Archive for the 'community' Category

Doing Jesus’ Laundry

“…that was me—you did it to me.” Jesus,Matthew 25:40 MSG

“…Let all the brothers [and sisters] preach by their deeds.” Francis of Assisi

Fifteen-year-old Caroline Gowan had completed all the requirements for her Girl Scout Gold Award except her community service project. (The Girl Scout Gold award is roughly equivalent to a Boy Scout Eagle badge). Community service came naturally to Caroline and her mother Michelle. For example, they regularly donated some of their home-made laundry detergent to their church’s food pantry. Clients welcomed the detergent because doing laundry at a laundromat was often the only available option–and an expensive one. (Take a moment to go stand by your washer and dryer and thank God for the resources to have your own laundry facilities.)

Caroline thought and prayed about those folks and their struggle just to have clean clothes. Soon an idea took shape. She arranged to use Chuck Mollenkopf’s “Git R Dun” laundromat the second Friday afternoon of each month. She put flyers announcing “Loads of Love” in local convenience stores and in every bag of food from the food bank. Her church, Bonaire United Methodist Church, began supporting “Loads of Love” with donations, volunteers, and additional publicity. On the second Friday in June Caroline and her crew used $115 in quarters to do 30 “Loads of Love”. In July they did 88 loads for $266.50.

Shakika Sneed is a single parent who’s discovered this ministry. “I spend anywhere from $20 to $30 washing clothes,” she says, “and for it to be free is a tremendous blessing to me because it means that money can go on to another bill that I have.”Jesus Laundry Each month church and community volunteers come to visit with those who are doing laundry. Some bring refreshments. Musicians play and sing.  Often a spontaneous singalong erupts. Members of Caroline’s scout troop and the church youth group entertain children with games, bubbles, and sidewalk chalk. “I was just expecting (clients) to be playing on their phone,” Caroline says, “but they really do get into the music. They come in with dirty laundry and leave with a renewed spirit and clean clothes…I feel like not only am I doing something for the people around me and that I am doing something for people I don’t even know, but that I’m doing something for the Lord. I am doing Jesus’ laundry!”

Caroline had heard the story in Matthew 25:31-46 dozens of times at church. But Loads of Love brought it to life! In this story Jesus describes a Final Judgment. People are separated into two groups. The difference is their treatment of the Son of Man (Jesus) whom none of them recognized,“When did we see you…?” “I was hungry…thirsty…sick…in prison…”  “…as you did it [or failed to do it] to the least of these…you did it to me.”

OMG Caroline! You aren’t serving Shakika, John, or Betty on laundry day. You’re serving Jesus! You’ve followed him far enough to have your eyes opened wide. Now you see him clearly in “the least of these”. You and all the folks at “Loads of Love” join a long line of servant disciples with “eyes to see” the image of God in unexpected places and faces. Mother Teresa ministered to the poorest of the poor in India. She described her experience as meeting Jesus in his “most distressing disguise”. As Caroline and others serve in “Loads of Love”, their spiritual vision grows sharper. With increasing clarity they see Jesus in his sometmes “distressing” disguise as an ordinary human being.

Caroline and all who serve alongside her stand in the tradition of St. Francis. He was a spoiled rich kid who finally got over himself and decided to follow Jesus wholeheartedly. He chose a life of simplicity, humility, and poverty. Priests who join the Franciscan Order, from the 14th century to the 21st, embrace that same lifestyle. You’ve probably heard that Francis said, “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.“ Scholars today doubt that those are his exact words, but they express the spirit of his ministry. Most agree that Francis told the Franciscan brothers “…Let all the brothers [and sisters] preach by their deeds.”

A couple of years ago the newly-elected pope chose Francis as his official name. This new pope was a Franciscan who took his simple lifestyle seriously no matter how high he rose in the church hierarchy. Pope Francis continues to stay true to his Franciscan vows of poverty and simplicity and to stay in touch with “the least of these”. He knows they help us see Jesus in his “most distressing disguise”. You’d think a guy who’d been chosen for the highest office in the Christian world wouldn’t be doing anybody’s laundry. But whenever he gets the chance, Francis grabs his box of detergent and his roll of quarters, heads for the nearest laundromat, and starts doing Jesus’ laundry.

Pope Francis has been consistent, insistent, persistent, some would even say obnoxious as he advocates for the poor. We more affluent folks don’t always welcome that message. Nevertheless, more and more of us are listening. Francis earns the right to be heard one day at a time.He’s not perfect any more than you and I are. But his Christian life is more consistent than most folks I know, including me. His wordless preaching  and his  words carry the same message.

I could make a good old-fashioned three-point sermon out of Francis’ “wordless preaching”:

  1. If nobody seems to be listening or paying attention to our Christian talk, try talking less (even about Jesus) and more action to recognize and serving Jesus in his various “disguises” within our reach.
  2. Care less about being “relevant” and “trendy”.  Care much more about being as faithfully countercultural as Francis, Jesus, and countless others!
  3. Resist the seduction of church busy work and “good deeds”. They make us feel better but don’t really change the world. Spend the time and energy you used to waste on busy work doing Jesus’ laundry!


francis world-god







“MINE!” or “OURS”?

Rufus the Wonder Dog recently welcomed (OK, tolerated) his “cousin” Callie (our daughter’s dog) for a weekend sleepover. They got along pretty well until Callie started playing with Rufus’s toys. When Rufus came to live with us last January, we got him four stuffed squeaky toys. He’s grown to love them all. He often gathers his “treasure” around himself wherever he hangs out during the day. Rufus’s vast collection of toys—three of which still squeak after months of enthusiastic use–makes him (in his opinion) a very wealtRufusToyhy dog indeed.

Oh yes, the sleepover. All went well until Callie started playing with Rufus’s toys. Rufus grumbled a bit, but didn’t mount an attack. His 12 pounds are no match for Callie’s 50+ pounds! Rufus has learned to pick his battles. He uses his wits and quickness to level the playing field. He watched closely (jealously?) as Callie played with one of his toys. At the first opportunity, Rufus snatch it back and reasserted his ownership. If you listened carefully, you could hear his inner dog say, “MINE!” He maintained constant vigilance as he reclined amidst his “wealth”. No, he would not share. All those toys were his. The snatching and sneaking-around went both ways, of course. Then both dogs began bringing toys for us to toss for them to retrieve. We knew better than to send two dogs after one toy. So my young grandchildren and I developed a strategy. We counted down and then “launched” the toys in opposite directions at the same moment. Nevertheles, we still had some canine confrontations over “simultaneous possession”. No-one got hurt, but both dogs displayed great fluency in language their mothers taught them never to use!

I don’t pretend to speak fluent Dog, but I understood clearly the most frequently-used expletive in their Toy Wars—“MINE!” Granted, their possessiveness was rooted in primitive survival instincts. We humans have similar primal instincts. But we’ve learned to discipline those instincts–sometimes. We’ve also discovered through painful experience that life together is better when we share power and resources, even when I don’t always get My Way. [Please don’t let my wife read this!] People of faith believe that life is lived best cooperatively with others following God’s guidance as we discern it.

But MINE!’s seismic shocks still shake our common life:

  • “This car and my driving are MINE!’ says the “remarkable” driver you just barely avoided. “I’ll drive my way regardless of others on the road.”
  • “This lush landscape is MINE!” say rich Californians who flaunt their wealth as they ignore drought-related water restrictions. “I’ll use all the water I want. I can afford it.”
  • “This nation is MINE!” say the leaders of nations refusing to participate in global climate-change solutions. “I’ll do what I want. I don’t care how our actions affect the rest of the planet.”
  • “Truth is MINE!” assert dogmatic political and religious leaders across the ideological spectrum. “Truth and Right are on my side . It’s my way or no way.”
  • “Victory is MINE!” cry athletes, coaches, and team owners. “We’ll do whatever it takes, spend whatever it takes, and follow the only rule that matters–‘Don’t get caught’.”
  • “My comfortable lifestyle is MINE!” say millions of affluent folks like us in the developed world, “and I really don’t care who or what gets harmed in the maintaining of my pampered existence.”
  • “Absolute unrestricted gun rights are MINE!” asserts the gun lobby every time another senseless mass shooting hits the headlines.

People of faith believe that God’s intent for Creation is not “MINE!” but “OURS”. The story in Genesis 1 describes the creation of life on earth with the intent that humans will “…have dominion…” (Genesis 1:26, 28) over other forms of life. One common interpretation of “dominion” concludes that natural resources are “MINE!” for humans to exploit freely, often with disastrous long-term results. But deeper study suggests that the concept includes a sense of stewardship and care for creation. “Dominion” describes a king’s rule, which includes care for the poor and vulnerable in his kingdom. So one popular translation says, “God created human beings… reflecting God’s nature…God blessed them: “’Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge! Be responsible…for every living thing that moves on the face of Earth.” (Genesis 1:26-28 MSG) God created and trusted humans, whose nature “…[reflects] God’s nature…” with responsibility to care for Creation as the Creator intended.

“MINE!” poisoned human life when Adam and Eve sampled the one tree in the Garden that had been declared off-limits. (Genesis 3). “MINE!” continued to poison relationships between individuals, between nations, and between humans and God. We could read the whole Old Testament as the story of “MINE!” versus “OURS”.

Fast-forward now to Jesus. He embodied the way of “OURS” with striking clarity—so clear that the powerful forces of “MINE!” engineered his execution. Jesus’ followers set out to finish what he’d started. Jesus had shown them a generous, giving God; a welcoming, bringing-together God. Following him meant eliminating that greedy growling “MINE!” from their vocabulary–and ultimately from our human vocabulary. One early witness says of those early Jesus-Followers, “The whole congregation of believers was united as one—one heart, one mind! They didn’t even claim ownership of their own possessions. No one said, ‘That’s mine; you can’t have it.’ They shared everything…not a person among them was needy.”—Acts 4:32-35 MSG

The evidence mounts daily that “MINE!” is a toxic lifestyle. It poisons every nation, every culture, every institution, every human relationship. We fight over the toys and growl “MINE!”. Unless we change, the poison will finally destroy life as we’ve known it on this beautiful planet. But how can we achieve massive global change? So It was hard enough in earlier, simpler times. It’s exponentially more complicated now with 7 billion people sharing our planet.

How do we get from “MINE!” to “OURS”?The same way the early Jesus Movement did. Eat the elephant one bite at a time! Start where we are, with those who share our lives. Share this vision in families, neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, communities, and especially our churches. Turn gradually but consistently away from “MINE!” toward OURS. Let your family and/or faith community become a live demonstration of OURS—what Jesus calls “The Kingdom of God.” Learn together to stop growling at other dogs and start sharing your “toys”. Let the Spirit of our generous, giving, welcoming God create that unity in which “…not a person among them was needy.” (Acts 4:32-35 MSG)

John Wesley on Voting–and Community

“I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them, 1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy: 2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against: And, 3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.”                             –John Wesley, October  6, 1774

Some of my United Methodist colleagues have recently rediscovered Wesley’s election-year advice. If they haven’t already, I hope they will soon build a Sunday message around these words. But my unscientific assessment suggests that will happen rarely if at all. “Be sure to vote” is all the political speech many pastors dare in public. Besides, worship calendars in November are already overcrowded with stewardship season, Veterans Day on Sunday this year, Thanksgiving, then a week to breathe before Advent begins. We’re busy, busy, busy. Besides, “voting” isn’t in the lectionary.

Nevertheless, I believe Wesley’s words contain a word from the Lord that needs to be heard–more than echoes of “busy, busy, busy”. So I urge some of my active colleagues to reprioritize beyond “worship as usual”. Yes, sisters and brothers, I hear you: “Easy for you to say from the safety of retirement.” Yes, and even easier since I’ll be out of the country when the election happens. But this word needs to be heard. On Nov. 7, winners and losers will have to figure out how to live together for four more years. Folks with diverse political views will still have to worship and work together. Wesley’s wisdom provides an alternative to the prevailing polarization and winner-take-all attitude.

If I were preaching, I’d ground the message biblically in Romans 13-15. Paul points out that “Love does no wrong to a neighbor…love is the fulfilling of the law.” (13:8-10) In ch. 14 he calls for tolerance among folks with very different strongly held views. “Why do you pass judgment on your neighbor?” (14:10) Being right matters less than making sure we do not cause our neighbor to stumble (14:13). Paul moves on to remind us that building up our neighbor matters more than pleasing ourselves (15:1-2) and challenges everyone to “Welcome one another…just as Christ has welcomed you…” (15:7)

I’d address Wesley’s three points (not my typical preaching MO) from that perspective:1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy:” I identify the “fee or reward” that tempts us today as narrow self-interest. Today’s political propaganda addresses one very basic question: “What’s in it for me?” Rarely do we ask “What’s best for our society as a whole?” “The common good” isn’t commonly considered in our political discourse. Rarely does a candidate or elected politician dare call for sacrifice to help the neediest among us, or to achieve a worthy common goal, e.g. deficit reduction. Jesus urged us to put others’ needs before our own. “The person judged most worthy” sounds to me like the one who would best serve the common good. What if from now on we refuse to settle for endless political pandering to narrow self-interest? What if we demanded that candidates address their vision of “the common good” and how to achieve it?

  “2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against:” Earlier Paul wrote, “…There is no one who is righteous, not even one;” (Rom. 3:10). What fun is election season if we can’t bash the other side—especially when they’re so wrong/incompetent/buffoonish/crooked/fill in your own word. Besides, the worse the opponent is, the better my candidate looks. But every poisonous, polarizing half-truth and stereotype we repeat poisons our spirits as well. The other side loses their humanity in our eyes and becomes “them”. Every time we dehumanize another person, we dehumanize ourselves as well. “Why do you pass judgment on your neighbor?” Let us who follow Jesus practice more civil political speech. We can debate policies and positions without demeaning persons. Cosistent Christ-like behavior in this respect is a powerful witness. Our neighbors might find such credible Christianity attractive or at least intriguing.

“And, 3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.” It’s hard to get close to someone with a “sharpened” spirit. The razor edges hold us at bay. Most of us won’t risk trying to move closer. Instead, we tend to “sharpen” in response. We claim our position even more strongly whether our candidate won or lost. “Sharpening our spirits” sinks us deeper and deeper into self-defensive self-righteousness. We confirm the other’s ideological [and personal/spiritual] wrongness as we confirm our own (self-) righteousness. Our differences don’t magically dissolve following an election.In fact, lately we seem to take a brief break and then resume hammering each other even harder as if nothing had been decided.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Let’s listen closely to Wesley soon after this intense and often bitter election campaign. Let’s also listen closely to Paul: “Welcome one another…just as Christ has welcomed you.”  We could probably use a preacher to lovingly and firmly challenge us in the spirit of Joshua: “Choose this day who you will be.”

As I said earlier, it won’t be me. I’ll be out of the country. I have no invitations to preach after we return. Brother/sister preacher, will you be the one who shares this word? My stuff isn’t copyrighted. I would like to know how you use it and what response you get. Laypersons, will you be the one who encourages your pastor to speak this word we all need to hear? Maybe you can do it together. It doesn’t matter so much who’s in the spotlight. It matters hugely that the word is heard—and embraced—and lived.

You Built It Yourself–with More Help Than You Know!

On our road trip last week we heard a news report of a politician abusing an honor roll student in public. The story didn’t use those words. We heard the politician praise the student for his achievement. He went on–and on and on–about how that student had achieved that honor himself. But the politician was just using the honor student. The politician turned the student’s legitimate accomplishment into one more excuse to distort President Obama’s recent statement that a successful small business owner “didn’t build [his business] himself.”

[IN CASE YOU’RE GETTING WORRIED–This isn’t intended as a partisan political rant–from here on! This incident highlights two contrasting worldviews present in many facets of life including the church. It puts us squarely on the boundary between faith and politics. I believe this border needs to be free and open with plenty of two-way traffic. Others prefer a rigid boundary that firmly separates faith and politics.]

Let’s call one of these worldviews the “individual” view. The individual view insists that the businessman (Mr. Smith to us) did build his business himself. He invested his own money, expertise, hard work, sleepless nights, perseverance, creativity, etc. That honor roll student (George), says the politician, is the one who went to class, did the homework, wrote the papers,and  made the grades. George is the one who chose to stay in and study rather than go out with his friends. The initiative and determination shown by George and Mr. Smith is worthy of celebration and imitation. I agree. I believe the President would agree.  Those who hold the individual view might call Mr. Smith “a self-made man”. They might even say he “pulled himself up by his own bootstraps”. He didn’t. None of us did. None of us can. It’s against the laws of physics. Try it—-if you can find boots with straps! Pull. Pull hard–harder!! You won’t pull yourself up off the ground. You’ll either wear yourself out very quickly–or lose your balance and fall in a heap!

The other view [we’ll call it the “community” view] celebrates Mr. Smith’s hard work and success. It also sees many who helped Mr. Smith’s journey to success. It’s certainly reasonable to suggest his childhood and family life were foundational. The community where he lived provided schools, parks, and other opportunities for him to learn and grow. Key adults in addition to his parents touched his life along the way. A teacher, coach, pastor, scout leader, or neighbor may have made a life-changing difference. That difference-maker may not have known it then–or even now! Mr. Smith started his business in a community and nation built by others before him. He relied on existing laws, transportation, and utiity infrastructure. He paid for the next generation’s use of that infrastructure (including things like public schools) through his taxes. George, the honor student, worked long and hard to make the honor roll–but not all by himself. More than likely his parents supported and encouraged him. Influential teachers motivated him. Beyond the local community, both state and federal tax dollars–yours and mine–helped provide the school system in which George excelled. Like Mr. Smith, George probably has adults in addition to his parents who enrich his life.

Do you see the difference  between these two ways to look at life? The individual view says “I did it. I deserve all the credit for my accomplishments. I helped myself. You help yourself.” The community view says, “I deserve credit for my hard work, for using my ability, perseverance, and creativity–but not all the credit. I did it in an environment I didn’t choose or create, with more help than I can name from family, friends, and folks I will never meet. I did it with the help of this community (however you describe it–church, family, tribe, town, nation, etc.). The communities of which I am a part will shape all the decisions in my life We’re in this together!”

Do you see the contrast? Keep your eyes and ears open as the political season intensifies. Pay attention to celebrities, family and friends, and talk on the street. Listen to your pastor–and to the meetings after church in the hallway, the coffee hour, and the parking lot. I don’t believe life is sustainable when the individual view predominates–in families, cities, nations, churches, or on our planet. The community view is realistic, practical, sustainable, biblical–and against the grain of human nature and the prevailing cultural winds. If you agree, will you seek to let this worldview shape more of your life? Will you seek ways to share this perspective, especially with folks who see life differently? Let’s agree to try to do that lovingly, openly, and non-yellingly! No political party is completely right or wrong on this one. Yes, we’re teetering on the narrow ledge of that faith/politics boundary. But keeping a solid  brick wall between the two has gotten us where we are. Let’s try something new. How about moving from faith and politics to faith-full politics?



The Unlocked Church

More than 120 tornadoes battered the Midwest last April 13-15. One of them hit Thurman, Iowa the night of April 14. It damaged ninety percent of the town’s buildings including Thurman United Methodist Church, the community’s only church. A young mother, her husband, and their three children had taken shelter in the church basement. It offered more protection than their modular home. The tornado destroyed their modular home, but that young family walked out of the church basement unscathed. They were not members of the church, but they knew the church basement would be unlocked. Thurman UMC’s building is always unlocked.

What kind of madness is that??? Every church I served in 43 years of ministry constantly struggled to keep its doors locked. Periodically the Trustees would find too many doors left unlocked too frequently. If repeated warnings/scoldings didn’t change things, the Trustees would call in the keys, rekey the building (at considerable expense), devise a more restrictive policy, and issue new keys to “authorized users”. The effect of this excruciating process in every case was to lock out some folks who deserved and wanted to be included. Some found the new policy burdensome or confusing, so they dropped out of whatever task or group they’d been involved in. They gave up trying to get through those locked doors. Others were denied keys in the name of “security” because they did not meet the new policy’s stricter criteria. Typically the issue arose again within a few years and the same people applied the same solution–with the same result!

Thurman UMC’s basement wasn’t open because too many people had keys, or because the Trustees had given up on maintainng proper security. The church was open because–it’s always open. Three years ago the people decided to leave the church doors unlocked–all the time. Word spread quickly among the town’s 229 residents. When that family needed shelter from the oncoming tornado, they knew they could find a safe place in the church.

“We decided we are a community church,” explained TUMC’s pastor, the Rev. Jaye Johnson. “We are open to our community and we are not going to lock our doors…today that decision may have saved lives…If they would have found the doors locked…we could have been looking at casualties, no doubt. We are quite grateful they found their way into the church.”

I am well aware that rural Iowa’s wide-open-doors policy won’t work everywhere. My 43 yeas of ministry included a few church burglaries–all of locked buildings–and one small fire in an unlocked chapel open to the public. We Christians are sinful people living in a sinful world. That means that locks, alarms, and more sophisticated security solutions have a legitimate place in church facilities. But we dare not let reasonable and prudent security keep us from being “a community church…open to our community…” It happens before we realize it. Our focus shifts from opening doors to welcome all within reach to “locking up”, maintaining security, and making sure our perimeter isn’t breached without authorization.

Even when we sing the Lord’s Song: “we’re…a community church…open to the community”, we haven’t truly unlocked that death-grip on “our church”. We lock people out through clear but often unspoken expectations: “Dress nicely–like we do. Watch us and do what we do. Here we sing only these songs that sound nothing like the music on your IPod. You’ll have to learn to speak ” church” so we don’t have to translate the Gospel into words that fit your everyday life. Please cover up the tattoos–and the piercings. They scare us. And make your life fit our schedule. It works for us. Make it work for you too. We don’t like to change.”

Unlocking the church is more about getting God’s people outside than getting people inside. Jesus didn’t wait for people to come to him. He went wherever people worked, played, and lived. He sent his followers “to the ends of the earth” to share Good News. Only a tiny fraction of real “church” action happens inside the church building. Most of it happens “on the road” as God’s people follow their Risen Lord. It happens wherever folks discover that the church community is a great place to take refuge from life’s storms. “We are the only church in town,” explained Rev. Johnson, “so a lot of people claim us as their church.” TUMC’s not “their church” just because it’s the only game in town. TUMC’s “their church” because it’s Unlocked–in spirit as well as in fact.




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?

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!