Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Letter Of Encouragement To My Congregation In Light Of Advent

The first Sunday in December marks the beginning of Advent, the season when we look forward to Jesus’s coming at Christmas. Growing up in the Christian tribe I did, all the Christian holidays seemed rather disconnected to me. We enjoyed Christmas, but when Christmas was over…well, it was over. A few months went by and then we had Easter, and even though I thought it was a wonderful little holiday (how could any holiday full of chocolate be anything but wonderful), it had nothing to do with Christmas as far as I knew. Now I find myself in a Christian tribe that respects and follows the Christian calendar. This has influenced me in a number of ways. For one, it has created in me a new, growing awareness of how the story of Jesus shapes how I view the passing of time. Within that context, it has also shown me how our Christian holidays are not disconnected blips on a twelve month calendar, but rather highlights in an ongoing, unfolding story. To put it differently, we cannot have Christmas without Easter because they are bookends to the same story.

During Advent we build excitement for the birth of our Savior, much like expecting parents during the third trimester. We know the day of arrival is coming. It is getting close. We can feel it in the air. After Advent comes Christmas, the day when we realize we can finally look our Savior in the face and see him smile. But the story does not end there, we know Lent is coming. Lent, the time when we are reminded that, as things stand now, from dust we came and to dust we will return. The joy of Christmas mingles with fear. The beautiful, snowy landscapes on the Christmas postcards are marred by the shadow of an impending cross. And then, with Good Friday, the cross stands tall. Death appears to be victorious. The laughter of Christmas turns into tears, and we all wonder, “What now?” But praise be to God for Easter! What began as a story like any other, a baby born that would one day die, ends by rewriting the rules of the book. Death has been swallowed in life. That is the story our Christian holidays tell. That is the story we willingly step into as we begin celebrating the season of Advent, and that should mean a great deal to our congregation.

We were born over 120 years ago and have gone through many rites of passage since then. We have changed locations and church buildings twice because of growth. We have fallen in love with ministers. We have seen children born, children grow, and children leave to begin new families of their own. We have experienced seasons of Advent and Christmas in our congregation, but over the last few decades it seems those joys have become tinged with other emotions, emotions like fear, sorrow, and discontent. What was once a picturesque church with a tall, white steeple atop a glowingly white roof, small green saplings lined out front, has become an aged building. We have entered into Lent. The paint on the steeple is flaking. The roofing shingles have faded to brown, and the trees are overgrown. And understandably, that scares us. It scares us because we know what Lent means. Lent means the cross is coming, an end to that with which we were familiar and a transition into a frightening unknown. As on Good Friday we are left asking questions like, “What happens now?”

But much like the story that unfolds from Advent to Easter, our story will not end at Good Friday. It will continue. It will continue on to Easter because we are the people who have made Jesus’s story our own by dying to ourselves in baptism. We are Christians, a people whose story ends with life swallowing death. We will get through Lent. We will mourn on Good Friday, but the final word of our story is a word of resurrection.

One cautionary word, however. The body Jesus had after resurrection was not the same body as before resurrection. In the years to come as God works on and in and among our church, we will be changed. Experiencing Easter does not mean going back to the way things were. Easter means something better, mind-blowingly, vocabulary-exhaustingly, imagination-surpassingly, grammar-breakingly better. God has a better imagination than we do. He is the Creator God, so there is nothing to fear in what God might do with us next. It is only very good when God creates.

The story of the Christian holidays is the story of Jesus. The story of those of us who follow Jesus is the story of Jesus, at least on good days. The story of our congregation is the story of Jesus: birth, death, and resurrection. It is a good story in which to find ourselves. Presently we find ourselves in the middle, in the letting go and maybe grieving that act of letting go. We are experiencing the unsettled nerves of transition, but just as Advent casts our vision toward Christmas, and Christmas toward Easter, let us set our eyes on resurrection. Let us be a people of vision, and fear not.

“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever, amen.” –Ephesians 3:20-21

Monday, November 12, 2012

Congregational Transformation: A Minister's Perspective

I came across this video today, and I'm glad I did.  It's an interview with Amy Butler, senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington DC.  I appreciated her honestly, transparency, and self-depricating humor as she talked about her last ten years with Calvary Baptist Church.  It's a long interview (an hour), but I highly recommend watching it all.

The congregation I serve is presently going through a transformation of its own. I'd love to hear from other ministers who have gone through, or are presently going through, congregational transformations.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Church, Political Ads, and My Building Frustration

I try to steer clear of politics.  As a minister, I try to keep my mouth shut because I don't want the divisive nature of politics to come into my congregation.  It's probably no surprise then that I hate election years.  As I sit here typing, I can already imagine the flaming I'll take in comments either here or on Facebook.  But even if that happens, as a minister who serves the Church, I've seen and heard some things that I feel need a response.

With each passing year the political rhetoric attempting to tie Christianity with a specific political agenda has escalated.  This is nothing new.  It's been going on at least since the 1980's.  I've found that rhetoric suspect ever since I was old enough and aware enough to see beyond the smoke and mirrors of it all, but this year I've become especially frustrated.  I'm frustrated that the Church is having words put in her mouth.  I'm frustrated that Jesus is being replaced with nationalism to serve another agenda, and I'm frustrated that certain individuals are using fear mongering (in the name of Jesus) to get people to vote for specific political agendas.

Toward my first frustration, I'm sick and tired of having politicians tell me what the Church believes and then never actually hearing what the Church believes.  As a minister who (often failingly) is called to speak on behalf of the Church, let me remind everyone of what the Church believes.  This is the massage that the Church has proclaimed from the very beginning.
Jesus died for our sins, was buried, and was raised on the third day.  After his resurrection, he first appeared to Peter, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than 500 people, then to his brother James, then to all the apostles, including Paul.  He is the first fruits of God's new creation, which means that the life Jesus has already experienced will later be experienced by everyone who belongs to Jesus when he returns.

Yes, I just plagiarised Paul from I Corinthians 15, but those are the words that come out of the Church's mouth.  I absolutely believe that the message Paul proclaims here, and the Church through him, makes demands on our behavior, morality, and how we understand ethics.  I do believe that this message is bound to come into dialogue with political agendas, but the words of the Church are Jesus, Jesus crucified, Jesus raised, and Jesus returning.  Any time a politician uses rhetoric to suggest that the Church says "X" about abortion or "Y" about marriage or "Z" about some other hot topic and never mentions Jesus crucified, raised, and returning...well, they aren't speaking on behalf of the Church or using the Church's language.  The individuals and communities that compose the Church are incredibly diverse.  Some are pro-life.  Some are pro-choice.  Some are pro-LBGT, some not.  Any time politicians use language that oversimplifies that diversity, they are not speaking on behalf of the Church; they are speaking in spite of her.

On to my second frustration...It not only frustrates me when politicians try to make the Church say things she doesn't.  It also frustrates me when they appeal to their constituents as a Christians but then replace Jesus with something else.  I'm specifically thinking of a phrase Gov. Romney used in his closing arguments after the foreign policy debate.  (Please don't misread what I'm about to say.  I'm not suggesting you shouldn't vote for Gov. Romney if that is what you want to do.  I am also not saying that Gov. Romney is an evil man for using this phrase.)  In closing he said, "This nation is the hope of the world."  If he wants to believe that personally, fine and dandy with me.  However, this rhetoric should deeply unsettle Christians because that is not at all what we believe.  America has good to offer, without a doubt, but it succumbs to greed, injustice, and the fear of death just like any other nation.  America will never break the cycle of fallen-ness and set the world free, not just because it can't but because Jesus has already broken the cycle on the cross.  Jesus is the hope of the world, period.

And finally, my last frustration.  This ad represents a trend that infuriates me.

Stop using hell to scare people into voting for a specific political agenda!  Seriously...this ad is just nuts.  "Your vote...will be recorded in eternity."  Barf...forgive the juvenile sarcasm, but come on.  There's something else that might be recorded in eternity, scaring people with eternal fire if they don't vote the way you want them to.  As a Christian, the fact that this ad was made by another Christian shames me.  Christians have a hard enough time being taken seriously in this world without ridiculous ads like this.  This ad might be endorsed by Mike Huckabee, but not by me, or my congregation, or the Church.  God didn't promise eternal life through a pro-life, same sex marriage, anti-Obama administration insurance law agenda.  God promises eternal life through the Son.  Someday I hope to look back on ads like this and laugh.  For now, I'll just try to ignore it and do damage control in my community.

Luckily the election is right around the corner, and this will all settle down again after time.  I look forward the upcoming three-year hiatus from the insanity.  In the mean time, speaking to the Church and the Christians who make it the beautiful (if faulty) thing she is, remember who we are.  Remember what we believe and remember our message.  The powers that think themselves important in this world will all come to an end.  Jesus as King of Kings and Lord of Lords is eternal.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Thank You "Chainsaw" Charlie

I read today that one of my professors from ACU passed away this morning after a long battle with cancer.  I have to admit, when I think of Dr. Charles Siburt, I'm left with mixed feelings.  He could irritate the snot out of me, yet without him my life would be very different.

After transferring to ACU from Pepperdine, I had a nervous break down.  I won't go into all the details about that; let me just say that my pretty, little 4.0 from Pepperdine fell apart.  My past professors considered me a bright, promising student, but my new professors saw me as mediocre.  When you're planning on earning a Ph.D. of your own and your whole life is academics, that's an identity rattling transition.

There was a good reason Dr. Siburt was called "Chainsaw Charlie."  He had a gift for cutting through the crap and being brutally honest.  There were a few times I was on the receiving end of that chainsaw.  I got the impression he was frustrated because I wasn't focused enough.  I know I was frustrated because after my nervous breakdown, I couldn't focus the way I used to.  Years down the road and looking back, I see that I had some definite pride issues.  I wanted to be respected like the "scholar" I once had been while realistically not performing as the "scholar" I thought myself to be.  Dr. Siburt wouldn't let me play pretend, and although now I see he couldn't do that and still be a good mentor, at the time it made me angry.

That having been said, when I finished my time at ACU I no longer had the desire to go on for a Ph.D.  Through mostly happenstance, I found myself in part time ministry and enjoying it.  After a brief stint teaching religion at a private K-12 school north of Dallas, Kalyn and I moved to Kentucky so I could begin full time ministry.  It wasn't long (think three months) before we knew there were some major disconnects between ourselves and our congregation.  After about a year, we began sending out feelers for other congregations.  It never led anywhere.  Trying to use my contacts, I got a hold of Dr. Siburt to ask if he had any leads.  He had some, but they never led anywhere either.  Months went by, and Kalyn and I started asking hard questions.  Again making a long story short, Kalyn and I eventually realized that many of our major disconnects weren't only with our local congregation, but with our denomination in general.  Not knowing what to do, I sent Dr. Siburt a long (and I mean GIGANTIC) email spelling out all of our concerns and basically saying that I didn't see how I would have a future in the Church of Christ.

For those of you that don't know, ACU is a Church of Christ affiliated university.  Dr. Siburt was a prominent professor and in charge of church relations.  He could have protected himself and his position by telling me it would be fine, that I just had to keep looking in Churches of Christ.  Instead, the first line of his return email was basically, "With the concerns you've voiced, you probably won't be able to find work in a Church of Christ."  Then he proceeded to give me advice on how to move forward, which I took, and have never regretted.

My family and I now find ourselves in a wonderful church and a wonderful denomination.  We are happy; we are supported, and I no longer have to constantly censure what I truly believe about things.  I am in a denomination where I can honestly and genuinely serve.  That couldn't have happened without Dr. Siburt.  That couldn't have happened without him pushing me when I didn't appreciate it.  That couldn't have happened without him supporting me and guiding me when I didn't know what to do.  That couldn't have happened without his willingness to be a reference for me when I was applying for recognition of ordination with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  No matter how much I was frustrated with him, or he with me, he was always there for me, chainsaw in hand, when I popped out of the blue needing help.  As much as his blunt honesty could hurt, I don't know who else to go to now that it's gone.

Dr. Siburt wasn't a loud presence in my life.  He wasn't flashy, or necessarily even prominent, but he was present, and that has made all the difference.  I will always be grateful for that, and I will miss him.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

NT Wright And The Historical Resurrection of Jesus

I came across a presentation by NT Wright this morning.  It's from a few years ago, but still well worth watching.  I can't express how deeply Dr. Wright has influenced me as a theologian and as a minister.  This presentation is on the argument and evidence for a historical resurrection of Jesus.  Dr. Wright doesn't actully start talking himself until about eight minutes into the video.  Also, after he concludes his presentation, there is a short question and answer session that is also worth watching.

A warning: this video is very long, so don't expect to listen to it all in one sitting.  That having been said, enjoy.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Embrace The Kingdom Of God As You Would A Little Child

Okay, my second post for today.  This one comes from preparing for my teen class Sunday morning.  We're working our way through Mark, and this morning I read Mark 10:13-16.

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

I've always understood this little parable to mean that if we want to enter into the Kingdom of God, we must be like little children.  To put it differently, this parable is about me making sure I get into heaven.  "Don't be an old fuddy-duddy like Jesus' disciples.  Be loving and innocent like children," was usually how the sermons went as I was growing up.  And honestly, the few times I've gone over this passage in a class environment, that's along the lines of how I've taught it.  I've never paid much attention to how Jesus treats the children at the end of this passage, because, well...that wasn't the point.

I don't know why, maybe it is because I have a little boy of my own now with a little girl on the way, but that is not what I got out of this parable today.  What struck me today was precisely how Jesus treated the children at the end of the story.

"Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

If we let this story end where it actually ends (with Jesus receiving children), then the point of this story is not how we can be received by the Kingdom of God, but how we will receive the Kingdom of God, and that changes everything about how we understand the point of this parable.

On our piano at home sits a picture from last Thanksgiving.  I had a great Thanksgiving this past year.  Some of my best friends and their families came up from Texas to spend the holiday with us, so, of course, we had to take a picture.  Kalyn and I are to the left.  Josh, Allie, and their daughter Emily are in the middle, and to the right are Jeff and Rebekah.  Jeff and Rebekah are holding our son, Shepherd.  They all hit it off from day one.  He loved them, and how did they respond?  Well, who Shepherd chose to take the picture with says it all.  They picked him up, were affectionate with him, and, in general, were a complete blessing to him all week long (not to mention a total blessing to me and Kalyn for watching Shepherd so much).  They did with Shepherd exactly what Jesus did with the children around him, and that type of embrace and care is the metaphor Jesus uses for how we should embrace the Kingdom of God.

The Kingdom of God is a gift, much like children.  As a gift, we need to take it up in our arms, show it affection, and bless it.  Much like the surprise of finding out you're pregnant, it was an unexpected surprise when Jesus came and said, "The time is at hand.  The Kingdom is near!"  And with his resurrection from the tomb, God's labor bore fruit.  The Kingdom of God had been established here on earth, young, infantile, and with a great deal of growth still to come, but here none-the-less.  It is our responsibility as the followers of Christ, as the Church, to nurture it until God brings it to completion, when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.

In the meantime, let's receive the Kingdom of God as we would a little child, with tenderness, love, and excitement.  And also in the meantime, let's be thankful to the people around us who show us what Jesus was talking about.  Thank you Kalyn, Josh, Allie, Jeff, and Rebekah for helping me see what it means to take the Kingdom of God into my arms.

In The Kingdom Of God We Say We're Sorry

So, I have two thoughts I want to get written down today so I don't forget them tomorrow.  At first I was going to put them in the same blog post, but they're so unrelated I'll put them in separate posts.  The first thought comes out of my sermon prep for this Sunday.

I'm presently journeying through the Sermon on the Mount with my sermons.  This Sunday we're discussing Matthew 5:21-26.

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,” you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

While getting ready for Sunday, I was talking to our music minister on the phone.  She had also been reflecting on this passage.  She pointed out something that, once she pointed it out, seemed glaringly obvious, but I'd never caught it before.  By connecting the man who leaves the altar with the man who is on his way to jail, she astutely noticed that this is not a teaching about us forgiving our enemies.  It is a teaching about asking our enemies to forgive us.

In my mind, I have always partnered this teaching with Jesus' other teachings about turning the other cheek and loving our enemies.  I always had the middle of the Lord's Prayer playing in the back of my mind, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us."  However, if we really listen to what Jesus is saying, as our music minister did, we are caught short by the absence of any of that language.  This teaching isn't about learning to forgive.  It's about finding the courage to be forgiven.  It's about humility and admitting wrong.

Christians aren't very good at this.  A survey done by the Barna Group has been making its way around the blogosphere here lately.  I personally haven't looked at the whole thing, but what I've seen isn't all that encouraging.  During the survey, people were asked how they would describe Christians.  The number one response among Americans ages 16-29 was...can you guess?  Anti-homosexual!  The next most common negative perceptions were judgmental, hypocritical, and too involved in politics.  (Here's my source.  You can order the book unChristian here.)  I don't mention that to say Christians are all horrible people.  I am one, so I hope that isn't the case.  However, it does go to prove that there are some "I'm sorries," that need to go around, and we're the ones who need to be saying them.

The Sermon on the Mounts is all about what life should look like in the Kingdom of God.  And here, toward the very beginning of the sermon, we find that living in the Kingdom means taking responsibility for our actions, and then going to pay the piper, so to speak.  Being a Christian means being the first to drop what we're doing, especially if it's worshiping God, and righting our wrongs with other people.  Then we can come back to worship God.  In the Kingdom of God, we say we're sorry.