Archive for May, 2012

When Calendars (and Loyalties?) Collide

It’s happened again. Last weekend we celebrated both Pentecost and Memorial Day. That’s an occupational hazard for us Christians. We live by two different calendars. One charts the rhythm of our physical, earthly home. The other charts the rhythm of our spiritual home in the Christian year. Sometimes they overlap, as with Christmas and Easter. Sometimes they run into each other head-on. Patriotic celebrations and church celebrations claim the same calendar square. Both compete for our limited time, attention, and resources. This collision often triggers a struggle in our churches. Do we pick one and ignore the other? Can we meaningfully observe both in the same service without thoroughly confusing the congregation? Where’s the balance between being a distinctive “set-apart” people of God and being good citizens participating fully in the life of the community who are also followers of Jesus–“little Christs” as Luther put it? Does it matter? Why?

Because of the First Commandment: “I am the LORD your God…you shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:1-2) Governments from Egypt to Babylon to Rome to Nazi Germany to 21st-century superpowers routinely demand the ultimate allegiance that we understand belongs to God alone. The church cannot be the church unless we maintain a certain detachment from the government of the country we love. We will pray for our country and its government. We will be loyal, responsible citizens. We will follow Paul’s advice to “…be subject to the governing authorities.” (Romans 13:1). We will heed Jeremiah’s advice to exiles in Babylon to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you…and pray to the LORD on its behalf…” (Jeremiah 29:7). But we will not be silent about actions and policies that hurt people and make a mockery of God’s will. When the apostles were ordered to be quiet and stop preaching about Jesus the Messiah (their second offense!), they replied, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” (Acts 5:29)

“Being subject to the governing authorities” doesn’t mean automatic unquestioning acceptance of “the governing authorities'” every action. I suggest that our best contribution to the governments to which we’re subject is a) responsible participation as we’re called and gifted, and b) prayerful constructive criticism that calls for integrity, honesty, responsible stewardship of resources, a view toward long-term goals and the good of the entire cxommunity, and special care for the most vulnerable members of society. We dare not identify too closely with one political faction because we know so well that all points on the political spectrum are occupied by persons who are children of God but also flawed human being–like ourselves.

So, practically speaking, what do we do when Memorial Day, Veterans Day, or Independence Day collide with our Christian calendar? Foremost, let the worship team clearly understand its purpose in those particular services and plan the whole service toward that end. Otherwise the service becomes a camel (a horse designed by a committee) and has minimal or even negative impact. We can certainly acknowledge the occasion with music. We can gratefully remember those who have died serving their country and those who are serving now, even as we pray that the prophets’ vision of the end of war and violence (Isaiah 2:1-5; Micah 4:1-5) will be realized in our time. We can preach about some of the themes I’ve touched on. We can educate our people toward a more sophisticated understanding of Christian citizenship. In the case of Memorial Day and Pentecost, I think we acknowledge Memorial Day but focus on Pentecost. It’s the one Christian feast day that hasn’t been hyper-commercialized into triviality. It’s also a foundational experience we’re still learning to celebrate fully. Our Pentecost game needs work!

I think we need to keep plenty of distance between God and Caesar. Caesar will always try to co-opt God for Caesar’s purposes which are not always God’s purposes. For that reason I urge restraint regarding patriotic activity in worship. Here are some suggestions:

  •  The Pledge of Allegiance doesn’t belong in a worship service. It takes us too far toward Caesar and we can’t always recover. Presenting the colors is probably appropriate, expecially by the church’s Scout troop.
  • Hymns like “America the Beautiful” are certainly appropriate and helpful.
  •  I think an extended patriotic musical program at church muddies the water and dilutes the church’s prophetic stance. Let the community choir do it at the park, the school, or a concert hall.

I’m hearing murmuring voices even before I post this. Remember what we said earlier. This isn’t about politics. It’s about idolatry–“no other gods before me.” A god or idol is anything to which we give the loyalty only God deserves. Governments routinely demand that loyalty. First-century Rome declared its emperors divine. Nazi Germany tried to make the church an arm of the government. Dietrich Bonhoeffer led the resistance and helped organize The Confessing Church. Read Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. 

If I’ve raised more questions than I’ve answered, my work here is done–for the moment! Colliding calendars raise the issue of competing and often conflicting fundamental loyalties. Let’s talk. What do you think about some of these issues? How do you resolve these conflicts–or are they issues for you?

When the Going Gets Tough, Get the One-Anothering Going

Lately I’ve heard of some churches struggling with Big Problems. While each situation is unique, together they reflect the struggles of  thousands of congregations in today’s challenging ministry environment. Individual details aren’t important here. These situations took a long time to develop. They have very serious consequences. Things could still go either way for these churches and their pastors. Serious, perhaps even terminal, decline is a likely outcome for churches that behave like any other human organization and resort to mutual blaming, rumoring, whining, and fingerpointing.  But some churches will dig deeper into their faith. Their crisis will help them remember who they are–children of God, followers of Jesus, the Body of Christ, members of one another. They could begin a journey toward healing, renewal, even resurrection.

It’s too early to tell how these situations will play out. I hope and pray that these folks will rediscover the transforming truth that sustains God’s people in such times–“When the going gets tough, get the one-anothering going.” When things get tough internally or externally, we  turn inward. We go into self-protection mode and focus on ourselves. That’s the worst thing we could do. Following Jesus is a team sport. It’s never just about me. It’s about being together in Christ and helping one another grow into “the fullness of God” (Colossians 1:19). The measure of  our discipleship is less the quantity of our church busywork than the depth of our “one-anothering”. Biblical bean-counters identify around 60 verses (depending on translation and related technicalities) that address  “one-anothering”. Search “one another scriptures” and you’ll find a variety of lists, as well as bible studies and other resources.

One-fourth of those 60-or-so verses are variations of “Love one another”. One group comes from Jesus’ farewell discouse in John 13-17. The context is the farewell meal, footwashing, and Jesus’ farewell address–all leading to the Cross. Such sacrificial love will get us through just about any church glitch (or life glitch!) that might arise. Another group of verses comes from 1 John, where the author gets very specific. Love, he says, validates our profession of faith. Lack of love, on the other hand, reveals the shallowness of our faith. These early Christian communities, incidentally, were under at least as much pressure as the contemporary congregations I have in mind. They learned through their experience–“When the going gets tough, get the one-anothering going.” 

These verses get lovingly specific. Four times we’re urged to “encourage one another”. Four times we’re told to serve or submit to one another, or practice humility. Twice we’re told to forgive others, and once to “Accept one another…as Christ accepted you.” (Romans 15:7) Twice we’re told to “live in harmony”. “Harmony” doesn’t mean everybody sings the same note. It means we sing our  different notes as part of the same God-given song. We are a choir, not a collection of competing solo acts. We’re also told to “teach”, “instruct”, and “admonish” each other. We have so much to teach one another, and so much to learn from one another.  But it takes great love to offer teaching, instruction, and admonishment in a helpful way, and great love to receive it gracefully. We are also warned about negative “one-anothering”: “If you keep on biting and devouring each other…you will be destroyed by each other.” (Galatians 5:15) “…passing judgment on each other” (Romans 14:13),”slander(ing) each other” (James 4:11); “grumbl(ing) against each other” (James 5:9).

I know some Christian communities (and families, and even neighborhoods) that on their best days provide rich, deep “one-anothering”. But I know others that are caught up in “blaming and devouring”, as well as many more that live somewhere between indifference and armed truce. Too many of us who say we’re “family” in Christ simply aren’t very engaged with each other. We coast along on the surface on Sunday morning, get our needs met, and act like that mythical “friendly church” until we’re out the door. We’re not fighting, but we’re not “lov(e)ing one another deeply…” (1 Peter 4:8). That takes time and commitment we often choose not to make. The consequence is that we  fail to build a reservoir of “one-anothering” that  can sustain us “when the going gets tough”. Cultivating that depth of one-anothering can’t be an optional extra, one more item on the activity smorgasbord.  It has to be a continuing priority because it’s an expression of our very identity. Then we’ll be ready when the day comes that demands all our best “one-anothering” gifts and abilities.

So how’s the “one-anothering” in your part of God’s world? What will you do to make it better? If it’s great already, what can you share to help the rest of us increase in[“one-anothering” where we live our lives?

“A baby…God’s opinion…”

“A baby,” wrote poet/philosopher Carl Sandburg,is God’s opinion that the world should go on.” But for the last 40+ years (since the birth of my first child), I’ve heard a constant, jarring countermelody:  “I’m so glad I don’t have to raise children today.” This sad song laments the revolutionary change that’s marked those four decades. The world has become in many respects a disturbing, dangerous place. Parents must exercise constant vigilance. Children aren’t automatically safe even in the places and with the people we once trusted implicitly. Substance abuse has become epidemic. The social, political, religious, and economic structures that held life together for so long are broken and/or irrelevant. None of the “old reliables” are reliable any more. The transforming changes that have shaped this strange new world are a mixed blessing. They open up both revolutionary possibilities and potentially catastrophic risks. Today’s parents face a world far more precarious and complex than the one into which they or their parents were born.

“I’m glad I don’t have to raise children today.”  The song sings concern, uncertainty, even bewilderment. Just below the surface we can hear nostalgia, fear, and despair.  O to return to that simpler, gentler time (which never was as good as we remember from this distance). But we know we can’t. We fear that we have lost something irreplaceably precious in this relentless change. We’ve been robbed of what was loved, familiar, and certain, and left with ideas and practices that are at best strange and unsettling, at worst disturbing and even dangerous. We feel powerless against these threats to our core values, our “way of life”. Worst of all, we don’t believe things will get better. “I’m glad I don’t have to raise children today.” It’s very hard, the results are very uncertain, our neighbors care very little, and the world is very rapidly going to hell in a basket.

Yet Carl Sandburg sings on: “A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.”  We worshiped on Mother’s Day with a church that sings Sandburg’s song from its heart. This faith community highly values children and their families throughout its life. These disciples don’t underestimate the challenge of raising today’s children. They do offer outstanding support and resources to families who choose to partner with them. They don’t uncritically embrace every new fad/trend, nor do they hyper-critically condemn all newness and change. They understand that God needs earlier generations–you and me–to help make God’s ongoing world a safer, healthier place for today’s “babies”–including our newest granddaughter who will be born soon after this post flies off into cyberspace! Then, in God’s time, she and her generation will take their turn partnering with God to help God continue building God’s world to serve God’s purposes.

You may have noticed that some Christians have a different take on this issue. Some believe God’s already stamped a “use-by”date on this world. It’s very close and not subject to change. So why bother trying to change what’s already a done deal? Just get yourself ready–really ready–and hang on tight. Some others believe the way forward is back–back to “pure”, “orthodox”, “uncorrupted”. So they huddle together with like-minded folks and leave the rest of us to our fates.

But those folks at Green Valley Church see things a bit differently. Yes, it’s a huge challenge raising children today–like it’s  been in every era. But these babies are God’s opinion that God’s world will go on. So let’s get busy together with God to make this world a place where babies, their families, and everyone can thrive as God intends. Sunday’s bulletin described their upcoming ACTS weekend (Assisting Community Through Service). They’ll clean up parks, paint and clean school rooms, collect food, help out in libraries and other community agencies. The bulletin also described the congregation’s planned  participation in an upcoming community forum. More than a thousand folks from faith communities all over the Las Vegas Valley will gather to seek ways to cooperate in addressing critical social and economic issues. They believe God’s opinion that the world should go on and become more the place God intends it to be. They intend to help it happen–together with all who join them in singing with Carl Sandburg: “A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.”

In case you missed it–We who follow Jesus believe that God came in the form of a human baby to announce that opinion. The $5 theological word for that is Incarnation. You may know it better as Christmas.

The State of “This Holy Estate”–Part Two

Part One ended with more questions than answers about the current state of marriage and family life. I’d shared someone’s observation that the problem is not divorce itself, but “the failure to form families”. I asked for suggestions of who and what are effective in forming “strong, healthy, stable, nurturing, life-giving families”. I wondered where this whole issue fits into the mission of the church to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”, as we United Methodists put it.

I’ve become increasingly convinced that supporting and modeling consistent, faithful marriage and family life is a core element in our countercultural witness as the Body of Christ. Jesus models, and invites us to share, a Way of self-emptying love in all our relationships. Marriage can be defined as  a “micro-church”. Two followers of Jesus form a miniature faith community. Children grow that community a bit larger. Together they learn and teach one another Jesus’ way. Children raised in the “micro-church” of a Christian family experience unconditional love that prepares them to experience God’s unconditional love in Christ. They begin learning the lifestyle of discipleship long before they can articulate it. The family’s very presence in the world as a faith community of agape love proclaims an alternative lifestyle to the relentless torrent of “me-first” messages we experience every waking moment. Supporting family life as a seedbed for growing disciples is crucial for our mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ…”, .

“Easier said than done,” you’ve already said multiple times as you’ve been reading. The membership of the micro-church of marriage and family is composed of sinful human beings. The disciples of Jesus we meet in the New Testament are wonderfully, painfully human–and nothing’s changed on that front! We don’t always get it right, even with those we love most. Then consider that every era has unique challenges for families. Many would call our era uniquely unique! Multiple intense economic and social pressures combine to pull families apart or to prevent them from forming with a chance of even surviving, let alone thriving. [I’m in Las Vegas right now awaiting the birth of a new granddaughter. This community’s 24-hour lifestyle exerts additional pressures on families besides those we’ve already mentioned.}

Consider also that “family” ain’t what it used to be. Today’s families come in many configurations besides working Dad, stay-at-home Mom, 2.3 children, a dog, and a minivan. Supporting families today means supporting single-parent families, grandparents raising grandchildren, divorced and blended families (imagine how agape love could transform custody/visitation struggles!), multi-generation families, and households composed of unrelated folks who share life together with various arrangements for various reasons.

How can the church help people “form family”? A good first step is simply to affirm families in all their diversity. Say frequently and publicly that families come in many different shapes and sizes today and all of them share the same mission of caring for one another as miniature Christian communities. All of them share the critical role of “forming family” around their most vulnerable members. A next step might be for church leaders who don’t have children at home to LISTEN to families in their midst and in their neighborhood. What’s life like for you? How can we support you? Meet folks on their turf before expecting them to come onto your church’s “turf”. Try volunteering at a neighborhood school or a Little League or other sports program. Yes, put yourself through the hassle and indignity of a background check, including fingerprints if necessary. Show parents you care that much about keeping their kids safe.  Volunteer in order to serve (great discipleship, according to Jesus) and develop authentic relationships. Don’t volunteer intending to take over and run things and get people into your church.  Other steps include specific ministries for specific groups, mentoring relationships, etc. The possibilities are endless. A thoughtful and prayerful assessment will reveal the first steps that make sense in a particular setting.

I’m concerned  because I see very few churches being intentional about supporting and nurturing families through every aspect of their ministry. It doesn’t happen automatically. It takes some careful planning and some constructive change. Forming a partnership with families multiplies the effectiveness of ministry. We often ignore the obvious–the church has children for  a couple of hours a week, while the family has them most of the rest of that time. Leadership Network has some helpful resources for building this parnership. Their paper “Equipping Parents to Be Spiritual Champions in Their Homes” describes three churches’ efforts in this field and lists a wealth of resources.

Supporting the process of “forming family” is crucial for the future of children and our whole society. It’s a core element of the church’s mission to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”. Who do you know that’s making it happen? What will you do to help it happen effectively in your part of God’s world?

The State of “This Holy Estate”–Part One

We’ve just returned from a week-long trip centered around a family wedding. We hadn’t seen that side of the family for three years, and then mostly at funerals! The night before the wedding my wife and I drove around Tulsa, OK looking for the place we wanted to eat dinner. We struggled because a) we didn’t know what we wanted, and b) we didn’t know the city very well. We wound up in a nondescript, survivable-looking diner. Dianna had an omelet and I had 4-way spaghetti and chili—a Cincinnati staple in Oklahoma! Business was slow, so our waiter had time to talk. As she does with everyone who doesn’t look like an ax-murderer, Dianna immediately began showing “Harold” pictures of our 18-month old grandson. He returned the favor with a picture of his year-old son “Timothy”. Like every father, “Harold” has high hopes for his son. “Harold” referred to Timothy’s mother as his “roommate”.

As we talked, a whole puzzle’s worth of pieces fell into place. A few years ago I realized I was doing far fewer weddings than earlier in my ministry. I knew it wasn’t just because I no longer served Las Vegas First UMC (now closed) where we’d done 100+ weddings a year–down from 1000+ in the ‘50’s! The change reflected the fact that aging congregations like the last two I’d served had fewer marrying-age members. It also reflected the changing state of marriage in our culture.. Compared to a few decades ago, a much smaller proportion of the population is married, first marriages happen at a later age, cohabitation has increased exponentially, both divorce and out-of-wedlock births have become almost routine. One sentence in one of those many articles on “the future of marriage” has stuck with me. It pinpoints my greatest concern about the state of “this holy estate”: “The problem is not divorce but failure of families to form.”

Now I’m not going back to that restaurant to shake my holier-than-thou finger at “Harold” and tell him to either marry his “roommate” or get out because he’s living in sin. If I had the chance, I might eat there more often than is good for me in order to build a relationship. Harold’s an interesting guy. I know there’s more than we discovered in that brief conversation. I’d love to encourage and support him toward realizing his hopes and dreams for his son. “Forming a family” will be crucial to “Timothy”s” future.

We went to the wedding the next night. A new family was formed, the newest in that large, extended family. This tribe is becoming a rarity in our moving-too-fast world. They’re a large, strong, close, upright, fairly religious bunch. If you attack any one of them, the rest will be all over you! They’re also very human, and a product of the times. They’ve experienced the struggles that confront every family, including sickness and death, domestic conflict, divorce, and babies born before their family is fully formed. But even in difficult circumstances they work very hard to provide for the children. Even where the arrangements are anything but traditional, they do their best to form “family” around them.

That’s my concern about the state of “this holy estate”. Too often we’re failing to “form families” effectively. When that happens, everybody suffers. The children who deserve it the least pay the highest price. But ultimately when we allow the next generation to suffer, the consequences ripple through our whole society. We cannot allow this trend to continue unchecked. How can we do a better job of helping families form—strong, healthy, stable, nurturing, life-giving families?

As you might have guessed, I have some ideas. I’ll share from you. Who’s making a difference? What’s actually working? Where does this whole issue of “forming family” fit into the mission of the church and the lifestyle of discipleship?