The Family You Choose

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My big brother died suddenly of a heart attack at age 47. He and I lived 500 miles apart; in opposite directions of our hometown, Johnstown, PA, where most of our family still lived. I’d been living in western Ohio and Dan had been living in Coatesville, PA for more than two decades.  My brother was divorced but, it was important to his 18 year old son that his dad’s funeral service take place in Coatesville.

Like so many young people, my brother fought with our parents about attending church as a teenager (a difficult situation for a preacher’s family!). As a young adult, Dan left the church. But, as is often the case, he returned to the church when he and his wife began a family. After their divorce, church became even more important to my brother. When we spoke on the phone it was clear that church had become his family away from home. He took mission trips with the congregation, attended bible study, served as a deacon. But the “church program” I think he cherished most was their church’s motorcycle group. On many summer Sundays they brought a sandwich and change of clothes with them to worship. After church, they changed, ate their lunch, then got on their motorcycles and headed out to spend the afternoon weaving down those eastern PA roads. Their day would conclude at someone’s home who would grill and they would eat and fellowship together well into the evening.

The day of my brother’s funeral, the church was packed and his motorcycle was parked out front. The pastor entered the pulpit with Dan’s helmet in his hand. Members of the congregation were invited to share memories of my brother. That time of sharing was the most wonderful gift that congregation could have given our family. The stories they told – many funny, some deeply moving – made clear how much they loved my brother. I was being introduced to a whole new dimension of his identity. They spoke of the richness of his faith. It was all a balm to our souls.

I once had a friend who didn’t like to attend church and was fond of saying he could talk to God just as well on Sunday mornings from the comfort of his own home.  No debate there.  But church is so much more than “me and Jesus.”  Church is really about us and Jesus; Church is about family, the family you choose.

This Sunday, August 23, my church will have a Fall Kick-Off and Outreach Sunday (http://www.trinitylafayette.org/).  I’ve encouraged church members to invite a friend to join them for worship. We Methodists aren’t very good at inviting people to worship.  The average United Methodist invites someone to worship once every 38 years! (statistic taken from the book “Get Their Name” by Bob Farr, Doug Anderson and Kay Kotan, published by Abingdon).  I would guess other mainline Protestants and Catholics have pretty similar stats.

And I wonder why…

Sure, many of us have had negative experiences with churches; painful experiences.  But is that a reason to avoid them altogether?  I once had a painful, negative experience with a dentist.  He loaded me so full of Novacaine I thought I’d be blubbering until my next birthday.  It felt like every inch of my checks and gums had been pricked by a syringe.  It was horrible.  So, I found a new dentist.

I feel badly for people who self-identify as Christians, yet do not have a church family. The love, the encouragement, and the fellowship we share with a church family are priceless. Stories like my brother’s are not unique. I’ve heard them many times over the years.  When we invite someone to our church, we are offering them a gift. Shane Claiborne is fond of saying that the best things in life are meant to be shared.  So why aren’t we sharing church with people?

With this blog I want to put out a challenge…

  • If you attend church and it’s been a blessing to you, don’t keep it to yourself.  Share the blessing by inviting a friend to attend church with you.
  • If you’ve tried church and it was a bad experience, don’t give up.  Try again.
  • If all you’ve ever known about church is showing up for an hour of worship, don’t stop there.  Dive deeper into the life of your church so it can become your family and not just a building you enter once a week.  Trust me; it’ll be worth it.

The Quack Clack

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Click on “duck” below to see a pic of the Quack Clack

duck

[In the Spirit of Pentecost, I’m updating this blog… In my Pentecost sermon on May 24 at http://www.trinitylafayette.org, I challenge my congregation to ask the Spirit to equip us to communicate the love of Christ to others in a language they can comprehend.  Here’s the prayer I’ll be asking my congregation to pray every morning for forty days, beginning on Pentecost Sunday:

God, today I am ready and available to your Holy Spirit.
I am willing for your Spirit to come upon me
so that I might share the good news of salvation through Christ
with someone else who does not know the story.
Help me, equip me, to speak the love of Christ in ways that can be heard and understood.
I ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.]

I’ve now lived in two communities in a row with ponds loaded with ducks and geese.  Don’t get me started on how annoyed the geese make me, but I love the ducks.  My husband has bought me duck books and I think one day I’ll rise to his challenge to write an entire devotional on ducks.  But I digress from the point of this specific blog post…

Here in Lafayette we have these brown and white ducks that are actually domestic ducks cut loose in the wild (at least according to what I’ve read on the internet and how could the internet lead you astray?)  But here is what I find fascinating: this particularly quack clack is always together – 3 brown and whites (domestic) and one male Mallard (wild).  So, how did the Mallard break into that group?

I mean, it’s hard for us human creatures.  We tend to be drawn toward people who are like us – people in our economic bracket, on pare with our education level, in line with our theological and political bents.  Even more fascinating about the clack is that the brown and whites never mingle with any other Mallards.  One guy broke through the ranks.  How did he manage that?

I’ve been here in Lafayette for a year now and I think I’m fixated on this quack clack because that Mallard has accomplished something I’ve not yet figured out.  My church congregation is a very different culture than many of the people who live in the community around the church building and I wonder if that can change.  Many of us want it to change.  Recently we’ve been doing neighborhood walks to get ourselves out into the community more.  We are a friendly church.  You don’t need to take my word for it; the research of our church growth consultant bears it out.  Our world is increasingly global and yet I’m sure it’s made it any easier for us to forge true community among different sub-cultures.

Too bad that Mallard doesn’t talk…

The Spiritual Practice of Boredom

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OK, so I don’t think you’ll find anything written by Thomas Merton or Richard Foster; but in support of spiritual practices being relevant to cultural context, I think we might need to consider the spiritual discipline of boredom.

I remember being bored as a child… but I’d be super curious to hear from anyone under 35 to see if they remember being bored as a child.  I was raised back east and have spent most of my adult years in the Midwest.  Both regions have now given boredom the status of sin, I think.  Long, long ago – when I was around eight years old – most businesses in my city of origin were closed on Sundays.  After church we’d go home and eat lunch and then it would seem as if the afternoon stretched on into infinity.  There was nothing to do.  Sometimes I played with a neighborhood friend.  But, if she wasn’t around or available, I would have to figure out a way to entertain myself.  And so, I got pretty good at playing jacks, I was awesome at walking up stairs on stilts (a trick I was careful to keep hidden from my mother).  And I “cooked” strange and exotic dishes by mixing all kinds of curious substances found in nature.  (Don’t worry; I never actually ate any of them; but the textures they created were fascinating.)

Today, for the most part, children don’t need to worry about boredom.  We keep them as busy as we keep ourselves.  The only downtime it seems they get are hours spent in cars, vans or buses en route to contests, games, tournaments, etc.

I read an article a few years back about the brain and multi-tasking.  Ironically, the skills we need to multi-task can only be developed during times of intense focus.  In other words, to effectively speed up, we have to have purposeful times of slowing down.  I think we religious folk call that Sabbath.  Now, don’t misunderstand me.  I’m not saying we need to go back to those days when all the businesses were closed on Sundays… which, if you’re Jewish or Muslim would be pretty annoying I imagine.  But it seems we ought to be able to grant ourselves – and our children – some down time without necessarily legislating it.  I still find that I do my best creative thinking on “days off.”

I wonder about our future as a culture.  We’ve programmed our children to avoid boredom at all costs.  I think it’s “threat level” is right up there with ISIS and Ebola.  If we had images of the brains of eight year old’s from the past four decades, I wonder if we could see differences over time as we’ve gradually cultivated a culture that avoids, even sabotages any potential down time.

Jews and Christians share that epic story of Elijah on Mt. Horeb; that story in which God speaks not through the fire, wind or earthquake, but in the silence.  Hmm… We could find a lot to ruminate over in that story.  But time is a wasting and I’d better get back to work.

What’s for Lunch?

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I love to eat! If you know me, this is no big surprise. I facilitate spiritual formation with a group of seminary students. Last Sunday evening we all met for dinner. We closed out the restaurant. It was a wonderful time to eat and laugh and share our lives with one another.
In any culture and in any time, food and fellowship seem to always go together. Relationships are built around meals. I don’t know of any culture that doesn’t celebrate a wedding by following it up with a meal. From the time I was a child, I can remember my maternal grandmother’s family having annual family reunions. The food was amazing and there was always plenty of it. When Britt and I were in seminary, our choice between beginning our ministry in Ohio or Pennsylvania was partly influenced by one District Superintendent who took us to dinner. I don’t even remember his name anymore. But what I do remember is that, when our class scheduled prevented us from attending dinner with the rest of the group, he chose to remain in Dayton for an extra day for the sole purpose of taking Britt and I out to dinner. I remember him saying that he did not want to miss an opportunity to break bread with us.
When I lived in Gary, the local synagogue celebrated a community Seder every year. I always looked forward to that meal. There was the Rabbi and Temple members, of course. But there were also pastors, imams, local business owners, local community leaders, your friends and your neighbors; racial and ethnic variety. It was true and authentic diversity.
I imagine we don’t do enough eating together anymore. An interesting survey I saw a while back indicated that Christian families are less likely to eat dinner together than non church goers. That’s kind of discouraging. It’s tough to be angry with someone while you’re eating a good meal together. The world might be a little kinder, a little gentler, if we took more time to eat with one another.
During Lent this year at Trinity, I’m doing a sermon and study series called Table Talk. Along with sermons and online devotions, we’re going to gather for lunch right after church every Sunday. It’ll be soup and bread; simple, but warm comfort food. We’re going to look at stories from the bible, talk about them, and get to know one another a little better. I’m looking forward to it. If anyone out there is interested, come by and join us for lunch at 404 North 6th Street in Lafayette.

Who you are

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Who tells you who you are?
As an adult, I enjoy running and am passionate about exercise. As a teen I should have probably been on the track team… but I wasn’t. I wasn’t because I let other people define who I was. I was very short (OK, I still am) and thin and didn’t look like an athlete so, as far back as I can remember, I was discouraged from participating in sports. (If my family had lived near a gymnastics studio this whole story might have taken a different turn.) I remember the first person who shattered that image for me. I was at a church camp and a group of volunteer counselors were being shown the ropes course. The camp director invited me to try it out and commented that I looked like a good athlete. What? A possibility I’d never considered before. Now, I’m not deluding myself. At my height, I would have never been Olympic track material. But, I imagine I could have done fine on my high school track team. Fortunately, I don’t think my absence from youthful sporting events was significant enough to have changed my life.
So, who tells you who you are? How have you allowed others to define you? I’ve met people whose lives are a sorrowful litany of “coulda, shoulda, woulda”s. Dreams and passions they never pursued because it didn’t fit with how others had defined them. It didn’t fit the expectation of others. You need look no further than the popularity of Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way” to realize how many people have been suppressed and oppressed by allowing others to define them.
We do it to ourselves and we do it to others.
I remember a church that had a single mother with three teenage sons. The oldest had gotten himself into a lot of trouble; big, serious trouble. And I remember church folk talking about the younger two boys. They assumed their fate would be the same. “That’s just the way things go,” they said… And they did.
In the church, when we baptize people, they are defined in a very particular way: as God’s beloved sons and daughters. That seems to me to be about the best – and most liberating – label we could ever put on someone.
Who tells you who you are? God does. And as Henri Nouwen says, “in God’s eyes… all we are is pure gift.”

Mars Hill and Calvary Hill

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Just recently we’ve read of the collapse of the Mars Hill network of congregations out west. I never really paid that much attention to Mars Hill or Mark Driscoll… although I did once purchase a book on small groups that was written by a Mars Hill staff member.
What I find puzzling in this whole thing is that – at least as I’ve been able to gather by online news articles – his careless speech and domineering leadership are nothing new. They’ve been going on for years. But, it seems that someone blew the whistle via social media… no big surprise there. We’re reminded over and over in our modern culture that what enters cyberspace never leaves and will come back to bite you in time.
But back to what puzzles me… Why didn’t anyone object years ago? I worry that we have entered an age when we no longer evaluate and think for ourselves. By that I mean that someone could behave outrageously but, until someone somewhere posts it and names it as being unacceptable (according to the standards of the one who’s posted it, I assume), we just all go on our merry way as if life is fine. Whatever happened to people evaluating for themselves what is unacceptable or immoral according to the standards by which we, supposedly, live? In my case as a Christian, the standards of scripture and my theological tradition.
That’s what puzzles me. But here’s what concerns me. In this age of social media that never forgets, what impact does this situation have on our understanding of things like forgiveness, repentance, redemption? Now, don’t get me wrong, I have always contended that “forgive and forget” is not always applicable… for example, if a battered wife “forgets” wouldn’t she just return to the relationship or risk another abusive relationship? Sometimes it’s important to remember. But, apparently social media neither forgets nor forgives. The entirety of our Christian faith is founded on forgiveness. That’s what it means to be justified by grace through faith in Christ. If we don’t have that, we’ve got nothing. I don’t know Mark Driscoll so I have no idea if his recent apologies are sincere or not and I have no idea if he will ever attempt to enter ministry again… or if he should even try. But here’s what I do know: if he does try again, it will all still be out there and it will come back to bite him once again.

What Is That in Your Hand?

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At Trinity UMC, this is our third week looking at “Questions God Asks Us” from the Trevor Hudson book of that same name. As we examine the call of Moses, it challenges all of us to consider how God uses our abilities, our experiences and our resources to accomplish his saving work in the world.

In looking at Moses’ call, it really got me thinking about how we talk about “call” in the church. I had a supervisor years ago who liked to poke fun at us Christians and all of our talk about “call.” He’d say things like, “So, how’s that work? Does some heavenly phone ring and you pick it up and the voice says, ‘Tracey, this is God; go to seminary.’ What happens if you intercept someone else’s call?” (True confession: There have been a couple of times over my 20+ years that I did wonder if I’d intercepted someone else’s call!)

When we read stories like Moses and the burning bush, it can start to make us feel like a call from God has to be something chalk full of drama, something of sensational proportions. But, the longer I’m a pastor, the more I see that that our focus on the drama and the “instantaneous transformations” has probably contributed to a lot of people overlooking a call from God that came in a way that was gentle and subtle. God can do gentle and subtle. I’ve seen it done and it can, ironically, be pretty powerful.

I would say that my greatest joy in ministry comes from helping other people discern and answer their call, although I don’t think anyone has ever gone on to seminary. But, their respective calls from God have definitely changed people’s lives.

I’ve heard people say that we don’t talk enough about “call” in mainline Protestant churches. I wonder how clearly we explain it. We often talk about call as specific actions or ministry activities God is calling us to do, but call – in our gospels (and other bible passages) – generally begins with an invitation into relationship with God. Before Jesus sent his disciples out to do ministry, he first spent time with them, teaching and modeling what the Kingdom of God should look like. Since the American church is in decline, I think most of us (myself included) want to get new Christians and new members busy with church work as soon as they enter our buildings. I worry that we don’t allow people enough time to simply respond to their call to be in relationship with Jesus. If we bury people under the weight of church jobs, tasks and committees, we might keep them so busy that they never really have the time or space to discern their call from God.
I remember when I first began to discern my call to ordained ministry. I was directing a summer program for an ecumenical children’s ministry in Johnstown, PA. A pastor of one of those churches served as my supervisor. But he was, more truly, a mentor and a spiritual guide. He listened and asked questions that allowed me to better understand what God was doing in my life and with my life. He was patient and open and gracious. To discover our calls can take time.