What is Church? — Guest Post 6 — Final post

Today’s guest post is written by Kandace Brooks.

Dr. Kandace Brooks is currently the Pastor at Tomoka United Methodist Church in Ormond Beach, FL. Prior to her appointment at Tomoka, she served as the Director of Community Life and Adjunct Professor of Worship at Asbury Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL; as Founding Pastor of Celebration United Methodist Church in Gainesville (3 years); as Coordinator of Worship Arts and Associate Pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Gainesville (7 years), and Associate Professor of Music at the University of Florida (12 years). She received the Doctor of Philosophy Degree from London School of Theology in Homiletics (1983); the Doctor of Musical Arts from the University of Georgia and the Master of Divinity degree from Asbury Theological Seminary. Kandace has also taught a two-week intensive course in Homiletics at the West Africa Theological Seminary in Lagos, Nigeria.

What is Church?
I should want desperately to complicate this answer – to write an extended essay filled with theological terms and a complete (!) outline of the Wesleyan understanding of grace. I want to talk about the marks of the church – to provide a checklist of sorts so that the various communities that bear the name CHURCH can measure themselves against some established norm.

I should want my understanding of church to be SMART – a project to be managed; neat and tidy.
Specific
Measureable
Attainable
Relevant
Time-bound
I should desire the church to be duplicated in every detail in every place and for every person.

But the truth is that this can never happen.

Because the church as I truly understand it is not a project to be managed; nor is it made any better or more effective through the application of impressive theological terms.

It can never happen because the church; the church as I have come to understand it, is centered on a person.

Jesus Christ.

And formed for the transformation of people, and of the world.
Broken people.
Messy people.
All people.

This is how I understand the church – that it is the active and visible presence of Christ in the world.
Through people who are not Christ, but are seeking to be Christ-like in their thoughts, and words and actions.

The active and visible presence of Christ in the world.

And If the life of Christ is not messy enough to convince us that the church will be the same, I’m not sure what will.
The life of Christ demonstrated compassion, grace, love –
The life of Christ went to places not only unexpected, but also unapproved.
The life of Christ cared nothing for the values of world but cared deeply for the people of the world.
The life of Christ was lived amidst
miracle and mayhem;
insight and ignorance;
compassion and confusion.

Why would we think that the church would be any different?

I think that if we could understand the church in this way – as the active and visible presence of Christ in the world – perhaps we could be less concerned with the trappings of the institution and more intent on being present with people.

And just maybe, the church that is centered on model of a single person – Jesus Christ.
Could become a place for all people.

Amen.

What is Church? — Guest Post 5

Allison Burnette was born and raised in Tallahassee, FL. She is currently a sophomore at Florida State University studying Advertising and International Affairs. In addition to attending FSU, she also works at the school as a University Ambassador, giving tours to prospective students and their families. She has a taste for the simpler things in life, especially being outdoors, listening to really loud music and drinking coffee.

What is Church?

Growing up, my parents always opened our home to guests. We would have relatives staying with us for weeks, one of their coworkers living in our back room for months, friends passing through to join us for family dinner. It was always lovely, complicated, and worth it. I like to think that’s how church is. Church isn’t confined to a building but it certainly feels a lot like home.

Over a year ago, I moved out of my parent’s house for college. Thankfully, I’ve found home in the three places I’ve lived since. It’s this strange feeling leaving a place, it’s as though you finally realize how much it means to you. Suddenly the grundgy walls of your dorm, the windowsill that was never quite big enough to to sit on (though of course you tried), and the coffee rings on your desk seem endearing rather than annoying. It’s those imperfections that make you nostalgic. It’s the way you learned to live in the mess that makes you sad to leave. When I left my home church, I began to see those same truths. I missed the slides that were never on cue during worship, the way the bus would break down on every youth trip, and the group of broken people who had been a family to me. Church almost never seems like enough when you’re there, but as you prepare to leave it, there’s a certain sentiment it holds. You see that you made a home there, and even more, a family.

This idea of family is especially striking because it so closely resembles the community that Jesus spoke of.

Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Hebrews 13:1

A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity. Proverbs 17:17

Brothers and sisters, pray for us.
1 Thessalonians 5:25

I believe church to be a close-knit matter, one that is solely based on Christ. Church gathers around the weak and the worried, strengthening them with love, sharing scriptures, praying for them with a great deal of heart. It takes time, investment, and honesty, just as a family does. But when you are the one who is weak, when your worry is consuming you, it is this church, this family that you have come to love, that will stand beside you.

I know this because I’ve lived it, time and time again. I saw church in a hospital room when I was at my very worst. I saw church in my college decision, as I worried that staying in my home town was settling. I saw church when I was leaving it, as they gathered around me and prayed for my next home, for the people I would consider family in years to come. Today, I see church in a warehouse where we put up drywall and strings of lights, worshipping god in such authenticity.

The funny thing is, even as you move and change and others do the same, there is a church that you carry with you. It’s not a particular congregation, pastor, or building, it’s a confidence in The Lord that you have found home before and that you will again, that very possibly, you already have. It is this beautiful truth that makes church worth it. That compels you to search for community even when you see it’s imperfections. That leads you to transparency even when you’d rather not be vulnerable. That leads you to a family you would have never chosen, but that help you grow closer to god, the greatest part of this home you’ve all made.

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.

 

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

IMG_7728.JPG

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

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!)

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

Ashy Memories

Growing up Hispanic Protestant, all things that even smelled Catholic were to be kept far, far away.  We missed out on precious and valuable traditions, for sure.  For this reason I’m relatively new to Lent.  It wasn’t until part way through seminary that I was introduced to this holy season.

I still remember listening to an Ash Wednesday sermon in chapel which is still one of the most personally impactful sermons I’ve heard to date.  The sermon was given by a professor who would later become a friend, and she eloquently yet in real and raw fashion talked about the significance and symbolism of ashes – the pain, struggle, hope, and grace.  I was also able to participate in the small church I attended in Orlando during seminary.  It was there that I first was part of the carrying out of an Ash Wednesday service.  I’m so thankful for that time that was gifted to me.

On another Ash Wednesday finishing up seminary I was volunteering with Orlando Health’s Spiritual Care department, and that day I met an elderly woman who was living in an assisted living facility with the anticipation of soon having to be in the nursing home wing.  I remember this day specifically because she had a big black/gray smudge on her forehead.  At first I thought she had something wrong with her skin (okay – I was finishing seminary and it was still morning – give me a break), but no, the chaplain had been going around with ashes.  Most everyone in this place had a cross (or smudge) on their foreheads.  I remember this as it seems like such a holy and somewhat ironic encounter that this Ash Wednesday experience would occur in a place where there is a frequent reminder of our humanness and our returning to dust.

Post-seminary while living in North West Florida in a small rural town with inner city demographics, I remember Wednesday was one of our after school days.  I was in the small Presbyterian Church where we held our after school program, this particular Ash Wednesday.  The days there were difficult, often heart-wrenching, but sometimes rewarded with beautiful smiles and hearty hugs. On that particular day one of our volunteers had been to a morning service in Quincy, the neighboring town, and carried a black smudge (cross) on her forehead, which the kids found quite interesting.

The next year has been my favorite so far, as I got to be fully involved in the inspiring and keen Ash Wednesday service at KUMC, Tallahassee.  Marking folks – children and adults – who came and knelt to receive the cross on their foreheads while I said the words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return” has been one of the holier experiences of my life.

Now I’m officially a Rev. and in my first appointment looking forward to this year’s Ash Wednesday experience.

I say all this because for me Lent means several things – a time of inner-reflection, of checking my ego, of embracing the messy and rawness of mortality, a time of preparing for what it looks like and means to follow Jesus to the cross.

As I look back on all these memories, I can say for certain that I’m not the same now as I was then.  I have changed; I hope to be able to continue to say that throughout all my Lents.  One question I ask myself at the start of Lent is, ‘where are you this Lent?’  I’m not speaking geographically, but in my growing up in Christ — in my discipleship journey.  I invite you to think of your ashy memories if you have any, and to let the ashes bring you forward as well to memories to come.  At the same time I hold in my heart friends who find themselves during this Lent recently finding out about a father’s cancer diagnosis, or holding on to a spouse’s ashes after several months of his death, or remembering the anniversary of the death of a young son — may the hope that are in the ashes sustain them in this time and the times to come.

Join me in prayer (from the UMC Book of Worship):

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, the early Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church that before the Easter celebration there should be a forty-day season of spiritual preparation. During this season converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when persons who had committed serious sins and had separated themselves from the community of faith were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to participation in the life of the Church. In this way the whole congregation was reminded of the mercy and forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel of Jesus Christ and the need we all have to renew our faith. We invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to observe a holy Lent: by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word. Today we gather to make a right beginning of repentance, to acknowledge our mortal nature, and to bow together before our Creator and Redeemer. 

Esther

Image