Right now, I’m on sabbatical… which means I get to pop in and out of whatever church I want whenever I want. It’s a weird feeling; being a “religion consumer.”
As a pastor, people “looking for a church” sometimes share with me their process. Often, each church gets one shot. (Church leaders, if you have one shot, let’s hope you can bring you’re “A Game” that morning and that nothing “human” happened. You know, like you had insomnia the night before or one of your kids was sick and kept you up all night or your organist called one hour before worship to tell you she was in the ER with her sick kid… cause then you may be assessed as low-energy or unfocused and crossed off the list.)
Many times people are looking for a church made up of one specific demographic (read here for example: “I want a large group of middle-schoolers because my kid is in middle-school). I get it. Life is a lot easier when the people around us look like us, think like us, act like us, value what we value. It definitely makes parenting easier. It makes life easier. No worries about contradiction and complexity.
But here’s the thing: Jesus didn’t hang out with people just like him. Jesus, holy as he was, hung out with people who were judged and rejected by the religious establishment.
One of the things I’m discovering during my sabbatical is this: that I miss the church I pastor even though it’s anything but simple. It’s full of complexity with people whose lives are filled with challenges.
So here’s some interesting data (since I’m a “data geek”): Statistically, young people are far more likely to stick with church through their adult years if their adolescent church experience is the opposite of what most families look for, i.e. a church with tons of other kids that provides all of the whistles and bells that put the spotlight on their interests. Now, I’m not suggesting we make the gospel (or church) boring for anyone of any age. Jesus kept things lively for sure. But when young people grow up in a church where they are mostly segregated, i.e. most of their interactions are with other youth or with adults whose passion is to serve them (and not to mention people who are “like them” economically, socially, racially/ethnically, even theologically), they reach their adult years expecting that is how Church “works.” Then, they join a church committee or leadership team as an adult and experience someone disagreeing with them and not supporting their idea and they’re out, they’re done. Note: I also recognize that, sometimes, these are just adults being contrary and fearful and resisting change. But sometimes the mere differing of opinions – a very normal human thing – becomes more than they can bear and “they’re out.”
But, going back to my prior paragraph and putting it in simple terms, I’d like to suggest that Church, discipleship and compassion aren’t really things you learn about; stuff you’re taught. Rather, Church, discipleship and compassion are something you “live/mature into,” something you come to comprehend because you are experiencing it.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a church that provides you with a great softball team, coffee shop, bookstore, etc. But the bigger, more important question is this: does your church provide you with a chance to learn how to see the presence of Jesus in people that are not “like you”; people who may even annoy you, offend you, or make you feel uncomfortable; people whose political or theological views may be very different from your own. It’s such an easier and personally gratifying thing to go serve a meal at a soup kitchen in a nearby city or build a handicap ramp for someone in rural Appalachia or go on a mission to a poor African or Central American country. And then you get to return home, put your feet up, relax, feel that you’ve “accomplished something” (one might even say fixed something), and get on with your life.
But if your church is comprised of people in addiction recovery, people struggling with mental health disorders (and struggling to navigate the healthcare gauntlet), those living in poverty, or struggling to discern their gender identity in a culture that prizes conformity over honest discernment, you’re never “done.” People are people, not projects, and there’s no simple fix for the challenges that any of us face. (Note that “any of us” is in italics because being in a church where people acknowledge their own struggles makes it harder to hide your own and pretend they don’t exist.) Church is about relationships; not easy, simple, superficial relationships but real relationships that demand something of us and challenge our stereotypes and assumptions. The ministry of Jesus was all about relationships. Jesus engaged with people in open, honest and authentic ways. He wasn’t afraid to talk about anything.
One of the most interesting features of our gospels – especially the gospel of Mark – is that Jesus spent more time “fixing” the mindsets of the disciples than he did “correcting” the sins and shortcomings of the people in the crowds that followed him. (Not to mention how frustrated Jesus was with the “religious establishment”… which, I might note, is now US!)
(I know this blog is getting long so thanks for hanging in there with me!)
But here’s what I notice about many churches and Christians today: for as much as we talk about valuing diversity and issues of justice, many of us would prefer that kind of church to be a romantic notion/fantasy and not the reality we live in because a truly diverse church is messy and challenging.
And yet, if we can find the courage to step into that messiness, we – incredibly – discover what Christianity is really all about: faith or trust. Because trust in Jesus isn’t about believing in Jesus’ existence or adhering to orthodox precepts. Trust in Jesus is about recognizing and accepting and even finding ease with the reality that there is quite a lot about the lives of others and our own lives that we can’t ultimately control or fix; but that’s okay because the love and grace of Jesus abides within us and among us and God’s abiding presence is really all we need.
Where Church is revealed as authentic Christ-centered community (as it is at my church), it is because we have learned to live from a place of trust in God’s grace and to honor the presence of the risen Christ in one another.
Have you ever wondered what the Church might be like today without the writings of Paul?
Across the centuries, I doubt anyone’s mail has been held in as high esteem as Paul’s. What I find most interesting is that Paul likely never imagined that his letter writing would be canonized. How could he have possibly guessed his letters would be elevated to the status of Scripture? Now, I’m not suggesting they shouldn’t be Scripture. But I am suggesting that we’d do well to remember that they started out as letters to particular faith communities – living in a particular time and place and dealing with some very specific challenges. With the exception of Romans, Paul wrote to congregations that he’d established and knew well. These were relational documents. It’s clear that sometimes he was writing to address specific questions they’d asked or settle disputes. Sometimes he’s writing because he’s heard through the apostolic grapevine that trouble is brewing and Paul wants to nip it in the bud. A lot of passion comes through in those letters. His letter to the Philippians is filled with gratitude and affection. His letter to the Galatians gives you that feeling of standing in the foyer of your house getting chewed out by your parents when you come home long past curfew without a good explanation.
A lot of the challenges facing the United Methodist Church today – and churches around the world and across the centuries for that matter – are a result of our failure to remember that these biblical epistles started out as someone’s mail. Paul’s letters weren’t just about theology; they were about community and how to live in community. Perhaps more than anything else, Paul’s letters can serve to remind us that the gospel (good news) is experienced at that nexus where the sacred story and our personal or communal stories intersect.
Bring you; bring your story to Fusion on Monday, April 15. Our speaker with be Allegra Smith sharing the story of her love of writing; how writing has been a way of her processing and working through problems; how she has built community through writing; and her experiences teaching others to write. This year’s Lenten artwork will also be on display.
When I graduated from high school, my parents – in lieu of a big graduation party or a class ring – gifted me with the family vacation of my choice. We went to New England and one of our stops was in Stratford, Connecticut at the Shakespeare Theater there. We started out in the nosebleed section but, during intermission, my dad – who would talk to anyone – struck up a conversation with an usher who learned we’d traveled all the way from Pennsylvania and that this evening at the theater was his teenage daughter’s dream. The usher found us three seats in the front row. It was the splash zone. I don’t remember the play we saw but a character spewed (purposefully) whatever he was drinking and I got sprayed… a little gross. But I’ve never forgotten it. Honestly, I didn’t really care much for the Shakespeare plays I read in literature class in high school. But that night at the theater was amazing. It came to life.
Few people think about scripture as literary drama. Often when I hear scripture read in churches I’m amazed that we can make such an exciting, life-changing story sound so dull and boring. One of my seminary professors said there’s no worse sin than to make the gospel boring.
Our gospels are more than religious writings; more than good theology. They’re also really good literature. This month at Trinity Fusion our guest will be John Collier who will talk about his lifelong passion for community theater. We’ll also look at Jesus’ parables as drama. Not many people know that, in the first century in the Mediterranean world, people didn’t just listen quietly. Audiences weren’t passive. They would enter into the action; they’d gesture and shout things out. I imagine if we did that today not as many people would fall asleep in church!
Join us for Fusion on Monday, March 18, at 6 p.m. Bring your story; bring you into a welcome space to connect, discover and grow. Check out the Fusion Facebook page for more details: https://www.facebook.com/events/782213388828582/
Growing up I remember visiting a museum (might have been the Smithsonian). I saw a display with prehistoric skulls with holes in the skulls. Archaeologists call this trepanning. They have varying theories as to the reason for trepanning. But one of the explanations I recall reading at the museum is that these individuals may have suffered from severe headaches attributed to evil spirits and that those within their villages believed that boring a hole through their skull would provide an opening for the evil spirit to escape. (I know; crazy, right?) I don’t remember much of what I saw in museums growing up, but I have never forgotten that display. As I moved into my teen years I developed migraine headaches and from time to time reflected on the fact that, had I lived in prehistoric times, I very likely may have been judged as demon possessed and someone would have carved a hole in my head… Which would be about as helpful as – well, a hole in your head!
In such primitive times, gods or demons were considered the cause of any unexplained phenomenon. It was a rather superstitious, magical world folks lived in and I’m thankful we now have the benefit of things like MRI’s, cultures, vaccines and blood panels. But sometimes I’m not so sure we’ve made a huge amount of progress with regards to mental health issues, especially in the church. Take depression, for example. Sometimes those within the church treat others who struggle with depression as if they are somehow spiritually deficient. They should pray more and keep a Gratitude Journal… neither of which is likely to make a dramatic change in brain chemistry. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a big proponent of prayer and counting our blessings. But medication or therapy can also be God’s answer to our prayers… and not everything that goes wrong in this life gets fixed in this life.
Sometimes I wonder if individuals with mental illness or physical disabilities simply cause us fear with regards to our own well-being. Perhaps we don’t want to consider our own vulnerabilities and want to believe that faith and prayer are a kind of talisman to protect us from anything that might go wrong (modern day “magic”).
But when we rush to judgments or practice avoidance or refuse to talk about or think about issues of mental health, it’s not healthy, it’s not loving… and it’s not even Church. Church should be a place where we can share our struggles and face our fears together. Church should be a place of compassion and honesty. That’s what Jesus was about.
At our February Trinity Fusion, we’ll engage in some open, honest dialogue about mental health and how to support those who struggle with mental health issues. We’ll consider how the Church can follow the example of Jesus and respond to those with mental health issues with the honesty and compassion of Christ.
For those of you who participate in that custom of selecting a word for each New Year, here is mine: listening. I hope – and pray – in 2019 to get better at listening. It’s hard because we live in a really noisy world. People talk over one another and past one another and try to get in the last word.
Our culture prizes the ability to multi-task. We consider it an asset. But if you really think about it, multi-tasking officially sanctions poor listening because – despite what athletes and life coaches may say – it’s really mathematically impossible to give 110%. So, when we multi-task, we’re giving each task (and the people involved in them) less than our full attention.
I heard a true story a while back about a young child and her mother. The little girl could tell that her mother had tuned her out based on the monotone, rhythmic “um hmms” she was hearing, a clear indicator of poor listening. So the child walked over to where her mother was seated, placed both of her chubby, little hands on her mother’s cheeks, and guiding her mother’s face so it lined up with her own, looked into her mother’s eyes and said with slow deliberateness, “Pay attention!”
It’s pretty obvious that no one in Washington is listening anymore. When ideas and values clash, the only way to find resolution is to listen because listening leads to understanding and no challenge can ever be resolved if we don’t understand where the other person is coming from.
At Trinity (www.trinitylafayette.org) we focus a lot on listening. Our new monthly gathering, Fusion (http://www.trinitylafayette.org/fusion) is all about listening. We listen to the sacred stories and we listen to the stories of our lives and the lives of those around us. Christianity is an incarnational faith. We believe that God’s Word took on flesh in Jesus and we trust that God’s Word still takes on flesh in our lives. When we listen deeply to another person, we can also hear the voice of God speaking through their life.
This Monday, Jan. 21, our Fusion speaker will be Rebecca Hauer (rebeccahauer.com). Rebecca is an avid writer, amateur theologian, and abuse survivor who will share her life’s journey around issues of faith, abuse recovery, and mental health. Fusion is more than a monthly event. It’s designed to carve out a space for grace; a space where – by listening to the voices of God and one another – we can connect, discover and grow.
As our nation nears the one-month mark of this government shut-down, I pray that all of us can learn to “listen with the ears of our hearts,” as St. Benedict said, for if we listen deeply, we can hear the voice of God.
A church member recently loaned me the book With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God by Skye Jethani. The author examines different “postures” or approaches to our relationship with God. One is what he labels “Life Under God.” It is an effort to win God’s favor by combining rituals and morality. It is an approach through which we “are seeking to exert control over God through strict adherence to rituals… and moral codes… We put God into our debt and expect him to do our bidding in exchange for our worship and righteous behavior.”[i] On a communal scale, this results in churches and religious leaders functioning as “divine police” “ensuring no one violates the Almighty’s will, because it’s not just the individual on the line, but the whole community.”[ii]
On Monday, Oct. 15, at 6 p.m. during Trinity’s Fusion gathering, I’ll be talking about the story in John, chapter 4, of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. Growing up, the woman’s sexual exploits seemed to merit salacious speculation on the part of bible preachers and teachers. I also recall preachers who labeled the woman’s question to Jesus about worship as an effort to change the subject in order to avoid confronting her own moral shortcomings.
But today I feel differently about the story and the woman.
For one thing, Jesus only seems to name her life’s circumstances in order to demonstrate that he is more than some random guy passing through town. Frequently in John’s gospel, Jesus knows the unknowable. In chapter 1, his intimate knowledge of Nathanael prompts surprise followed by a profession of faith. Jesus repeatedly seems to “call us as he sees us” not in an effort to embarrass; but to cut through the pretense and get at the heart of who we really are. It’s a “zero to sixty” path to intimacy.
Once the Samaritan woman recognizes that Jesus (through his inexplicable knowledge of her life) must have a “God vibe” going on, she asks Jesus a question of incredible importance. It is a question about how to be in relationship with God; about how to enter in to God’s presence and it leads to a conversation in which Jesus discloses his true identity for the first time in John’s gospel.
In reading Jethani’s book, it occurs to me that this story of the Samaritan woman is so often examined from a “life under God” approach. It is reduced to a lesson in morality: Jesus confronted her with her sin and led her toward repentance and faith.
But maybe there’s a different way to view the story. Jesus never tells the woman to repent. He never circles back to “confront” her immoral behavior. Instead, the woman’s sincere and deeply important question is where Jesus focuses his attention. In his book, Jethani talks about how our lives change when we take on a posture of life with God. It seems to me that few gospel characters understand this concept of life with God better than the Samaritan woman. And, even though she is a woman, a foreigner, and living in a dubious setting, Jesus is “all in” to dialog with her about what life with God looks like. That’s the kind of dialogue that gets Jesus and the woman excited. And if Jesus had made her gender, ethnicity, or morality the focus of the conversation, they likely would have never gotten any farther.
It seems to me that we have become, increasingly, a culture more concerned with policing one another’s morals than with honest dialogue about how to be in relationship with God and with one another. And it doesn’t seem that such an approach is doing much to help the Church or the world. But what might happen if we could come together around the table to discuss with openness our common seeking of God? Perhaps in our common quest, we might experience community.
Right now in the United Methodist Church we are bitterly divided over the issues of gender and sexuality. As we move toward the February General Conference, there is discussion of winners and losers, allies and opponents, factions and successions… because we have focused on a moral issue over which we do not agree. What if our focus changed? What if we could sit down face to face with one another and agree to discuss the most important question: how can we be in deeper, more loving relationship with God and with others? If that is our primary question, then surely – despite our differences – we can come together.
[i] With by Skye Jethani. 2011; Thomas Nelson Pub; p. 27
[ii] Ibid, p. 31
I grew up in a culture that didn’t really pay much attention to the connection between body and spirit. Spiritual things were things you couldn’t see and my physical body was nothing more than a shell that I would shed someday in the great bye and bye. But over the years I’ve grown to see a powerful connection between body and spirit. Years ago I began to notice that, on days when I exercised I could stay more focused during my prayer time and fall asleep more easily. It was almost as if my body was telling me that it needed its fair share of time and attention. In recent years, I’ve also noticed that, on mornings when I take time to meditate or engage in centering prayer before I leave for work, I manage my work life better. I have more patience with people and I don’t find little inconveniences so irritating. I’m not as apt to “blown them up” in my mind.
Today, many of us deal with a lot of stress and have over-extend ourselves and we’ve sometimes forgotten about the need to balance the needs of our bodies, minds and spirits. The prophet Elijah knew what it felt like for his body, mind and spirit to just kind of collapse under the weight of stress and over-work. His story is found in the bible in 1 Kings, chapter 17 through 2 Kings, chapter 2. The culmination of the story comes in 1 Kings, chapter 19, when (all by himself) Elijah climbs his way to the top of a mountain and recognizes the presence of God in quiet and stillness. Twice, God asks Elijah the question, “What are you doing here?” What a great existential question for someone in the midst of an existential crisis! Sometimes we all need to take a moment to get away to a quiet place and acknowledge just how tired we might be and to remember that are bodies are living organisms, not machines; and that our spirits live and find expression within those bodies.
That’s what spirituality is really about: finding those ways to be attentive to God’s presence in our bodies, minds and spirits – alone and with one another… because when Elijah came down from that mountain, his first assignment from God was to find a partner, named Elisha, who would help him manage the work and the stress.
On Monday, September 17, at 6 p.m. at Trinity, we’ll be talking together about this connection and need for balance between body, mind and spirit at our new gathering, Trinity Fusion. We’ll also hear from a local yoga instructor about how yoga helps us maintain that healthy connection between body, mind and spirit. There’ll be an opportunity to learn more about centering prayer, an ancient form of prayer that helps us “tune in” to the quiet, peaceful presence of God in our lives. I hope you can join us! Learn more at: http://www.trinitylafayette.org/fusion.html
TRINITY FUSION – Connect, Discover, Grow