Archive for the 'Family' Category

Where Have You Been, (Not-so-)Young Man? (Alaska Journal 1)

Galena Flood 2

The last two weeks in September I was in Galena, AlaskaWhere? 64°44′26″N 156°53′8″W, to be precise. That’s 270 miles west of Fairbanks and 350 miles north of Anchorage.  It’s a long way from home—or anywhere else. What in God’s name were you doing there? In mid-August my wife and I attended a training event for people who wanted to help with disaster relief sometime, somewhere. Before we left that day, the leader, a long-time friend, told us how this Yukon River community of 500 people was the hardest-hit among the villages caught in last May’s thousand-year-flood(!) during the river’s spring thaw. The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) invited faith-based organizations to provide volunteers to help with the cleanup and rebuilding process.  Suddenly my calendar said “Sometime, somewhere!” I served on one of eight teams provided by United Methodist Volunteers in Mission. I’d been nagging/encouraging folks in our church toward “incarnational mission” for a while. Like many congregations, we’re better at donating money and stuff than (our own) bodies to meet needs. “Incarnational mission” means we go in person, as God came to us personally in Jesus. “Put-up or shut-up” time for me and Incarnational Mission had come!  I learned long ago to pay attention to transformational opportunities that appear seemingly out of nowhere. “Coincidence” usually turns out to be a “God-incident”.  Jonah and a bunch of other folks have learned through the centuries: When God says “I want YOU!” you can run but you can’t hide.

What did we do? Whatever it took to get houses safe, sanitary, and secure enough for residents to live through the winter. AmeriCorps volunteers had already done the initial clean-out/muck-out. Thank God for their young, strong bodies which bent in ways to which mine would have objected strenuously, and recovered much faster than mine would have. The thirty-plus UMVIM and other volunteers present during all or part of those two weeks worked on at least sixteen different houses. Our eight-hour days six days a week included hanging and taping drywall, painting, installing new flooring, doing basic electrical work, scrounging for supplies, improvising, and creative re-purposing, and always more debris cleanup. Some of us spent three days under a house installing “belly board”. That’s plywood fastened to the underside of floor joists so that insulation can be laid on top of it before the rest of the floor is completed. This house had standing headroom under the back third or so, but only about three feet of headroom otherwise. Where were those Americorps kids? Two brothers from Michigan (Reformed Church in America members who somehow got connected with us) were skilled finish carpenters who installed trim, molding, cabinets, etc. Our most unusual challenge was raise the level of a large (empty, thank God!) steel fuel tank so that fuel would flow downhill to the family’s newly-installed heater. The challenge was using only what was at hand, which didn’t include a forklift or a crane. That night we gave thanks for the brilliance of Archimedes—“Give me a place to stand and I can move the world.”

Galena has two churches, St. John’s Roman Catholic Church and Galena Community Bible Church. We had very little contact with St. John’s, so I can’t say anything about their ministry in this crisis. We worked closely with the Bible Church. Most churches I know could learn from the way GBC has served its community through this disaster. Their food pantry fed people. They partnered with government agencies and nonprofits. They hosted mission teams from the “lower 48” nonstop. They stretched their modest facility to its limits. During worship on Sunday morning cots and sleeping bags were in evidence around the edges of the room. One Sunday a bright yellow power-tool battery in its bright yellow charger sat on the platform just a few feet from the pastor as he preached.

Our group of volunteers represented a broad cross-section of the Christian community.  GBC hosted mission teams from various evangelical churches. Our “United Methodist” umbrella welcomed  Unitarian Universalists, the two RCA brothers, a team of seven “Baptist Builders” from Arizona, , at least one self-described “half-Catholic”, and assorted Lutherans and Disciples of Christ who’d come in previous groups. Each morning someone shared a brief devotional message before we started our day’s work. These meaningful messages  set the tone for another day in which we  went out and embodied (Incarnated) the unity of the church as we worked together.

What in God’s name were you doing there? A) “Incarnational mission”. See above. B) Letting God love the world through us. You remember that verse everybody loves to quote that’s always showing up at sports events: “God so loved the world [emphasis mine] that he sent his only Son…” (John 3:16). C) Witnessing in the style of St. Francis who said, “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words when necessary.”

In his book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, Brian McLaren recalls the words of one of his mentors: “…in a pluralistic world, a religion is judged by the benefits it brings to its nonmembers.”  We understood that active faith at its best and highest reaches out to those who are not part of our United Methodist tribe or even our Christian “tribe”. What we have in common with those we served—which is more than enough to launch us into mission “in God’s name”—is that we,  along with our brothers and sisters in Galena and everywhere else on this planet, are all created in the image of God. In other words, we’re family. When part of your family’s in trouble, you do whatever you can to help.

We Can’t…But We Can–Part 2

As I was writing Part 1, I thought I knew just how Part 2 would go. I’d briefly recap the five qualities I’d identified from my childhood church experience—1) Church-family partnership; 2) Sense of genuinely being cared for by church people; 3) Children and youth involved in meaningful ministry; 4) Exposure to different and challenging ideas: 5) Clear, consistent values taught and modeled. Then I’d address each point and suggest ways to bring it into our very different 21st-century context.

But you know the saying—“We plan. God (and the Blogosphere) laugh.” Your comments led me toward a more holistic approach. My childhood experience didn’t happen because church leaders consciously focused on those five qualities. It happened because pastors and lay leaders built a culture of discipleship over many years. While far from perfect, that Maynard Memorial Methodist Church culture shaped us in profound ways that I’m still discovering. The question isn’t, “How do we put these pieces together the right way?” It’s “How do we build a church culture that forms committed, effective disciples of Jesus Christ?” If I had all the answers, I’d be on a book tour right now. But I don’t, so I’m writing in my basement study.

One commenter said, I do wish families today had the love of a church family. But they have to go to church first!” Once upon a time mainline churches could open their doors and watch the building fill up. Fifty years later, the church’s role in many communities has become peripheral at best. We’ve lost our place at the center of community life. The church is no longer the “go-to” place for families.

What if we turned that statement around? “I do wish churches today shared God’s love effectively with families in their communities. But first they have to go where families are!” [Please remember that today’s families come in many configurations besides the stereotypical working dad, stay-at-home mom, 2+ kids, a minivan, and a dog.]  Hard as it may be for life-long church folks to comprehend, a growing number of people today have either no significant church experience or significant negative experience. They aren’t likely to get up and pop into our church some Sunday. Reaching them starts with meeting them on their turf. After we’ve established a genuine relationship and let our deeds and presence do the talking, our new friends are more likely to be receptive to hearing about our faith and eventually venturing onto “our turf”. [NOTE: If “making friends” is merely your “strategy” to get folks in the door and on the roll so the church can survive, don’t bother. Folks know when they’re being used. If genuine Christlike love isn’t motivating you, you’re hurting the cause of Christ, not helping it.]

What would it mean for you and some friends to go “where families are” in your community? ASK SOME FAMILIES YOU KNOW! Ask church families. Ask your neighbors. Ask families who live near the church. Ask folks where you work. If you dare, ask families who have left your church. WHEN YOU ASK, LISTEN CAREFULLY! “School” and “sports” are two common responses. You’ll discover others in your particular context—4H, the homeless shelter, Children’s Hospital. Ask yourself and your friends: How can we go where families in our community are as the presence of Jesus who was Love-in-the-flesh? The Jesus who told his disciples, “I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27)? Ask the school principal or the soccer league president how you can be of service. Expect some suspicion about just being there to proselytize. Expect to have to prove yourself. Do the jobs nobody else wants to do better than they’ve ever been done. Focus on building relationships and being yourselves. Over time your church will become known as a faith community that genuinely cares about children and their families.

“First we have to go where families are.” One Sunday afternoon Rev. Adam Hamilton visited a first-time visitor to that morning’s worship service. She told him she’d enjoyed the service but she wouldn’t be back. She explained that her son (who had stayed home with her husband) needed constant one-to-one care. She couldn’t participate in worship and also care for him. She didn’t expect to find a church that could provide that care. “If we can provide the care Matthew needs,” Adam asked, “will you come back?” She said she would. Adam Hamilton very quickly found folks willing to be trained to care for Matthew on Sunday mornings.  His mother was able to come to worship and know he was being cared for. Adam Hamilton led his church to stand beside Matthew’s family (and others) where they were—“staying home with our child whose special needs make it nearly impossible for us to take him/her anyplace that’s not absolutely essential.” Today “Matthew’s Ministry” shares God’s love with hundreds of families whose children have a variety of special needs.

Nearly every church I know says it wants to reach children and families. But few actually “…go where families are.” You can hardly blame them. It’s a missionary journey likely to trigger a seismic shift in the life of the church. It requires substantial investments of time, energy, study, prayer, and faith. It demands that we set aside “the way we’ve always done it” in order to discover “the way to share God’s love with today’s families in today’s world”.

On the other hand—the journey transforms us. We grow together into a community of “effective, committed disciples of Jesus Christ.” We claim the possibility of changing lives and whole communities. We are faithful to the One who says, “Let the little children come to me…” (Mark 10:14). I’m ready to go. Are you?

We Can’t Do It the Same Old Way–But We Can Still Do It

Recently I participated in a memorial service at the church where my sisters and I grew up. Our family was actively involved with Maynard Memorial Methodist Church and its successor, Culver Palms UMC, for sixty years. Darlene, whose life we celebrated that day, was the wife and mother in another family that was also connected to the church at least that long. She moved into the community with her husband and their small children a few years after my parents moved me there. Darlene and Glenn’s children were close in age to me and my younger sisters. The six of us (along with some others) moved through Sunday School and an active youth group together. Eventually life scattered most of us. Maynard merged with nearby Palms Evangelical United Brethren church following the merger of the two denominations in 1968. The newly-formed Culver Palms United Methodist Church eventually sold both properties, built a new facility in a much more advantageous location, and continued its strong ministry.

Maynard Memorial provided a solid faith foundation for the children in our families and a number of others. Granted, the ‘50’s and early ‘60’s were prime time for families and churches. But the people at Maynard took their ministry with children and youth seriously and did it well. In my own ministry I’ve looked back frequently at my experience growing up in the church and wondered: How could the church I was serving offer an equally foundational experience for the children and youth we served? A few times I think we got it right. Some other times I know we didn’t.

The memorial service brought together many of us who grew up in the church during that era, along with some of the leaders and teachers who shaped and guided us. That “homecoming” has me asking again: What made that church experience so pivotal in so many of our lives? Obviously we can’t do ministry the way we did fifty years ago, or twenty, or even ten. Too many have already tried and failed! But I believe it’s absolutely essential for today’s churches to offer equally strong, life-shaping ministry with today’s children and their families.

This is the first of two parts. In the rest of this post I want to describe briefly what I believe were key aspects of the ministry we experienced as children and youth at Maynard. Next time I will suggest ways today’s churches can build those qualities into their ministry with children, youth, and their families. Obviously I don’t have all the answers. (Otherwise I’d be on a book tour right now!) But I hope we’ll begin a productive discussion that leads to positive changes.

Five key qualities shaped the ministry I experienced at Maynard Memorial Methodist Church:

1)      Church and family partnered in the faith formation of children and youthYes, it was a different era. Yes, it was a simpler time. Yes, “family” ain’t what it used to be.  But here’s the truth: The families whose children grew most from the church’s ministry didn’t “outsource” their children’s spiritual development to the church. They took ownership of the ministry. They intentionally structured their family life to make church participation a priority. Most volunteered at some level. This group included some single-parent families, a rarity in that era. They were often looked down upon by church folks who lived more conventional lives. But Maynard welcomed and included single-parent families.

2)      The whole congregation valued and cared for children and youth. One woman (just a kid last time I saw her) spoke gratefully of specific ways Darlene and others had loved and valued her and all the children. I remember a number of adults who regularly greeted me by name and spoke to me. Some extraordinary laypeople invested years of love, time, and energy in various aspects of children’s and youth ministry. They involved us early and often in meaningful projects within and beyond the church. As soon as we were capable, those of us with even the faintest glimmer of musical ability were invited (OK, sometimes corralled) to sing in a junior choir or other groups. Non-musical folks had other opportunities to serve in worship and other areas. These were not “show” opportunities. They were real ways to offer meaningful service.

3)      Children and youth were integrated into adult-level ministries wherever possible.  In the early ‘60’s our very white church exchanged pastors and choirs one Sunday with a very black church. It was a Big Deal. Racial views in our church were far from unanimous. The community where most of our members lived had mechanisms in place designed to exclude “Negroes” (the term then in use) from purchasing homes in the community. Four of us high school students in the adult choir were full participants in that exchange.

4)      The church stretched us by exposing us to the wider world. As we grew into adolescence, we had numerous opportunities for ecumenical and interfaith experiences. We met missionaries up close and personal. We were exposed to all sides of controversial issues. Pastors and other adult leaders shared their opinions when asked, but always encouraged the wide-ranging questioning and curiosity of which youth are capable.

5)      Clear values were consistently taught and modeled.  Our pastors and key leaders didn’t just talk a good game. None of them were perfect, of course. But their through-the-week walk matched up with their Sunday morning talk more often than not. Most of the vocal supporters of civil rights and integration already had close relationships with folks of other races. Some other folks corresponded with and visited Japanese-Americans imprisoned in camps by our government during World War II. These Japanese were Christians and US citizens. But the government deemed them a security threat after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and completely uprooted their lives. At least one of those families became core members of Maynard. The commitment to peacemaking extended even to fellow church members. The congregation worked through many controversial social, political, and church issues. Sometimes some people didn’t behave well. Live human beings are that way, aren’t we? But for the most part the folks who talked a good game of peace and justice extended that to their relationships with one another even in times of conflict.

These qualities marked the strong healthy church experience that helped shape a number of us. Next time—How can we build these qualities into ministry in our very different 21st-century context?

“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?