Monday, May 23, 2016

Finding Focus - A Peace-centered Church

A Church Centered on Peace
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. – John 14:27
                The good news of Christ can be described in many ways.  Often when we talk about the big issues within the faith, we are only describing a single aspect of a multi-faceted reality.  I have heard the gospel described as peace and grace, love and life, joy and hope.  A seminary professor once summed it up by saying that the good news is that God’s final word is “Yes” and not “No.”  Jesus keeps comparing it to the coming of the reign of God.  None of these are comprehensive; all of them point toward the good news.  Even as Jesus declares that “The kingdom of God has come near,” he then describes that kingdom through a series of parables that seek interpretation.
                Because last week I wrote about finding focus, I thought it would be interesting to consider what might happen if a church centered on one of these aspects and let that shape its ministry and life together.  This week I am going to write about a hypothetical church that shares the gospel as peace.
                The mathematician Blaise Pascal once wrote, “All of humanity’s problems stem from the inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”  Peace is more than avoiding violence, but is also learning contentment.  In scripture peace has more to do with being whole and complete than the absence of war and strife.  The good news of peace is that you are whole and complete in the eyes of God just as you are.
                Every day we are faced with images and ideas that tell us that we are not enough; that we don’t look good enough; that we don’t have enough; that we are not smart enough.  A congregation centered on peace would begin by reminding its members that whoever they are and whatever baggage they bring, they are complete in the eyes of God.   There is nothing they have to do to be loved and nothing they have to do to be accepted.
                Worship in this congregation might be a bit quieter and calmer than others.  Where other congregations might find value in getting people emotionally stirred up, this congregation would intentionally provide a space to calm down and decompress.   The congregation might be more apt to work with silence and contemplation.  Musically, its worship would tend toward simplicity.
                The challenge for this peaceful congregation would be twofold.  While the gospel offers good news of acceptance and love, it also offers the challenge of growth.  As the Buddhist teacher Suzuki Roshi once wrote, “Each of you is perfect the way you are and you can use a little improvement.”   The purpose of peaceful contemplation and not simply to snuggle with the loving presence of God, rather the contemplative seeks a transformative experience of God, one that sets them free from habitual thinking of regrets for mistakes or grudges over past offences or distractions from love.  Without the challenge of growth as disciples and the conflict this kind of change and growth can bring, this church could easily fall into holy naval gazing. 
Second, this church would have to work to get outside of itself.  It would be tempting to sit together in the warmth of God’s peace, but that would miss the outward call of the gospel of peace.  The church seeks to find its peace in God so that it can spread peace in the world.  A congregation that is centered on peace might look for ways to establish wholeness in the local community, making sure that the hungry are fed, that the homeless are safe, that the lonely have companionship, that the anxious find calm.  This congregation might also be involved in environmental causes and ministries, whether that be seeking natural settings for prayer and meditation or advocating for the care of those same settings.

The peace-centered congregation may not appeal to every person.  Some will find it too quiet and not stimulating enough but others will find it to be a helpful alternative, especially if they find that their lives are already overstimulated by stress and anxiety.  It could stand as a living example of the gospel as voiced by Jesus, Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Pursuing the Why - Finding Focus

                I’ve often been told that the church is like a business.  This idea frequently comes in the midst of a budget discussion from someone trying to get to the root of the problem.  The church is like a business, needing to make a profit or at least break even.  Like a business, we cannot spend more than we receive.
                I have never liked the business image, in part because it feels like the person who says it to me assumes that I don’t know how things work in the “real world,” as though being a clergyperson has removed that part of my brain that tells me how money works, or perhaps they want to believe that my calling has put me above thinking of such worldly things and I need a reminder.  My experience in the church is that there is often a suspension of disbelief when it comes to money.  The fair-priced repair on one’s private home becomes a horrible rip-off when offered to the church at the same price.  The musician who earns his or her bread by playing becomes selfish for seeking a fair wage for a Sunday morning.   The extra money that buys coffees and scratch tickets would be an unreasonable burden to cast away in an offering plate.
                I also dislike the business image because it creates an unclear role for people in the congregation.  Are the members of church the customers or the employees?  Is the pastor the shopkeeper for whom the customer is always right or a manager of a difficult crew?  Perhaps church members are more like the stakeholders in a cooperative market, partaking in the services of the community while also asked to serve the business.
                I now realize that the main reason I dislike the business image is that we won’t take it far enough.  If the church is like business, we have to go further than profit and loss.  For instance, most discussions of outreach don’t take into account the idea of a customer acquisition cost.  Most businesses assume that it will cost a certain amount of money in areas such as marketing and product development to obtain new customers.  Many conversations around the church involve the desire for growth and new members, but few conversations acknowledge that there is a cost to reaching out as a congregation.
                More importantly, I have found that in the church, if we say we are like a business, we are unclear about the nature of the product or service that we are promoting.  At one point, we could say that our product was Lutheranism, which we might identify as a Christ-centered, grace-centered theology packaged in a mix of cultural practices and liturgical worship.  But our product, at least as traditionally packaged, hasn’t been selling for quite a few years.  We are moving from having a decent share of the market, to being only found in specialty stores, where surprised shoppers look at us and say, “Remember this.  I can’t believe they are still making this.”
                To be clear, the essence of our product is solid.  We should by no means step away from the Christ-centered, grace-centered theology which is at the heart of who we are.  We should not fall in line with popular theologies that tell the world that God is waiting to bless you if you only prove your trust or that the good news is a promise of success,  wealth or blessing.  We should continue to tell the world that God has already blessed humanity more than it can know in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  We should continue to speak of a divine love that dwells with us in spite of our mistakes and not because of our good actions.
                Yet we may need to change how our product is packaged.  We may need to share our understanding of the good news in new ways or with new language.  We may need to look carefully at how the way we organize and live as congregations serves as a reflection of what we believe.  If we say the gospel is joy, but do nothing to spread joy in our community, we are guilty of false advertising.  If we say the gospel is peace or grace, but then organize ourselves in ways that demand large amounts of time devoted to meetings, meetings that tend to add more stress to already busy lives, we are also guilty of false advertising.
                We need to find a focus for our understanding of the gospel and let that inform our life together.  If the gospel is joy, how do we create joyful worship and fellowship?  If the gospel is grace, how do we live out the idea that there is nothing we have to do while still being responsible as an organization.  If the gospel is about peace, how do you show what peace looks like? 

                To go back to the business model, if we know our product, it makes it much easier to promote and sell.  If we know why we do what we do, it will have a great impact on how we do what we do.  None of this is intended to take away from the good news of what God has done in Jesus, but rather is intended to give focus to how we share it.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Pursuing the Why

It is no secret that many church bodies are experiencing a time of decline.  In the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, congregations have fewer people in worship than in previous decades.  Fewer people are enrolling in seminary to become pastors, a reflection of the fact that ministry feels less secure than it once did.  You would never get rich as a pastor, but you could provide a dependable income for you and your family.  This was part of the image of pastoral ministry when I graduated from seminary almost twenty years ago.   Now we are starting to see articles about the joys of bivocational ministry (aka part-time pastor and part-time barista).
                Recently I convened a meeting of anyone who wanted to take part to talk about the future of our congregation in Falmouth.  About twenty people attended.  We talked in more detail about these trends and their impact on our community.
                At one point, the participants were broken into four groups to answer a series of questions:
1.        What sort of church do you want to be for the next 5 years?
2.       What needs to happen for us to be that church?
3.       How will we support that church?  What are you willing to do to make it happen?
In answering the first question the groups came back with: 
1.       Focused on seniors and social needs
2.       More welcoming
3.       Open – Not Gone
4.       In existence
The first answer reflects a sense of hope and purpose.  The group talked about reaching out to older people because that is the makeup of our area of Cape Cod.  It is true that we have families with young children (the current holy grail of church life) but many of the people around us are 55 and older.  It would make sense to look at the needs of our current older population rather than continuing to hope that younger people will seek out an aging congregation.
The second answer, be more welcoming, is one I hear frequently and have heard in several congregations.  Many people seem to think that the solution to a multitude of the church’s problems is to be friendlier.  To be clear, there are congregations that have a reputation for simply being unfriendly or closed off, where no one approaches the visitors at fellowship and unsuspecting guests are ejected from family pews (or at least seriously glared at).   There are also congregations that do hospitality very well with good signage and happy, smiling people to greet you at the door.  I suspect, however, that for many congregations, the hope to be more welcoming is a reflection of visitors who come and don’t return.  What did we do wrong?  If only we had been friendlier.
Yet often when people don’t return it is more complicated than being treated in an unfriendly way.  In this era where denominational loyalty is less important, people may visit  a church with something specific in mind other than having Lutheran on the church sign.  The Lutheran label might be a bonus if that is your family heritage, but it is probably not the first priority.  The thing they are looking for might be a program, like Sunday school or social outreach.  It might be a worship style.   If they are younger, they may be looking for a place with people of their own generation.  I have received several comments from people who visited our congregation, thanked us for being very welcoming, but acknowledged that they were simply looking for something else.   Don’t get me wrong.  We should be as gracious and welcoming as we can be, but should not have the expectation that friendliness will make us all things to all people.
The final two answers, “open-not gone” and “in existence” represent the reality for many congregations today.  We look at empty pews and deficit budgets and wonder how we can make it through the current year much less look at life five years in the future.  It can be as dangerous to get mired in the current reality of the church as it is to ignore it.
As we consider the future of our congregation, the question that needs to be asked is “Why?”  Why should we remain open?  When there are several congregations in the area that are on paper more viable, why does God need this pocket-full of Lutherans on the heel of the jester’s shoe that is Cape Cod?
I suggest that this is where we need to spend some time together in conversation and discernment.  If we can find no other reason to be open other than to be open, then it is seriously time to consider how we can best look toward closing with dignity.  That may sound harsh, but it is difficult to justify through scripture or tradition a church that is open simply to be open.  If there is no mission or purpose that undergirds the life of the church, then we are, as a colleague once put it, “a museum of Lutheran studies with a music appreciation society.” 

If we are the church, then God has a mission for us.  We are here to spread the good news, continuing Christ’s work in the world.  As a congregation, we are a unique gathering of Christians, with talents and resources for sharing that news.  We don’t need to ask if we are called to share it, but need to ask how we are called to share it.  The good news can faithfully be described in many ways: grace, peace, forgiveness, promise, life, joy, hope, love, truth, justice, equality, wholeness, mindfulness, and welcome, just to name a few.  What would our life together look like if we said that we are here to share the good news of grace in Christ?  Peace in Christ?  Joy in Christ?  If we find a way to focus our attention, perhaps it will help us look forward.  My next few blog posts will continue to look at how we pursue the why.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Mothering God - In honor of Julian of Norwich on Mother's Day 2016

This article appeared in Matters of Faith column of the Cape Cod Times on May 7, 2016

               On May 13 of 1373 a woman whom we only know today as Julian in the town of Norwich, England was deathly ill.  A local priest was summoned to administer the last rites and be with her at her death.  As part of his ministry, he held a cross before her face and told her to look at and take comfort in it.  According to her writing, as she looked at the cross she was given a series of sixteen visions (or showings, as she called them) about the nature of Christ, the nature of humanity and the nature of God.
                Julian recovered from the illness and spent the rest of her life as an anchoress, living in contemplation in a room attached to The Church of Saint Julian (from which she probably took her name), meditating on and writing about this series of visions.  Dame Julian is especially remembered for her summary of God’s promises for the world:  “All will be well and all will be well and every kind of thing will be well.”  She came to understand that the love of God would simply overflow and dilute the worst that humanity could do.  All will be well in spite of our mistakes, our missteps and our misfortunes, events beyond our control.  Over and over again in her writings she is comforted by the voice of Christ telling her that, in the end, “All will be well.”
                In artwork, Julian is often pictured holding a hazelnut.  This stems from one of her visions of God.  She looks in her hand and sees “something small, no bigger than a hazelnut.”  She comes to realize that it represents “everything which is made.”  She is amazed that something so small and fragile can endure but then understands that it exists (and all creation continues to exist) because God made it, God loves it, and God continues to preserve it.  Again, the overriding sense of her writing is that it is the love of God which weaves together the fabric of creation in spite of our efforts to unravel it.
                As we approach Mothers’ Day, I thought it was appropriate to draw attention to another facet of  Julian of Norwich’s writings, namely, her use of maternal imagery for God.  It is not that Julian exchanges paternal language for maternal language.  Rather, she uses them side by side, expanding the vocabulary of divine description.  “As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother, and he revealed that in everything, and especially in these sweet words where he says:  I am he; that is to say:  I am he, the power and goodness of fatherhood; I am he, the wisdom and the lovingness of motherhood; I am he, the light and the grace which is all blessed love.”  (Revelations of Divine Love, Chapter 60)  She also frequently refers to Christ as “Mother Jesus” a reflection not of gender but of role and relationship saying, “So he [Jesus] wants us to act as a meek child, saying: My kind Mother, my gracious Mother, my beloved Mother, have mercy on me.”  (Revelations of Divine Love, Chapter 61)
                Living in the fourteenth century, Julian would have experienced more rigid definitions of gender roles in parenting.  Mothers and fathers had specific spheres of influence in the lives of their children.  In the twenty-first century, we may question the cultural assumptions about family in Julian’s time, probably giving more value to equality and shared responsibilities in parenting.  Yet we still might see the important implications of Julian’s language, that defining God by a single gender or a single role limits our vision of the love of God.  As Julian experienced the breadth of God’s love, she could not help but go beyond the traditional labels of father and descriptions of a father’s love.  She had to include another image of love and kindness that she had experienced, the love of a mother.
                There are many images of God that come to us both through scripture and centuries of faithful people trying to express their relationship with the divine.  God is described as a Shepherd, a Rock and a Shield.  God is praised as Charity, Wisdom, Humility, Patience, Security and Love.  Jesus refers to God as both a Father in heaven and as Abba (the Aramaic word for Daddy).  None of these titles or descriptions are mutually exclusive.  Instead, they point to aspects of an eternal God who is beyond any label.  Julian referred to God as Mother not because paternal titles were wrong, but because they were too limiting.

                God is our Shepherd.  God is our Rock.  God is Love.  God is our Father.  God is our Mother.  God is none of these titles exclusively.  God is all of these titles at once.  Most importantly for Julian of Norwich, God is the one who, in all of these guises, will make all things well.