Thursday, November 29, 2007

M-I-Z ... Z-O-U

Here's a picture taken at last Saturday's Missouri / Kansas game.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Keeping Christ(mas) out of Advent?

Does anybody truly think that Christ can be “taken out of Christmas”? I only ask because the annual “Keep Christ in Christmas” talk has begun – there was a letter to the editor a week ago, and a couple of email forwards in the last couple of days. They speak as if the actions of a retailer or of a government will somehow prevent Jesus from being born this year.

If I might be allowed to paraphrase something I read somewhere: “O ye of little faith.”

I mean, for real, how weak does your faith have to be in order for it to be threatened by a Mega-Mart employee policy? How fragile are your beliefs when some random town council calling a decoration a “Holiday Tree” causes a faith crisis? Just how shallow is your relationship with God when your kid’s school has a “Winter Concert” and it makes you cringe at the disgusting political correctness that is corrupting Christianity? (Writing with a tongue-in-cheek tone of voice, you understand.)
Okay, okay – I’m sorry. Where is that “grace-filled dialogue” that I’m supposed to be all about? I guess I needed to rant that little bit out of my system, though, in order to ask the question honestly once again. Does anybody really think that Christ can be taken out of Christmas?
To be sure, the “liturgical purist” Christian will not even celebrate Christmas until December 25th, when the season begins. This celebration would continue until January 6th, when Christmas actually ends. Presently we are celebrating Advent, the anticipation of Christmas. So our decorations and carols are really “Advent” decorations. Our greetings to one another should technically be “Happy Advent” rather than “Merry Christmas.” The local “Christmas” radio station would maintain their regular formatting except during the actual season, rather than start the Christmas music at Halloween and end at midnight on December 26th, like they do now.
So wouldn’t a true “Keep Christ in Christmas” attitude be one that avoids any mention of mangers, shepherds, magi, and multitudes of the heavenly host praising God in the field until the season actually starts? During the weeks leading up to the season, instead of little plastic baby Jesus in the front yard, there would be little displays of Isaiah laying into the house of Jacob, reminding them of God’s cosmic vision of peace on earth. Or maybe a light-up John the Baptist, complete with flashing camel hair, pointing at us with a crazy, angry expression on his face, telling us to prepare the way of the Lord. Instead of a wreath on the door, we could hang up decorative chaff burning with unquenchable fire.
The point I’m trying to make is that neither the Mega-Mart nor the local city council nor the administration of the elementary school is trying to remove Christ from Christmas, nor could they ever hope to succeed even so. They’re just trying to be what they are. Instead of getting angry at them this Advent, let’s channel that energy on a bit of self-reflection as the Church. How can we more intentionally prepare ourselves during these next four weeks so that the birth of Jesus might be all the more wonderful, mysterious, and meaningful this year?
Keeping Christ in Christmas means waiting - with patience and expectancy - for Christ's arrival. Maybe the problem is we just don't like to wait for stuff. "I want my Jesus born right this instant!" Sorry, that's not how it works. And so, we wait. Adventus - Parousia - Coming. As in, not quite here yet, but any minute now! And something about waiting patiently with expectancy and hope speaks to what faith is really all about. Wait for it.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Giving Permission

Here's one of my favorite parts of Bishop Schnase's book:

First, congregations should give ready permission to those who have the energy for and interest in new initiatives. They ought to reduce the number of hurdles, the layers of organizational reporting and approval seeking, especially by persons who have no particular interest in volunteering themselves. Leadership, vision, planning, soliciting help, and participation must come from those who feel called and eager. Cultivating a permission-giving, rather than an approval-seeking, environment in a congregation has huge implications not just for the planning of missions but for beginning new Bible studies, support groups, and other ministries.

(Emphasis added)

How is the congregation where you hang out a permission-giving rather than an approval-seeking environment? I'm running a poll to that effect - vote today!

We are trying here in Northtown to become more permission-giving, but not everybody agrees as to what exactly that means, especially when it comes to communication and accountability. I sometimes find myself speaking what seems almost like a completely different lanugage than some in the congregation. I want to convey the idea that a lot of what happens in our congregation may not be known by everyone, and that's okay. As long as what is happening is accountable to the mission of the congregation, it's all good. That's a hard thing to understand for some people.

When a small group of a half a dozen people wants to do some ministry project, and they put it together, organize it, implement it, and generally make it happen, we want to celebrate it and give God thanks for the energy and initiative this little team has taken on behalf of Christ. What we don't want to do is add so many layers of reporting and approval that it bogs the whole thing down and it loses effectiveness, fruitfulness, and impetus.

And it may require that I admit I don't know exactly what's going on, too! I have often heard myself answering inquiries with, "I don't know" when someone asks, "Hey, what are So-and-So doing with the This-and-That?"

"I don't know," I'll say, "But I know So-and-So, and I trust that whatever they're doing, it's going to be pretty cool!" The key, as with so many things, is the development of loving, grace-filled, trusting relationships among fellow disciples. Minus the development of those relationships, you really can't do much.

But when we are truly seeking a relationship grounded in the love and grace of Jesus Christ, when we live in that love and grow closer to one another and to God all the time, when we put aside our need to know and control what's going on and release ourselvews from that paralyzing tendency, God will truly amaze you at what might just happen.

So I'm interested - vote in my little poll and then leave a comment about your faith community. How is your spiritual home a "permission-givining" congregation?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Lectionary Thoughts: Right Now

I am caught by the words of Haggai in this week’s lectionary reading. “Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now?” (1:3)

Did you ever feel like asking that question to the church today? I know I have, every time somebody wistfully pines for the glory days when everybody went to church and the world was so much better than it is now and no one ever did anything wrong and the pews were full every Sunday and the budgets were being met every year without any problem and all families were functional and so forth. It is an understandable nostalgia, and not at all unique to this present time. Everyone has their own “good old days.”

And so it is a prophetic facet of the pastoral calling to ask the church, “How does it look to you now?” Not to discount the past – far from it! It is actually a way to honor the past, by building upon what has happened in order to continue the project. It starts with understanding that all we do is foundation work, that the project will only be completed in the fullness of time, God’s time, the kairos time of eternity. And as foundation work, there are a couple of ways we could go.

We can either step back and congratulate ourselves, “What a nifty foundation we have built,” or we can continue the construction work toward finishing the house.

Haggai wrote, “The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts,” and I believe that with all my heart. Like Dan Kimball writes in The Emerging Church, it is never time to just rest on our accomplishments and think we have found the way to do things. That’s why the emerging church is always emerging. Critics of the emerging movement miss the point when they snidely ask, “Okay, so it’s emerging. But when will it be emerged?”

That’s just it – as long as the world is what it is, the church will always be emerging. So the question will always be, “How does it look to you now?” Building on the past and allowing God to be in charge of the future, it is an act of faith to be mindful of the present and honestly answer this important question.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Other Way 'Round?

If to quote Bishop Robert Schnase to someone else is "to Schnase," then being quoted by Bishop Schnase would be what?

Maybe "inverse-Schnase"? "Retro-Schnase"?

Check out who Bishop Schnase is quoting these days on his blog - click here.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Nightmare Before Christmas - PART 2: My Call to Ministry

This is all going to tie into my previous post, I hope. So you may want to read it first.

I was made aware of my calling into ministry while I was working as a choir director in Galesburg, Illinois, at First Presbyterian Church. If Jack is the King of Halloween, I was the king of choral music – 5 choirs, 4 bell choirs, thriving music ministry, singing in a professional chamber choir called the Nova Singers, directing the Galesburg Community Chorus, performing in two different Community Theater groups, and directing shows for one of them. If it was musical in Galesburg, I was involved with it somehow, it seemed.

My calling featured no burning bush moment, just a slowly growing awareness that blossomed when two girls, Melissa and Melissa (who we called Bucky and Missy B in order to distinguish), asked me one week what my favorite hymn was. “Here I Am, Lord,” I replied. The next week, they stopped me just outside my office and said they had something for me, then proceeded to sing for me the entire hymn, which they had been practicing all week. Then I knew that there was more to ministry for me than just music. I loved (still love) music, but knew the longing that Jack sings about.

So I wandered the wilderness for a while, like Jack, and came not to Christmas Town but to the sacraments. It was during a baptism, in fact, when God spoke most clearly to me. Kim and Dave had tried so hard to have a baby, and after months of treatments and pills, they finally were able to give birth. As I was watching the baptism from my choir director perch, I thought, “Wow, this child is so precious, so wanted. It would be so cool to be a part of this baptism.” And a voice said, as clearly as anything, “You can be.” Just like that, I knew the way for me. I found the hidden door to my own “Christmas Town.”

For the next four years, I pretty much lived in Christmas Town. As I dug into seminary, I gradually uncovered and assembled bits and pieces of the Gospel that started to put together a picture that filled me with energy, hope, and wonder. I explored the Bible and the tradition asking, “What’s this?” every time something new was illuminated. A picture of God’s reign on earth was forming in my mind that was grounded in grace, love, liberation, justice, and peace, and I couldn’t wait to get “back out there” and start sharing that vision with the world.

Jack tried to bring Christmas to Halloween Town; I tried to bring God’s reign to the world. And like Jack was frustrated when he found he could not explain Christmas Town so that everyone would see it as clearly as he did, so do I at times despair because I cannot find the words or the whatever to communicate the reign of God effectively so that everyone sees it like I do. Please understand that I am not claiming to have exclusive rights to the full truth of the reign of God, but rather that I have my perception of it, the particular little glimpse God has given me. My little glimpse shows that God loves everybody without condition and desires a deep, abiding, honest relationship with us so much that it actually hurts.

And so, thanks to my bumbling inarticulations, sometimes I find I must compromise my vision. Sometimes I give in a little bit here and there, because frankly sometimes it simply exhausts me and I have no more strength to give to it. Sometimes the standards, norms, and expectations of the world creep into my articulation of the reign of God, and the end result is something odd, unsettling, not the world and not heaven, but something altogether different and somehow just wrong. The wreaths seem to come to life and attack people, somehow.

When that happened to Jack, he let go. He repented, “What have I done?” And he set about to make things right, not by any action of his own, but by setting Santa Claus free so that Santa could make it all better again. AHA! Jack’s repentance led him to the point of release; he deeply understood that it wasn’t up to him to bring Christmas to the people of Halloween Town. But he knew who it was up to – Santa!

I am so thankful for my covenant group, where I often hear my dear friends tell me that it is simply not up to me to bring the reign of God to life for the world. It is not up to me to right every social wrong, single-handedly reinvigorate the mainline church, and care for every child in the foster care system. Sometimes they have to cuss at me so that I’ll hear it. It is not up to me to save the world; it is up to me to remember who it is up to, and refer to that one. (p.s. - It's God.)

After Santa does his thing, all is back to normal. Christmas is being handled by the residents of Christmas Town again, and the folks in Halloween Town are up to their old tricks. But something has changed, something so small as to almost be insignificant – it is snowing in Halloween Town. “What’s this?” they ask. “Must be a Christmas thing,”comes the reply. I don’t know if it would have snowed if it were not for Jack. He did something; he changed something – small, negligible perhaps – but something changed.

I guess that’s what I hope for, too. Not that I’ll save the world, but that what I do will make at least a little tiny bit of difference for someone, somewhere. That I might be a part of changing something, making things better than they are.

I realize how narcissistic this post has been; sorry. I’ve been very internal lately, spending a lot of time with myself and trying to figure things out. I wonder, though if any of this resonates with any of you reading this. Have you ever been grasped by a vision so wonderful that you couldn’t wait to share it with the world, only to find the world has other ideas? Have you ever compromised your ideals because you were just too exhausted? Have you ever caught yourself taking it all on yourself, forgetting that saving the world is simply not up to you?

I’m thinking this has some real resonance, and if you have bothered to read this far, I’d love to hear from you. I hope you’ll comment!