October 9, 2013

Shutting Down the Strong

More than once in the last fourteen days, I’ve thought about the curious juxtaposition of the Lord’s table and our government’s shutdown. The federal closure is all over the news, so that spectacle is hard to miss. Between our inter-generational module on “the Eucharist” and our recent Sunday morning sermons on the same, our communion around the Lord’s generous meal has also been in the foreground of our fellowship.

I suppose that juxtaposition offers at least this good news: Amid the boneheadedness of a stalled legislature, not to mention the crippling complexities of ordering our overly-complicated national financial house, I find myself grateful for space and time around a table that is neither bankrupt or impenetrable. At this table, there is always enough for all who are hungry for a new world. At this meal, no one is turned away who discerns his living body in the faces all around them. That’s good news. Fling open the doors.

Not so in the District. It would seem that there is not enough to go around these days, at least not enough to do everything our elected voices want done. With scarcity in the air, actual or perceived, everything is log jammed. And no one dare flinch in compromise, lest someone think them weak. Weakness costs votes come booth time.

All the while, back at home, we are an odd community made up of odd persons who are led by an odd kind of political figure: one that comes to our proud times in the weakness of our injured flesh and who makes power known in the shame of government execution. This leader forms a new party by, of all things, transforming a routine religious meal into a feast for a new community with a new commandment. His simple supper humbles the strong and raises up the weak. It is a dinner that celebrates God’s once-and-for-all election, not our various re-election schemes. So while National Park rangers and federal meat inspectors spent Sunday morning counting on two hands the unwanted days off from work, students of Jesus all around the world broke sweet bread and gave thanks for an underlying human unity marked by Pittsburgh’s own “World Communion Sunday.”

Yellowstone remains closed. For all we know, Old Faithful is turned off at the spigot. And down in D.C. they are trying to figure out how to tame a spending geyser that tops a stunning $3,600,000,000,000 a year.

Meanwhile, the table of a risen Jew remains open.
Let us give thanks for such a fount of New Faithfulness.

September 5, 2013

The Ethics of Ceasing

“More water?”

As I slid my glass toward the table’s edge, for a refill from “Julie,” I was reminded of the many subtle ways persons serve us in a given week. With this sabbath series still on my mind, I began thinking about what it might look like to take a once-a-week break from being served by others, in any form. Recently, one of our members shared with me a simple sabbath practice of her own: no shopping on the Lord’s Day. It is not a showy thing; she only brought it up because of our recent sermons. That discipline put me in mind of a wise saint in a previous congregation who chose not to eat out at restaurants on Saturdays. Somehow, both seem fitting as sabbath practices: a day, once a week, not to be waited on by others; a day to allow others to rest from working for me.

But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.

Notice how in the Exodus tradition, the commandment to rest is not merely a privatized prohibition. There is a wide social implication with resting. Children, slaves (ubiquitous in antiquity), domestic animals, and even those “outsiders” that hang around the community – they all get a weekly break. All should sabbath. Keeping the rest day holy is personal, yes, but not a private affair.

Now, I know what you are thinking. “Even if I stop going to Applebees after worship, or to Aldi’s on a Saturday sabbath, that won’t stop the entire county from eating out or shopping on those days.” So true. Drinks will still be poured and groceries still bagged, even on “holy” days. It is a reminder that we no longer enjoy (are cursed with?) the cultural scaffolding to hoist up sabbath rest days. We disciples now have to find a path for holy rest despite the fact that we live, work, and play in a 24/7, always-on world.

Even so, the commandment remains before us.

So I challenge you to experiment with taking a sabbath from being served, a day a week, in whatever form seems appropriate to your weekly living. Restaurants and grocery stores are but two of many possibilities. It is not a judgment upon those who do the serving. The focus of our renewed discipline should be inward, not outward. It is, rather, a step toward creating new space for reflection upon our needs vs. wants, upon the bounty of the Trinity’s provision for our lives and for the world (as opposed to living out of the anxiety of scarcity), and upon those persons with whom we interact in our daily living. Sabbath grants us permission to perceive them as “neighbor” (Jesus’ word) and not merely “server.”

If nothing else, at least witness to God’s bountiful grace by leaving a ridiculously large tip.

August 8, 2013

A Holy Stop

The Bible calls it sabbath. What’s in a name?

It’s a terrific little Hebrew word, pronounced something like shaw-bath, possessing of several interesting shades of meaning. It can mean repose, especially implying an abstention from exertion. At a basic level, sabbath calls for a weekly work interruption. For the ancient Hebrews, a day set apart during which one ceased from all labor was a bold critique of their own shared history. Their ancient forebears had been forced to work endlessly under Pharaoh’s slavery in Egypt. A day for ceasing was, among other meanings, a day of protest against the inhumanity of endless labor. Work is good (Genesis 2:15), but work can turn evil when it lacks rest.

The little word also has a shade of cessation. It calls for a stop. Such stoppage hearkens right back to our poetic beginnings, in the creation story. For six days, God summons the world we know and love into being. But on the seventh, God stops doing this. Presumably, God did not lay down in exhaustion and take a long nap. The stoppage was for enjoyment, for celebrating the deep gladness of something being finished, made complete. So a sabbath day is for stopping one kind of effort (creating) and for taking up another (blessing). Over the years, I’ve attended a number of Habitat for Humanity house dedications. There is always palpable joy in the air when those who have labored, including the homeowners, stand back and survey what has been accomplished over time. This kind of gladness is surely a shade of sabbath.

Finally, there is a sliver of meaning in sabbath that suggests “putting something away, to rid, to take away.” In this way, a weekly sabbath rest is perhaps conceived as a kind of regular recalibration. Whatever bad habits or inflicted harm or unholy allegiances are taken on during a week of labor, these are to be cast off on the last day, the holy day. Someone once described our weekly worship to me as a time to “find True North again.” This is one spirit of sabbath, I suspect. Jesus picks up on this theme in his ministry when he regularly heals on the sabbath day (Matthew 12:1–37). This drives his older, stringent brothers in the faith nuts. Healing seems like blatant work to them, and therefore is inappropriate. Yet Jesus’ healing echoes the old Hebrew root in view here: he takes away the deadly patterns of the world, he rids the body of deadly forces, he puts down evil spirits. His is a holy stoppage. Jesus argues that this is exactly what sabbath is for. “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” (Mark 2)

A break from labor
A time for blessing
A day for putting matters right

How might the Holy Spirit be calling you and your household to a fresh practice of sabbath rest and sabbath reorientation?

March 27, 2013

Playback: Normal

Two extra church services this week, Thursday and Friday evenings. Frankly, it can be a chore to work these nightly interruptions in to a busy weekly routine, especially if worship tends to feel more like an obligatory act than a spiritual privilege. Even so, in this week of weeks, our annual Holy Week, I urge you to take time to dwell with others in the communion meal on Thursday and to sit with others before Jesus’ stunning sacrifice on Friday.

To be sure, we share in communion and ponder Jesus’ death in many a Sunday morning service. It’s not as though this is your one shot. But one of the under-appreciated gifts of Holy Week is that we get to experience Jesus’ passion in real time. The events of last supper, passion, burial, and resurrection are uncompressed from a normal Sunday morning summary and are presented to us at their normal speed: day by blessed day, one saving event at a time. No one I know has expressed the importance of this uncompressed playback better than Alan Lewis. Reflecting on the mystery and blessing of an annual Christian holy week, especially the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday cycle, Lewis writes:

Christian faith simply would not be, did it not hear, believe, and tell what once took place between the sixth day of one week and the first of that which followed. What keeps the heart of the Christian church beating, and its blood circulating, if not the story of those days, so endlessly rehearsed, with such infinite variety and such steadfast unalterableness? Sketched out by the very first preachers, subjected to profound reflection by the apostles, extended and elaborated four different ways by the evangelists, later reduced again to apothegms by the drafters of countless creeds and confessions, the story of Christ crucified, buried, and risen continues even now to be told and acted out, year by year and week by week. The worship of every Sunday is a fleshed-out echo of what Christians have heard happened that third day, that first day of the week. Likewise the church’s hymns, when thoughtful, and her preaching, when faithful, reannounce the first proclamation of death’s death and sin’s atonement. Each act of baptism dramatizes the dying and rising again of the Savior as well as that of those he died and lives to save; and in every celebration of communion the same story is presented and re-presented with particular intensity and unique effect, red wine refocusing the savagery of execution on Golgotha and the breaking of bread re-releasing the astonished cries of recognition in Emmaus.

Since none of these retellings of the story can be anything but symbolic and abbreviated, the Christian family takes time once a year to replay the events at their original speed — to experience for themselves the somber, then joyous, sequence, moment by moment. Through a few hours of worship and many of ordinary life, they relive annually the growing tensions of the climactic week; the grieving farewells, shameful betrayal, guilty denial, and agonizing fear of the night before the end; the long, dark, deadly day of pain and forsakenness itself; an ecstatic daybreak of miracle and color, song and newborn life; and in between one eerie, restless day of burial and waiting perhaps for nothing: a day which forces us to speak of hell and to conceive how it might be that God’s own Son, and therefore God’s own self, lay dead and cold within a sepulcher.

Such is faith's story, which we are invited now to hear freshly as if for the first time; to think about with the widest stretching of our minds and our imaginations; and to make our own, as the key to learning how to live and even how to die.

-- Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday by Alan E. Lewis

Indeed, we learn together. As such, I hope to see you on Thursday and Friday, no less so than on Easter Sunday. And may the good hope of the coming resurrection bless and bolster your life’s ministry in the here and now.

March 14, 2013

Silent Listen

Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for the Lord has spoken. - Isaiah 1

Throughout these Sundays in Lent, we’ve started our worship with a time of silence. Love it or loathe it, sitting together in protracted silence at least has the effect of showing us, by way of contrast, just how noisy the world can be. Not long ago, I pulled into a gas station and was astonished to discover that all 8 pumps had flatscreen monitors mounted on top of them. Each screen had it’s own ads running, and you could hear them all at once. I used to get some of my best thinking done, pumping gas. No more. Now I get to hear about 2 for 1 pickles and home equity loans.

We live in especially noisy times.

I was struck by many aspects of the papal announcement in Rome this week, but not the least by his call for a time of shared silent prayer. Ten thousand people crammed into St. Peter’s square, all of them silent. The television commentators hardly knew what to do with themselves. I suppose in TV Land, and by its tutelage so also in our busy lives, silence is usually a problem to be solved, a gaping hole to be filled with more disposable banter.

But not for us who follow Jesus. Silence is not a burden, but a gift ... if we are open to it. The first Lenten Sunday’s time for silent prayer prompted one wise member among us to point out a simple fact of letters that had never before occurred to me: The words SILENT and LISTEN share the same letters. Beautiful. And that fact seems illuminating for us believers. The point of silence in worship is, ultimately, to make room in our spirits to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit. We empty ourselves of all noise in order to make room for God’s pervasive word. In that way, silent prayer is another mode of fasting: deliberate restraint that makes room for reception.

When given the opportunity for shared silence in worship, we all might do well to pay attention to what comes crashing into that space, spiritually speaking. Those other voices that vie for our attention, those worries and wanderings and wants, these likely signal places in our lives in need of spiritual sequester. Silence unmasks our noisy spirits, and that’s why we avoid it so.

So if the silence is unbearable, if it brings about more agitation and restlessness than shalom and sanctuary, be brave and try to get to the bottom of what it is about intimate worship that vexes rather than blesses. After all, if we cannot be alone in silence with our own thoughts and feelings, there’s a good chance we likewise cannot welcome the Holy Spirit into our spirits. Maybe there is no room in our inn. Or, to say it positively, when we can quiet down the noise of our lives, even for two sacred minutes, we thereby make a little more room for the Spirit to do what it does so well: comfort, confirm, and challenge us with the word and way of Jesus.

What is silence in worship like for you? What can you determine about the noise in your life? Do you hear the Holy Spirit speaking into your spirit? What do you hear the Lord Jesus saying to you, his disciple and friend? ... and to us, one little portion of his great gathered body?

In what remains of Lent, and in every season, may all our silent prayers become listening prayers.

March 10, 2013

Semicolon Crisis

Mark serves up a stunning situation in 14:32-51.
late in the evening
on the heels of the supper
feet have been washing
Now he takes some of those disciples outside
and asks them to sit and wait
in his own words
I feel bad enough right now to die.
Stay here and keep vigil with me.

Three years of ministry, now behind him
all the encounters
all the teaching
all the miracles
and of course
along the way
a growing controversy
a grumble that turns into an sabotage
as Jesus’ words and way with others
the authority by which he demonstrates
the Father’s power and purpose
these become
an affront
an insult
to the leaders of his own faith family

And so by the time of this encounter in the garden of Mark 14
the seniors pastors and ruling elders have conspired to do him in
Turns out the Session is his biggest problem
one of his own posse
short-sighted and hungry for the money
Judas helps them bring him down

The point is:
all of this is bearing down on him in the garden
He knows what has already taken place:
the plans for his demise
Worse: he knows what is about to take place
a religious electric chair

No wonder Mark can say
Jesus is
“He plunged into a sinkhole of dreadful agony.”

Mark has Jesus praying down on the ground
which is to be noted
since good faithful Jews of Jesus’ day usually prayed standing up
arms lifted to heaven
So there on the ground
three years of showing them God now behind him
the culmination of their sabotage now before him
Jesus prays an astonishing prayer:
Abba, Father,
(an intimate address)
for you all things are possible
(not so much a theological fact as a precious naming of trust)
And then it comes:
Remove this cup from me;
yet, not what I want, but what you want.

Have you known the crisis of wanting the cup to pass to someone else?

Of wanting to go over
any direction but

Here’s the astonishing thing:
Jesus did
Jesus does
that crisis
of wanting the cup to pass to someone else

Father, for you all things are possible
remove this cup from me
(Did he say cup?  I’m sure he meant cross)
Remove it
Take it away
Give it someone else
It’s too much
It’s too hard
It’s going to be the end, I know it
Let this cup pass from me
Let me turn back from this
Let me go around instead of through

One of the reasons I trust the teaching of the four gospels
is because they show us such unexpected sides of a “Savior”

Who sets out to produce propaganda for a successful religious movement
only to show us a Messiah who
on the night before his terrible ending
wants out of the deal
wishes it on someone else
wants the cup passed?

It makes for a terrible propaganda piece
But it sure does show us the gospel

Hebrews 4:
We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested and tempted as we are, yet without sin.  Ours is not a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin.

Make sure you have room in your faithful imagination
for a Jesus who wants out of his contract
because only that Jesus can save me and you
only that Jesus take our death upon himself, and therefore into God
only that Jesus can show God what it is like to be us
Father, remove this cup from me

even so
everything depends on what happens during the semicolon
A semicolon!
Such a miniscule sort of punctuation
for marking such a massive space in Jesus’ prayer

Remove this cup from me
yet not what I want, but what you want.

How long must that space have been?
30 seconds?
30 minutes?
30 hours?
(Long enough for his entourage to fit in a power nap.
He should have bought them Red Bulls)

Do not be deceived
by the deceptively small and pragmatic semicolon;
invented by an Italian in 1494;
for separating words and phrases of opposed meaning

Remove this cup from me
yet not what I want, but what you want.

What takes place in that little space?
What brings forth that turn from one clause to another?

What transpires between eternal Father and struggling Son
bound together in the elasticity of the Holy Spirit
such that Jesus can move from
cup passing
“have thine own way, Lord, have thine own way”
from I don’t want to do this
I will do what you have for me to do
Count me out
Count me in

I was struck by a line in a manual on punctuation:
“A semicolon is used when a sentence could have been ended, but it wasn’t.”

Jesus’ role as messiah could have ended right here.
But it wasn’t

This crisis of calling could have derailed the entire gospel train.
It didn’t

This night of anguish and despair and loneliness
it could have brought God’s entire unlikely work to a halt
But it didn’t

Remove this cup from me
yet not what I want, but what you want.

Entering into a space of honest, earnest, soul-searching prayer
(Is there another kind of prayer?)
the divine son is put back into a position
to rediscover the faithfulness of the father

He trusts that
although the father takes no pleasure
in the suffering that is about to commence
Such suffering, for faithfulness’ sake
will be allowed
for the greater good
so that the suffering of a senseless sort
the kind with which we are all afflicted
and with which we so often afflict others
so that this can be put to death
and raised to new life
(the original sequester)

This is not just mere acquiesce
As if a son loses a fight with the father
and simply most learn to cope

It is more like fresh fresh
living trust
growing again where only fear was taking root

Across and around this semicolon moment
Jesus shows us again
what it looks like
to love the Lord your God
with all your heart, mind, soul, strength

March 6, 2013

Lent, Served Cold

Lord, who throughout these forty days 
For us didst fast and pray, 
Teach us with Thee to mourn our sins 
And close by Thee to stay.*

I’m done with the snow. I miss the sunlight. On a day like Tuesday, when the sun makes a startling mid-day appearance, I feel as though I should run to my neighbors’ homes, shouting “Do not fear the strange orange ball in the sky!” In other words, I’m ready for spring.

But … Maybe, just maybe, the persistence of winter serves us followers of Jesus well, seeing as how the Lenten season still has a few weeks to go before giving way to spring. Lent: that forty day (not counting Sundays) solemn march toward Easter and the relief of Jesus’ resurrection. In Lent, the hymns and songs slow down. Explicit prayers of confession resurface in our worship. And everyone’s giving up Facebook and Snickers for a time. Lent is a season for contemplative restraint.

As Thou didst hunger bear, and thirst, 
So teach us, gracious Lord, 
To die to self, and chiefly live 
By Thy most holy Word.

Lent is a time for deliberate restraint because Jesus practiced the same throughout his forty days in the wilderness. He did without creature comforts, in order to get clear about his calling. So we do without, in order to make fresh space in our lives for him, his word, and his way. We hold back from some comforts in order to decipher where and what we are holding back from God. Perhaps the bracing wind, the little mounds of stubborn snow, and the mulling slate sky overhead, perhaps each has an appointed role to play right about now. Perhaps they help mark these many weeks as a time to “die to self.” Because in killing off some of our wants, we learn to live by what God has already provided. We die a little bit, precisely to welcome more of the resurrection into our reality.

Abide with us, that so, this life 
Of suffering over past, 
An Easter of unending joy 
We may attain at last.

Since a little cold makes one ready for a little warmth, perhaps for now we say: Come snow. Come dark skies. Come bitter wind. Come mark this Lent as a bundle-up time, a constricted season. Come help us withdraw into ourselves just long enough to examine how it is with me and neighbor and Jesus. Maybe, along these lines, Lent is a meal best served cold.

(Naw. Forget all of this. It's too cold out. I’m ready for the bright light of the son.)

*Lyrics from the hymn Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days by Clau­dia F. Her­na­man, Child’s Book of Praise; A Man­u­al of De­vo­tion in Sim­ple Verse, 1873.

February 21, 2013

Lenten Laments

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?

How long will you hide your face from me? 

How long must I bear pain in my soul,

and have sorrow in my heart all day long?

If you don’t know it already, take a look at Psalm 13. Out of 150 psalms (prayers) in the Hebrew section of our Bible, roughly one third of them are laments like this one.
LAMENT: a passionate expression of grief or sorrow;
a song, poem, or prayer expressing such emotions.
Heartfelt lament takes a little getting used to, in part because an intense prayer like Psalm 13 asks us to risk offending God with our deep complaints about the injustice and brokenness often present in this life. In the words of Eugene Peterson, “Untutored, we tend to think that prayer is what good people do when they are doing their best.” But it turns out that lament is no offense to the God we meet in Jesus, at least not if we are to trust our teacher’s example. At the lowest point in his ministry, amid the shame of a catastrophic cross-ending, it was the language of Psalm 13 on which our Lord leaned to name the cursed abandonment of (our) death (Mark 15:34). To put the matter crudely: If Jesus can lament, why not his people, too?

Of course, no one is suggesting more gripes for the sake of gripes. Lord knows there is enough of that already. (No, really. The Lord knows. Woe to us when we confuse our boredom and entitlement for real harm.) But the Lenten season is as good a time as any to practice the grace of lament. Start with Psalm 13. Practice those words for yourself or your family if you find that your way to the Father seems blocked by pain, injustice, or the lingering decay of body and spirit. Or -- and this is where lament becomes a ministry -- practice Psalm 13 or something like it on behalf of those in the world who need it most: the battered, the abused, the lost, the tortured, the persecuted, the forgotten ... to name but a few.

In this way, learning to lament is learning to pray for the world through the prayers of our dying Jesus. It is to dabble in the mystery of crying out to a Trinity who, after the cross, is already more acquainted with the world’s sorrows than we are. It is to work on exchanging the personal benefits of middle-class religion for the sacred burdens of Christian discipleship.

January 31, 2013

We Used to Matter

I believe we have entered a shake-down season for mainline congregations like ours. As one wise pastor I know likes to say, “I’m a Presbyterian. We used to matter.” It is a way of saying that our best institutional days are now well behind us. In the past, we enjoyed prominent spots on the corners of our towns and among the communities that inhabited them. We still hold land on many corners, but much has changed. I believe our waning influence should prompt some honest examination, not with the goal of reclaiming lost ground but with the hope of liberation for greater faithfulness to God and greater integrity with the pattern of the gospel. Sometimes it is a gift to no longer be the coolest hangout.

As such, I believe the era of the low commitment, big tent, catch-all congregation is over. Communities of justice, mercy, and humility (Micah 6:8) cannot be sustained by keeping the expectations as low as feasible in order to attract and keep as many as possible. Numbers may expand for a time under this sensitive regime, but numbers usually contract again when the time comes for harder work, greater commitment, and renewed faithfulness to the call of Jesus. Going forward, congregations will want to come to peace with kingdom proportions: joy over 10 serious saints for every 100 curious onlookers. God loves onlookers. Indeed, God loves the whole world. God’s love for anyone or everyone is not the burning question. That matter was long ago settled. Jesus blessed the crowds, but he called a handful of disciples to follow him in the way of discipleship.

Speaking of discipleship, of forming students for Jesus, it will matter more and more in the future. I agree with Mike Breen, who notes, "If you make disciples, you always get the church. But if you make a church, you rarely get disciples." We have in the past given much attention to the formal, public, large-group dynamics in our congregations: music, liturgy, preaching ... the furniture in our parlors, the length of our services. But it is now clearer than ever that these ecclesiastical externals do not themselves fashion new servants for God’s work. The crisis in our public worship space offers us the opportunity to pay attention to the “back of the house,” where Christian relationships are formed in less formal, smaller spaces. It is in these communal relationships that faithful thinking, praying, and serving are most likely brought to bloom. The governing question for the next 25 years will no longer be how we get people like us to come to our building on Sunday mornings and help us keep doing what we have always done, but rather, Will we risk making room in our common life for the fertile space in which new disciples bloom and flourish? Will I be threatened or blessed by my fellow Christian’s growth?

Given this, I believe we are called to no longer treat one other or our neighbors as consumers. Even in 2013, with everything we know about the allergies of the current generation to the spit and polish of marketing, we are still arguing in our churches about form instead of substance. Many of us church folk are still haunted by a consumerist compulsion: If we sing the right music, call the right preacher, offer the right programs, give away the right freebies, sing high or sing low ... the young people will come. Packaging the right product still works along the Boardman strip, or for those who troll Amazon.com, but spin and sales are not the tools of a living Christian community. I believe our Lord makes possible a genuinely human encounter, where persons are welcomed as human beings and are summoned to become students of Jesus and children of the Father, not to be treated as potential consumers of religious goods and services. We cannot treat our neighbors as prospective pew warmers and church bill payers, and then expect them to be anything more than the entitled, chronically disappointed, critical consumers that our culture tends to produce. In our common life, going forward, we have the opportunity to share in what seems less and less available in the wider society: the holy experience of not getting everything we want, when we want it, the way we want it. Instead, we get each other: mere Christians. And together we come to know a living God who promises to change our thirst for creature comforts into an appetite for faith, hope, and love. Besides, with regard to taste, I find that when a person is growing in the Lord they are grateful to be able to sing to God whatever music they can get their hands on. Among a collection of consumers, taste is tyrannical. In a communion of saints, substance matters more than form.

Let us agree, then, that gone are the days when music, messages, and a menagerie of programs would easily draw people into our common space. These days, people seem stuffed full of music, crammed with information, and overloaded with activities; stuffed, yet feeling depleted. If we want persons to dwell among us, now more than ever we have to be a church worth joining. Names, locations, styles, personalities: These carry precious little weight anymore. Our life together must be (can be!) marked by some quality of fellowship not otherwise available at Chipotle, on Facebook, or in the bleachers at Sunday afternoon soccer games. Not that these places are fake; rather, let our fellowship be at least as real. This will invariably mean relaxing on style and technique (always interested in controlling our experience) and being open to relationships and worship (always risking knowing and being known). I believe this manner of community cannot be hired out, or manufactured from up front, or mediated through technology, but is only known when the Holy Spirit is welcomed in times of joy and sorrow, when the way of Jesus is sought on Sundays as well as Thursdays, and when a generous Father is worshipped with substance more than form. A congregation moving along this spectrum will find itself less self-conscious about its worship. Inside its walls there will be plenty of air for others to breathe.

Undergirding this, I believe that the day of the passive church board has passed. There was a time when churches could call a pastor and, if they got lucky, she or he would rally the troops, speak well to all ages, and bring in the numbers (and money). But we live in an age that is worn out on singular personalities. I believe that healthy congregations know that they already have a Messiah, and are aware that they don’t need another. Our time in Christendom calls less for boards of management and acquiescence and more for councils of prayerful discernment. If your church is led by an executive and a board of directors, over time you get a non-profit religious corporation. If you are led by believers who are taught by the Word and open to the Lord’s leading, over time you get a community of disciples wanting to worship and engage. This is why I am usually more blessed to hear of a prayerful and conscientious “no” to ordained leadership than I am to know of a hasty and uncommitted “yes.” It is a sign of spiritual growth that it is taking longer to summon newer classes of officers. Knowing what we need from those who serve and lead us, we’ll likely need to get more comfortable with the pain of many “no’s” that help lead us to those who are called to the terrible burden and wonderful demotion of ordination.

I suspect, too, that the day of church staffs is likely passing for many congregations. We Presbyterians have often prided ourselves on good hires, and so there has been a tendency in our churches to see the goal of our shared ministry as the hiring of someone to do ministry. Make a good hire, and our collective work is done; sit back and watch the show unfold. The problem is this: We cannot hire our way out of our calling to raise our children to know and follow the Lord, to worship the triune God with gladness, to love our neighbor, to bless our enemies. If 75% or more of spiritual formation takes place in our homes on the other six days of the week, then church staff are, at best, a means of equipping the body to raise our children in a covenant embrace and to hold each other accountable to the call of discipleship. I predict in my lifetime the demise of full-time clergy and staff in many of the mainline congregations that survive the next 25 years. Much of this has to do with money. But more subtly, as the Christian pilgrimage no longer fits as cohesively into the mainstream American middle class experience, I believe our congregations are being called upon to embrace nothing less than a thoroughly amateur faith--a practiced communion, a growing discipleship. As long as a few of us keep up our giving and the money holds out, we can get some help with that learning from teachers and staff. But when it does run out for our kinds of churches, it just may be that we’ll be in a fresh position to experience the reality of the first-century church in Acts: amazed by every provision, empowered by the Spirit, and dependent upon the triune God in every respect. Although I will surely miss my pension, I look forward to that era and its kingdom fruit.

We used to matter a great deal. Perhaps in being relieved of that burden, we will find afresh that plain old calling of the gospel. As for me, I am learning to live by the closing paragraph of the Confession of 1967:
With an urgency born of this hope the church applies itself to present tasks and strives for a better world. It does not identify limited progress with the kingdom of God on earth, nor does it despair in the face of disappointment and defeat. In steadfast hope the church looks beyond all partial achievement to the final triumph of God.
May it be so for all of us. 

January 24, 2013

Day Counting

Listening as a citizen, I was glad on Monday to be able to watch the inauguration of our President to a second term. Dem or Rep, loathe him or love him, it really is remarkable in the history of the planet’s peoples: the unobstructed transfer or reinstallation of executive power. What a sea of faces on that Mall lawn, including at least four New Wilmington Presbyterians (of which I am aware).

Listening as a Christian, however, I was struck by a line in Mr. Obama’s speech:
America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands ...
Limitless? Granted, it sounds like what a youthful president would say to raise spirits in a melancholy season. But the sentiment reveals much about how we the people want to view ourselves: unending possibilities, money, time, votes, budget lines, debt ceilings, natural resources, public welfare ... you name it. Reacting to a previous generation’s tight hand on the wheel, now we’ve oversteered into a lust for freedom. But it is freedom immaturely defined: liberation from any and all constraint. How did we get to the point where reminding ourselves of our human limitations sounds ... unpatriotic?

It is a lie, our limitlessness. For me. For you. For the country. For Mr. Obama. Indeed, his now-famous last glance, that parting look back over the Mall to see the ocean of citizens: His face said it all. “This is the only time I will see this. I need to take one last gaze.”

There are limits. And contrary to the mythos of unlimited possibilities, there can be beauty in a boundary. I think of the psalmist’s sober prayer: “Lord, teach us to count our days, that we may gain a wise heart.” In the witness of Psalm 90, wisdom begins, not in the hubris of a boundless future, but in the recognition that (to borrow a phrase) our days our quite numbered. Perhaps true freedom begins with the recognition of our finitude, our limited time. Braced by the promises of a boundless God, we find the grace and courage to make the most of each precious day. Woe to the person, woe to the nation, that imagines it is the one special exception to life’s earthbound limits. For now, at least, only one among us has shed that limitation. We live and die in his risen name.

My best guess is that I myself have about 10,000 days left, more or less. That’s assuming God remains generous and that the Lipitor works. How about you?

January 2, 2013

Confident of This

Happy new year. I trust that the January 1 holiday was a good one for you and yours, and that the pristine calendar on your refrigerator door or the fresh swipe of a screen in your smartphone appointments finds you anticipating a new season, bright with possibility.

Instead of adding to your list of resolutions, if you have them, I offer you for the new year this much-beloved, oft-quoted promise from the epistle of Philippians:

I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. (1:6)

Or, in the words of the winsome paraphrase of scripture that is The Message:

There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears.
And that is my prayer for you, fellow believer, that 2013 will be a year of renewed confidence in the promise-making and promise-keeping of the God three in one. By the presence of the emboldening Holy Spirit, by the promises conveyed in scripture, by the encouragement of the great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1-2), and through that way of praying whereby your spirit is made more open, more receptive, more supple to God’s word and way ... By these good graces, may there be in 2013 “not the slightest doubt in your mind that the God who started great work in you will keep at it” until the end of all that God has undertaken in the world.

Noble as its appears, it just may be that the burden of resolution-making reveals in us a propensity to take on more responsibility for abundant life than we are even intended to carry. Besides, four times out of five, hasty resolutions are a setup for disappointment in ourselves. But we are bound up in a promise-laden gospel, in which the burden of abundance in this life lies at the feet of one who was once raised from our death, whose existence in the now is a token of the Father’s pledge to complete what was commenced. Those who walk in his way, those filled up with his Spirit, they need not resolve to do anything more than be confident in the promise-keeping God of Easter morning.

What good work has God begun in your life?