Being church doesn’t have to be rocket science, does it?

rocket-scienceSometimes we over-think this church thing. We think that if we built a rocket it would take us from the challenges we face and provide a new landscape. We want new and improved programs, a shiny new curriculum, better participation, deeper generosity and more staff or volunteers to make it all happen. I have come to the conclusion that we are trying to answer the wrong questions – because we’re focused on marketing and not on discipleship.

You recognize a vital healthy church when you participate in one. Even though they come in many forms, sizes, worship styles, locations, budgets, structures, and affiliations – these pieces are all secondary concerns. Are there challenges that continue to lurk in each of these categories? Of course. But these areas are not the foci of what these churches do.

I believe that vital and healthy churches do two things:                                     they love God and are relationship driven.

When a church is passionate about God – worship, learning, governance, and participation all take on a much different flavor than the guilt and drudgery prominent in so many congregations.

When a church is motivated by bringing people together – events, groups, hospitality, invitation, service projects and connecting with people in the neighborhood isn’t about proving the need for your existence or selling your product in a new market. The church should be about relationships, because the church is first and foremost a community of people; not an institution to maintain.

When churches struggle or have less participation than they used to have, people start to panic and look for quick fixes. There are no quick fixes, but that doesn’t mean we have to over-think it.

All we are called to do is love God and love our neighbor.

While I would maintain that God (and not us) should be the subject of our sentences as we connect God’s love for us with what God is doing in and through us to love others, we must ask ourselves, “How is the ministry we share geared toward these two purposes?”  If we can’t answer that question then we need to change our practices. If we can answer that question, then we can work on strengthening what we are doing. “Doing” is where we need to focus.     Too often we talk about what we want to do, but struggle to follow-through. We have to call on each other to “do” something, or we will end up not doing much of anything.

Too often in my view, churches focus on the wrong things. They are held captive by their past rather than utilizing their history to move towards the future. They are geared toward maintaining what they have before they lose it rather than giving themselves away.  They are focused on not upsetting a few people rather than keeping their eyes fixed on Jesus and doing the right thing even when it is most difficult.

Being church doesn’t have to be rocket science.

We don’t have to make it harder than it is.   A few fishermen, tax collectors, tent makers, suspect women and many strays made a pretty good go of it in the first years after Jesus’ death and resurrection because they loved God and brought people together. If God can use that group to change the world, God can use us too.

All it takes is a heart for the Lord and heart for others that call people to action.

We can leave the rockets for another day.

(And if you don’t think my analysis is right, read through Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament, and then tell me what you think.)

PGS

—–

Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:46-47)

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The Ugandan Martyrs and Living Faith

Uganda.3Karoli.Lwanga.and.martrys

As part of my trip to Uganda (July 14-29, 2014), the group I will be with from St. Anne’s Church in Hamel, MN will be visiting the Basilica dedicated to those who died for their Christian faith in the 1880s.  Christians and Muslims alike were seen as a threat to King Mwanga II’s authority.  As a result missionaries as well as converts were persecuted. Archbishop James Harrington of the Church of England was assassinated on October 29, 1885. Reports vary, but at least forty-five Christians were killed in the coming purge. Twenty-two of them were Roman Catholic Ugandans, who were burned alive in Namugongo on June 3, 1886. As he was being burned, Father Charles (Karoli) Lwanga is attributed as saying, “It is as if you are pouring water on me. Please repent and become a Christian like me.”

The Ugandan Martyrs became revered not only by locals but throughout the African continent. They were beatified in 1920 and became saints in the Roman Catholic Church on October 18, 1964. In his homily at their canonization, Pope Paul VI said, “Indeed, do we wish to forget the others who, belonging to the Anglican confession, confronted death in the name of Christ.”  It is encouraging for me to consider the ecumenical heritage and spirit in which these Christians are remembered, especially as a Lutheran pilgrim who is traveling with a Roman Catholic group.  I remember the prayer of Jesus, “Father protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one” (John 17:11) and the words from the letter to the Ephesians (4:4-6), “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” We are one in Christ, and it takes all of us walking together by the Spirit’s urging and guidance to remind each other of the promise of unity amidst the world’s violence and divisions. The Basilica of the Ugandan Martyrs in Namugongo was built in their honor. Our group will visit and attend mass there on Sunday, July 27, 2014.

I’m looking forward to my pilgrimage to Uganda, and the living faith among the people I will both travel with and meet while I am there. As I set forth on this journey, I leave you with the question that is the theme of our trip,

“Where is God calling me to serve today?”

Where indeed? Sometimes a trip far away leads to new insights, but most of the time it is simply looking out our window, paying attention to what you, and stepping outside to meet it. Thankfully most of us are not called upon to be martyrs, but all of us are called to serve. Let us do so remembering the water the claims us in Jesus name, wherever it is we are.

Take care. Be well. Serve boldly.

PGS

Helpful links about the Ugandan Martyrs:

http://www.ugandamartyrsshrine.org.ug/details.php?id=1

http://www.buganda.com/martyrs.htm

Posted in Church & Mission, Church by Perception, Faith Everyday, Insights by Others, Thinking About Church Differently, What We Seek | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

My Reflections on the show, “Rev.”

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I recently finished the finale of the third season of the show “Rev.”* This British semi-serious sitcom is set an inner-city London. The show follows the antics of the congregation called St. Saviour’s and their priest, the Rev. Adam Smallbone, who with his wife Alex live in the small house next to the church.

The show is funny and quirky, and of course the situations and problems the characters face are blown out of proportion and exaggerated.  But at its heart, “Rev.” is a story of the struggle of faith and what it means to be faithful in the 21st century.  In many ways it is the story of Job, revealed by the show’s main character: Father Adam.  I have had the impression since watching the first episode that the show is written (or at least consulted) by members of the clergy who understood church from the inside – as “Rev.” opens that world to those watching it on the outside.

WARNING:  Don’t watch “Rev.” if swearing offends you (especially by clergy) or if the paradox of real people’s lives bothers you. You also shouldn’t watch the show if you think the church should not wrestle with contemporary issues, or struggle with trying to be relevant in our secular and multi-faith age where very few of the old rules work anymore. Nor should you watch “Rev.” if you can’t laugh at the church and the silly things we do which seem foreign in a culture that has left us behind and/or pushed us to the sidelines of everyday life.

Watch “Rev.” if you want to see something special.

“Rev.” is a situation comedy, but it isn’t making fun of the church or calling its adherents buffoons (though some peripheral characters in the show do that to others). As I mentioned above, I always had the impression watching the show that it was written from the inside, because the situations the characters find themselves in have a real bite to them.  That bite is about faith and ministry. Both ministry and faith are rarely easy, and that reality is shared in a refreshingly transparent and honest way. I love that about the show. It kept me wanting more, especially when the characters fail.

My favorite part about “Rev.” is that God is a real part of it. The characters, especially Adam, pray, and we hear those prayers by way of voice-overs. Those prayers are not mocking God or making fun of belief; they are a real part of the lives of these people who are struggling with who they are and what they believe is being asked of them.  The show highlights the real side of humanity too, and the choices they make (some of them bad ones) have real repercussions. One character accusingly asks Adam, “Why does everything you touch turn to $&@#?” It is a question that is both funny in the moment and serious to consider. For those who are involved in ministry, there are many times we ask that question of ourselves. Yet there is a real sense in this show that God is guiding each of these people; giving the characters courage and strength to press-on even in spite of themselves. The mixture of faith and human brokenness can be a powerful witness. It isn’t faked on “Rev.”

Throughout the series, St. Saviour’s is perpetually on the verge of closing its doors. The fear that surrounds that threat is real, casting a shadow on everything this congregation does; triggering unhealthy behaviors and keeping ministry from happening, just as those things take place in many churches too.

SPOILER ALERT

Two scenes standout to me as quintessential to what “Rev.” is really about.

The first quintessential scene takes place around the table in the finale of season two. As divided as this congregation is and can be at times, in the closing scene all of the characters share dinner together. It is one of those moments, where the viewer really gets a glimpse of the community Jesus was trying to form, where all are welcome and all have a place.  Since there was a three-year break from season two to season three, that scene could have served as the final scene of the show.  I had a real sense watching it that this was the writers’ idea of what it meant when Jesus said, “the kingdom of God was near,” as those characters broke bread together. Even the hard characters softened around that table and are changed by it. We are too, each time the bread is broken and the wine is poured.

Most of season three was hard for me to watch. The characters, especially Adam, make bad decisions, say terrible things, and do not exhibit the kind of behavior we would expect of a Christian community.  Several times I shouted at my TV, “Come on, make good choices people!” Some of those choices are truly tragic and the viewer sees the pain they cause, especially to Adam’s family.  In the last episode Adam is lying in bed. He is half asleep and he is weeping. He feels the loss of his failures. He recites the beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount. Meanwhile his congregation gathers and finally see each other for who they are – fools in the sight of the world, sinners in the eyes of each other, and beautiful in the eyes of God. They may even start to catch a glimpse of that beauty in each other’s sight too.

By the show’s end “Rev.” reveals what the church is really about – redemption that looks like failure; what Paul called, “the foolishness of the cross” (1 Corinthians 1:18).

As the credits scrolled across my screen, several questions about the future were left unanswered. An interview I read from cast members indicated the unlikelihood of a fourth season. “Rev.” is likely over.  While the problems all of these characters do not go away (in what is for now at least the show’s conclusion), as they gathered on Sunday morning I was left believing with tears in my eyes that these people would be OK, whatever happened to them next.

rev.show.1As we gather each Sunday morning, I believe that no matter what happens to us next that we will be OK too.  This is what it means to be church wherever we are – God is continually redeeming his people.       I’m thankful for the show, because it told the story of the church with truth.  Even when Adam and St. Saviour’s got it wrong,         “Rev.” got it right.

PGS

—–

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matt 5:6)
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* “Rev.” is available on Hulu Plus.

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Soaking in your place through a larger landscape

Joe.glacier.2009As you read this I am likely in Glacier National Park, Montana.  That section of the Rockies is one of my favorite places on earth. The beauty of mountains carved over eons by the glaciers of a long forgotten ice age is a wide canvass that is simply breathtaking.  Everywhere one looks, the view is spectacular. Animals, like marmots, bears, mountain goats, moose, mule deer and others fill the lush landscape and call this place home.  While on the way to the highline trail in Glacier on our last trip to Montana in 2009, my father-in-law, brother-in law and I even saw the rare mountain lion – which stopped to growl at the moving vehicle, but darted off before our cameras were ready. I can still see the impressive muscles in her jaw line.  As a group we have run across many bears over the several trips we have taken.         The trick is to make lots of noise as to not startle them, or get too close to any cubs. Bears really don’t want to interact with humans and will get out-of-the-way. Its bad human behavior, like getting too close, feeding them, or leaving edibles out that get bears into trouble. They are truly remarkable when viewed from a safe distance. A fun activity after the return from a hike is sitting on the porch and looking for animals on the mountainside with binoculars. In some places park rangers even have viewfinders set-up to share what they’ve located. This will be my sixth trip to Montana, and every time I go I feel more connected to the land, to the earth, and to the creator of it all. I love sitting by a stream and skipping rocks into it. I love the pure sense of size of the topography and my small place in it. I love that it is a place not defined by human buildings, but by intentional conservation. But there are human wonders there too. The lodges built almost a century ago serve as giant cathedrals with tall log columns and mounted heads of game of a bygone era. The Going to the Sun Road built during the depression is a marvel of engineering through the very heart of those mountains twisting and turning with spectacular views inaccessible otherwise. No one would build these today because of the sheer cost and political red tape; but they are part of Glacier’s story, along with those who fought to preserve it. The Blackfeet nation have called this land sacred long before “America” or the “United States” were in our lexicon or even a whisper in someone’s ear. Many have stood in beneath these mountains and gazed in wonder. I am thankful for them for shaping this place too, and hope to stand among them.

Beneath this beauty, it is always with my loved ones on the trip that I feel the most connected.  This will be Joe’s third trip, and Mia’s second. Joe first visited Montana when he was a one year old and again when he was six. Mia was almost four years old last time. Now its five years later and the kids are eleven and almost nine. Our nieces and nephews who used to come on these trips were those ages at Glacier once, and now they are all becoming young adults in their late teens and early twenties. I was twenty on my first trip to Glacier National Park. Under these mountains that feel almost eternal, there is an almost timeless sense of being there. Of course it is a matter of perspective; the mountains are changing all the time. The seasons change, the generations of wildlife turn over, and the glaciers that once filled the valleys tens of thousands of years ago are all but gone. Even the glaciers that gave Glacier National Park its name in 1910 recede more every year and may become a memory, but we will still visit. I hope others do too. The story continues to be written not just in stone by water and ice but by the people who are etched in its memory.

There is a metaphor at work here to think about the church and the sense of timelessness our community shaped by God provides. There is an eternal quality to liturgy, scripture and the sacraments. The sacred spaces we have created over the centuries to give glory to God have sustained us through many changes: the generations change; the context changes; the culture changes; the language changes; the communities in which we are located change. The way we shape what we do and how we do it changes in order to connect a timeless message of forgiveness, hope and peace into the real world today. We adapt to cut through our sin and brokenness like a sharp blade so we can be poignant with good news to share. Yet it is the gradual pushing over time like a glacier that carves the landscape of our lives over time.  It is important to take the long-view as we address immediate concerns, and it is hard to do that in our frantic, busy, result-driven lives.

Places like the mountains are important because they force us to gain a wider perspective. Maybe it is the ocean, or a lake, or forest, or a desert that does this work on you. Wherever that place is for you – I hope you not only seek, but also find. We need moments where we look over the mountain to catch a glimpse of the Promised Land like Moses did, or to run back down it from the empty tomb like the women shouting, “Christ is risen indeed!” If we can catch places to see ourselves against eternity, maybe our problems won’t seem so big. Maybe our challenges can seem solvable, and maybe we won’t think more of ourselves than we ought to do.   Maybe we can start to see that when Jesus said, “The simple truth is that if you had a mere kernel of faith, a poppy seed, say, you would tell this mountain, ‘Move!’  and it would move. There is nothing you wouldn’t be able to tackle,” (Matt 17:20 –           The Message), we would also take notice that the way mountains move is one rock at a time. That is how glaciers do it.

Maybe our calling is nothing more than picking up one rock at a time, knowing that it will eventually move that mountain.  If we can pick those rocks up one at a time and skip them across the water, we may even enjoy our place in this world as we do so.

PGS

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God, brilliant Lord, yours is a household name. Nursing infants gurgle choruses about you; toddlers shout the songs that drown out enemy talk, and silence atheist babble. I look up at your macro-skies, dark and enormous, your handmade sky-jewelry, moon and stars mounted in their settings. Then I look at my micro-self and wonder, Why do you bother with us? Why take a second look our way? Yet we’ve so narrowly missed being gods, bright with Eden’s dawn light. You put us in charge of your handcrafted world, repeated to us your Genesis-charge, Made us lords of sheep and cattle, even animals out in the wild, Birds flying and fish swimming, whales singing in the ocean deeps. God, brilliant Lord, your name echoes around the world. (Psalm 8- The Message)

Posted in Camp / Outdoor Ministry, Church & Mission, Faith Everyday, Thinking About Church Differently, What We Seek | Tagged , | Leave a comment

“Take the welcome outside” a baseball cap Sunday sermon on Matt 10:40-42

2014-05-24 11.04.036/29/2014

Baseball Cap Sunday
Sermon on Matt 10:40-42
“Take the welcome outside”

St. Michael’s Lutheran Church
and The United Methodist Church
of New Canaan, CT

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Reclaiming the “Shock” of the Good Samaritan

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Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”             He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.  Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.  So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.  He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back,       I will repay you whatever more you spend.’  Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37)

Do good, and be a good neighbor

The term “Good Samaritan” has come to mean acts of mercy for the sake of others.  There are “Good Samaritan” laws protecting strangers from liability when they try to help in times of crisis.  The church I grew up in had a “Good Samaritan” ministry (and a truck that went along with it) delivering clothes and furniture to families in need. Plenty of hospitals and care centers bear the name “Good Samaritan” to convey the value of their work. News reports, while full of stories featuring the pain and heartache of the world, also feature “Good Samaritan” stories of strangers helping strangers, making a difference in their communities.  Being a “Good Samaritan” is seen as a virtue – something we promote both within and outside our church communities.

This is a great lesson to learn from Jesus’ famous story. Certainly a takeaway from the parable is to answer the question, “who is my neighbor?” and live differently by its answer. But I think we’ve lost a certain “shock” to the storytelling that Jesus conveyed since so many of us recognize being a “Good Samaritan” as a virtue.

Let’s look at each of the characters in the story…

The Lawyer

We should remember the parable Jesus tells is in response to a question. That question is posed by a lawyer who asks a legal question, “What must I do?” Jesus responds with a legal answer, “What is written?”  The lawyer responds by quoting scripture, “Love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus responds, “Do this and you shall live.”  The interchange could have ended there, but instead the lawyer probed deeper, asking another good question, “And who is my neighbor?”  Jesus responds with the parable, and turns the question around to the lawyer, “Which do you think was the neighbor?”  The lawyer responds, “The one who showed him mercy.”  Jesus responded, “Go and do likewise.”  The technical question, “What must I do; check off the list; show proof and evidence for?” is given a more open-ended response, “show mercy, whenever and wherever it is needed.”

The Traveler and the Robbers

Travel was not a safe venture in the ancient world. It would be foolish to travel alone since the threat of attack was real, especially around turns in the terrain where one could not see.  Travelling in groups would be a much safer, prudent choice, even on a short trip from Jerusalem to Jericho (about 15 miles).  One could argue, and perhaps the lawyer may have considered, that being robbed and beaten was the fault of the traveler who took this unnecessary risk. While not the point of the story, I am reminded of how easily we write off the needs of others because we think somehow the circumstances people face are a deserved outcome of bad choices. I am all for taking responsibility for ourselves, but in this regard I think Jesus is also stretching our imagination when it comes to seeing other people.

The Priest and Levite

Both priests and Levites were part of the religious hierarchy. We would expect the religious guys to stop and help the traveler, but in the story they walk on by him. Perhaps this is an indictment of the “religious” people Jesus was so often at odds with – who tended to focus on the wrong things. It is also an indictment of us – how often do we get caught up in our churches about the things that don’t matter all that much, and we miss out in contributing something helpful and valuable to the things that do matter? I often imagine the priest in one of two situations. In the first scenario he walks by the beaten traveler while singing his favorite hymn and thinking about an upcoming meeting – he’s not intentionally not helping a person in need, as he is so preoccupied that he doesn’t even see him. In the second scenario the priest sees the man but is scared. He knows how to run a worship service and be nice to people at coffee hour, but is ill equipped when a situation like this happens. He runs away, back to his faith community where he can close the doors and be safe among friends. In either case the priest misses something important. So do we.

The Samaritan

There was nothing good about Samaritans; at least not in the view of first century Jews.    The prevailing wisdom about Samaritans in Jesus day were that they worshiped incorrectly and in the wrong place, their perceived heritage and morality were suspect, and Jews and Samaritans did not get along and should never, ever mix.  It is interesting that Jesus picked the protagonist in his little story to be a Samaritan, because the very idea would have been outrageous. It would have been harsh and painful to hear, that your most despised enemy was the one who “got it” when your own religious leaders did not. This is the shock of the story – it is not a Jewish lawyer seeking answers to his faith-centered questions, it’s a foreign, immoral heretic that does the right thing.  The Samaritan does more than the right thing –    he takes him to place where he can heal, provided funds to cover the expenses, and comes back to check on him to make sure everything is OK. The point Jesus is making is twofold – mercy can come from the least likely of places, and Jesus’ mission is much wider than his heritage. These are good lessons for the church to be reminded of as well.

To stretch our imaginations even further I offer this: What would this story sound like if we substituted the word “Samaritan” for “Muslim?” (There is no connection there; I just want to make this point…). We might assume in our contemporary context that this outsider is scary, angry, violent, backward, fanatical, and even evil. Yet this character is the one who exhibits love and mercy. That would be shocking for some of us to see, wouldn’t it? Maybe Jesus’ real intention behind making the hero a Samaritan is to not only push our buttons but also push-back against our assumptions. After all, the legacy of this story is that this foreign, heretical, immoral loser is the one deemed “good.”

That’s Jesus’ legacy for us too – he is “good” not because his actions meet our expectations, but because of his mercy so often exceeds it.

Go and do likewise.

PGS

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“Despite the very real fear,” a sermon on Matt 10:32-39 by Pastor Eric Fjeldal

screamJune 22, 2014
Sermon on Matt 10:32-39
“Despite the very real fear”

St. Michael’s Lutheran Church and United Methodist Church of New Canaan, CT
Pastor Eric Fjeldal

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