Tuesday, November 8, 2011

...In My Heart...

This video has crossed my computer desktop more than once recently and I’m just enough of a mystic to think that God may be trying to get my attention.  It’s part of a presentation Francis Chan gave at the RightNow Pastors Conference.  Here it is…

I love the last analogy about telling your child to clean their room.  How true!  We take Jesus’ words.  We parse them in Greek, then in English, in an effort to “mine the richness” as one professor used to tell us.  But in doing so, don’t we also often find ways to ‘spiritualize’ the teaching rather than ‘physicalize’ (new word there, I think) it?  We ponder, we meditate, we question, we delve, and when we’re sure we’ve cogitated the life out of it, we move on to more of Jesus’ words and begin again. 

We often sing, “Lord, I want to be a Christian….in my heart.”  However, the unsung expectation held by many seems to be something like this: “Lord, I want to keep my Christianity…in my heart.”  Instead of the seat of motivation, the heart has become a sealed receptacle of all things Christian for many of us.  I include myself, a clergyperson, because who else can better spiritualize the Gospel than one trained in parsing Greek/Hebrew, de-contextualizing, de-mythologizing, etc.?

Moving it from heart to mouth, or hands, or feet is risky business.  Proof?  It is so risky, so fear-instilling, to let this Jesus move from my heart to my mouth that, according to Doug Anderson, executive director of the Bishop Rueben Job Center for Leadership Development, the average United Methodist member invites only one person to worship every 38 years (http://www.umportal.org/article.asp?id=5058).  To be fair, I’ve seen others say the figure is once every 15-17 years.  Even so, we either are too afraid we’ll appear  pushy or we don’t really believe what we say we believe about the possibility of a transformed life, transformed community or transformed world.  In other words, what really is at stake when we fail to let Jesus out of our heart to become actual words and actions? 

Though there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the seeming disinterest that the majority of the population under the age of 40 has in organized religion, it’s definitely not a disinterest in things related to faith or spirituality.  Far from it.  I’ve encountered many in that age category who are desperately seeking a way to incorporate a spirituality into their daily lives.  However, the post-modern mindset in this seeking process is most often this: Please show me a spirituality that is greater than something to merely think about.  The “middle road,” “I’m just going to think about a world where everyone cleans their room,” forms of spirituality and approaches to being the Body of Christ carry little persuasive power anymore.

Solutions?  The solutions are easier to describe than managing the response they generate in the average mainline church.  We know the litany of solutions: take seriously our membership vows, provide opportunities for real hands-on service, equip all to be able to tell their faith story, reorganize local church structures and infuse new leadership…  This list is barely a beginning, and more complete listings can be found at most church vitality websites.  The secret is learning to respond to and sometimes ignore those for whom this is a stretch and these expectations were not something they “signed up for.”  I know when I feel stretched – and when I’m confronted with something I don’t remember signing up for – it is at those moments when I learn what is actually…in my heart…

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Crunky Questions - Redux

I want to thank you for your crunky prayers which were requested in my October 4 blog in which I shared my concerns for leading some studies that would certainly generate crunky questions (you can find that blog and the definition of ‘crunky’ here).  

Briefly, I was concerned about the questions that might arise in the three small groups I led during our October small group immersion experience.  The studies were Christian Atheist (Craig Groeschel), The Reason for God (Timothy Keller), and Revelation – Unraveling God’s Message of Hope (Ben Witherington).  Some of the topics covered in one or more of these studies included: theodicy (the problem of evil), our relationship with money, heaven, hell, Christianity’s relationship with other world religions, hypocrisy, and the parousia (second advent of Christ), to name a few.  To anyone who’s ever led a small group or Sunday School class, lay or clergy, this list sounds like a minefield of questions capable of blowing up with little warning.

Turns out, it wasn’t a minefield at all…just a mine.  From this mine I have been gathering valuable ore in the form of observations concerning believers today.  Here are a few…

·         Folks new to the Christian faith as well as those who have sat in our pews for decades are yearning for a place where it is safe to ask questions.  Out of some of these conversations came the painful realization that questions have remained unasked for years because it was either directly or indirectly communicated that such questions revealed a lack of faith…or, salvation.
·         Many people are yearning for an informed, holistic study of scripture that is done in community.  Some have experienced real pain and borderline abuse generated by those whose individual, subjective view of scripture is wielded like a club.  
·         People resent having their thinking done for them by any one person or institution.  Folks want to be informed, equipped and then trusted to discern their faithful responses to the questions of the day.  It’s like those math textbooks we had in high school where the answers to the odd numbered problems were found in the back.  The reason all the answers weren’t given was to ensure the student was equipped and informed as to discern the answer on their own.  Too many experience church as a place where the moral/ethical/theological answers are all predetermined and the average person cannot be trusted to work out the problem on their own.
·         There are many people in our churches who highly desire and value opportunities to actually enact their Christian faith on a daily basis.  Living in a day where schedules are already over-booked, belonging to a church for purely social reasons is senseless especially those who are under 45 and newer to the faith.  In other words, the phrase ‘nominal Christian’ is an oxymoron to such folks.

  • Seekers and those new to the faith are first frustrated and then discouraged by long-time Christians and church members who openly confess an ignorance of the basics of the Christian faith, Scripture, and liturgical traditions as if they were 'extra-curricular' to the membership experience. 

For most of you, there may be nothing new in this brief listing.  I, like many clergy, have read about these dynamics as the harbingers of the post-modern age.  But, to see them actually lived out in a context free enough to allow such post-modern questions, behaviors and expectations has been powerful to me. 

And, my mom may have been wrong.  It’s not always impolite to answer a question with a question.  To answer some questions too soon kills the inquisitive nature of our minds that leads us to deeper faith.  To keep the question alive with another question  is to venture deeper into the mine where the really precious ideas and insights can be found.

Peace, Jon