Archive for March, 2012

What a Concept (Revised)

[Something strange happened on the way to the “publish” button. My work-in-progress launched too soon. I’m not sure what you got, but here’s what I intended to share. Thanks for your patience.]

I heard today about a group called “Red Letter Christians”. The “Red Letters” are the ones that identify the words of Jesus in many Bibles. (Yes, I know the technical issues that make this les-than-accurate. But let’s set those aside for now.) Red Letter Christians think Jesus meant what he said. They believe following Jesus means walking his talk. In their own words, “The goal of Red Letter Christians is simple: To take Jesus seriously by endeavoring to live out His radical, counter-cultural teachings as set forth in Scripture, and especially embracing the lifestyle prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount.” (Follow this link to learn more:

What a concept! Being a Christian means taking Jesus at his word(s)–especially the ones that make us squirm. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) may well have  inspired more weasel-words from those who call themselves Christian than any other Bible passage: “He meant these words for the Twelve, not for everybody.” “He was talking about life in the coming Kingdom of God, not the real world.” “These are ideals, not prescriptions for daily life.” Jesus’ first disciples thought Jesus meant just what he said. The early church thought Jesus meant what he said. Throughout history a lot of folks (like Gandhi), who’ve said they’d be Christian if the Christians they knew were more like Jesus, have believed Jesus meant what he said.

Clarence Jordan ( thought Jesus meant what he said.  Clarence was born into a middle-class white family in Talbotton, Georgia in 1912. As a young man, he was deeply disturbed by the racial inequality and injustice he saw. His concern led him to a Ph. D. in New Testament Greek at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1938. But he didn’t take refuge in the academic world. In 1942 he and his wife and another couple moved their families onto 440 acres outside Americus, Georgia. They started what they called “Koinonia Farm”, an interracial Christian farming community. What were they thinking in the Deep South in 1942?? “To take Jesus seriously by endeavoring to live out His radical, counter-cultural teachings as set forth in Scripture, and especially embracing the lifestyle prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount.”

Somewhere between 70 and 85% of the churches in this country are declining in attendance and membership. Most of them are looking for answers. They say they’d love to reach unchurched people, especially “young people”.But most of those folks want nothing to do with playing church. Most of what’s on a typical church’s weekly calendar has no connection with their lives. They are unchurched (or de-churched) because they believe Jesus meant what he said and they haven’t found a church that looks and acts it does. But when they do discover a church that takes them seriously as persons and takes Jesus at his word(s), they’re all in!

Want to revitalize your church? Lose the gimmicks. Run off (with Christian love) that expert with all the answers who’ll head home about the time you’re trying to sell his miracle cure to the folks who never trusted him anyway. Center your life together around Matthew 5-7. Read the Sermon on the Mount together–slowly, reflectively, prayerfully. Imagine what “taking Jesus seriously” looks like in your lives and in your life together. Explore the life of Clarence Jordan and other Christians who’ve made the Sermon on the Mount the centerpiece of their discipleship. Don’t just sit there and study. Identify a step you feel called to take. Start with a very small step. Now give one another the gift of mutual encouragement and accountability. Dare to ask God to form you into people and a church that looks and acts like Jesus. What a concept!

Rising Eighty

Sherman Yellen told folks he was “rising 80” as he approached that milestone birthday recently. He’d learned that expression from his grandfather, who’d picked it up while living in London. Our youth-obsessed culture doesn’t generally link “rising” and “80.” We’ll more likely link”80″ with “slowing down”, “declining”, or “doddering”. At best we might link “80” with “spry”, and at worst “scratching and clawing to stay on the green side of the grass”. [WARNING: Don’t ever call me “spry” and not expect serious consequences. “Spry” sounds to me like code for “Amazing–a relic like you actually functioning without equipment, pills, and keepers! Why aren’t you in a home with the rest of the geezers?”]

Sherman Yellen has risen to 80 and he’s still going strong. I hope he doesn’t mind me calling him an octogenarian with attitude. “…my best advice for any age”, he says, “is to paste the battle stories of your past into a scrap book and stay close to the present, living in the moment with few regrets.” Yellen hasn’t “retired” at age “Rising 80” to rest on his two Emmies and one Tony nomination. His latest production,  “Josephine Tonight”, is playing to sellouts in Alexandria, VA, and opening next month in Sarasota, FL. His other new musical about Al Jolson (written with another octogenarian) debuts next fall. “Living in the moment” means Yellen loves getting great reviews, but not as much as tme spent with his young granddaughters. It means he’s “still learning” at an age where we expect folks to worry more about remembering to take their pills than learning new skills. Yellen says he learned to write song lyrics when he was “well over 60, when we are not supposed to learn new skills…I found that the learning process doesn’t stop, or even decline (ignore all so called scientific studies to the contrary written by rubbish statisticians who hate their fathers).” Now that’s attitude!

I believe (and I hope Yellen would agree) that “living in the moment” means living toward tomorrow. A key component of “Rising 80″ (or 60 0r 40 or any age) is faith in the future. The prophet Isaiah wrote to a once-proud people who’d watched invading armies destroy their once-proud society. Not surprisingly, they didn’t trust God for their future. God told them through the prophet,  “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19 NIV)

 “Paste the battle stories of your past into a scrapbook and live in the moment…” Faith in the future means valuing the new thing God is doing today more than yesterday’s battle stories.We dare not forget our history. But we’ll shrivel up and die if we insist on living there forever. Today is not 1950, 1980, or whenever your “golden age” was. Today is Today–Rising 2012, with all its wonder and chaos, peril and promise. God’s “new thing” is unfolding before our eyes. “Do you not perceive it?”

God give us eyes to see Your newness springing up in and around us. Give us hearts to embrace it, strength to help build it, and mouths to proclaim it. Teach us to live in the moment, because every moment is your moment, and every day your new day.

Here’s a link to Sherman Yellen’s article “On Rising Eighty”:

More Softball, Less Talk

Our friend Bill spent the night with us recently. He and his wife live in a community with a large Catholic congregation, a sizable LDS community, and a variety of Protestant churches. All those religious folks get along well–as long as they don’t get too close. But some in those various religious communities still harbor old suspicions, stereotypes, and self-righteous ideas about other relgious groups. (In other words, they’re at least as human as I am.)

Bill and his wife are both United Methodists, members of a church I once served. His wife worked for the Catholic church for years, so she’s well-connected there. A few years ago Bill and a Catholic deacon started a church softball league. The first year just a few churches fielded teams. Now the league has teams from eight and ten churches every spring or fall season, including Catholics, LDS, and assorted Protestants. They don’t play highly competitive ball—slowpitch, co-ed, 18-years and up (to the 70’s at least). They play a round-robin schedule, followed by playoffs. Then they award some trophies, have a picnic, and go home till next season. Many of the pastors play. Bill’s not sure whether they play to get closer to their flocks, or to be sure none of their sheep wander off—with a little help from their friends in Christ.

Bill says the five years of the league’s existence have been a very positive experience. Folks have related on the playing field at a level that official churchdom seldom offers. When religious differences do surface, they’re handled openly, honestly, and in the context of the relationships that are developing on the field. At the beginning of one season, someone suggested having a short, simple prayer before each game. Knowing the age of some of the players, I can certainly understand that! As the league’s steering committee discussed the matter, somebody expressed reservations about praying with some of the other somebodies. His reservations weren’t well-received. Somebody’s pastor later had a frank exchange of views with him about the Somebodies to whom God listens–and Who decides who gets heard.

Bill described how his team handles a situation that’s come up on most teams in the league. Some of the most faithful, enthusiastic team members are the least skilled players. They always show up. When you have just enough for a team, they play the whole game. Sometimes that helps the other team more than yours. Bill said their Methodist team makes a point of encouraging everyone, giving everyone playing time, and not getting negative when somebody’s having a bad day at the plate, on the field–or just getting in and out of the dugout!

It’s almost softball season again in that very warm Arizona community. It’s also election season in our nation, and General Conference season in our United Methodist Church. The political climate’s highly polarized, and General Conference is certainly vulnerable to many of those same polarizing forces. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Maybe our politicians and our denominational leaders can learn from this church softball league. Even the folks we don’t think can contribute deserve some playing time.  Our whole team will play better when we stay positive and don’t go nastily negative. In fact the game’s better for everyone that way. How we play the game matters at least as much as who wins and loses. If we play too rough, nobody wins.

So here’s a proposal for the political season in our nation, the church, and wherever else we have things to settle: Let’s start with some softball. Playing together can help us work together. It’s a whole different way of relating. When we’re convinced that those folks who disagree with us are evil and not just wrong or different, it’s time to play ball. When we’re so focused on winning that we’d like those well-meaning amateurs to just get off the field, it’s time to let some of them on our team. When we take ourselves too seriously because of the important causes we support, it’s time to go out to the park and play some ball. If that doesn’t restore our perspective, then God help us!