Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Great Weekend to Go to Church

This weekend is our national celebration of Memorial Day. It is a weekend that people traditionally … (how shall I say this?) … don’t necessarily make worship a part of their itinerary. Outdoor activities, get-togethers with family, and travel frequently diminish participation in Sunday gatherings. And that’s fine; I’m certainly not bashing the occasional three-day weekend spent connecting with our families!

But I’m just wondering about this Sunday, coming at the end of a week in which our neighbors in Joplin, across the state, and throughout the region have been devastated by especially harsh weather. 125 have been confirmed dead in Joplin, and 232 are unaccounted for. The number of injuries is staggering. The destruction of property is mind-boggling. We are shaken, stricken, and scared.

What better time to gather together to remember that God is good, all the time? How could there be a more opportune moment to affirm that the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love? When else would it be more appropriate for us to reaffirm Christ’s call to help those who need help and truly love our neighbors as ourselves?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if sanctuaries across the nation were filled to overflowing this Sunday morning? If people travelling made a point to find the nearest church so that they could go to worship? If people with guests would bring their guests to worship with them instead of using them as an excuse to be somewhere else?

Wouldn’t it be great if followers of Jesus gathered in record numbers this weekend to proclaim one gigantic NO! - the devastation of this world is not the end of the story! There is more!

Wouldn’t it be amazing if the Church assembled for worship this weekend with no regard at all for denomination or congregation, but simply and powerfully as the body of Christ, affirmed an enormous YES! - There is hope! There is resurrection! There is life!

This started out as an email to the people of Campbell UMC to encourage them to be at worship this weekend, but it has become a bit more than that, I suppose. My hope is that all who are reading this, wherever you are, will go to church this Sunday and worship God with as much passion, energy, and devotion as ever. No, with even more!

God is good! ALL the time!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Thoughts on Devastation


I have heard this word more often in the last two days than I usually would in two months. In every case it is being used to describe the town of Joplin, Missouri, just over an hour west of here. Lots of big numbers: EF5 - 200 mph - 6 mile path - 750 injured - 8,000 buildings - 123 lives.

The pictures posted online reveal a chaotic landscape of jagged rubble. Cars tossed haphazardly, trees stripped of branches, skeletal silhouettes that used to be buildings, mounds of trash that were once people’s homes. Utter devastation.

The outpouring of help has been so enormous that people are now being told to actually stay away from Joplin at this time. Too many of us well-intentioned but untrained volunteers would get in the way of the people who really need to be there right now.

But the first impulse for many is to help, somehow, some way. There are people who need … who are hurting … people who have been devastated. We want to help them, now! We want to make the hurt go away, meet the need, un-devastate the devastation.

It seems there is a powerful human need to fill voids. We are inclined toward creation, and so when we see devastation our inherent reaction is to create, construct, and build. That’s what’s happening now, on a widespread scale. We are feeling a collective urge to un-devastate the lives of our neighbors in Joplin, to create again what has been un-made, to fill the void the tornado left behind.

It is in this impulse that I believe we witness most fully the power of God at work. The image of God becomes incarnate in this creative urge, in people working together to build community, extending ourselves into the lives of one another and truly loving our neighbors as ourselves.


A week before the tornado, a baby was born in Springfield. He spent the first week of his life in the NICU because his mom has diabetes, he was born a month early, and his blood sugar was all out of whack. Also during that week it was decided (by people he doesn’t know in an office somewhere else) that he was not going to be able to come home with his mom and dad. And since his half-sister happens to be our foster daughter already, we said that he could come home with us for a while. So he can be with his sister, you know.

Because there is this powerful impulse in us that tends to want to fill voids, to make the hurt go away, to un-devastate devastation. And it doesn’t matter if it is a town of 50,000 or one newborn baby in the NICU, at the heart of it devastation always looks like a chaotic landscape of jagged rubble.

We talked about it together. We always do. Our son said, “How would you feel if you were just born and you weren’t with anyone in your family?” And with that, there was no more conversation. So he can be with his sister. And with a family who will take good care of him, feed him well, help him grow, and extend our lives into his so that we might truly love him with all that it means to love another person.

And maybe that will fill at least a part of the void into which he was born, make a little bit of the hurt go away, and at least begin to un-devastate the devastation.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Well Maybe It IS My Parents' Offering Plate, After All

There is a lot to like about “Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate,” a book about money and the church by J. Clif Christopher.

People give to support a mission that is making a difference in people’s lives and that they can therefore truly believe in - yes.

It is not a great idea to appeal to “making our budget” as a way to get people to give - yes.

There are multiple ways to give, including regular income, capital, and estate giving - yes.

It doesn’t make sense to describe a poor financial situation and then expect people to give to a “failing” project - yes.

Sending regular “thank yous” to people who have given significantly to the church is always a good idea - yes.

All good stuff, all very helpful.

But when he tries to ground his ideas theologically and scripturally, I do not find it to be quite so helpful. In fact, I’m not quite sure how his ideas are connected to the theology he offers. The theological concerns I have with this book are the same two theological concerns I have with much of the contemporary church - Christology and ecclesiology.

The Church today adheres to a dramatically impoverished Christology. I believe this to be the central issue confronting church leaders today. We have no idea who Jesus really is, but we like to pretend that we do, and in the process often use Jesus as a means to achieve our desired end.

As it seems this book does when we are told that Jesus “had a great concern for the wealthy” in that he “knew how easily money could draw them away from their heavenly Father.” The rhetorical question is then posed: “With whom was Jesus more concerned about being able to enter the Kingdom of Heaven … the rich or the poor?” The argument is then made that we as pastors are supposed to get people to give money to the church as a way to “save their souls.”

Ah! Nothing like a little works righteousness to get your heart pumping, is there? I find it very difficult to agree with the notion that Jesus has a preferential option for the wealthy.

We must not minimize Jesus into a convenient means to get what we want. In this case, what the author wants is for people to give money to the church, and so Jesus becomes a fundraiser for heaven, skillfully convincing them to relinquish their resources in order to win God’s favor. Or in another case, what we might want is a congregation with a bigger worship attendance, so Jesus becomes the recruitment officer for God’s army, whose only purpose is to get people enrolled in the organization.

And speaking of the organization, since when did the church become an entity inhabiting a separate location than the people? Isn’t it true anymore that “I am the church; you are the church; we are the church together”? Or was that just a cute little Sunday School song that we are using to brainwash our kiddies into thinking they are actually important? (he said sarcastically.)

Throughout the book, the people are considered to be separate from the church. This is just plain bad ecclesiology. The entire premise is that “people” give to “the church,” and that just doesn’t make any sense to me. A representative sentence: “We must learn to answer the question our donors are asking us, ‘Why should I give to you?’”

Offering isn’t giving “to the church,” it is Christian discipleship. It is an act of worship. It is the church giving of itself in order to accomplish God’s mission. It is a part of our response to the grace of God given to us through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ and enlivened by the presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst. Or to put it another way, “Growing in the grace of giving is a response Christian disciples offer to God’s call to make a difference in the world.” (Bishop Robert Schnase)

To me, this is a more faithful approach to finances, and I know from experience that it is an approach that works. It is the approach we have taken in two different congregations in which I have served, and it has been effective at both of them. Both congregations were actively engaged in local and global ministries, and continue to make significant and transformative impact in the lives of people. (That’s not nearly as much experience as Clif Christopher has, but it ought to count for something.)

My ecclesiology does not make it possible for me to think in terms of the church as an organization, but more as an organism. (I can’t remember where I originally heard this distinction, but it’s not mine originally, that’s for sure.) I know that there are structures everywhere; even clouds have structure (thank you Dr. Robert Martin). And yet we shouldn’t think that the people are separate from that structure. Far from it - the people comprise the structure itself.

And so, what do I do with a book that has some excellent practical suggestions but derives them from a theology that I personally cannot agree with? Plus, I’m not so sure that Christopher makes the connection between the theology he holds and the practical suggestions he derives. It almost feels like he came up with some practical ideas and then tried to justify them scripturally and theologically.

It’s a tough one for me, too, because coming from my own theological perspective, I have arrived at many of the very same practical suggestions that this book does. Now how did that happen?

Maybe it says something about trying to universalize ideas that really are very contextual. My approach has worked in the places I have served, but probably wouldn’t elsewhere.

One of the things I have heard over and over in the places I have served is how tired people are of the church “asking for money” all the time. To me, this book feels like just another way to ask people for money, rather than infusing the church with an attitude of extravagant generosity.

If anyone is still reading by this point, I welcome your thoughts…

Monday, May 02, 2011

Death, Where is Your Victory?

There have been a lot of “takes” offered today in reaction to the death of Osama bin Laden. These have not been measured and thoughtful reflections; not enough time has passed to allow for that. They have been quick, almost reflexive. Many have consisted of cheers and celebrations, some of sober questions, some of dire predictions.

As I have read them, I have been struck by how much power one man’s death has had over so many people. News of this death spread even more quickly than the official announcement. All night long and throughout the day, electronic opinions have been shared all around the world, in multiple formats - text messages, Facebook statuses, blog posts, Tweets, TV and radio commentaries.

These reactions have quoted scripture, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mark Twain, and a slew of commentators from here, there, and everywhere. It has been quite a phenomenon.

All of this from one man’s death.

Are we so feeble as to allow one man’s death to influence us to such frenetic affectation?

Especially for those of us who follow Jesus, over whom death has no power, it seems to me that Osama bin Laden’s death should not incite such outbursts.

After all, “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 16:5-14).

When death controls your actions, it has power over you. Death wins. You lose yourself in your reaction to the stimulus. That’s not a bad thing when you cheer for your favorite baseball team. It’s fun to get caught up in cheering with a crowd of fans for a home run or a strikeout. But cheering for death? Allowing death to be “victorious” over our words, actions, even our thoughts? I do not find that to be compatible with the teachings of Christ.

“What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
‘Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?’
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:50-56).

Those who loved the man will mourn, and although those who did not love him will not mourn, neither should we cheer. We should not allow his death to be victorious over us. We should not allow his death to have power over us. He lived, he did horrific, evil, despicable things during his life, and now he is dead. He was the leader of a group whose actions are a threat to innocent life all around the world, and now that threat is diminished. The inspiring service of the men and women in the armed forces of our nation is to be commended.

I don’t know if this is a fitting metaphor or not, but let me give it a try. Sometimes a football player scores a touchdown, and then proceeds to make a complete and utter fool of himself during the celebration. Other times, a player goes up to the ref and hands him the ball. It is just as good a touchdown, but the reaction is different. This time, I think America just needs to go up to the ref and hand him the ball, then go get ready for the kickoff.

For Christians, the time is now, more than ever, to remember that “if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory” (Colossians 3:1-4).

Christ revealed. You also revealed.

Is what you are saying right now revealing Christ? Is what you are doing right now revealing Christ? Is what you are writing right now revealing Christ? Do you remember that you have died, and now your life is Christ’s? Is your mind set on things that are above, on God?

Let us not succumb to the power of death, especially not now.