Archive for the 'Jesus' Category

Got Gates?

“I am the Gate. Anyone who goes through me will be cared for…I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.”—Jesus

“I don’t think we need bigger churches; the church needs more entry points.” –Rev. Julian DeShazier // J.Kwest, Senior Pastor of University Church in ChicagoEntrance-logo_ellipse-1024x381

Last Sunday we went to an unfamiliar church. We’ve worshiped there a few times in recent years when we visited a longtime friend. We arrived and headed for the sanctuary to meet our friend–but we couldn’t find our way. We’d entered the large older building from a different direction. A helpful person quickly noticed our disorientation and showed us the correct door. It’s one of those doors you can’t see until someone points it out, and then you can’t miss it.

Our home church has great signage and very clear entrances to the sanctuary. Its physical layout is mostly visitor-friendly.  But that historic old church (100+ years), our newer church (30 years), and  many thousands more share the same struggle with entry points. Can folks find their way into and around the building easily? Does our physical, program, and online presence offer sufficient accessible “entry points” for newcomers? Do the first humans those newcomers meet embody Jesus’ caring welcome to “more and better life”? Most churches today face a fundamental survival/mission issue: Is our church a closed club or an open community? Is church primarily for us, the “faithful”, or for “them”, the outsiders who don’t even know which end of a Bible is up?

Two recent experiences have stirred me to think anew about this ancient struggle (see Acts 11:1-18). The day before that church visit, Dianna and I attended a “Messy Church” workshop. “Messy Church” isn’t about how to keep the church cleaner, or even how to disappear that mountain of sacred junk in the desperately-overstuffed Holy of Holies closet. “Messy Church” is a British response to a drastic decline in worship attendance and church participation. It offers an informal, approximately monthly experience designed to be “church” without being churchy. While each “messy church” is customized for its own setting, every Messy Church includes

  • A relaxed welcome time with drinks and snacks
  • An activity-based learning time with Bible-based crafts, games, competitions, prayers, etc.
  • A short celebration that usually includes Bible story, song, and prayer
  • A sit-down meal for everyone.

Every Messy Church expresses the values of

  • Christ-centeredness—the spirit that underlies the entire two-hour experience.
  • Hospitality—“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” (Romans 15:7 NRSV)
  • Creativity—Making use of everyone’s God-given gifts in order to learn and discover new insights about each session’s theme.
  • Celebration—Short (15 min.) and interactive, usually including song, story, and prayer
  • All-age—Generations participate together and learn from one another; each generation’s needs are balanced and addressed in activities.

Messy Church is designed to reach folks on the margins who might never attend a traditional church. It provides an “entry point”, not necessarily into traditional Sunday-based church, but into a Christian community and into the journey of following Jesus together. Messy Church doesn’t speak to everyone. It speaks powerfully to some who aren’t being reached any other way.

That brings me to the second “trigger” for this piece. Recently I read a piece by Rev. Julian DeShazier, pastor of University Church on Chicago’s South Side. He says that historically rough community is even “more traumatic” these days…“—and the First Responders to that trauma are the churches he calls “the primary caregivers in the community”. [How’s that for a start on a mission statement!?] He’s clear that his traumatized neighbors need more than Sunday sermons. The difference-maker for them, he says, is “…art that speaks in the language of whatever public we serve; as an entry point, an invitation to experience something deeper”

The art that speaks to Julian DeShazier—also known as “J.Kwest”– and his Southside neighbors is Hip-hop. “If it weren’t for hip-hop”, he writes, “I wouldn’t be in the church, period. What I later heard from some great pastors, I first heard from some dope emcees and gifted songwriters whose songs are described by church folk as “indecent” and “improper” and “unorthodox”. They are, and I thank God for them, because those were my burning bushes…I ended up back in the church because the most popular rapper at school was in the cafeteria free-styling about God and told me about his church, and the youth pastor said I could perform too if I had a story to tell. Neither BreevEazie nor Rev. James preached a sermon. Their art invited me in.

“Art that speaks…the language…an entry point, an invitation to experience something deeper.”  What “entry points” suggest themselves to you? Hiphop;  country western; light-rock praise music; come-as-you-are all-age informality; Taize music; Quaker-style silence; elaborate structured liturgy with organ and robed choir and clergy;cowboy church; simple outdoor worship in a camp or park setting.

Careful listening, prayerful reflection, and creative dreaming will lead us toward the best solution for our particular setting. But you and I are the key “entry points”. We’re the “gates” through which others begin to discover Jesus, “the Gate for the sheep”. (John 10:6) Those “Messy Church” values—Christ-centered, hospitality, creativity, celebration, including all ages and stages—fit wherever God’s people gather. They’re signs of that “real and eternal, more and better life” that is God’s will for us and all people, and his gift to us in Christ.child-opening-gate-23111804

I hear our Risen Lord asking his church in all its manifestations today: “Got gates?” He cares far less than we think about how big our churches are. He cares far more than we know about how open we and our churches are.

Our Lenten Journey–Who’s Walking with Whom?

“I Want Jesus to Walk with Me” is a tune we’re hearing each Sunday in Lent where I worship. It’s part of a “Centering Time” at the beginning of the service, in a different instrumental arrangement. The spiritual certainly sounds “Lenten”—“I want Jesus to walk with me…In my trials, Lord, walk with me…When my heart is almost breaking…When I’m troubled, Lord, walk with me…When my head is bowed in sorrow, Lord I want Jesus to walk with me.” Of course we welcome Jesus’ presence with us on this difficult and demanding annual road trip. Calvin Earl writes of this song and others like it: “…the spirituals were a path to freedom for the slaves…as they sung to God through a moan and groan, the cry was so deep God heard, and His comfort gave the slaves strength, courage and the grace to go on in the fight to free the label of slaves for themselves and generations of their children not yet born.”  Perhaps not to the extent of those African-American slaves, but we’ve been through our own trials, heartbreak, and troubles that leave our “…heart …almost breaking…our head…bowed in sorrow…” Of course “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me”.

Walking together

This past Sunday another “walking with Jesus” song started playing inside my head: “I want to walk as a child of the light, I want to follow Jesus…” It’s hardly a slave’s “moan and groan” toward freedom.It’s a joyful song written by a well-off young white woman musician on the staff of a large, affluent church. It’s in the Advent section of our United Methodist Hymnal. Its rich use of light imagery also fits the Epiphany season.

But I hear it helping us along our Lenten journey with Jesus. You see, “I want Jesus to walk with ME” can become a slippery slope before we know it. We start at “I want Jesus to walk with me because I’m overwhelmed by life and I can’t do this by myself.” Sometimes we get too comfortable. We like it here. We’re moving in for the duration. The next verse becomes “I want Jesus to accompany me on my stroll through life so he’ll insulate me from all the bumps and smooth out all the rough spots.” When I ask Jesus to walk with me, I get to decide where we’ll go, how fast or how slow, who we’ll stop and talk to along the way, and when we’ll cross the street to avoid “those people”. Suddenly we’ve asserted our will over God’s and life’s dangerously out of balance. Hardly the first time that’s happened. Way back at our very beginning (Genesis 2-3) God welcomed Adam and Eve to enjoy the fruit of every tree in his garden—except one. Naturally, on that one off-limits tree hung the fruit they couldn’t live without. And the rest, as they say, is history!

Lent is a season of reflection and repentance (re-direction) in which we may refocus our lives and refresh our relationship with God. That process may include clarifying just  who’s walking with whom on this Lenten journey: “I want to walk as a child of the light, I want to follow Jesus.”  We’re with him. We go where Jesus goes, sleep where Jesus sleeps, eat where, when, what, and with whom Jesus chooses, meet, greet, serve, and love the people to whom Jesus leads us along the way. Our annual “Lenten journey” invites us to reaffirm and deepen our response to Jesus’ simple life-changing invitation: “Follow me.” We join him on his journey as we say, sing, pray, and live, “I want to follow Jesus.”

Each of the four gospels tells its own story of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Many congregations re-live that journey in their worship during the weeks leading up to Easter. You can follow Jesus’ journey on your own through a daily Bible reading plan. This one covers all four gospels. If you’re starting now (almost two week into Lent), feel free to adjust and adapt. Pay close attention to the places Jesus goes, the people he meets, and how he treats them. “Following Jesus” in daily life means at least going where he’d go, helping the people he’d help, caring most about what he cares most about, doing what he’d do if he were living among us today. And remember–WE NEVER HAVE TO FOLLOW JESUS BY OURSELVES! Discipleship is a team sport. The moment I say “I want to follow Jesus” I am linked to every other person now and throughout history who has made that same transforming choice. If following Jesus is new territory for you, or if you just want some companions to walk along with you with Jesus,  invite a friend or a few to share the journey.

Who’s walking with whom? Am I walking with Jesus, or is Jesus walking with me? Sometimes life gets hard. We’re pushed beyond our limit. We just need Jesus to walk with us through a dark valley or a difficult time. In the midst of those situations we often discover that he was closer than we knew sooner than we knew. When “I want/need Jesus to walk with me”, he does—as long, as far, as closely as necessary. Many people testify that they have come through such an experience stronger, more able to endure hard times, and more focused and willing to follow Jesus’ lead step by step. And the closer we follow, the more we discover his presence in all of life, especially those places we thought he’d never  go or could never reach us.

Let’s walk on together. At any given moment some of us are strong and confident, ready to move forward. Others are going through trials, heartbreak, our heads bowed in sorrow. The more we focus on following Jesus, the more we’ll discover how closely and surely he’s walking with us. In those times when we just need to lean on him (and our brothers and sisters) for strength and comfort, his strong constant presence brings us through and empowers us anew to follow wherever he leads us.

The road leads through Lent and Holy Week to Easter and God’s New World. The refrain of “I Want to Walk” keeps before us God’s ultimate dream for all He has created and loves: “In him [Christ] there is no darkness at all. The night and the day are both alike. The Lamb is the light of the city of God. Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.” [cf. Revelation 21:23, 22:5]

 

 

 

 

 

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
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jesus and March Madness

For you non-basketball fans, “March Madness” is the media-created frenzy surrounding the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Our enlightened age has also seen the Women’s Tournament grow in popularity. It now generates some “madness” of its own. I became a serious rabid March Madness fan when I entered UCLA as a freshman. Legendary coach John Wooden‘s teams were just beginning their incredible tournament run through the ’60’s and ’70’s. Lately we’ve experienced some lean years. But this year’s Bruins showed signs of returning to their former glory as they reached the Sweet 16 and lost (respectably) to overall No. 1 seed Florida–who will also experience Monday night’s championship game as spectators rather than participants.

What does Jesus have to do with March Madness? A few weeks ago my wife and I were digging through some too-long-unopened boxes in the garage. We unearthed some children’s books that had belonged to her and her brothers. One was called “How to Star in Basketball”. This 1958 publication taught the fundamentals of the game for elementary-age students (boys, according to the illustrations).  The one-hand push shot, two-hand chest shot, and underhand free throws have ridden off into the basketball sunset as the game has evolved. But most of the book’s fundamentals still apply-including the importance of team play, which comes in toward the end of the book.How to Star in Basketball

That title–“How to STAR…”–grates on me. It appeals to every entitlement-believing, under-performing wannabe who loves the spotlight, hates hard work, and can’t imagine why he (or she) still doesn’t have his(her) own private suite in the locker room.  I’m sure that title would have sent Coach Wooden over the edge. One of his bedrock principles was that the team mattered more than any individual player. Players pursuing individual stardom at the expense of team play were guaranteed to wind up on the bench, if not off the team altogether. Wooden’s players took the court every day with the goal of helping their teammates become stars.

Now about Jesus. One day two of his disciples approached him: “’Teacher, we have something we want you to do for us…Arrange it so that we will be awarded the highest places of honor in your glory—one of us at your right, the other at your left.’  [In other words, they wanted to be Kingdom SuperStars.] Jesus didn’t grant their request. In fact, he slam-dunked their hopes for an easy title run. When the rest of The Twelve heard about it, they were furious with James and John. Jesus let them feel the heat for a while. Then he silenced all twelve wannabe Kingdom Stars: “It’s not going to be that way with you,” he told them. “Whoever wants to be great [among my disciple] must become a servant.” (from Mark 10:35-45 The Message) Want to be a great disciple? Make it your mission each day to help your brother and sister disciples grow into their Christlike greatness. Want to be a “star” in church? Start helping others, especially “non-stars”, discover and use their giftedness. Want to be a star in life? Start praying for eyes to see the image of God in in the ordinary folks who share your life. Start asking God’s Spirit to bring forth the “star qualities” (spiritual gifts in church-talk) in them–and offer yourself as an instrument in the process. That’ s how Jesus got The Twelve going.

A basketball player is credited with an “assist” when his pass to another player directly results in that player scoring a field goal. Very few assists relative to field goals indicates that a team isn’t working together.  A high ratio of assists to field goals indicates that a team is working together to get the ball to the player with the  best opportunity to score. In their last game before the Florida loss UCLA’s opponent had about half as many assists as field goals. The Bruins scored 29 field goals and had 22 assists–76%. They didn’t care about “How to Star in Basketball”. They were laser-focused on creating an environment where every player plays at his highest level.

John Wooden used his basketball platform to teach his players significant life lessons. His faith informed his whole approach to the game and to life. Imagine if that life lesson about stardom and servanthood got down deep into our bones. Imagine if it infused our churches, our families, our politics, our sports, our music, movies, media,  every aspect of our culture. “How to Star…” describes the way self-centeredness poisons life and relationships. It’s the polar opposite of the way to which Jesus calls us:
His friends at their best (and admittedly that’s not all the time) embody the power of that servant life. Let us become as serious about our discipleship as those March Madness teams are about their team-focused basketball? Let us move now to shift the focus away from our own “stardom” as individuals and congregations. Let’s redefine “success” as helping one another and all within our reach to become true Kingdom Stars as Jesus defines it.  To me, that sounds a lot like “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”.

Recognize Anybody?

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Recently my wife and I spent a week in a large RV Park/campground just south of San Diego, CA. Officially we went to watch our grandson play in a baseball tournament. Truthfully, summer in San Diego is The Promised Land for summer-weary Arizonans. Any excuse will do! It was our first trip in our new-to-us travel trailer. The “RV lifestyle” had a fairly steep learning curve at first. But the closest we came to a major crisis was a brand-new water hose that burst our second day out.

A fence separated the park from the river that ran along one side of the park. During the day a gate allowed campers access to the river bank. It was a popular place to run or walk, with or without a dog. Carson (by his own account the fiercest, bravest 17-lb. Shih Tzu on the planet) and I walked the bank daily. We met both two-legged and four-legged neighbors from the park. We also met  folks for whom that river bank was their freeway. While we vacationers walked or jogged along, they pushed their shopping carts and rode their bicycles along the bank to get to work and do whatever it took to survive. Under the bridge we saw evidence that some of our neighbors slept there regularly.

That campground accommodated everything from tents to sophisticated RVs worth as much as our house. The total value of the rolling stock in that large park was well into the millions. A few campers were long-term park residents working far from home in construction or other jobs. But most of us (in July in San Diego) were “on vacation”. We had comfortable, spacious homes awaiting our return. Our camping “equipment” represented substantial “discretionary spending”. Yet literally within a stone’s throw were neighbors whose worldly possessions fit in the shopping cart they pushed everywhere. They biked to work out of necessity, not the pursuit of fitness or an environmentalist ethic. They slept under the bridge at night out of necessity, not because they enjoyed “camping”.

The stark contrast has stayed with me. What’s wrong with this picture is not merely that some of us have more than others. Life will always be like that. What bothers me is a nagging question: Did the folks in in the campground recognize their neighbors? If so, what did do about the gap between our abundance and their need? I said a silent prayer for the guy who went past on his bike and the woman (and children) pushing the shopping cart; smiled and waved when I saw the same person at the same time each day. Since I’m home, I’m feeling nudged to address this issue I can’t even name in a more substantial way than just blogging about it. But I’m convinced that lasting change will come when many of us recognize the other person as a person. He/she is a human being just as we are. Therefore we are family. We are neighbors with responsibility for each other. Once someone asked  Jesus,, “Who is my neighbor?” His answer was, in effect, “Who isn/t?” (Read the story in Luke 10:25-37.)

Another time Jesus told a story about a rich man who saw a poor on his doorstep–but never recognized his brother:

“There was once a rich man, expensively dressed in the latest fashions, wasting his days in conspicuous consumption. A poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, had been dumped at his doorstep. All he lived for was to get a meal from scraps off the rich man’s table. His best friends were the dogs who came and licked his sores.” (Luke 16:19-21 MSG)

For weeks, months, perhaps years, that rich man stepped over Lazarus every time he left his house. Maybe he used another door so he didn’t have to pass that disgusting sight.  Or maybe he just developed a blind spot. Lazarus was so desperately poor and disease-ridden, the rich man thought to himself, that he wasn’t merely at the bottom of God’s list. Lazarus had been deleted from God’s list! The rich man may well have prayed every time he stepped around Lazarus, “Thank you, God, that I’m not like this miserable wretch.”

Eventually both men died. Lazarus wound up in the lap of Abraham (heaven). The rich man found himself “in hell and torment”(16:23). When he complained, the response was, “You enjoyed your life and ignored that poor soul on your doorstep. You didn’t recognize your brother in need, your neighbor. Now the tables have turned. How does it feel being as anonymous and unrecognizable as Lazarus was to you?”

Imagine Jesus walking the river bank with us. After we’ve passed a few folks, he asks us, “Recognize anybody? That guy on the bike? That woman with the cart? Those folks sleeping under the bridge?”  “No, Master,” we reply. “Never seen them before.” I hear Jesus sigh with disappointment. Then he takes a deep breath and retells another one of his stories(Matthew 25:31-46) . We obviously didn’t get it before. At the day of judgment folks are lined up and sorted into two groups. The difference between the two groups? How they treated the most vulnerable people within their reach: “…as you did it (or not) to one of the least of these…members of my family, you did it to me.” ( Matthew 25:40)

Look more deeply at the folks you meet on the street today. “Recognize anybody?” Your brother, your sister? You’ll soon discover a family resemblance with the most unlikely folks.If you dare, let Jesus’ story play in the background: “…as you did it to one of the least of these members of my family, you did it to me.”

Teach the Children–a Baptismal Message

[Recently I had the privilege of baptizing our youngest granddaughter. I was also invited to preach at all three services that day. Some people (even some unrelated to Amelia and me) thought the message worth sharing with a wider audience. It’s longer than my typical post. It is in two parts, as you’ll see. The first part is based on 2 Timothy 1:1-7 (The Message).] 

Today we become partners in a life-shaping adventure. Amelia Rose Salzman, our youngest granddaughter, will be baptized this morning. Family and godparents will gather around her.  Those of us in this service will promise, on behalf of the entire congregation, to partner with Amelia’s family to help her grow to maturity in Christ. What better way to fulfill our mission to “Make disciples of Jesus Christ…”?  Church and families partner together to help children catch the contagious joy of following Jesus wholeheartedly.

Discipleship is “caught” far more than it is “taught”.  Of course we’ll teach Amelia and all the children “Jesus Loves Me”, John 3:16, and the Apostles’ Creed. We’ll teach them who John Wesley is, what it means to be a “connectional church”, and much more about our distinctive Methodist style. But most important, we will immerse them in a loving, Spirit-filled, faithfully adventurous Christian community.

A community like that nurtured Timothy’s growth into Christ. We heard Paul praise his “honest faith…handed down from your grandmother Lois to your mother Eunice, and now to you!” Mom and grandma taught him the story of Jesus. They also immersed him in a vital Christian community. Timothy first “caught” faith in Christ from his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice. But he also learned to follow Jesus from the living example of dozens of older brothers and sisters in Christ.

Amelia’s parents will do their part. Her five living grandparents, all present today, will see to it! But it takes a faith community to grow a disciple. I am a prenatal Methodist. From my beginning Maynard Memorial Methodist Church in Los Angeles partnered with my parents. Glenn and Darlene McMurry, Fred and Irene Hillman, Dale and Flo Conrad, and many others offered living examples of life lived Jesus’ way. That rich environment helped me discover and claim “that special gift of ministry” God had given me.

Many of you can tell similar stories. The names and places will be different. Your story may have more twists and turns than mine. But our stories have this much in common: Disciples grow best in community. Today Amelia’s biological family asks you, her spiritual family, to partner with us in helping her grow up into Christ. We look forward to the day she claims the community’s faith as her own. We look forward to sharing her journey as she discovers and shares with the world her “special gift of ministry.”

[Here we performed the actual baptism. Those at the earlier services were invited to imagine the baptism taking place–the family gathered, questions being asked and answered, Amelia behaving–however she chose!]

PART II

Now what? We’ve done the ceremony. We’ve celebrated God’s love for this child. We’ve affirmed God’s claim on her life. We’ve sealed our partnership. Amelia’s on the church’s books. Now what exactly will we teach her—and all the other growing disciples within our reach? Listen to Paul’s words to one early church (Philippians 2:5-11) No, I’m not suggesting you prepare all the children in this church to be crucified—at least not literally. I do challenge you to teach them to be disciples with attitude—“the attitude that was in Christ Jesus”.  “He emptied himself,“ Paul says.“He humbled himself by becoming obedient…Therefore God highly honored him…”

Teach Amelia—and all the growing disciples within your reach—“the attitude that was in Christ Jesus.” Teach them this radical countercultural lifestyle of self-emptying obedience. This church has some saints whose very presence teaches humility and self-emptying. You know who they are. Their lives embody “the attitude that was in Christ Jesus.”    

Make these saints lead teachers for Amelia and all the children. You don’t have to put them in the Sunday School classroom every week. But expose the children to them frequently. Let them see and experience the “attitude” of these grownup disciples. Don’t worry about how many bible verses the kids learn or how many perfect attendance ribbons they take home. The Holy Spirit will help the details fall into place. Just do everything in your power to grow a generation of disciples with attitude—“the attitude that was in Christ Jesus”.

Now I know some of you are still stuck on Paul’s graphic language: “…He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death…” That’s a real baptism bummer! So here’s another version of “the attitude that was in Christ Jesus”. It comes from Time religion writer Jon Meacham. “The central tenet of Christianity”, Jon writes, “…is that we are to reach out when our instinct is to pull inward, to give when we want to take, to love when we are inclined to hate, to include when we are tempted to exclude.”–Jon Meacham, “Of God and Gays and Humility” in Time Magazine 7/30/12

Disciples “reach out when our instinct is to pull inward.” The Old Testament tells the story of God reaching out to humanity. Every time God reached out we acted like jerks. We were ungrateful. We willfully disobeyed the rules. We insisted on living life our way instead of God’s way. We fought to grab all the goodies for ourselves. We refused to share. Time after time we bit the hand of God that reached out to feed and care for us.

When someone treats me that way I don’t put up with it very long. It doesn’t take long until I’m done reaching out. But God’s relentless love wouldn’t quit. Finally Love wrapped itself in human flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. We killed the messenger. But some of us got the message—especially when we saw on Easter morning that Love was stronger than death. God began drawing Jesus’ followers beyond their comfort zone. He sent Jewish Christians to tell the hated Samaritans about Jesus. He sent Paul, and later Peter, to the Gentiles. Everybody knew God didn’t like Gentiles—except God! Over the centuries our reaching-out God sent missionaries to all the peoples nobody but God could love. Our reaching-out God continues to push us beyond our comfort zones to the people and places we’ve written off.

Disciples also “give when we want to take”. Amelia’s brother Lucas has begun learning this discipleship lesson. He’s learning to share his toys with friends who come over to play. He’s learning to share Mom and Dad with his sister. Sometimes, he thinks, she can be pretty high-maintenance. Sometimes Lucas’s and Amelia’s  high-maintenance moments occur simultaneously! If Lucas learns to share as quickly as the rest of us, he’ll be a very generous person in just a few more decades.

I just finished reading a book called Love Without Walls. It describes the ministry of Mariners Church in Southern California. A new senior pastor came into a very bleak situation. After nearly two years of hard prayer and hard work by everyone, the church’s budget deficit had become a modest surplus. The board wanted to take most of it and put it in the bank. They needed reserves. They could earn some interest. This was back when you didn’t need a microscope to find your interest. The pastor said, “It’s God’s money, not ours. Let’s use it for God’s purposes. Let’s give it away.” So they didn’t take God’s money and put it away for their own needs. They started giving it away. An amazing thing happened. The more people they helped, the more pressing needs they uncovered. The more needs they addressed, the more people wanted to help and the more people gave to meet those needs. The more they gave, the more opportunities they had to give and make a difference.

Disciples “love when we’re inclined to hate”. “The attitude that was in Christ Jesus” knows that “an eye for an eye” soon leaves everyone blind. We will love our enemies as Jesus taught us. We will return good for evil. We will treat others with respect and dignity regardless of how they treat us. We will break the death spiral of name-calling, retribution, and escalating violence. Disciples with attitude model an alternative way to live in families, in politics, in business, in traffic, in every part of life–even in intense church conflict.

In 1942 Clarence Jordan and a few other Christians formed an inter-racial community called Koinonia Farms near Americus, Georgia. They wanted to model the way they believed followers of Jesus were called to live together. The neighbors weren’t impressed. They were outraged. They brought housewarming gifts of isolation, harassment, religious persecution, and violence. Clarence Jordan and his friends just kept on living their lives and loving their neighbors. Their consistent practice of “the attitude that was in Christ Jesus” helped prepare the way for the Civil Rights movement.

Disciples “include when we’re tempted to exclude”. Our natural human tendency is to associate with others like ourselves. At its best that helps us build strong, stable communities. At its worst it means we aggressively exclude those who don’t fit for whatever reason. Our society today is just doing what comes naturally. We are intensely polarized around intense social, political, cultural, religious, and economic issues.  We’re happy to be on ‘our” side of the chasm—and equally happy to have “them” far away on the opposite side. We gather in our “us” groups—sometimes even in the church–and give thanks that we’re not like “them”.

Folks living with “the attitude that was in Christ Jesus” won’t stand for that. We know God doesn’t see “us” and “them”. God sees persons created in God’s image who are tragically separated from each other and from him. “The attitude that was in Christ Jesus” wants to help Jesus tear down the walls that separate us from each other and from God. “The attitude that was in Christ Jesus” wants to help Jesus build bridges of healing and reconciliation where we’ve dug Grand Canyons of separation. “The attitude that was in Christ Jesus” wants every one of God’s children to know the joy of being included in God’s family. We want to nurture Amelia and the children in this church to discover their “special gift of ministry”. But we won’t stop until that’s true for every child of God of every age and situation within our reach. Incidentally, you’ve taught me this morning that this church’s “reach” extends at least as far as Africa. So we have a lot to do together before we’re done!

So, partners, teach the children well. Teach them to be disciples with attitude—“the attitude that was in Christ Jesus”. Teach them—and one another—“to reach out when our instinct is to pull inward, to give when we want to take, to love when we are inclined to hate, to include when we are tempted to exclude.”

Neighboring by Walking Around

A while back some earnest folks trying to be both authentically Christian and environmentally responsible wondered aloud, “What would Jesus drive?” I’m pretty sure they’d rule out my 4WD pickup. Our mid-size SUV would be on the bubble at best. But Jesus didn’t drive anything! Jesus walked the earth centuries before the automobile appeared.

“Jesus walked…”  I know, I know. So did everybody else in first-century Palestine. Walking provides a different perspective on life. Everything looks different when we pass it at a few miles an hour instead of a few dozen miles an hour. We notice so much more at that slower pace. When we’re not sealed in our automotive isolaton chambers, we can stop and talk with folks we meet. Walking around our neighborhood connects us to the place we live in a way that driving cannot.

Our daughter and son-in-law bought a house and moved into it not quite a year ago. Its finest feature is a first-floor grandparent-ready guest room. The first time we brought along Carson, our ShihTzu, he insisted on an early-morning walk just like at home. One early-morning walk quickly became every-morning-and-every-evening. Carson and I met the neighbor who babies his car that’s just like one I sold long ago. We found the houses where dogs lived–and barked! We saw a wide variety of cars and trucks, as well as some nice boats and RVs. We noticed the personal touches some folks had added to the nondescript subdivision landscape–and other houses with little or no personal touches. Had their occupants decided not to try to make that temporary place “home”? Were they too busy, too stressed, too financially-stretched?

Our morning walks have helped me learn to read people’s trash. No, I don’t touch it, I just look! Before we met the neighbors across the street, I had deduced that they were Asians. Their trash contained large cartons that had contained large quantities of rice! You can also tell by the cartons when people have new furniture, appliances, or toys for their kids. Curbside trash also identifies houses in transition. Someone moving out has left at the curb what they don’t want and can’t get rid of any other way. Someone’s moving in, it appears by the discarded packng materials. This neighborhood, like so many , has experienced its share of Southern Nevada’s  real estate struggles. It contains some long-empty houses that just won’t sell, some that are in transition, and a few that appear to be headed toward foreclosure.

Our grandson Lucas (almost two) also likes to walk around the neighborhood with me. We met the man with the old car–and his poodle. He and the poodle appear to be about the same age.  One warm evening we met a man sitting in his garage playing with his toddler and trying to entertain his 6-month-old twins. His van/tour bus sits out front and I suspect it doesn’t haul as many people as often as he’d like, but he’s doing the best he can. We met young teen boys playing basketball with a portable goal. Lucas loves to sit on the curb and watch them play. One day one of the boys invited him to play. They rolled the ball around a little. Then we lifted Lucas up to the hoop and helped him drop the ball through the basket. He loved it! Of course the basket was well below the regulation ten-foot height, so those boys  could dunk and imitate the moves they saw the pros make on TV.

My preliminary exploration of the neighborhood (with Carson and Lucas’s help) reminds me of God’s action in Jesus: “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.” (John 1:14 MSG).  Our “neighborhood” is wherever we live our lives. Most of us live in other neighborhoods in addition to our physical neighborhood–work, online communities,  church, school, family, various other communities to which we belong. God is not aloof from our “neighborhoods”. In Jesus God has “moved into the neighborhood”. God cares about that young father and his family, those boys playing basketball, those families trying to survive through the housing crisis. Jesus doesn’t sit around the church all week waiting for us to come visit him on Sunday. He’s immersed in the wondrous dailiness of our ordinary lives!

 So what does all this mean for us who follow the One who’s “moved into the neighborhood”?

  • Expand your definition of “neighborhood” as it makes sense, but don’t neglect your physical neighborhood.
  • Take a walk. Take regular walks, mostly when some of your neighbors will be outside.
  • Pray for the neighbors you know and the ones you don’t, for issues you’re aware of and could reasonably expect to exist, and for your observations as you “move into the neighborhood” with Jesus.
  • Don’t expect instant results. Getting to know the neighborhood takes considerable time and attention. Relationships will develop through dozens of small steps.
  • Our mission field begins at our doorstep. The people in our neighborhood are our neighbors–those whom Jesus calls us to love as we love ourselves (Luke 10:25-37). Our loving presence invites them into the best news ever–“The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood”.

Give Peace a Chance

GIVE PEACE A CHANCE

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9 NRSV)

Early last Friday morning a heavily-armed gunman in full battle dress killed twelve innocent people and wounded 59 more at the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Shock waves from his senseless violence rocked families and friends of the victims, that community, our nation, and other nations. Many have spoken out as we’ve struggled to come to terms with this obscene slaughter. We’ve heard helpful and healing words. We’ve also heard insensitive, thoughtless, and just plain cruel words.

One word I haven’t heard is “peace”. Perhaps we no longer believe peace is possible. Aurora is the latest in a string of more than twenty mass killings since Columbine High in 1999. During that approximate time period, we’ve lived through wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ve seen continued   violence in the nation’s inner cities. Movies, video games, and popular music have reaped enormous profits from their glorification of killing and brutality. Our public political and religious conversations have grown increasingly hostile and polarized. Back in 1995 President Clinton worried that public political speech seemed to indicate that “violence is acceptable”. If anything, the climate of our public discourse has deteriorated even further.  In all these ways and more you could name, our world is anything but a peace-full place today.

The Aurora shooting reminds us that we’re caught in a “peace drought” every bit as serious as the meteorological drought gripping much of this country. I believe this “peace drought” offers the Church of Jesus Christ an unprecedented missional and evangelistic opportunity. For too long our response to the church’s declining membership and influence has been Olympic-level blame games and world-class pity parties. We’ve steadfastly ignored the justifiable criticism that many Christians don’t look and act much like Christ. One of the most pointed examples comes from Mohandas Gandhi’s  experience in South Africa early in the last century. Gandhi had left his native India to study in officially-Christian South Africa. The young Hindu eagerly accepted invitations to visit Christian churches. He was captivated by the teachings of Jesus. In fact, he seriously considered becoming a Christian. But he experienced religious and racial prejudice that he found clearly contrary to the teachings of Jesus. “I like your Christ,” he explained. “I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Gandhi saw no family resemblance between his acquaintances who called themselves “children of God” and Jesus their Elder Brother.

The “peace drought” gripping our nation, in fact our whole world, presents us who follow the Prince of Peace with an unprecedented missional and evangelistic opportunity. Imagine if your church became known in its community as an authentically peace-full place. Imagine if you became known as a place where people who couldn’t come together anywhere else could come together as family. Imagine if you became known as a place where individuals could learn to live peacefully in a noisy, warring world; where individuals and groups could learn constructive ways to resolve conflict; where families could learn how to live peacefully together, how to embed in their children the countercultural values of the Sermon on the Mount, how to work together to build more peace-full neighborhoods, schools, families, communities, and nations. Imagine if your church became known for supporting people who felt called to be “peacemakers” by taking political and social action, whether or not everyone agreed with every specific action. Imagine if your church became known as a community with a strong family resemblance to Jesus, the Son of God. That church would become a very different place. The community around it would become a very different place.

American Christians won’t recover our calling as “peacemakers” because a denominational leader decrees every congregation must do it. It won’t happen because some Christian publisher puts out a foolproof “magic box” that can transform your church for only $99.95. It will happen as two or three or a half-dozen gather together around Jesus and invite him to shape their lives in his image. It will happen as small groups of folks, with or without a pastor’s leadership, seek to let that “family resemblance” to Jesus form both their individual lives and their life together. It will happen as folks commit to being peacemakers together in small ways and find themselves led into bigger ways. It will happen the way the song says: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

 

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?

Judas-A Place at the Table

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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