Monday, March 30, 2009

The Last Stop of the Day


It was the last stop of a long afternoon.

We had been out since just after lunch, bringing communion to people unable to get out to attend worship. It had been a long few hours, having driven all over town and had conversations with nine other people in four different places. Then setting up, praying the Great Thanksgiving, and serving little bites of bread and sips of grape juice to the small gatherings.

It doesn't sound like much, but it is tiring. And so now, at the last stop of the afternoon, I was kind of zoning out. I was ready to be done. I mechanically checked the supplies, seeing that we had enough bread and juice in the portable communion set.

It was a little house and an elderly couple lived there. He is quite hard of hearing and so we had to yell our greetings in his direction. She is not in the best of health and deals with almost contstant pain, but has to take care of him because he is just as bad as her, and he is starting to slip a bit mentally.

She can't leave him alone for very long at a time. Like to go to church or something.

We sat in an uncomfortably warm living room, talking with her and yelling at him, and discussed the weather and "The Shack" and flowers and how she used to read books to school children. And when enough time had passed, I got out the bread, poured juice into the little plastic cups, and turned to the Great Thanksgiving in my pocket book of worship.

"Shall we pray?" I asked.

And they nodded.

I read the prayer for the fifth time that afternoon, and didn't stumble over any words. I even emoted.

At the "Amen," I picked up the tiny plate with pieces of diced bread stacked on it, stood up and took a couple of steps over to where she was sitting. Holding out the bread, I looked into her face. Before I could say, "The body of Christ..." - my voice caught in my throat.

She was crying.

Her cheeks were wet, and tears filled her eyes. Her chin was even quivering just a little. She took the bread gently with her arthritis shaped hands. "The body of Christ is for you," I whispered.

What had happened? For me, it was the fifth Great Thanksgiving of the day; I was tired; it was diced bread and juice, some of which I had just spilled all over the back seat of the car trying to refill that silly little bottle; it was rote; it was me doing my job.

For her, it was Holy Communion.

God showed up in spite of me. For a moment there, she was connected to her church again, connected to God through the sacrament in a real and powerful way. For just a moment there, she wasn't worrying about her nearly deaf husband who was starting down the path to dementia. For a moment there, her chronic pain was not invading every waking thought.

I almost missed it. I don't think I've ever been more keenly aware of my role as a vessel of God's grace as I was upon realizing that moment. Melt me - Mold me - Fill me - Use me. God didn't even move me aside; God just went on ahead as if I wasn't there at all. It seems to me that a whole lot of ministry is just showing up. God does most of it, to tell the truth.

It happened at the last stop of the day.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Economy, Humility, and Another Fine Mess


How does humility play in our world today? I mean, it’s certainly not the latest fad or anything. In fact, it feels like those who have humbled themselves and thought of others first and been servants of others are actually suffering quite a bit these days – losing jobs, losing retirement funds, caught in bad mortgages – its all under the umbrella of “the economy.”

While unfathomable greed has led a relatively few unscrupulous people to do things for their own sakes that impact others in horrible ways without a second thought, just about everyone else has just been trying to live life, make a living, feed a family, enjoy a bit of comfort, simply be who they are. I’m not being na├»ve about this, though. I get it; a lot of people had to make a lot of bad decisions in order to land our economy in the state it is in now.

But neither am I going to over-simplify things by thinking that people finding themselves in financial trouble have only themselves to blame for it. The truth is, 95% of us don’t understand enough about “the economy” to even ask intelligent questions about it. And so, in order to avoid getting stuck in figuring out who is to blame for the situation, the question becomes: What shall we do next?

And in that sense, humility has an enormous role to play. If we take seriously the words of Philippians 2:3, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves,” then the Christian response to this financial crisis must be shaped by service, not judgment.

I know that a lot of people are angry at the people who “got us into this mess.” That’s okay, we can be angry as long as we don’t sin because of it, allowing the anger to fester (Ephesians 4:26). The anger isn’t bad, but if we hold onto it, we get ourselves into trouble. Humility is the very thing that unlocks this anger and allows us to move on.

Erin and I were talking at lunch today, and she mentioned how during the Great Depression people would prepare extra food at dinnertime when they could, anticipating that hungry people might knock on their doors asking for a bite or two. That would never happen today, which is really sad when you think about it. Suspicion and fear would prevent that level of humility and service in most homes.

I’m pretty sure we’re not going to see humility and servanthood from Washington D.C. or Wall Street. Corporate executives are not going to turn suddenly altruistic, putting the needs of others ahead of their own. So that’s up to you and me, average everyday people out here living our lives in the best way we know how.

We have got to help each other through this, without judgment or blame, looking not to our own needs but to the needs of others. At this point, it really doesn’t matter how “they” got into this mess; there is a mess, and so let’s get busy cleaning it up. A bit of humility, a little service, a little self-emptying here and there will go a long, long way toward making things better for everyone.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Morphing Into Servanthood

One of the things a congregation should do is equip people to serve. It appears in the promises of membership, as one of the aspects of faith through which people promise to support the congregation – “…prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness…”

Often when we think of serving, we think of particular actions, like preparing a meal or volunteering in a clothes closet or going on a mission trip. How often do we think about the attitude that underlies these actions? How often do we think about the motivation behind them?

See, not only did Jesus serve, he took the form of a servant (Philippians 2:7). The word “form” is from the Greek word morphe, which is in the English language as the verb “morph,” very common in the superhero/fantasy vernacular. It is used when a character takes on a new identity.

In taking on a servant’s form, Jesus was doing more than going through the motions of serving others. He was taking on the identity of a servant. “Though he was in the ‘form’ of God,” he voided himself of this “form” (2:6) in order to take on another form altogether.

It reminds me of the difference between a politician serving soup in a homeless shelter for the sake of a photo opportunity versus a person whose only thought is to help other people in every single moment. It is about an authentic attitude of servanthood guiding our every action. The acts themselves are manifestations of the attitude.

One of the “General Rules” for Methodists says that they will “continue to evidence their desire of salvation” by “doing good; by being in every kind merciful after their power; as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and as far as possible, to all.” In other words, taking the form of a servant, in humility and selflessness, always regarding the needs of others before one’s own needs.

It's interesting to me how that word also carries a different meaning. Sometimes when you're talking about an object having the "form" of something, you mean that it is shallow. As in someone who claims to be something that they are not, like an "in name only" kind of deal. It is possible to be all form and no content.

I know that the church sometimes does that, kind of pretending to be the church or acting as if it is the church, all the while functioning actually as a social club, or a place of business, or a family chapel. Certainly there are individual Christians that do so, too. As if the "form" of servanthood is a mask one can put on and take off, but isn't any deeper than that.

This meaning of "form" is not the meaning conveyed in Philippians 2, however. Jesus did not just put on a human mask over a divine identity. (This heresy is called docetism, I believe.) Rather, the incarnation is about God truly becoming human, flesh and blood, a really real in your face human being.

Christians serve a Lord who is a Servant - one of the beautiful paradoxes of our faith. As churches equip people to serve, we are striving to live Christlike lives. Regarding others in all we say and do and are means morphing into servanthood, just like Jesus did.

Friday, March 20, 2009

This is our world...

Here's a few snapshots of the world we live in.

The president has a message to Iran, so he posts a video on the White House website.

I don't want to watch the game CBS has on my TV, so I pick a different one from their website and watch it on my computer.

We miss last night's episode of ER because we were at a foster parent training, so we just watch it on Hulu the next day.

There is at least as much buzz about the change in Facebook's homepage as there is about the 9% unemployment rate.

There is great freedom. There is immediacy. There is a sense of profound connection to the world. One can find answers to one's questions. One can discover questions that one did not even know were being asked. Plus, it's just pretty darn enjoyable (to continue a theme from last post).

The "if" clause that precedes it all is access to the technology that makes it available. With the technology comes access to the information. With the information comes empowerment.

So shouldn't one of the things the church does be ensuring access to the technology that empowers people? Laptop giveaways? Free internet cafes made available to the community? Technology classes equipping people to use the tools available?

What say you? Anybody already have any kind of ministry like this happening? Good idea?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The 500th Post - Enjoyment!

This is my 500th Enter the Rainbow post. Click here to read the first.

In January of 2005, when I started this blog, it was still a fairly new thing. It's funny to think of something that's only four years old as being old, but it feels that way. So it goes.

Why blog? What's the point? Why do I do it? Four years, 500 posts - there must be some purpose there, mustn't there?

Well, I'm reading Philip K. Dick's novel "Valis" at the moment and there's a line that really caught my attention toward the beginning of chapter 6. "Fat had no concept of enjoyment; he knew only meaning." ("Fat" is the hero of the book, Horselover Fat.)

So I've been thinking about that a lot, the relationship between enjoyment and meaning. And I think that sometimes in the search for meaning we forget to enjoy. Maybe we're so obsessed about being purpose driven that we forget to simply have a good time.

Another book I'm reading at the moment, called "Simple Church" advocates adopting a simple disciple-making process and then "abandoning" everything else that your church does. The softball team? The Wednesday night knitters? The arthritis excercise class? Really? Where's the fun in that?

I'm not sure I dig the idea that everything you do, individually or as a community, has to fall within the boundaries of a narrowly focused mission. I don't even think everything you do has to actually mean something. That's just exhausting.

And so there is no purpose for my blog. There is no meaning or mission statement or overarching vision.

I just enjoy it. I have for 500 posts, and I'll keep doing it until I don't enjoy it anymore. I hope you enjoy reading it; I really enjoy reading your comments. I enjoy the back-and-forth, hearing a bunch of different ideas. I enjoy seeing my ideas on screen and seeing how they have changed over time. I enjoy writing about the church, about my favorite sports teams, about theology, about my kids, about foster parenting, about social issues, about politics, and about nonsense.

I write this blog because I enjoy it. That's all. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Not Much Zeal?

Okay, yesterday's topic of zeal didn't generate very much ... well ... zeal.

So let's go this direction with the follow up - how many things have you read in your life that contain within references to C.S. Lewis AND Family Guy? I mean, come on - I had Screwtape and Peter Griffin references in the same post! It just doesn't hardly get any better than that.

In the meanwhile, I'd still enjoy reading your responses to the "what are you zealous for" question if you would care to comment.

And if you have a chance, go read this post called "Why do I stay?" by Andy Bartel. Good stuff.


Updated - Here's some zeal, Lama style.

Monday, March 09, 2009

ZEAL

Here's a question. In the attempt to find middle ground so much of the time, have we neglected zeal? Have we become too conciliatory, even complacent?

And then, in a "Screwtape" kind of twist, have we called our complacency good by affirming the importance of grace-filled, respectful dialogue to the detriment of zealous pursuit of God's mission in the world?

I know, I know. Just read the description of my blog in the header above this post and you'll realize that dialogue is important to me. The conversation really does matter, this I believe. I just wonder sometimes, at what price?

In John 2, the scripture for this week, Jesus marches into the Temple and makes a whip with which he scares away the animals being sold for sacrifice. He then overturns the tables of the people exchanging their money for Temple currency with which to buy the animals, now driven away by Jesus's zeal for God's house. Essentially, Jesus is pissed off! And by putting this story at the beginning of his version of the Gospel, John emphasizes that Jesus's entire ministry is motivated by his passion for God, for God's house, for God's people, and for God's way.

There is no respectful, grace-filled dialogue in this story.

See, I think maybe we shouldn't look for middle ground all the time. And furthermore, I think that when we disagree, we can do so with zeal and passion without worrying about violating some unwritten rule about not offending another person. There are times when another person needs to be offended, and I may just be the one to do the offending!

But maybe, just maybe this isn't an either/or proposition. Perhaps we can have respectful, grace-filled AND zealous, passionate dialogue, all at the same time! It is fear that keeps us from this pursuit. We are afraid of losing favor by expressing our zeal to it utmost. At our core, most of us just want people to like us. And there's really nothing wrong with that.

And what's more, we are afraid of the attacks that may come. Blogging has taught me a lot about the difference between expressing an opinion with zeal and being a jerk. One of the biggest issues with blogging is the freedom allowed by anonymity, which allows many people to disguise simple jerkiness with a veil of zeal. But it is a thin veil indeed, and very easy to penetrate.

But if we zealously confront that which is counter to God's mission in the world with righteous energy and restlessness for what is right, we can do so without being a jerk about it. Public figures who are trying to spout off sound-byte worthy phrases do not have zeal, they are being jerks. But, in another twist that "dear Wormwood" ought to try some time, the jerks plead zeal for their cause as an excuse for their atrocious behavior, making admirers and millions of dollars along the way.

So I would really like to reclaim zeal as a good thing, and especially within the context of respectful, grace-filled dialogue. Enough with the artificial middle ground; enough with being a jerk in zealous clothing. Let's really be "Christlike" again and show a bit of zeal for what really matters to God.

So I'll ask you - What are you zealous for? What fires you up? What really grinds your gears (and not in a Peter Griffin kind of way, but really)?

For what would you be willing to make a metaphorical whip of cords and drive some metaphorical sheep out of the metaphorical Temple?

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Crowds, Disciples, and Pharisees, Oh My!


In the Gospels, there are groups of people who seem to represent different facets of Jesus’ ministry. I resist categorization, and try to avoid labeling people. But for the sake of conversation, here are a few.

LABELS:
There are “crowds.” The crowd is the generic. There’s nothing particularly bad or particularly good about the crowd. Jesus teaches the crowds, and feeds them. The crowds come to see healing miracles. The crowd is kind of the nameless backdrop for the action.

From the crowd come “disciples.” Men and women who choose to follow Jesus step out of the crowd and become students and adherents of his teachings. Disciples pattern their lives after Jesus’ life. Jesus has special relationships with them, and many of them are named. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus come to mind, for example.

From the disciples Jesus calls the 12 “apostles.” The twelve have a particular mission in Jesus’ ministry, and he appoints them to various tasks. In some cases they are imbued with divine power for miraculous healing. They comprise a kind of “inner circle” of disciples, and their names are listed specifically.

Two other groups are present throughout the story, one of which is a target of Jesus’ anger, and one of which evokes particular compassion.

The “scribes and Pharisees” are the purveyors of hypocrisy and corruption, and incur Jesus’ condemnation on several occasions. They are the powerful minority in Jerusalem, who unjustly control both religious and civil life for all the people. They are propped up by the might of the Roman Empire, which has granted them limited temporal control of the people to the local authorities, until such time as their armies are needed.

And then there are the “outcasts,” the people that no one else cares about. They are people whom the “crowd” shuns, people at the outer margins of the social structure. It seems as though Jesus has a particular compassion for this group of people, often reaching out to an outcast in spite of the criticism it frequently invokes. Healing people with leprosy, sharing a meal with “tax collectors and sinners,” or defending a woman caught in adultery all illuminate Jesus’ special compassion for outcasts.

MOVEMENT:
Sometimes people move from group to group, and most often this movement is from a group to become a “disciple” – an outcast named Mary Magdalene, a Pharisee named Jairus. Maybe a crowd member even becomes an apostle – like Bartholomew (what did he ever do?). Sometimes even an outcast becomes an apostle, like Matthew the tax collector. But rarely does anyone move the other direction. It might be argued that Judas was the noteworthy exception.

The movement we witness most of the time then, is from “farther away from Jesus” in the direction of “closer to Jesus.”

If we think about evangelism as “something that our lives, as disciple of Jesus Christ, exude as a way of being vehicles of God's love-filled grace” (Adam Gordon), then the goal of evangelism must be people moving closer to Jesus. How much of what the church does is effectively working toward that goal? What are we sharing with the “crowd” that will help us move closer to Jesus? How are we in ministry with the “outcasts” so that justice and mercy will come to bear? What are we saying to the “scribes and Pharisees” of our day that will challenge and illuminate God’s will?

IT’S ME, O LORD:
Of course, the question that precedes ALL of those is, “How am I myself moving ever closer to Jesus?” It’s all too easy to label someone as an “outcast” and think that we privileged Christians need to get her moving closer to Jesus. To tell the truth, there have been many people I have known that may have been labeled “outcast” by someone who have helped me move closer to Jesus than I can describe.

Furthermore, it is all too easy to stand in the “crowd” and consider myself a “disciple,” or even an “apostle” called by God to a particular mission. This condition is perhaps even more pervasive, and quite insidious in contemporary Christianity. Our congregations are filled with gigantic crowds of self-professed disciples. And remember, there’s nothing wrong with being in the “crowd;” Jesus loves the crowd, too! But it’s not discipleship.

I need to remind myself always that Jesus is the one doing the inviting, and I’m just acting as his ambassador. And at the same time, I must stay open to receive from others the Christian invitation to a life of grace myself. Evangelism is relationship, relationship is invitational, invitation is mutually shared among all.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Evangelism / Invitation Question -

In yesterday's long boring post I said, "When did we decide to substitute “invitation” for “evangelism”? These words are not synonyms, and yet many of us treat them as though they were."

Here's my question, then. Do you think of evangelism as invitation, or is there something else to it? If so, what?

Monday, March 02, 2009

Evangelism and Invitation

Here’s my newsfeed article for the week:

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)

Jesus invited. He called out to people and asked them to follow him. He went to people in their “natural habitat” and asked them to enter into a new life, a life in relationship with God. Jesus did not wait for people to discover him, he went directly to people and extended the invitation personally.

There is a beautiful worship song called The Summons that asks, “Will you come and follow me if I but call your name? Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same? Will you let my love be shown, will you let my name be known, will let my life be grown in you and you in me?”

Have you ever asked yourself how you would respond to Jesus if this very minute he walked into the room where you are and invited you to follow him? Would you go? Would you politely offer him a Dr. Pepper and try to make small talk? Would you phone 911 and announce an intruder in your
home?

Take your self-examination a step further: How are you allowing the invitational attitude of Jesus shape your own discipleship? When is the last time you
invited someone to attend worship with you? How long has it been since you talked about your faith with a friend in a casual conversation? When is the last time you shared the love of Christ with a stranger?

Invitation is a multi-layered concept. We are invited by Christ to follow, and following Christ includes inviting others, as well. Invitation is one of the facets of discipleship, and one that we need continual encouragement to undertake. To be like Jesus, we ought not simply wait for people to come, but go out into the “natural habitat” and invite people in.

Inviting people to church is different from inviting people to God. Ultimately, it is the latter emphasis that is our priority. Inviting people to church is simply a means by which we invite them to God. However, it is much easier for us to invite people to church than to invite them to God. And anyway, if we will invite them to church, maybe we could trust God to do the rest!

Jesus invited – And so should we.


Btw, it is also posted here.

The more I think about invitation, the more perplexed I become. Here’s my question:

When did we decide to substitute “invitation” for “evangelism”?

These words are not synonyms, and yet many of us treat them as though they were. Inviting someone to church is only one way to do evangelism. Synonymizing (I made that word up) these two words gets us into trouble, and leads us to believe that we’re bad at evangelism, a self-deprecating belief that only feeds into the downward trend many congregations, conferences, and denominations are feeling these days.

The truth is, we are very, very good at evangelism, and we don’t even know it. The problem is that we don’t recognize the things we do as evangelism, because we operate under the false assumption that getting someone to come to church with you is the only way to evangelize. Well, getting someone to church is not the goal of evangelism – getting someone to God is!

Most definitions of evangelism include proclamation of the Gospel, and many mention that this is done with zeal, a word that we do not use often enough in everyday conversation, I believe. So, anytime you energetically share the Gospel you are doing evangelism. That could be offering forgiveness to someone who has hurt you, giving grace to someone in need, loving someone without condition, or providing hope in a situation that is otherwise hopeless. It could also be inviting someone to church.

No church should have an “Evangelism Team,” because every single member of the community should be doing evangelism. There might be a “Publicity Team” whose job is to get the word out about church events. There might be a “Hospitality Team” whose job is to welcome guests and visitors when they arrive. But every single aspect of what a congregation does should be evangelism – sharing the Gospel.

When the ministry of evangelism is relegated to one team, it too quickly becomes all and only about invitation. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with invitation, of course, but as I said earlier, that’s only one part of evangelism. And then, with an “evangelism team,” now operating functionally as an “inviting team,” it is all too easy for church members to shirk the responsibility of evangelism, reasoning that it is “someone else’s job.”

I wrote in the newsfeed article above that “invitation is one of the facets of discipleship.” Discipleship is inherently about evangelism; it would be very hard to think of one without the other. But invitation is only one piece of the whole. It may be a piece that the church is generally pretty bad at, but I cannot go from there all the way to saying that we’re bad at evangelism altogether.

We’re not. We’re good at grace. We’re good at love. We’re good at inclusiveness. We’re good at Christian friendship. (We could be better, I know. I said good, not perfect.) The point being, if we can affirm the good evangelism going on through our congregations, we may feel a bit better about ourselves. Then that spirit will bubble up and out from within the congregation and be inherently attractive to many, many people.



And here’s a random thought that doesn’t quite fit in above -
An attitude of invitation would assume that people will love it, and therefore inviting people to it would be no big deal. It would just happen. But invitation is like the squiggly line in your eye fluid, you can see it but once you focus on it – it drifts away. I think we need to stress out less about invitation and really strive to create churches that people simply cannot stay away from.