As another year leaves us…

As another year leaves us-

with its joys and sorrows,

its learnings and relearning,

its tear-soaked pillow

and new laugh lines,

its new friends,

strengthened relationships

and parting of ways,

its perspective and courage inducing,

its longing for justice and growing in patience,

its overindulgence and stubbornness,

its remembering of passion

and plain remembering,

its resurrection and

above all

the Grace within it.

 In all of it, and in the paradoxes, God, thank you for your presence.

 As a new year peeks in-

with its new mercies and opportunities,

its dreams,

its feather-covered hope,

its uncertainty and its certainty,

its continued longings for

justice,

happiness,

belonging,

and love,…

its anxiety,

its blessed assurance,

its courage exercises

and new adventures-

may there again be remembering-

always remembering.

May there again be resurrection-

always resurrection.

In all of it, and in the paradoxes, God, may you be present,

and thank you for Grace.

Amen.

 

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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

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

If God is God at All

If God is God at All

I’ve been thinking about this quote a lot this week (and the book chapter it’s found in)… It’s given me perspective; do I believe that God is truly God? If I do, that should bring some peace in the midst of confusing and disorienting circumstances. God is faithful and God is present. Perhaps we don’t receive the responses from God that we think we need (the ‘fixing’ of situations, etc.), but God is God, after all, and our worries and concerns are known and cared for, and that’s a big deal. Thanks be to God!