Friday, August 29, 2014

Wrestling With Identity in a Changing World

Below is a reflection I wrote on a sermon at the 2008 GNJ Annual Conference.  I was reading some my my old material and thought I would share this here for continued reflection:

On Saturday Morning of the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference (2008), the guest preacher, Rev. Dr. Janet Forbes preached an eloquent, enjoyable, and thought provoking sermon on the need for the church to adapt to the changing cultural landscape. Describing herself as a "postmodern" she went on to describe postmodernity as the current era in which we live--a response to "modernity" leading to a new era which she estimated would begin around 2020 (she named this era, but I don't recall the name she used).

She showed modernity to be a struggle between conservative and liberal, both of which rested on a core precept of modernity--that right belief is important and truth can be known. Likewise she showed postmodernity to be a cultural phenomenon in which authority is questioned, and truth is obscure and unimportant. In postmodernity, there is much access to knowledge and many claims to truth, but what is important is right actions. (I am sure I am not doing justice to her sermon, but this was the gist of a small portion of the sermon).

The call in the end was for the church to become postmodern in its ways -- a speaking the language of the new culture; a kind of modern (or postmodern?) Pentecost.

As I reflected on the sermon, a few things struck me. The first was that Christianity is ultimately a claim to a particular truth. What would it mean to preach the gospel (a truth-claim) in a postmodern way?  The second was that by the time the church could effectively make such a conversion, we will be into the beginning of the next era and we will be trying to shed our postmodern ways. A final reflection was that projecting postmodernity as a path the church needed to travel runs against the postmodern assertion that there are many claims to truth none of which may be valid. The claim for a need to become postmodern is in itself a truth-claim that could be questioned by a true postmodern.

Often the least desirable moments in church history have been times that we have too closely reflected the cultural moves of the day. We can explain dark and gory depictions of Christianity with the mid-ages. The corruption of church leadership that led to a need for reformation was a time the church too closely resembled the feudal system in Europe. During the early/mid 20th century in America, Christianity became so entwined with American patriotism that it has become difficult for some to distinguish between the two. In short, perhaps the church is at its best when it doesn't worry about adapting to the ebb and flow of the surrounding culture. That isn't to say that the church doesn't engage culture, or that there is no overlap. Only that I don't know that we should be constantly trying to "catch up" only to find ourselves always behind a changing world and increasingly confused about our own identity. 

Perhaps postmoderns are disillusioned by the church's claim to truth in part because we have become cloudy about what that claim is as we have tried to keep up with previous shifts in culture. The enduring 2000 year old story never ceases to be relevant unless we make it irrelevant by devaluing it every time there is a cultural shift.

I'd be interested to hear about your experiences of living the Christian life in constantly shifting culture.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Next Biblical Flood

I watched a video today that really gave me pause. It wasn’t over the top loud or obnoxious considering how the video was original posted. It was about three minutes long and consisted of an open air preacher being asked to stop preaching because he was making people mad or angry. The internet is full of open air preachers making complete fools of themselves with their screaming and shouting, but that doesn’t appear to be the case in this video. No, what gave me pause was he was being asked to stop by another Christian.
The woman asking the preacher to stop preaching does make some really good points. When teaching or preaching openly we as Christians should be mindful how we are affecting those around us. We don’t always need to start a riot to be effective in spreading the good news. If it were the case that this preacher were shouting and screaming fire and brimstone there wouldn’t be a question, we cannot do that. However, the only person stirring up any commotion was the woman.

Jesus calls upon us to be points of light in a dark world. While demonstrating our love for God by how we live is a good start, there is nothing wrong with responsibly sharing the good news openly. In fact Mark 16:15 states we should proclaim the good news to all of creation.

Wakening a heart that is suffering from spiritual rigamortis will cause some discomfort or even occasional confrontation; does that mean we should just be silent? The crowds Jesus preached to rejected his message time and time again.  If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. John 15:18.
While we should not ride into town on our white horses throwing bibles and inciting riots with the good news; watering down the Gospel as to spare peoples’ feelings only makes us wishy, washy Christians.  


Monday, August 18, 2014

Wrestling with Scripture: Shut Up, Ladies!

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 1 Corinthians 14:34 NIV

There are some things in scripture that bother me. The above is one of them.

Some feminists label St. Paul as a woman hater. I don't think that is necessarily true, but his writings have been used for millenia to keep women in a secondary position in the church. Even today many churches will not permit women in the pulpit because of St. Paul's directive.

And this isn't just an isolated instruction. Paul repeats it in 1 Timothy 2:10-12.

So what's up with that? Obviously the United Methodist Church doesn't follow that specific instruction, since we allow women pastors. One of our most beloved pastors in recent years was a woman.

There are several possible reasons that have been presented by various commentators and writers.

1. We must look at scripture in context. That scripture was written to a specific group of people in a specific time in a specific situation. It may not have been meant to apply to everyone everywhere forever.

2. The scripture may not even be original words of St. Paul. There are sources that make the case that those words were added later.

3. The scripture might even have been mis-translated. The original Greek word used, in that particular context meant "wife" rather than "woman" and again, may not have been meant to apply to all.

The above are possibilities, but the main reason we, and many other churches, permit ordination of women is because we believe that particular scripture is superseded by other scriptures. St. Paul himself stated that in Christ, "There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Galatians 3:28 NIV. (Emphasis added.)

Even the Old Testament supports equality of women. When God created human beings, Genesis 1:27 tells us, "God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them." (Emphasis added.)

God intended every single one of us to pray and praise and even preach, using our gifts to God's glory.

I can live with that.

If you're interested in a more in-depth discussion of this topic, click here for a specific United Methodist article. You can also Google it for a myriad of other comments.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Practicing the Sport of Christian Spirituality

As I watch my daughter learning more about the game of soccer, and the nature of games generally; it occurs to me just how many basic things that seem obvious must actually be learned.  For instance small goals and big goals.  The ultimate goal is to win the game.  To so so, you must score goals, and defend your opponent from scoring goals.  Oh yeah--there are opponents, who will try to take the ball away from you--not because they don't like you, but because it is the nature of the game.  now--most of the time you are not actually scoring goals, you have to get in position to be able to score goals, so you must learn to pass--not just anywhere, there are good passes and less good passes--ultimately you must be moving toward your goal, etc.

I like that she is learning soccer, not because I think it is vitally important that she learn soccer.  Rather I love what I anticipate she will learn of competition, goal setting, success, failure, team building and friendship. These permeate all aspects of life, including our Christian life.

GOALS:  For what purpose am I on a spiritual journey?  What do I hope to get out of attending worship, reading scripture, singing hymns, having conversations about God, serving in missions, etc.  I'm not sure many of us ask this question, and we should.  If I invite someone to church-life and they ask, "Why?" what will I say?  To become a better person?  For self-fulfillment?  To find peace?

COMPETITION:  Who or What are my opponents keeping me from the goal?  Often competition can become an excuse--"Katie, get the ball!"  "But if I do, they will try to take it away from me!"  But as we grow, we learn to strive to overcome competition, not to submit to it.

TEAMMATES:  Who are my teammates, and how I am I helping them, and they helping me--not just to get along with one another but to advance toward the goal?

PROGRESS:  How do I measure progress along the way?

If we want to truly be on a journey and not stagnant in our faith, we need to continuously spend time on these questions. When you attend worship, bible study, etc--do you expect and are you looking for moments of life-transformation?  Are we ready to recognize that there may be competition for our hearts, minds, and spirit?  Are we learning to support one another as teammates to achieve the same goal?

I have become convinced that unless we understand the ongoing need for focused growth as Christians, our spirituality flounders and we struggle to understand the purpose of living the Christian life.  I encourage you to name your competitors, and establish strategies to overcome them; stay focused on the goal of life transformation, connection to God, and true love of God and neighbors.  And learn to rely on your teammates who share the same goal.  Let us move forward in our spiritual journey.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Seeking Transformation

A few years ago I worked with a church member who was considering the nature of the church business.  He would say things like, "Really it is a business, isn't it?"  His point was that there is some number crunching.  There is a cost to doing business and there is a need for income to meet that cost.

His point is made more pointedly by the reality that many pastors, myself included, look to business leadership concepts and books on organizational leadership for ideas on how to keep an organization (the church in our case) moving forward. In many ways this is important work, and I value much of what I have learned from such reading.  But there is a pitfall into the church just becoming another business.  For me, the very idea of the church being just another business causes the taste of burnout (Thanks Denise for you post on Burnout) to rise like acid re-flux.
I've been spending some time recalling the purpose of ministry in the church recently.  It isn't a new concept, but I for one need occasional reminders:

Lives being transformed is at the core of what we do.

This is why I went into ministry.  Not only to be a part of lives being transformed, but because my own life continues to be in need of transformation.  The desire for our own transformation and the transformation of our neighbors and  the world around us gives purpose and shape to what we do.

Stephen Foul, in Engaging Scripture, identifies the acknowledgement of a need for transformation as key in being able to read scripture properly.  
If Christians are to read and embody scripture in ways that result in loves lived faithfully before God, they will need to recognize themselves as sinners.  Moreover, they will need to train and form new members so that they, too, can identify themselves in this way.  
 To allow the concept of sinfulness to shape our reading of scripture and Christian experience feels very old-hat; but it is something that is easily forgotten and even rejected as archaic.  But we cannot expect transformation if we do not understand our need for change (trans) or being formed (formation).  We will soon be inviting members of St. Paul's to share stories of transformation in your own life--how is God moving in your life?  What kinds of changes have happened or are happening that are making your more Christ-like, more faithful to God's call on your life, more in tune with your relationship with God?

Monday, August 4, 2014

All Burned Out

“Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest." Matthew 11:28 CEB.

Burnout: Long-term exhaustion and diminished interest in work or a particular activity. Thought to be caused by stress.

I've had a few times in my life I've suffered from burnout. Here's a recent example from our church's Family Promise ministry. If you aren't familiar with this program, various churches host homeless families overnight in their buildings for a week at a time. We do this four times a year, providing dinner, social time, beds and bedding, and transportation to and from their Day Center.

I used to always help by sleeping overnight at the church with our Family Promise guests. I didn't sleep very well, and was always tired the next day, but hey, it was just one night.

One Family Promise week there weren't enough women overnighters, so I took a second night... in a row. I was so exhausted by the end of that week that I felt down, depressed, withdrawn. I didn't think I wanted to do that anymore. Ever. A classic case of burnout.

A couple months later the next Family Promise week came, and I didn't sign up at all. To do anything. Not provide food, drive the van, spend a fellowship evening, and especially not sleep over. I felt a little guilty, but I just couldn't do it. So I skipped that entire week.

I prayed for God to help me overcome my burnout, and God came through. I was burdened, and as Jesus promised, he gave me rest. After that one skipped session, I went back to helping out with Family Promise, sometimes sleeping over, sometimes helping in another way. All it took was a short break and, of course, plenty of prayer.

This is a very simple example, but I think many of us have occasional episodes of burnout, especially with church activities where we throw our all into it for the Lord. But if we do suffer from burnout, we don't need to quit our activities altogether. Just a break can be enough to get us back on track. At least it was for me. Or maybe switching our efforts from one activity to a different one. Sometimes a change is all it takes.

Have you ever suffered from burnout? How did you handle it? What scripture helped?

Friday, August 1, 2014

Christian Practices: Duty or Gift?

I was at one time extremely active in Boy Scouts.  I began working as a camp counselor the summer I turned 15, and I continued that work in one way or another until I left Indiana to go to seminary.  My last year as a camp counselor, I was the Camp Chaplain.  It is safe to say that Boy Scouts was an important part of my experiencing God's call to ministry.

My job as the chaplain was to help resource kids of all backgrounds to learn how to live out their oath "On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty, to God and my Country..."

In many ways the Boy Scouts of America is a more "moral" institution than Christianity.

Before I am misunderstood--know that this is not necessarily a compliment.

I find that many Christians are under the mistaken impression that we have a certain "duty to God."  The classic image of a boy scout helping an elderly lady cross the street is a picture of doing a good deed. This is basic ethical morality--there are good things we can do and bad things, we ought to choose the good and avoid the bad as much as possible.

It is with this thinking that many of us approach the Christian life:  If I go to church, help at the food bank, serve homeless families at Family Promise, give my tithe, etc., I am doing my duty to God.  A core problem with this is that these things that are "duties" are no longer gifts, but obligations that hang over us.  Instead of giving us life, such obligations such life away.  "I would go to church, but I am just too tired, too busy, too sad, too angry, etc."  When we consider prayer-life as a moral obligation (our duty to God), we tend to think thoughts like, "I have so much to do, I just can't get in my prayer-time."

Martin Luther, who saw the emphasis of Grace throughout scripture, is attributed with having said, "I have so much to do that if I didn't spend at least three hours a day in prayer I would never get it all done."  In Christ, we are not called to fulfill obligations--we are given the gift and power of a relationship with God.  I do not encourage the people I serve to worship regularly, and commit to serve in ministry because it is necessary for them to be complete in fulfilling their Christian duty--rather it is a gift into which all of us are invited.  How do you experience Christian practices to be grace instead of a duty?