Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Tapestry of Faith

It continually amazes me…how God weaves lives together…and, how, over time, stories emerge forming this huge tapestry of faith that transcends both time and place.

When I was about 8 years old, I remember going to a worship service where the crucifixion of Christ was related in such a powerful way that it impacted me indelibly.  This was a time long before Power Point presentations or videos.  Without visual enhancement, my childhood pastor, Rev. Rowe, painted a word picture that both moved him to tears (a rarity in my little church) and implanted itself in my heart.

This picture found reinforcement in a language I’ve been drawn to all my life: music.  My dad had a stereophonic high-fidelity sound system (as they used to call them).  One of his prized records was Harry Belafonte’s Live at Carnegie Hall album.  On it was Hall Johnson’s arrangement of the spiritual, Take My Mother Home whose words also paint a picture.
I think I heard Him say, as he was strugglin’ up the hill.
I think I heard Him say, “Take my mother home.”
I think I heard Him say, when they was nailin’ in the nails.
I think I heard Him say, “Take my mother home.”
“Then I’ll die easy. Take my mother home.”
“I’ll die so easy if you take my mother home.”

Those words, Belafonte’s raspy voice, and an emotional pastoral re-telling of the crucifixion touched me…changed me.  Even at the age of 8, I knew I’d come into contact with something timeless and holy.

I tell you that to tell you this.  I received a Facebook message on Good Friday.  It was from a young woman from a church I served years ago when she was a youth.  She wrote to thank me for singing Take My Mother Home at a Good Friday service 10 years ago.  For it was while I sang that song, she, at the age of 12 or 13, experienced the Christ in such a way that she surrendered her life to Him as I sang.  I have been able to follow her life since and I know that her relationship with Christ is the driving passion and priority in her life.

What she doesn’t know is this…how close I came to not singing that song at that service.  It’s a difficult song to sing on the best of days.  Singing it on Good Friday is a test of a singer’s ability to maintain the mechanics of the instrument while singing a very emotional lyric.  Singing it on Good Friday while your own mother is dying from cancer is probably just asking for trouble.  But, that’s what I did…and am thankful I did.

How many opportunities to touch others do we excuse ourselves from with very understandable motives?  What began with a kid listening to a gray haired preacher tear up while relating the crucifixion and to an African-American entertainer sing a spiritual became a thread in a tapestry that included a young Christian political activist 40 years later.  What humbles me…and scares me…is how easily it could not have happened.

What a God we serve.  This God entrusts us with a thread of faith that has the capability of weaving countless lives together in the tapestry revealing a transformed world.  And, every day, each of us has a choice: shall we risk further weaving our lives in community with others, or shall we selfishly and selectively engage our thread in the larger tapestry of faith and thereby weaken and distort its message? 

Monday, April 18, 2011

Given the Choice...

Is it possible that our world still knows better how to deal with a bandit, a murderer, an insurrectionist than it knows what to do with the Prince of Peace?  There is a sense in which an assassin's attempt on the Pope's life is less shocking to our world than the Pope's forgiveness of him.  Is it possible that we would rather deal with raw power that rides on a stallion than with this one who comes on a donkey, with the weapons of love, patience, suffering and peace?  Given the choice, isn't it possible that we would take Barabbas, too?  - from What Will You Do with King Jesus? by James A. Harnish; as quoted in A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God, p. 166.
Given the choice...do you publicly cheer those causes and/or individuals whom some powers have identified as dangerous, inappropriate or revolutionary?

Given the choice...would you invite to an important dinner party one who had already betrayed you?

Given the choice...would you entrust the most important story the world has known to a motley group who had already proven, time and again, to be fickle, thick-headed, doubt-filled, somewhat cowardly and more interested in seating arrangements in glory than earthly mission?

Given the choice...would you choose gruesome suffering played out before your entire community or a hasty, yet private, retreat from principle and identity?

Given the choice...would you choose victimizing the one whom powers you fear have identified as the victim du jour rather than stand against those same powers?

Given the choice...would you forgive the very persons who have sought to destroy or undermine your reputation, your career, or your life?

But...we are given the choice...not just during Holy Week...but each day we're privileged to live.  Does a week go by where we aren't faced with at least one of these choices in one form or another?  In one sense, the events of Holy Week become the soundtrack over which the life and choices of every Christian is projected.

I confess, it is only by the power of the Holy Spirit nurtured by a vital relationship with Christ, that the default setting for my choices are moved from silence to cheering, from exclusion to invitation, from hasty retreats to self-sacrifice, and from grudges to forgiveness.

But, there's one more choice.  Just speaking for myself, it is this choice that makes the others possible.  Given the choice...will you venture out to experience the empty tomb for yourself or cave in to the conventional wisdom that gives death the final word?


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Warning and Inviting

One of the greatest treasures I’ve inherited from my ancestors is the 1878 Hymnal of the Methodist Episcopal Church.  It belonged to my great-grandfather, a circuit rider in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  In it, there are 1,117 hymns (not counting doxologies, responses, and all varieties of “amens”).  Nearly 300 of them were written by Charles Wesley.  By contrast, today’s United Methodist Hymnal has just over 700 hymns, only 51 of which are by Charles Wesley.  To be fair, Wesley wasn’t the only one whose hymns were edited.  About one-half of the hymns in the 1878 hymnal are no longer found in the current one. 

However, this isn’t a short-course in hymnody.  What led me to pull down the 133 year-old hymnal was this recurring nudge I’ve been receiving a lot recently.  The nudge comes in the form of a question that roughly goes like this: “Do we, the United Methodist Church (and, one could include nearly any mainline denomination here) really believe it is of any eternal consequence that we “confess Jesus Christ as [our] Savior, put [our] whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as [our] Lord…”?**  OK, the question may be more of a push than a nudge, but there it is.

So, I was curious and opened up the 1878 hymnal to a section of hymns labeled, “The Sinner – Warning and Inviting.”  Hmm…now, I haven’t attended all of the ReThink Church workshops on the latest welcoming strategies for churches, but I’m pretty sure there isn’t one using both “warning” and “inviting” in the same title.  Within that section is a hymn by Charles Wesley that does not appear in the 1932 hymnal nor its successors.  Its superscription reads, “The voice that wakes the dead,” and its text reads:
Thou Son of God, whose flaming eyes, our inmost thoughts perceive,
Accept the grateful sacrifice which now to thee we give.

We bow before thy gracious throne, and think ourselves sincere:
But show us Lord, is every one thy real worshiper?

Is here a soul that knows thee not, nor feels his need of thee, --
A stranger to the blood which bought his pardon on the tree?

Convince him now of unbelief; his desperate state explain;
And fill his heart with sacred grief, and penitential pain.

Speak with that voice that wakes the dead, and bid the sleeper rise;
And bid his guilty conscience dread the death that never dies.
[this can be sung to “Amazing Grace” or “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” among others]

Wow, no slack being cut there!  No wonder we got rid of it!  If we ever do think or talk about those who don’t know Christ as Savior, we nearly always aim our thoughts and speech out there somewhere…outside the church building.  But, in this hymn, Brother Charles isn’t looking out the church window with concern for all those who aren’t in here with us.  He’s looking up and down each pew and asking us to sing an admission that 1) not all in this service may be Christian; 2) not knowing Christ is a “desperate state;” 3) “grief” and “pain” are part and parcel of coming to Christ; and (here we go) 4) there are eternal consequences in the form of a “death that never dies.” 

Granted, most mainline Christians hope #1 above is true.  We need a steady supply of non-Christians willing to become Christians because as the average member age of the mainlines nears 60, Lord knows we’ll be doing fewer infant baptisms. 

It’s what follows that tends to put us on the defensive.  We avoid talking about the “desperate state” of not being in relationship with Christ because we’re not sure what it is.  As for “grief” and “pain,” judging by the way clergy and laity talk about church life, there seems to be more of that after joining the church than before; think committees, stewardship campaigns, sign-up sheets, charge conferences, etc. 

And then comes #4:  Are there eternal consequences to our choices and, if so, what are they?  Time was, my fellow members in the United Methodist tribe, we sang about it.  Judging by the other hymns in the “Warning and Inviting” section of my old hymnal, we did it on a fairly regular basis.  At what point did we get uncomfortable with this? 

I’m still in my Lenten mode of self-examination and so I think it’s fair to remind ourselves that Someone actually died for us and for our salvation.  That same Someone rose from the grave a few days later.  Perhaps before we fall headlong into Holy Week, warning and inviting are appropriate actions.  May we warn ourselves that to dismiss or gloss over consequences of desperation, pain and grief attended with a life-changing encounter with Christ is to dismiss and gloss over the life, death and Resurrection of Christ himself.  May we invite ourselves to be shaped by the profound grace of the table, the deep love of the cross and the immeasurable hope of the empty tomb.

Pastor Jon

**The quote is from the baptismal/membership vows of the United Methodist Church.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Tell Me That Story

I feel bad every time I do it…but I keep doing it.  I ask a question that frequently makes the eyes of the one to whom I am speaking well up with tears.  It usually happens in a small group discussion or a one-on-one conversation.  But someone will say something that lets me know there is a larger story behind a statement that is offered almost as an aside; not central to whatever else it is they are saying.  The statements I’m talking about sound like…

-          …that’s when I started praying again…
-          …that’s when I lost all my faith in God…
-          …that’s when I stopped worrying about whether God loved me enough…
-          …that’s one of the moments I heard God’s voice say…

When I hear a statement similar to these, I find a way to ask, “Can you tell me that story?”  And, it rarely fails.  Whatever follows that question is usually far more interesting and reveals far more of that person’s faith than whatever story they were relating or concept  they were explaining prior to its asking.

But, I haven’t always asked the question.  For years, I was more interested in ideas, concepts and theories than stories.  Even when someone shared their story, I could quickly identify and analyze the layers of abstract concepts found within it.  And, like all self-aware pastors and counselors, I had a very good excuse as to why abstract theological categories drew more of my attention than the messy, fleshy, non-linear stories that describe our lives: I was trained so to do. 

It’s not just pastors and counselors, though, is it?  There’s a certain comfort zone established by discussing doctrine and categories of orthodoxy instead of entering the details of another’s life story.  The safety found within that comfort zone so easily insulates us from their story.  Without it, I might get sucked into that story as well; I might realize that story establishes a deeper relationship than I’m accustomed to having with others.  No, it’s safer to stay in the realm of the ideas about life and faith rather than stories of life and faith.  Ideas and doctrinal categories rarely make my eyes well up.

When I said earlier that I was trained to do this, you probably thought I was referring to my seminary years.  Well, in a way, yes.  But, I had a good head start handed to me in growing up in a tradition that placed little value on what some called testimonies.  So, we learned to relate to one another’s ideas rather than our stories.

But the blessing of hearing that story from another – the blessing of sharing that story with another – is simply this: a relationship that transcends our ideas.  When someone whose story I know and respect and who knows and respects mine has an idea or doctrine with which I virulently disagree, it is our mutual respect for our stories that allows the relationship to continue.   Imagine a congregation – a local church – a denomination – a Christian community whose differences in ideas about doctrine and orthodoxy are transcended by the deep, rich respect for one another’s stories.  Sure, it takes more time…and boundaries would be less crucial than commonalities.  We’d spend less time looking over other’s shoulders to see who they’re reading and whether or not their ideas suit us.  We’d spend more time looking one another in our tear-filled eyes saying, “Tell me that story…”

Saturday, April 2, 2011

A Wineskin Dilemma

It's happened again.  A colleague with whom I am doing an online study came up with a quote that rocked my world.  It might yours as well.  I forewarn you, however, the longer you think about it, the more it captivates you.  And, though it was written for the church by a church leader, it has applications in every industry today.  Finally, don't think this is going to be rocket science...it states a simple principle that, taken seriously, causes us to plumb the depths of our wisdom.  When I began this blog, I wanted to share some ideas that, like coffee, get me buzzed, activated, maybe, even jittery.  This is one.

It's a quote discovered by my classmate Steven Summers, a United Methodist Pastor in Virginia.  He shares this quote from a collection of essays entitled Ancient Faith, Future Mission (Canterbury Press, 2009).  In an essay by Brian McLaren, there is this interpretation of the stewardship of the "wine" with which we've been entrusted through our use of "wineskins."  Here goes...

“If we believe that the fresh wine of the gospel is ever fresh, then we will realize that every wineskin is destined to serve for a while and then be discarded for the sake of the wine. When the old container grows rigid and inflexible, what are the church leaders to do? They have three options I believe.
1. Wait until it’s too late. Wait until the wineskin ruptures and the wine is lost.
2. Throw out the old wineskin when it’s too early. If we discard the old wineskin before we have a new one in place, ready to receive the wine of the gospel, the wine will be likewise lost.
3. Develop the new wineskin while the old wineskin is still working, so that the wine may be transferred before the old wineskins burst.”
Clearly, the third option is the wisest if we choose to preserve the "wine" of our endeavor - whether it be the church's Good News of Jesus Christ or the fruits of any other human endeavor.  But, it seems so...I don't know...troublesome?

For instance, what if we were to take this approach to energy in our society.  It's clear the petroleum wineskin is declining in its ability to deliver the wine of energy to us.  And, one day, it will be gone entirely.  If we really sought the wisdom of aggressively developing new wineskins before the old one breaks, why are we so largely complacent about alternative forms of energy?  Granted some of this is happening, but the majority of effort seems to be behind wringing the last drop of oil out of that old wineskin before we seriously seek another.

Or, how about our schools.  Maybe the reason the effectiveness of our educational system seems to be dropping isn't a combination poor teachers, poor parenting and culture wars.  Maybe the wineskin that was created during and in the pattern of the industrial revolution is so dated and inflexible as to make it increasingly inefficient to deliver the wine of knowledge in a postmodern, digital, and multi-cultural age.

But, I'm out of my bailiwick.  The Christian church - and let me speak only for my folks, the United Methodist Church - has no room for judging other facets of our society.  In the name of stewardship - which often means following the path of least resistance, which usually means least cost - we have created a culture where "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" is treated as an a priori statement of truth.  To ensure we don't get ourselves in the complex process of developing the next idea before the current one dies a natural death, we have also conveniently created "scapegoats" (a good Biblical tradition) for why current wineskins only appear to be failing.  Sunday School attendance isn't falling, poor parenting and a secularist culture is increasing.

There are so many other examples, but I'd rather not list all of them...too depressing.  But, here's what we - again, may I speak only for United Methodists - tend to do.  We ride that horse (yes, I'm changing metaphors; horse = wineskin) until it drops.  Then, we kick it.  Then, we kick it even harder.  Then, we blame the staff at the stable who obviously are not performing their duties because that horse worked just fine 30 years ago!  And then (we're not done!), we stuff the poor thing, making it look alive and we worship it instead of that which it used to transport.  Which is why, brothers and sisters in the United Methodist Church, in 1984  good UM's sent a bishop death threats when it was merely rumored the committee he chaired was not going to include "Onward, Christian Soldiers" in the new hymnal.

Things die...they age...they become brittle, rigid, inflexible...they become less effective...they leak...(my body is a living testimony to the preceding statement).  Things that worked great yesterday and, maybe, today will one day burst or just drop dead.  But that which they carry/transport is priceless.  So, what are we doing right now, even while the current wineskin/horse is still working to prepare for that day?

There are those who, even now, write the sacred music that will carry the wine of worship music when the  500-year-old hymnody wineskin finally fails...we grumble...we condescendingly dismiss as 'less than'...we grumble some more.  There are those who, even now, are discerning and creating new notions of church and worship that will carry the wine of the Good News when the current notions finally fail...we grumble...we condescendingly dismiss as 'less than'...we grumble some more.  There are those who, even now, are discerning new systems for making disciples of Jesus Christ...you know the rest of the sentence.

I wonder what would happen if a conversation began?  And the conversation probably begins with the difficult statement that the wineskin is not as important as the wine; the horse is not as important as that which it carries/pulls.  If you're part of such a conversation, let me know...don't stop there, let the world. know.