Archive for April, 2012

The Main Thing Is Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing

That’s my prayer for the 2000+ clergy and lay members of our United Methodist General Conference that convenes April 24 in Tampa, Florida. “God, keep these brothers and sisters focused on the MainThing. Remind them daily that 1) other United Methodists (or variously-labeled Christians) are not the enemy;  2) one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results ; and 3) how they do their business (as those who know and follow Jesus) matters to the watching church and world at least as much  as what they do.”

The Main Thing is not institutional survival. We’ve invested huge amounts of time, energy, study, prayer, dialog, money, and paper in analyzing the denomination’s decline and seeking ways to reverse that decline. (This decline, of course, affects many churches besides the United Methodist Church. Decisions about restructuring, revitalizing (and giving up buzzwords for Lent?) must not become desperate efforts to hang on by our fingernails. Survival-driven decisions are doomed from the outset: “[Jesus said]…those who want to save their life  will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:35 NRSV)

I certainly don’t expect survival anxiety to overwhelm this General Conference. Too many of the members have strong and vital faith, deep commitment, and a burning vision of a stronger-than-ever UMC. I’m rooting–and praying–for them. The greatest obstacle to claiming the future God has for us may turn out to be a deeper anxiety. Call it “relevance” anxiety; “Does anybody care?” anxiety; “Is anybody listening?” anxiety; “Do we matter any more?” anxiety. Large segments of society get along quite well without Christian underpinnings, thank you. Irrelevance, indifference, and apathy might well be a fate worse than “losing our life”.

It’s happening in Europe. In a recent Huffington Post article George Courtauld writes, “There is no question that Britain is becoming a more secular society…the establishment, many politicians and much of the media…dismiss all religions as equally nonsensical, embarrassing and irrelevant…In modern Britain and much of Europe now the religious are regarded as insane or silly.” Sadly, Courtauld’s solution is a book aimed at acquainting us with the Christian customs and traditions that underlie English-speaking civilization. It’s an interesting, helpful book. But a book’s not enough. “When the fullness of time had come,” God didn’t send a book. “God sent his son…”(Galatians 4:4 NRSV)–The Main Thing! A person is relevant in ways a book can never be.

Our UMC’s official language says our Main Thing is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” This General Conference will succeed–or fail–to the extent it equips and empowers that mission throughout our wondrously diverse denomiation. Dear GC (and other beyond-local-church folk), please give us some tools, some wisely-focused funding, and some inspiration. Clear away the bureaucratic clutter that distracts us from The Main Thing. And please let the Holy Spirit help you become our cheering section and earn to give us just the right kind and amount of help, which is usually almost as much as we think we need. (Thanks to Kennon Callahan for that wisdom.)

Lest you think this is an exercise in bashing bureaucrats and denominational power players–Whatever happens in Tampa, the future of the church is not in the hands of those folks. It’s in our hands–you and me and folks like us in thousands of local churches. It’s in the way we love and serve our neighbors in the spirit of Jesus. It’s in the way we step boldly into the future believing that our best days are ahead of us, not behind us. It’s in the way we dare to pray not only for our brothers and sisters in Tampa but for ourselves and our congregations: Keep us focused on The Main Thing–making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Make us willing to lose our lives for your sake and the sake of the gospel. Free us from the insanity of doing the same old things and expecting different results. Give us holy boldness to follow you in new ways and places. Let the fullness of time come wherever we serve you. Let people see Jesus convincingly and unmistakably through our lives and our life together.”

That embodied (incarnational) love of Jesus will look very different in our different circumstances. How will it look where you live your life and follow Jesus?


Judas-A Place at the Table

This year I played Judas in our church’s Maundy Thursday service. It was my first time playing the villain. The pastor always has to play Jesus, as Pastor Don did that night. The service was built around a tableau of Da Vinci’s iconic “Last Supper” painting. Each disciple offered a brief monologue about his character. About midway through I, Judas, spoke. The script offered a frequently-heard popular interpretation. My high hopes for Jesus were fading fast, I said. Why won’t he start the final holy war with Rome and call down God’s heavenly armies? He needs a push. I, Judas, would give him that push. I’d “finger” Jesus so the Jewish authorities could arrest him. This would create a crisis that force him to act. As I finished my speech “Jesus” said, “Go do what you have to do.” I did— dramatically flinging my moneybag to the floor on my way down the aisle. (Perhaps better drama than biblical scholarship!)

What would “Judas” do for the rest of the service? After the monologues, the Last Supper would be re-enacted. “Jesus” would serve the disciples and they would serve the congregation. I thought I’d be out of the picture. After all, we’re told that in his remorse “[Judas]…went and hanged himself.” (Matt. 27:5) But Pastor Don insisted that “Judas” slip back into his place at the table so that Jesus could serve him along with the other disciples. It felt strange to me. But afterwards I realized it had to be just that way. Of course Judas has a place at the Lord’s Table. If God’s redeeming love in Jesus can reach Judas, it can reach anyone anywhere anytime. If Love can reach and restore Jesus Enemy Number One, it can certainly transform all of us petty-misdemeanor sinners. That “after” scene time-shifted us from first-century Palestine to twenty-first century here-and-now. The table complete with Judas proclaims the power of God’s love to transform the most motley collection of sinners into one Body in Christ. It shows us at once both saving truth and God’s wildly impossible promised New Creation.

The next morning my wife and I headed for Las Vegas to spend Easter with two of our three children and their families. (Truthfully, with our four amazing grandchildren and their parents!) Our 17-month-old grandson had the flu. He’d Velcroed himself to Mom the way sick little ones often do. Neither of them was leaving the house that night. So I was drafted to read Karin’s part in her church’s Good Friday service. [The service was built around Ruth Elaine Schram’s stunning cantata “Tapestry of Darkness”. Check it out!]

It fell to me to read Jesus’ words that have tripped readers for decades: “Eloi, eloi, lema sabachthani.” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46)As I did I realized–those could have been Judas’ words as he ended his life. Jesus’ cry sounds like a mirror image of Judas exclaiming, “My God, my God, why have I forsaken you?”  Judas feels isolated and alone, beyond the reach of God’s love. But right beside him is Jesus, Emmanuel, “God-with-us”, living through the same all-too-human experience of total and complete abandonment. Incarnation isn’t just a Christmas word. It’s the Good News from the first page of the New Testament to the very last!

On Easter morning I found myself singing “Lord, I’m amazed at how you love me…” through  my Judas hangover. Granted, we don’t see or hear of Judas after his tragic suicide. But I don’t think it’s a stretch to believe that someplace on the other side of death Judas encountered Love that invited him back to the table.  That’s where he belongs. That’s home for every follower of Jesus–especially when we’ve followed less-than-faithfully.

That church’s Easter Sunday bulletin described the post-Easter worship theme– “Home”. “Home,” I remembered, is “the place where, when you have to go there, they have to let you in.” Who needs some place to go on Easter morning more than Judas? And it’s our nature as people of God, because it is God’s nature, to “have to let in” all the strays, the lost, the helpless hopeless homeless who have nowhere else to go. It’s our nature as forgiven sinners to make a place at the table for those who have no place. Even the unforgivable. Even Judas.

What does Judas look like where you live? Have you made Judas a place at the table where you meet Jesus and share the holy meal that unites all his followers? What are you doing to invite Judas (him/her/them) to join you, join us, join the whole family of God? Has either your action or your indifference posted a forbidding “Keep Out” sign? If Judas has no place at the Lord’s Table, none of us do. If Judas has a place and we sit in fellowship together, that wonderfully  impossible and surely promised New Creation has come true in our presence.

Jesus Kissed the Easter Bunny???

“Can anyone tell me why we celebrate Easter?” the teacher asked. A seven-year-old girl answered in her best “Here’s a wild guess” tone–“Because Jesus kissed the Easter bunny?” The teacher was my daughter. Working hard to keep a straight face (and to keep from embarassing the child), she told the girl to be sure she came back the next Sunday (Easter) to learn much more. Karin says this girl [whom we’ll call Janet] attends irregularly, mostly because of her not-very-stable home life.

We laughed about this incident when Karin retold it that night. But underlying the laughter was a sadness. Janet’s confusion isn’t an isolated example. Janet represents countless children who don’t know the basics of the Christian story. They live in a confusing conglomeration of cultural myths (Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, The Grinch,etc.) and elements of traditional religous stories. Their young minds may well hear both cultural myths and traditional faith stories as equally “mythical”. The confusion is heightened when the faith stories are “out of context”, i.e., when they’re not rooted in a family’s consistent faithful lifestyle.

The confusion isn’t only in young minds. My wife went to the store to get some Easter cards–a big-box retailer, not a “Christian” store. “It’s really hard to find Easter cards about Easter ,” she proclaimed upon her return. Her diligent search for bunny-free, egg-free cards that celebrated the Christian holiday in Christian terms had yielded minimal results. Her experience reinforces the uncomfortable truth. Organized religion is increasingly marginalized in our society. We no longer see throngs of traditional Ozzie-and-Harriet families spending every Sunday morning at their neighborhood church. Too many churches have hidden their heads in the sand in recent decades while two and now three generations have grown up with no significant Christian memory. They don’t speak our language–and for the most part, we don’t speak theirs.

But Janets (and Jameses) keep showing up  every Sunday morning. Somebody in their life thinks they should be there. God keeps giving us new chances with these children (and the adults in their lives). Our wise/foolish God trusts us and our “perfectly imperfect” faith communities to be the source through which they experience Limitless Unconditional Love. Here are some things we can do to be ready for Janet and James next Sunday:

1) LET’S GET OUR STORY STRAIGHT. Let’s learn our story well enough to be able to tell it to one another–and to a stranger. Let’s be sure our leaders,  teachers, and families (in all their diverse forms) know the basic stories of our faith and why those stories matter.

2) LET’S LOVINGLY HELP JANET LEARN THE STORY. “Be sure to come back next week” was a good start.  Janet doesn’t always have control over that. Inexpensive children’s books that tell the Christmas and Easter stories are readily available. Keep some on hand to send home. A teacher might give it to whoever picks up Janet with a  brief explanation–“Janet was curious about this. We covered as much as we had time for. Perhaps you could help her at home.” Or a teacher might ask the whole class to work together to tell the story.

3) KEEP WORKING ON OUR WELCOME. Many newcomers are remarkably uncomfortable about their first visit to a church. Little things we take for granted can turn them off. Special care and attention  can “seal the deal” and touch them deeply because they aren’t treated that well anywhere else in their lives.

4) DARE TO MAKE THE CHANGES NECESSARY TO MAKE ROOM FOR JANET, JAMES, AND THEIR FAMILIES. Most folks in nearly every church I know say they want to reach Janet, James, and their families. But when ” crunch time” comes and we face the reality of adjusting programming, Sunday schedule, worship styles, and $pending, tremendous resistance arises. I’ve seen it happen too many times in too many places. Janet and James are important–but not important enough to disrupt my comfort zone in my church.

Whose church?? Maybe that’s the problem. When we really get that part of the story straight, all the other pieces will begin to fall into place. Janet, James, and their families will be more welcome than they ever dared to hope. All of us will be amazed by the depth and power of the God whose love we know in Jesus–who never kissed any bunnies as far as I know, but loves them just the same as he loves every one of God’s creatures–including you, me, and Janet.