Archive for the 'Pentecost' Category

A Church Full of Yes

“In a world full of no, we’re a plane church full of yes.”

“…in [Christ] every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes’.” 2 Corinthians 1:20 NRSV

Have you noticed what I’ve noticed? More and more of us (myself included) are investing more and more time and energy in “NO-ing” our neighbors who don’t see and do life our way. It happens in business, politics, church, child-raising, and more. It happens in the common space we share, both physical and online. Civil, respectful co-existence is becoming increasingly rare in our life together.

Some of us find temporary respite when we board an airplane. At least that’s the tone one airline’s cocktail napkin seeks to set for your flight. Just walk down the jetway, turn off all your electronic devices, settle into your seat. Relax on “a plane full of yes” while we cruise along miles above that “world full of no”. It’s an attractive invitation, especially when you’ve had “a day full of No”. Unfortunately, some Christians have helped our movement become known as a people whose favorite word is “NO!” That doesn’t sound to me like the Good News of Jesus or anybody else! But I know lots of people who might welcome an invitation to “a church full of Yes”. We United Methodists could be that church. But we have some hard work before us if we want to embody that welcoming invitation!

Last February our General Conference (the official legislative body) gathered in St. Louis. Those 800+ delegates spent three days “No-ing” each other in a severely polarized debate over the church’s position with regard to LGBTQ+ persons. Many of us heard a harsh “NO!” as the body narrowly adopted legalistic and punitive legislation called the “Traditional Plan”. That NO spoke volumes to LGBTQ+ folks already within our church and also to “all sorts and conditions of persons” desperately seeking “Yes” in whatever “world full of No” they live in.

Three months later, divorce is in the UMC’s future. The once-strong 10-million member United Methodist Church will most likely re-form into multiple Methodist bodies . As I write, folks from various factions are gathering [sometimes even across party lines, thank God!] to talk and listen, to worship, pray, study, and envision the future of the Methodist movement. Our journey toward God’s promised future won’t be easy, simple, or quick. It involves working through countless details regarding legalities, dollars, property, and (most of all) people and relationships.

Believe it or not, I find hope in this apparent chaos! Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of men, women, and even children and youth are talking, listening, writing, praying, studying, visioning, and dreaming toward the future. God’s Spirit is working through their messy work together.

It’s hardly the first time. On the Day of Pentecost, Peter preached to Jesus’ first followers:

“In the Last Days,” God says, “I will pour out my Spirit on every kind of people:
Your sons will prophesy, also your daughters;
Your young men will see visions, your old men dream dreams.
When the time comes, I’ll pour out my Spirit
On those who serve me, men and women both,
and they’ll prophesy.” (Acts 2:17-18 MSG)

Last week my wife and I took another plane trip. That napkin showed up again! It brought this old man a bit of a “dream and vision”. Can we turn the page to the next chapter God has for us? Can we Methodists move beyond “NO-ing” each other to become “A church full of Yes!”?

“…in [Christ] every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes’.” (2 Corinthians 1:20) “A church full of Yes” lives to help each person within our reach hear God’s unconditional Yes to his or her life. We value every person’s God-given uniqueness. With Paul we affirm the rich diversity of God’s gifts to God’s people: “Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits. All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people! The variety is wonderful…” (1 Corinthians 12:7 MSG)

“A church full of Yes” welcomes people in all ages and stages of life. Some churches have a rug at the front of the sanctuary. Children can sit there, see the action more clearly, play or draw, and know they belong in this family of God. Some churches offer gluten-free communion bread, adaptive listening devices, large-print bulletins, space for service animals, and other accommodations that enable full participation

Omaha, NB First UMC works hard to help its youth hear God’s Yes. The eight middle-school students in this year’s confirmation class (preparing for full church membership) closely followed the events surrounding General Conference. Ultimately they chose not to become full members of the church at this time. The statement they wrote and shared with the congregation describes their childhood church experiences. Those experiences taught them that “…[the community of faith] is where children belong.” The statement explains their concern with the church’s direction following events at General Conference. “Because we were raised in this church,” it concludes, we believe that if we all stand together as a whole, we can make a difference.” Watch for these young men and women to continue growing in their faith and help build “a church full of yes” wherever their lives take them.

“A church full of yes” also stands with those to whom the world says “NO”. In Jesus’ time that included lepers, Gentiles, women, and assorted folks whom the religious leaders labeled “unclean”. Today’s “unclean” might include the poor, the homeless, those who are old, infirm, mentally ill, or developmentally challenged. It might include folks from ethnic or religious minorities (Jews, Christians, or Muslims, depending on your context), racial minorities, folks of unconventional sexual orientations.

In our world of No, we reject those whose ideas are disturbingly different. We reject whoever makes us uncomfortable for any reason. We pretend they’re not there. We “marginalize” them. We push them back to the farthest edges of life. But Jesus seeks out those folks we’ve “marginalized”; the folks the “upstanding townspeople” actively and brutally ran out of town. Jesus embodied “…every one of God’s promises…” for these folks who lived in “a world of no”. He touched them, healed them, welcomed them, loved them, empowered them.

Those who’d lived in that “world of No” grew into “a church full of Yes”. Their Yes to God’s Yes to God’s Yes in Jesus made them more together than they’d ever dreamed of being by themselves. This, wrote the late Rachel Held Evans, is God’s dream for God’s people. God gathers the most unlikely group of folks around the table. What brings us together? We’ve all said “Yes” to God’s “Yes” to us in Jesus Christ. And we know “there’s always room for more”.

Let’s build this church together! Right here where we live our lives, in the middle of what so often seems to be “a world full of no”, among our neighbors desperate to hear God’s Yes. “…in [Christ] every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes.'”

When Calendars (and Loyalties?) Collide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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