listening to someone’s story. It pulls me out of my universe-of-one and reminds me that the universe might be a little bit bigger than my own problems, opinions, and intentions. I think, in the early church in Acts, the fellowship of believers was not so much about agreement, getting along and doing the same thing, as much as it was about gathering together, learning together and getting through things together. This feeling of community, in good churches, leads to taking care of the needs of the community — service projects, missions, and acts of kindness. The church can be a source of social justice that is as large as a civil rights movement or as small as a free plate of food.

So, Church, for me-THE church, a church, and my church—is a living part of the community. It brings people together to learn about Jesus, to worship Him in spirit and in truth, and then sends them out to serve and love people.

What is Church? – Guest Post 2

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Author Background/Bio: I was born into a loving family in Latin America. As many other families in my circle, they made the radical move labeled as “conversion” from the Catholic Church to a Methodist Church. Growing up, this was an important distinction because of the differences in belief held by each group; after coming to the United States, my experience was somewhat different. I noticed that, while divided, people from various churches (e.g., Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, Pentecostals, and others) considered and labeled themselves as simply “Christians.” Perhaps this was true for the sake of unity or perhaps it was for the sake of attaining political leverage by presenting this group as one massive unit rather than multiple smaller groups; either way, the lines seemed to be more blurred here in the U.S. than the bold lines and walls that were dividing the various Christianities in my native land. My family transferred to the U.S. while I was still a child and we attended a charismatic, independent church where I had the privilege of serving in many areas including music, teaching, and youth ministries. I still serve in this church in a role that would most plainly be described as a “lay minister.”

What is church? In my experience, church has been a place where many questions are suppressed or silenced when these seem inconvenient. It is a place that often offers assertions of “Truth” in the place of reasonable responses, especially when the most honest answer to certain questions is: “I do not know.” It is a place where people are pressured to align with acceptable beliefs, whether these make sense or not. Church can be a very challenging place for someone who places high value on following truth and evidence wherever these may lead; this is probably inescapable due to the nature of a faith-based institution. Evidence is not required for matters of faith, and sometimes, evidence is censored when it does not align with the preconceived assumptions upon which certain beliefs are based.

Church is also a tough place for people who do not conform to its social norm, especially in matters such as sexuality; many churches (most of the ones I know) would not be welcoming places to people of the LGBT community. Sure, many churches are now learning to be more open to these people, but it truly seems to be a step (or ten steps) behind social progress most of the time. I personally believe that one reason why church usually has such strong opinions on sexual matters is because its leaders have understood that sexuality is something very important to people; therefore, if they can make people feel guilty about their sexual behavior, these people can be controlled more easily because they constantly feel as if they somehow “fall short” of the high standard of sexual purity imposed by the church. This is only one way in which I see the church manipulates people.

Another way in which I see the church often controls people is by promising eternal bliss if the person obeys and conforms, while threatening with punishments such as hellfire for the disobedient and non-conformists, this is all planted in the minds of believers from an early age. I once heard someone speak about how a massive circus elephant was tied to a tiny post by a tent. The elephant did not even try to set itself free, when the guest asked why this was the case, the animal controller explained that the elephant had been conditioned since he was very young. This was simple: as a baby, the elephant was tied to the post and he tried unsuccessfully to set himself free; after so many failures, the elephant stopped trying. Despite the fact that the elephant had grown big and strong enough to effortlessly pull the post and the tent and walk right out of there, the elephant would do no such thing because he was conditioned at an early age to believe that he could not do so. This is how I see the church, it is often a place where people are conditioned to believe that they need to be there, leaders take advantage of this conditioning to control people and have them do as they please. People are made to believe things that often make no sense and to believe that they have to be tied to the proverbial post and have no way to be truly free and think freely.

Even with all of these troublesome issues, church is a place where people develop important relationships, discover talents, and sharpen skills. A church setting can really provide a great platform to develop relationships because people who are drawn to the same church often share some common traits, likes, and struggles; this really helps to form a bond. I mention the talents because children, teens, and adults often have opportunities to express their respective talents in church activities. For example: singers and musicians can really express themselves freely in worship; gifted public speakers can develop and sharpen their skills through teaching and preaching.

People go to church for many reasons, one of the reasons I often see when adults come to church is because they are seeking refuge while going through one of various storms of life (such as: marital problems, issues with kids, depression, and grief). Church certainly serves to provide a community where people can develop bonds with others; these bonds often help people to overcome challenges that are better handled in community rather than alone.

I have thought about the importance of church and I sometimes wonder if church has contributed all it can to society. Some days I think that the time for church has passed. There was a time when human beings did not know what caused storms, illness, and famine; church told people that these were caused by the supernatural, now we have natural explanations for all of these occurrences thanks to our scientific advances. When I think about the ways in which the church can be relevant, I try to think of ways that it can serve the community in which it is planted. Instead of gaining control or obtaining other benefits, the church should focus on providing service to the underprivileged, the hungry, and the needy. Today we can also study social issues, find trends, and come up with practical solutions for these challenges. Each church group can center its efforts on the specific needs of its surroundings in a way that if someone tries to remove the church, people from the community (whether they belong to the church body or not) would protest because the church has been such a force for good. I believe that the church can remain relevant as long as it evolves to adapt to the new times and continually comes up with creative ways to love and serve people.

 

What Is Church? – Guest Post 1

A question that has been going around my mind and in conversations I’ve been having for a while is around the understanding of Church. That word brings different connotations, feelings and ideas. So I invited a diverse group of individuals with different backgrounds, experiences, and ages to write about their own understanding & feelings about Church. That’s all the direction & restriction I gave them. For the next 6 posts (one a week, I hope) we’ll be hearing from these different voices in the hope that we can better understand each other and learn from each other as well.  Let’s dive in!
-Esther
——————————————————————–

Our first post comes from Katherine Harris.

Katherine, 24, is an alumna of the University of Florida with a B.A. in Anthropology, and is currently pursuing her M.S. in Health Education and Behavior. Her areas of interest are sexual and reproductive health, self-esteem, religion and health behavior, and LGBT health. She also works as a staff member for a United Methodist youth ministry, and still can’t believe she’s getting paid to have this much fun.
Eventually she hopes to work in sexual and reproductive health education, particularly for women in underserved areas and developing nations. She is passionate about helping girls and women feel happy, healthy, safe, and in control of their own bodies.

Church. It’s a building. It’s an organization. It’s an abstract concept. Sometimes church is a drafty old place with a pitched roof, stained glass windows, polished wooden pews, and velvet runners. Sometimes church is big screens, projectors, rock bands, and pastors in sneakers. Sometimes church is a 10 PM cheeseburger, tucked into a restaurant booth with good people and lots of french fries.

I’ve been trying to write on the subject of church, as prompted, but it’s been hard lately. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to think about it.

It’s like when I moved into the dorms my freshman year and I didn’t know how to say the word ‘home’ anymore. Was home the place I slept at night, or was it my mom’s house, where my bed was still made and I often crashed on the weekends after work? Is home where you park your car, or where you go when you need a safe space? I didn’t know, and it never felt right in my mouth, home.

I’m not really sure what ‘church’ means to me, either. I do know that I don’t think church is a place you go, so much as a place you are inside. It’s when something lines up and it just feels right. Sometimes that happens in a specific building, or during a sermon, or while serving in the community. Sometimes it’s when you’re out in the middle of the woods meditating. You might be surrounded by people when it happens, or the presence of others might take away exactly what it means for you to be in church.

Some days I go to worship and I feel it. Everything lines up, and the words taste right, and I know I’m part of something. Some days I feel most connected when I’m all alone, riding with the windows down, one hand on the steering wheel and the other catching air.

I like to go out to Payne’s Prairie by myself late at night sometimes and stargaze. Technology is amazing—I can point my phone at any constellation I don’t recognize and it will tell me exactly what I’m looking at. Then I can look up the story behind it, the mythology, the eternal and unchanging human experience painted across the sky. That’s church too, I think.

There are two stars in the constellation of Ursa Major, Dubhe and Merak, which are known as the “pointer stars.” If you follow them in a straight line, they’ll lead you right to Polaris, true north. Any time you are lost, all you have to do is look up. It’s all right there, in pieces. Line them up right, and you’ll find your way home.
Maybe that’s church, really, at the core of it—lining up the pieces so we can find our way home. Sometimes they line up in a certain building, or during a particular activity, or with a special group of people. Sometimes it happens when you’re all by yourself. But when they line up, you feel it, and you know you’re on your way. You’re going home.

“When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me flying around in invisible pieces. When I look too hard, it goes away. But when it all goes quiet, I see they are right here.
I see that I’m a little piece of a big, big universe.
And that makes things right.”
– Beasts of the Southern Wild

Change the World

I was 24 years old, and I’d spent the past 7 years of my life studying religion, the Bible, and spirituality, and I graduated for the third time in my life and I had no idea what was going to become of me. I had recently, finally begun the process of becoming a pastor but later than usual, so now I had to wait. I started looking for a job and could not find one.  I mean, I contacted Starbucks and they didn’t call me back — (thanks, guys, like I don’t give you business).

Through a professor I ended up hearing about a position in a church that seemed to match some of my passions.  I applied for it, and by the grace of God and some folks who saw potential in me, I got the job.  My first ‘professional’ job.  It was a director/missions position and I moved in to a place that I quickly realized resembled a book I was reading at the time —  ‘The Help.’  I seem to have traveled back in time into pre-Civil Rights.  This community is the only predominantly African-American county in Florida and at the same time segregated (by schools and funeral homes, etc), either really rich or underresourced and poverty stricken… A less than 50% graduation rate, poor literacy, and so on…

So, I moved by myself to the ‘ghtetto’, got a big dog like they told me, an alarm system, etc.  My Mom’s prayer life increased exponentially, and I was genuinely excited to work on these ministries that had begun there — A neat after school program, English classes for non-English speakers, and the opportunity to get to know some beautiful people.

The couple years I was there God taught me many things.  I learned things about how the world works, about suffering, isolation, community, and justice.  I learned things about myself, but more than anything, I think God was showing me things about God-self.  God is in the places where people avoid.  God is to be found where there is seemingly little light.

In the cycles of poverty and violence and oppression that I witnessed I began to ask where hope was?  Where justice was?  Where the kingdom that we Christians hear about was?  And as a minister, what I possibly could say that really meant something — not just nice words or just talk about heaven — but that actually changed someone’s life.

That brought me to the Gospel of Luke.  All the gospels have their own ‘flavor’ so to speak — they are written for certain audiences for certain purposes and thus sometimes address different things.  I resonate with Luke as a champion for the outsider.  One of my favorite scripture passages is Luke 4:16-21:

Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been raised. On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue as he normally did and stood up to read. The synagogue assistant gave him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”

Prior to the part to this passage, Jesus is born in a meager situation – one that allowed for shepherds to visit.  He begins to grow and finds himself studying in the temple.  He is baptized and then spends some time of preparation in the wilderness.

Jesus then went home to Nazareth.  As his family’s habit he went to the synagogue to worship.  There they repeated the Shema (found in Deut and Numbers), the central verse of Judaism, pledging allegiance to one God.  Then they prayed, heard a passage read from the Torah, then a passage from the prophets, a sermon, and a final priestly blessing.  Jesus was given the honor of rearing the scroll and then preaching.  He read two verses from Isaiah 61.

The words Jesus read in the synagogue in Nazareth when he announced the beginning of his ministry are incredibly meaningful and reflective of his mission. He identified himself as the “Servant of the Lord,” prophesied by Isaiah, who would “bring justice” to the world (Isaiah 42:1-7). “Most people know that Jesus came to bring forgiveness and grace [and he did!]. Less well known is the Biblical teaching that a true experience of the grace of Jesus Christ inevitably motivates a man or woman to seek justice in the world” (Tim Keller, ‘Generous Justice’).  How much more radical can you get than mentioning the year of the Lord, jubilee, in your opening statements!

Now, I will confess that I still have moments where I feel hopeless.  Where I indulge in pity parties.  Where I wonder what this ‘fulfilled in your hearing’ business means.  I still see injustice, suffering, and oppression — I can think that the powers have won, and feel despair.  But I find that this is why we are a people of hope… and a people of action.

The ‘fulfilled’ tense is one that is currently happening and continues to happen.  I worked on my Board of Ordained Ministry paperwork while living in this community, and one of the questions was related to the kingdom of God.  While reflecting on where the kingdom of God is breaking through I discovered it was often in the little things.  In the midst of what seemed like a hopeless environment in seeing the big smiles of children.  In telling kids who rarely if ever hear words of love in their homes, “I love you, no matter what.” In making chili; in giving out candy; in living in the midst of it all.

I read the Bible and I’m overwhelmed with the amount of Biblical material that expresses concern for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the alien.  Jesus didn’t come in power and using all the glory and authority of God,  he came lowly and without a place to rest his head.  He didn’t show off his knowledge and stick to the synagogue alone, and built up his spiritual life for himself.  He was continuously with people.  He healed the sick.  He liberated those who were oppressed by spirits.  He was criticized for hanging out with the wrong crowds.  In the same way we who go to church, and have Bibles (and maybe even read them), who know about a life of prayer and can talk about spirituality and grow in that way — but unless we use all of those things that build us up as individuals to build up the church and to love the unlovable, to speak up for those who don’t have a voice and to change our lives, we are not really following Jesus and walking where he is… we are posing.

“We must move beyond an anemic view of our faith as something only personal and private, with no public dimension, and instead see it as the source of power that can change the world. ”
-Richard Stearns, ‘the Hole in Our Gospel’

How do we as the church follow Jesus this way?  How do we as individuals do this?  God does not ask us to give things we do not have or cannot give, but God can’t use what we don’t offer to be used.

Prayer:  God, thank you for the incarnation – for being a God who comes down and lives with us and doesn’t simply ask of us things from on high.  Thank you for being with us still, through your Spirit — you never leave us alone.  Thank you for continuing to call us deeper — beyond ourselves.  Fill us with your love.  Fill us with your compassion and with passion.  Change our worlds again, and help us be agents of change, for the growing of your kingdom.  Amen.

a going away gift from the after school program

a going away gift from the after school program that hangs on my wall

Manifesto in progress

Seek justice.
Love mercy.
Walk humbly with God.

Speak truth but always alongside grace.
Don’t think too highly of yourself,
and don’t think too little of yourself —
claim your status as a beautiful mess.

Be uncomfortable — that’s how you grow.
That’s how you stay grounded.

Sing a lot.
Read a lot.
Paint a lot,
and be messy.

Don’t mind what others think of you.
Another’s greatness does not diminish you,
and your greatness does not diminish others.

Flee from expectations.
Beware the proud crowd.

Empty yourself.
Take time to be filled up,
and empty yourself again.

Struggle with your opinions.
Don’t give up.

Take your time — you don’t have to be fast.
Be thoughtful, and leave time for wonder.
Receive praise.
Be kind.
Share your umbrella.

Don’t forget about the tools you carry with you.
Use them.

Travel and get our of your little world.
Always seek perspective.

Remember provision.
Remember grace.
Remember who you are,
who you’ve been,
and who you want to be.
Remember who you don’t want to be.

Don’t bind yourself up–
regularly unbind what needs to be unbound.

Give thanks every morning
and every night
and the moments in between.

Have long conversations over café con leche.
Seek people who will love you
and push you beyond yourself–
                    people who will see what you can’t see.

Love God well and with passion.
Don’t worry so much.

Speak out against injustice.
Be unpopular.
Make people uncomfortable.
Be scandalous.

 

manifesto in progress

Hope for the Church: living in the tension

I just finished a series on Christian Community held at a midweek service in the church I currently serve. I began this series in a weird place. I found it ironic that I was tasked with this series, seeing as- and I began my first sermon with this- I was having a hard time not losing all hope in the institutional church. Those are not words you expect to hear from your pastor. I began this series in a raw, vulnerable place, and finished it in a different raw vulnerable place- a place of realignment and perspective.

The frustration and struggle is very real for many people; I discovered this in a brand new way as I was vulnerable in front of a group of people. Week after week — in person and via email — folks shared how they too are struggling. When you are hurt, it’s hard to forgive; it’s hard to trust again. The church’s people have done plenty of hurting. When a place of redemption and new life is mixed with hypocrisy and classism, one wonders if faith in God would not better be guarded in isolation. When the world around us is fractured by racism, and abuse of wealth and power, why would we voluntarily hang out in a place that’s no different?  It’s hard to be vulnerable time and again and try to be a part of a community that rejects you and that doesn’t listen to you.  Many feel this way.

But Martin Luther, during the Reformation, was aware of the failing of the church. He said, “Farewell to those who want an entirely pure and purified church. This is plainly wanting no church at all.” So here’s what my problem has been: I have very high expectation of the church and Christian community; I believe God does. Furthermore I believe that God mourns our action and lack of action. Much like the incarnation – God becoming man – the birth of the church is a miracle – a work of God. The church is not an institution: it is a body, a family, a holy and living temple that God created. It is different; it’s unlike any kind of community. It’s called to destroy these aforementioned divisions, to welcome the outsider, to keep one another accountable to love and good works, to encourage one another in the hardest of times, and to continue growing together more like Christ.  Love cannot exist in isolation- it demands another, God or sister/brother. I have experienced these aspects of life together, for which I am thankful.

And yet it is made up of individuals who are still growing, who are still learning, who are still leaving behind that which is not of God, and who are welcomed and still part of the church in the meantime. If we all had to wait to be part of this fellowship when we were perfect, there would be no fellowship.

The church will never be perfect as long as I’m a part of it. I will fail you. I will hurt (hopefully not on purpose) you. You will fail and hurt me. I’m broken; we’re broken.  So there’s this place where we are called to be and there’s where we actually are. We live in that tension. In that tension Christ is patient with us — merciful, forgiving, and longing for reconciliation. He doesn’t let us stay where we are, but the fact that we’re still in existence demonstrates long-suffering patience! Who are we to offer each other any less?

We grasp on to hope — not in ourselves, but in Christ. And when our fingers are tired from the grasping, and our muscles ache from the tension, we let others grasp for us for a while… and maybe later we’ll exchange places. The place of perspective where I have arrived once again is that whether I encounter the beauty or the smelly mess of community, that I must keep my eyes fixed on Jesus. In Jesus is where my hope is found. In Jesus I find my center. Can you imagine if the church consistently lived with Christ as its center?  I pray I find Jesus in my sisters and brothers — so that we can hold tight to hope together- the hope that calls us forward to what we’re called to be, not a passive hope that resigns itself to what it is .  God has done the hardest work, thankfully, and is our hope and assurance while we work on our task.

“And so, dear brothers and sisters, we can boldly enter heaven’s Most Holy Place because of the blood of Jesus. By his death, Jesus opened a new and life-giving way through the curtain into the Most Holy Place.  And since we have a great High Priest who rules over God’s house, let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him. For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water.  Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise.  Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works.  And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.”
-Hebrews 10:19-25 NLT

I often sing these words from the old hymn, but they’ve taken on new meaning for me.

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly trust in Jesus’ Name.

On Christ the solid Rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand;
All other ground is sinking sand…

Amen.

stained-glass-still

Lessons from nausea, dirty feet, and latrines

I have this theory about being uncomfortable – I believe that we can’t grow spiritually without periodically experiencing it.  I’ve written about this before, but last week I found myself on a very uncomfortable four-hour boat ride with people vomiting around me, and I thought to myself:  Why do I do these things?!

4 hour boat ride on wooden boat from the mainland of Haiti to the island of La Gonave

Miserable on the right with a hat.  En route to  La Gonave, June 2014.

This is not the first time I’ve been on this boat ride.  This was my third trip to Haiti, and when I go to Haiti I go to the island of La Gonave where we visit the village of Picmy/Picmi/Pikmy.  I’ll let you in on a secret, I do not like all that traveling to Picmy entails.  I love Picmy, I love its people, I love the people I go to Picmy with, and I absolutely love going on mission trips.  I do not  remotely enjoy the 2-3 hour ride from the Port Au Prince airport, navigating with a group of people with tons of luggage through immigration, pushy Hatians who try to take your luggage so you pay them, and a hot, bumpy bus ride to the coast.  Then comes the boat.  The trip as a whole is challenigng on a physical, emotional, and spiritual level.

bus market

Truly, there were more challenges on this trip than I care to share or have the time to — from no AC, running water or plumbing, to cultural and community barriers and discord.  However, half way through the long week, as I was walking back to our house in this dusty, perpetually hot existence, my feet filthy, no matter how much I cleaned them; my body sweaty and tired, thinking of all that I had to do the rest of the day to simply get ready for bed, and all that was left to do in the week, when again I thought to myself:  Why do I do these things?! Why am I here?  Then John 1 popped into my head:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
-John 1:1-5, 14

village

I do this because Jesus- it’s called incarnational ministry – ministry in the flesh. God made God-self uncomfortable in the incarnation.  I do this because in these places I find Jesus more clearly.  Jesus is found where it’s hot and dusty and unpleasant:  in deserts between borders, on islands where missionaries don’t return to, and in conversations with people who believe and live differently than we do.

I do this because it makes me uncomfortable.  When we’re uncomfortable we’re stretched.  We go beyond ourselves, our preconceptions, our preferences, and are able to allow God to blow up or expand our world.  And again, when we’re uncomfortable, it’s more likely that we’re following Jesus on the dirty, incarnational path of discipleship.  The coolest, most rewarding things that have happened to me in my life have all been a result of first being uncomfortable — sometimes for a while.

The awesome that happened–

Lest I make it sound like the week was completely horrible, I should let you know about some of the awesome things that happened (as usual, God working despite me and my inner grumbling).  We successfully held VBS, a medical clinic, and began construction of a permanent clinic (the only one on that side of the island!).  Around 20 people accepted Jesus as their God and Lord – many turning away from voodoo.  Two of these folks were voodoo priests — one of them was baptized during our time there, the other one’s voodoo rag was burned.  A beautiful baby girl was born at our clinic, and on our final night, our worship night, 14 people turned to Jesus and were prayed for individually.

final night - worship night

final night – worship night

Speaking as someone who dislikes being uncomfortable (I’m a recovering germ-a-phobe, for crying out loud), I’m aware that our culture, and unfortunately our church, is prone to thinking about what we want to do or be, and not much about the sacrifices and difficulties that result when truly following Jesus on the way to the cross.

So how can we apply these uncomfortable truths to ourselves as individuals?  Do I only participate in things that I’m comfortable doing?  When was the last time I was uncomfortable in my walk with God?  How can we apply these principals to ourselves as a church/denomination?  How/who do we serve?  How/who do we welcome?  Where do we visit?  How do we spend money (or not spend money)?  How are we intentionally making ourselves uncomfortable so that we may grow?

For the record, I still hate that boat ride.  May God make us uncomfortable where we need to be uncomfortable… and may there be Dramamine.boat ride 2014 from far

Let’s pray:

Truth-telling, wind-blowing, life-giving spirit—
we present ourselves now
for our instruction and guidance;
breathe your truth among us,
breathe your truth of deep Friday loss,
your truth of awesome Sunday joy.

Breathe your story of death and life
that our story may be submitted to your will for life.
We pray in the name of Jesus risen to new life—
and him crucified.

-from Walter Brueggemann’s, Prayers for a Privileged People

 

(Thank you, Katie Dahlem and Allan Griner, for the photos!)

Not a scepter but a hoe

Methodist blogs have become the new tabloids.  I’m sorry for adding my one other one to the Enquirer frenzy.  I promise I will not post pictures of celebrity bishop-babies (whatever those are).  I do however want to address some things that came out of my ‘Why Church?’ post last week.  (Have I mentioned I’m not particularly fond of writing blogs?)  I told you I’ve mourned and cried for and over the church —  Archbishop Oscar Romero said that “There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.”  I doubt I’m entirely done crying; as long as you and I are part of the Church she will be imperfect, and as long as pride exists there will be division (I don’t think it a coincidence that Jesus prayed for our unity in the final hours of his life).  Yet there are rumors of hope to which I hold onto stubbornly.

Last week’s post received some interesting comments.  Most folks who commented to me resonated with the heaviness in their own hearts, and some shared their fears with me.  Others had not even thought of some of these things.  One comment I read expressed a broken heart over the deception of young, new leaders like me — that one was my favorite.  For the record, I promise you that God (through friends and other) calls me out on things almost on a daily basis, but no, I am not perfect.

A note from a young man who is soon to begin his studies at Duke Divinity School, in response to my blog:

“…I am having a hard time trying to capture how I feel as an up and coming pastor in the UMC.  I get the sense that very soon I’ll have to make a very explicit proclamation (one way or the other) regarding homosexuality, and it be forced to be this “you’re either with us or against us” sort of proposition. That is my fear, I don’t truly know how likely it is.”

I write because I’m inspired by the third way that Jesus exemplifies and that Steve Harper talks about seeking, in his book For the Sake of the Bride.  I struggled (sometimes bitterly) with my approach and understanding of Scripture for a decade, and I still feel like an elementary school student at times.  I sympathize with the seemingly silent, middle majority.  I ache for the private messages that express fear.  I simultaneously respond strongly to issues of injustice, so I seek a different route, but not an easy one.  Thus far in my life, struggling with things has been one of the biggest forms of growth.  Struggling is good! (And not fun!)

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ‘Life Together‘ — a short book I think all Church-people (not the building kind of church, by the way) should read… more than once.  Here’s a quote from the book that I’ve been pondering for a while now:

“Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and with ourselves…. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both.”

This reminds me that living in community is not supposed to be easy; it’s always been hard.  Jesus’ words of loving our enemies have always been scandalous and challenging.  Relationships are hard stuff.  This is why a third way is difficult and scary — one where we don’t choose sides, one without ‘us’ and ‘them’ language — one that leads to self-sacrifice and a cross.   Admittedly this whole issue of schism seems somewhat overwhelming to us ‘little people,’ but I’m encouraged and encourage all to continue to impact our small circles of influence.

Finally, I love the Bernard de Clairvaux quote:  “Learn the lesson that, if you are to do the work of a prophet, what you need is not a scepter but a hoe.”  It has struck me differently this past week, however.  As I hear proclamations from on high that entirely dismiss reason and experience I cringe.  Don’t call yourself a prophet unless you have dirt under your nails, if you haven’t grabbed a hoe lately  and sweat through your shirt.  Don’t proclaim to me if you’re not heartbroken over contention, as you probably don’t deserve to be called a prophet.  If I see that you too struggle, that will be compelling.  That sounds an awful lot to me like Pharisaic tendencies that pray, “The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”  May love and humility reign.

O God, we are one with you.
You have made us one with you.
You have taught us that if we are open to one another, you dwell in us.

Help us to preserve this openness and to fight for it with all our hearts.
Help us to realize that there can be no understanding where there is mutual rejection.

O God, in accepting one another wholeheartedly, fully, completely, we accept you, and we thank you, and we adore you, and we love you with our whole being, because our being is your being, our spirit is rooted in your spirit.

Fill us then with love, and let us be bound together with love as we go our diverse ways, united in this one spirit which makes you present in the world, and which makes you witness to the ultimate reality that is love.

Love has overcome. Love is victorious.

         –Thomas Merton

Not a scepter but a hoe

Why church?

I’ve mourned the Church for a while – for years.  I’ve literally wept over the many ways it has caused pain and has deeply hurt people.  Not too long ago I sat in my living room shedding tears over the World Vision back and forth stance regarding individuals who are homosexual.  I’ve mourned because of congregations rejecting black pastors because of their skin color; I’ve cried over discussions about the construction of unnecessary and extravagant buildings while children starve around the corner; I’ve cried over church-people demonstrating a ‘me’ mentality and comfort-driven focus when it comes to worship. I’ve mourned people hiding their diagnosis of HIV/AIDS lest they be marginalized or rejected in their faith community. Recently I’ve cried over myself and the realization that though we have come a long way in my denomination in the equality of women (in ministry and beyond), we still have a long way to go.  I weep when I contemplate that anyone would hate their own person because the Church has made them believe they’re unworthy of love.

I cry over the seminary I graduated from — due to the actions of its leaders over the past several years, and its seeming lack of allowing space for grace in its stance on different points of view and understandings of Scripture; which to me speak of a lack of love and humility.

I cry because despite all of these things, I love the Church.  I love the Church because I believe she is created and called to be more than she is, and because I believe Christ loves  her more than I can even fathom.  I cry because I believe that these words from Bill Hybels are true, that:

“There is nothing like the local church when the local church is working right! It transforms lives, heart by heart… soul by soul… life by life. That’s why the most important thing I can do is to lay down my heart for the cause of Christ.”  

I believe this because I’ve seen it – I’ve experienced it!  The power of a loving, grace-filled community — there is nothing like it.

Upon pondering these things over the years, I’ve had the thought and impression that Jesus too weeps for his Church — the whole of the Trinity weeps (as Steve Harper says).  I don’t doubt that when we hurt, Christ hurts, and when we cry, Christ cries.  I then believe that God is heartbroken over many of the actions (and inactions), words, and sentiments in God’s Church.  Over what seems to be in many groups a disposition of judgment, an inability to love in the midst of differing opinions, and a lust for power.

With so much disappointment I’ve wondered at times what then is the point of continuing with this institution.  Why church?  I’ve been asked this question by frustrated individuals in the past and very recently.

I’m a pastor who belongs to the infamous millennial generation; the generation that is said to be absent from the church.  People ask me, how can we attract your generation to the Church?

Well, I distinctly remember the night – halfway through seminary –  I was contemplating on faith as a journey, and I came to the clear conclusion that, very simply, to follow God is to LOVE God and LOVE neighbor as myself (which does require that I love myself as well).  That’s it — it’s that simple, not to say easy.  This was a big deal for me because that is not how I’d always seen things — faith, church, God.  It’s incredible how our perception and understanding of God affects how we then view ourselves and others, and our weaknesses and those of others.

Here’s another woeful realization:  I’m part of the Church, which means I’m complicit in its failings.  Unfortunately for me, I have to fess up too.

If to the right or left I stray,
That moment, Lord, reprove;
And let me weep my life away,
For having grieved thy love:
O may the least omission pain
My well-instructed soul,
And drive me to the blood again
Which makes the wounded whole!
(I Want A Principle Within — Charles Wesley)

“It’s our job to love; God’s job to judge; the Spirit’s job to convict.”

What is compelling and beautiful about the Church is not its ability to be perfect (that’s impossible when we people are involved), but its demonstration of radical love and forgiveness; its humility- it’s Christ-likeness.

If I’m being honest, I’ve been discouraged recently -for many of the reasons I mentioned above and also for the tension in our denomination.  Not that this discussion does not need to happen – but because of the rhetoric.  Again, I don’t expect perfection, after all, I call the Church (which is the group of people, not the building) a motley group of forgiven messes, because we are broken, messy individuals, hopefully growing, through God, in love and character.

Appropriately timed then is Dr. Steve Harper’s most recent book, ‘For the Sake of the Bride‘ which has continued this conversation rumbling around in my head.  In our denomination there are rumors of a split, specifically due to the issue of homosexuality.  I’m not going to lie, when I picked up the book to read it I was somewhat cynical.  I was expecting to be disappointed — it wouldn’t be the first time I’d been disappointed.   Dr. Harper is actually one of the people I most respect in ministry, but whenever this topic comes up, it’s rare that any conversation is satisfactory.  These conversations are often exhausting and discouraging.

Well, I can say that what Dr. Harper has written is beautiful.  I teared up during the introduction (I guess we’ve established that I’m sensitive — something I have to say I’ve observed Dr. Harper being as well!).  It’s not because any of the material is particularly scandalous to me but it’s honest, vulnerable, and from the heart.  It brings us back to what it’s all about — love God, love others — and for someone who’s been feeling discouraged and restless, I’m thankful.  I’m thankful for Dr. Harper putting words to feelings I’ve had for a long time, knowing he’ll receive flak from certain circles.  I’m thankful because in the midst of our errors and prejudices, God works, redeems and pours out grace.

And thus, I’m hopeful — I will embrace my stubborn streak in this instance and employ stubborn hope — because God’s love and grace is overwhelming and overcomes all.  I’m hopeful because of people like Dr. Harper, and other followers of Jesus who I come across on a daily basis who long to serve God and to love others.  People who are not afraid to be uncomfortable.  People willing to sit at the table and dialogue.  People who recognize the sacrifices that come with following Jesus.

I say all of these things not because they haven’t been said before, and haven’t been said more eloquently, but because I realize that I’m not alone.  I’m not alone, and neither are you.  (That’s another beautiful aspect of the Church.)  And in the midst of my frustration, I am hopeful — I’m hopeful more than anything because of God; because of how God works in us, when we allow God to work in us, and how God works even despite us (despite me, for sure!).

Also, I believe that the Spirit is always at work, but it seems there are times when the Spirit blows like a small gust that lifts up a couple of leaves, and  other times in history when the Spirit blows like a category 5 hurricane.  I don’t know to what mileage the Spirit is blowing currently (forgive the analogy) but I do sense an increase.  I encourage you to read books like Dr. Harper’s and Adam Hamilton’s ‘Making Sense of the Bible,’ and see if you don’t feel it too.

 

…But give me the strength that waits upon You in silence and peace. Give me humility in which alone is rest, and deliver me from pride which is the heaviest of burdens. And possess my whole heart and soul with the simplicity of love. Occupy my whole life with the one thought and the one desire of love, that I may love not for the sake of merit, not for the sake of perfection, not for the sake of virtue, not for the sake of sanctity, but for You alone.  – Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

Amen.

 

Why church