through the wardrobe

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

why church?

Easter is only a few days away, and that means a lot of folks are dusting off their Sunday best for their annual or semi-annual trip to the church house. That's not a judgment: just a fact. These people may be dedicated to reading their Bibles, praying, giving, or sharing their faith - more dedicated than those of us who are at church every Sunday, even - but for whatever reason, they simply are not actively involved in the life of the local church.

There are as many reasons as people. There could be some pain, some guilt, some frustration behind it, perhaps from years past when they were a part of a congregation. It could be because they find church services boring, or they're busy with other commitments. Or maybe they just haven't seen any good reason to be a part of a church. I'll come for a special celebration of some momentous work of God, like Jesus' birth or his resurrection, but otherwise... why would I want to be there? Why church?

I'm a pastor, so obviously I have a vested interest in people thinking church is important. But I actually happen to believe it is important - vital, even. This is an enormous topic, but let me try to distill a few points here and offer 4 reasons why I believe church is vital to Christian faith.

1. Encountering grace. There are countless ways that you may get a taste of God's grace in your life. Some of come through company, through friends; some of them will only come in private, when you are alone with God, or alone with creation.
But there are a few ways that God has established as permanent channels of grace for our lives, regular "means of grace" (as we call them in the United Methodist Church) to which we have access. And many of these you will only tap into through the life of the church. Baptism and Holy Communion are the two most obvious examples: you are only baptized, you only receive the bread and the cup, Christ's body and blood, as a part of a community. Other believers are involved in all of that, and a minister, probably. The grace that we encounter through these acts, this is a grace you only find with the rest of the church.
[Worship itself, that encounter with God's grace, is meant to be a communal experience as well, where "each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation" (1 Cor 14:25).]

2. Encouragement, support, and challenge. Being a part of the church means being a part of a community that helps us through life. The folks around you in the pews are called by scripture to "encourage each other and build each other up" (1 Thess 5:11), to "share each other's burdens" (Gal 6:4), and to "motivate one another to acts of love and good works" (Heb 10:24). We aren't just there to sit next to each other - we're there to journey through life together and help one another along the way! If we don't get to know others in our congregations and invest in their lives, we're not being the church at all. As a member of a faithful church, you can look to your sisters and brothers in Christ for spiritual, emotional, even material support and help on your journey (and they can look to you!).

Of course, the reasons "why church?" aren't all centered on us, and the benefits we can receive through a connection with the church. Some of the reasons are simply truths that Jesus' people need to come to terms with.

3. The Body of Christ.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ... Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body... Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (1 Cor 12:12, 14-16, 27)

Paul is really concerned here with the variety of spiritual gifts in the 'body', and the important role that each member of the 'body' plays. But his central image, of the body, has other implications as well. You, Christian, no matter how self-sufficient you might feel, you are a spiritual body part. You can't change that; nothing you say will make you any less a part of the body. The moral of the story? We're not supposed to do this on our own - if we try to, we may not really be doing it at all! You wouldn't say an eyeball or a pinky toe, off on its own, was really living life. Existing? Sure. Living life? Nah. That's what a body does. It takes more parts than that. If you don't join together with the other parts of the body, you're severely hampering your own Christian life, not to mention handicapping everyone else's (they're left without a nose, or a kidney!).

4. "You" is plural. The word "you" can be singular or plural, depending on how you use it. "Will you marry me?" "You lost, Denver Broncos." That's English. In ancient Greek, the language of the New Testament, it's different: there is a singular "you" and a plural "you," and you can tell them apart just by looking at them - like the difference between "you" and "y'all."
And you may be surprised how many of the "you"s in the New Testament are plural. Take 1 Corinthians 3:16 for instance: "Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you?" I'm God's temple? Cool! That means I should eat right, exercise, maybe avoid tattoos (temple graffiti?). Oh, but wait: this is plural. You all, y'all, the Christian community, are the temple of God, where the Spirit dwells. Like so many other "you"s, it's plural. Why is that? Because Christianity is a plural faith. It's all about y'all, we, us. Jesus didn't call individual disciples to follow him, each on their own: he called twelve disciples to form a Church. One more time: we're not supposed to do this on our own! That's why church.

But let's get real.
This is a blog post and a whole bunch of words. If this all sounds good to you, you probably felt that way before you started reading. If you want to see folks who've never shown an interest in participating in the life of the church begin to invest their time and hearts in your congregation, recommending a blog post to them is not your best option (just trust me on that). If you want to see people drawn into the life of your church, do what you can to make that congregation the kind of community it's supposed to be; do what you can to offer people the opportunities for growth and service that they need; do what you can to make your church look like the bride of Christ that she is. Make your church, and the experience of participating in your church, a compelling case for itself.
Then trust God with the rest.

And you might want to get started on that, because this weekend you'll have an opportunity to show a lot of new people what the church can be, if they'll give it a chance.

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Tuesday, April 01, 2014

honor thy father and mother

"Honor your father and mother..." - Exodus 20:12 / Deuteronomy 5:16

We recently finished a study on the Ten Commandments at Grace, where every week we looked at one commandment closely, clarifying its meaning, exploring the ways other passages expanded on, qualified, or illustrated it, and asking what it means for our lives today. I had a great time researching and preparing all of that material, and I had an equally great and equally illuminating time discussing all of this with the group each week. Since time for blogging has been hard to come by lately, I thought it may be good to share a bit from one of those studies here.

Honoring your father and your mother is the 5th commandment.

A lot of people find it helpful to break the Ten Commandments into two sections: 1-4, which focus on our relationship with and responsibilities towards the Lord, and 5-10, which emphasize our relationship with and responsibilities toward our neighbors. Those aren't hard and fast divisions. After all, all ten of these commandments are a response to God's delivering Israel from Egypt and making covenant with them. And even in the first four commandments you can see a concern for neighbors (for instance, notice the insistence in Ex 20:10 / Deut 5:14 that 'resting on the Sabbath' cannot mean 'resting at someone else's expense': your neighbors -  servants, children, livestock, whatever - need rest too). But dividing the commandments between #4 and #5 can still be a helpful move.

And if you do, then the 5th commandment becomes the first commandment focused on our neighbors. Honoring your parents becomes a starting point for directing our lives towards others.

Why would that be? Why start talking about our obligations towards our neighbors with our parents?

This reminds me of a passage from C. S. Lewis's classic The Screwtape Letters, a fictional correspondence between two demons, a senior Tempter named Screwtape, and his inexperienced nephew Wormwood, discussing the man Wormwood's trying to tempt. In letter 6, Screwtape advises Wormwood:
Do what you will, there is going to be some benevolence, as well as some malice, in your patient’s soul The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbours whom he meets every day and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary. There is no good at in inflaming his hatred of Germans if, at the same time, a pernicious habit of charity it growing between him and his mother, his employer, and the man he meets in the train.

The people we don't know, out on "the remote circumference," are the 'starving children in Africa'. Real people, with real struggles, but folks we'll probably never know and never have to learn to love as our neighbors. (We don't even know enough to say what country they're from! It's just "Africa.") It's easy to care about them, but often that care is imaginary - it doesn't have the marks or the effects of the hard-earned care you have for a sibling, a friend, or a spouse. It's little more than a warm feeling, hardly the love-in-action that our immediate neighbors demand from us. The tempters, then, want us to spend all of our 'care' on those people out on the remote circumference, rather than on the people we actually live alongside.

Why would the commandments concerning our neighbors start with our families?
Because if we want to learn to love people, we have to start with the folks we live with every day. That's where we'll learn real benevolence: with the people we know the best, warts and all, but whom we still have to love, day in, day out. Before you can get to ‘thou shalt not steal’ or ‘thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor’ or any of the others, you have to learn to love your family. When you learn how to do that (or at least how to try), the Holy Spirit's cultivated some real benevolence in your soul, and you’re ready to move past the 5th commandment and love some other folks.

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Thursday, February 06, 2014

How could a church ever support evolution?

The General Conference of the United Methodist Church, which gathers every four years, is the only body authorized to make 'official' statements on behalf of the UMC. Every four years General Conference will amend and ratify the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, and so, all the rest of the time, the latest edition of the Discipline is the best, and just about the only, place you can look for the church's official position on this or that topic.

And according to the Book of Discipline, "We find that science's descriptions of cosmological, geological, and biological evolution are not in conflict with theology."

I know that for a lot of Christians, this kind of statement is scandalous and disconcerting. How could a church ever support evolution?

That line, which is all you get on the topic from the UMC's website, is lifted from the middle of a paragraph in the Discipline that addresses 'science and technology', and there are several other points this paragraph makes that you need to know to really understand the church's position.
  1. "We recognize science as a legitimate interpretation of God's natural world." To my ear, that simply means, 'scientific investigation is good and can tell us truths about the world'.
  2. "We affirm the validity of the claims of science in describing the natural world and in determining what is scientific." The first half of this sentence seems to just reiterate what was said before. The second half makes a new and important point, though: science gets to determine what is 'scientific' and what isn't.
  3. "We preclude science from making authoritative claims about theological issues and theology from making authoritative claims about scientific issues." This is important. The church rejects outright any attempts to have 'science' make theological statements, theology that's built on the 'unassailable foundation' of scientific authority (for instance, 'science proves there is no God'). On the other hand, theology doesn't get to determine good science either. In important ways, these two disciplines are talking about different issues and must not confuse those issues.
So, my summary: scientific work is good and useful, and it's the best judge of what's science and what's not; also, theology and science shouldn't try to dictate to each other. The church wants to affirm the value of scientific work and leave that work to the experts.

After all of that is said, then comes the claim about evolution, that "science's descriptions of cosmological, geological, and biological evolution are not in conflict with theology." 
Given what's already been said, this makes pretty good sense. Science is good and useful, so we want to learn from it. Science gets to decide if something, say, biological evolution, is good science or not, so let them hammer that out. Claims like this aren't theological claims--they may have theological implications or demand theological narrations, but simply saying 'humans evolved from other life forms over time' does not make any direct statements about God. And so, the church doesn't necessarily have any issue with scientific claims about biological evolution.

The conflict arises, of course, when you start talking about what the Bible says. Some Christians see the Bible as flatly refuting the normal claims scientists make about evolution. Some Christians don't have any problem affirming the truth of the scriptures and affirming the scientific claims. Clearly the UMC's official position falls into the latter category.
That's a much longer conversation than I have time to get into here (though I have written about it many times before). I, personally, don't see any conflict between what the Bible says and what you can read in your average biology textbook today. Why? Let me just say two things for now: 
1) making room for evolution when you interpret the Bible doesn't necessarily mean you're just surrendering to modern opinions, giving up 1800 years of faithful Christian teaching because of some 19th century crackpot named Darwin--on the contrary, the conviction that Genesis 1-2 should not be read literally goes back in the Church over 1500 years before Darwin;
2) I honestly believe that a literal reading of Genesis 1-2 forces a foreign meaning on the passage and keeps the Bible from speaking for itself. That's just not what Genesis is trying to tell us. So I think that way of reading, instead of deferring to the scriptures, actually ends up making the text defer to our expectations.

There are other possible sources of conflict, besides how we read the Bible. A common one is when particular scientists and writers fail to recognize the limits of scientific inquiry and go on to make ridiculous claims about what science proves (or disproves, more likely) when it comes to religion. The UMC's not supporting that sort of thing. Remember, 'science' can't make theological statements. When someone tries to make science talk theology, they're confused about what their subject matter can and can't do. They're playing ventriloquist, putting their words in science's mouth--sometimes more skillfully, sometimes less--but they need to find a new act and ditch the dummy.

And people can still argue about evolution, as far as the church is concerned, only let the arguments be biological, geological, whatever, arguments. If biological evolution (or anything else) is bad science, terrific: let the experts work that out.

I know that this topic has been on a lot of people's minds here lately, with the heavily publicized debate earlier this week, so I wanted to just take a chance to share and explain the United Methodist position. I'd love to hear your thoughts and questions and disagreements, though. That's what the comment section is for--let's have a conversation! 
And above all, in this area as in any other, let's try to be faithful: to our calling to holy and compassionate living, and the gospel of Jesus that we've received, in which we stand, and by which we're being saved.

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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

reflections on Joshua (1 of 2)

I didn't see this coming - who would? - and I didn't even really notice at first, but apparently the book of Joshua and Green Lantern: Rebirth are meant to be read together.

I got the Green Lantern volume for Christmas, just a fun, quick read that I thought I could share with some folks. I certainly wasn't expecting this superhero story from a decade ago to be an instrument of the Holy Spirit. Really, who would?
So I started reading that recently.

About the same time, I started reading the book of Joshua, because it had been a couple of years.
And I did not go in with high expectations. I mean, I would have granted that this one might be an instrument of the Spirit - it's scripture, after all - but I also went in remembering that Joshua is a very violent and, at times, very boring book (if you don't believe me, check out chapters 13-21).

What I didn't remember about Joshua was that refrain you hear again and again: "be strong and courageous"; "do not be afraid" (Josh 1:6-7, 9, 18; 8:1; 10:8, 25; 11:6).

Be strong. Be courageous. Do not be afraid.
For some reason, this was absolutely imperative for Joshua and the Israelites as they entered the Promised Land. The Lord needed them to be strong and courageous, to trust him in the face of their enemies, or they weren't going to receive the land.

Now, not long before I started Joshua, I was writing a sermon on Hebrews 2:10-18, and one verse in particular grabbed my attention. It was 2:15: the Son of God had shared in our flesh and blood so that he could "free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death." Held in slavery by the fear of death. That sounded so true, so poignant. But, try as I might, I just couldn't use it in the sermon the way I wanted to. I couldn't find the words to describe the life of 'slavery to fear'. I didn't really know that kind of fear, I thought, and so I couldn't find a compelling and appropriate way to talk about it.

But then the book of Joshua opened my eyes.
"Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go" (1:9). When I read those words I realized that I did know what it meant to be a slave to fear. The reality was: I was terrified. I was terrified failing, of letting people down, of upsetting someone. I was terrified of falling short of my calling. 

Meanwhile, Green Lantern: Rebirth is a story about the power of fear. It's about how fear can infiltrate your life, make you do things you don't want to do, break your willpower, and take control. Fear, in the story, just happens to be a big, yellow, ancient space-monster. "Please, don't be afraid," pleads one of the heroes, "You can't be afraid..." Or the yellow space-monster will get you.

As sci-fi and fantasy can sometimes do, Green Lantern, beneath the colorful garb and the epic story-telling, had put its finger on the truth of things. The vibrant, imaginative exterior de-familiarizes everything and helps you recognize a simple truth that you may have been numb to otherwise, something you wouldn't have noticed without all those colors and lights: fear - especially when you don't recognize it - will destroy your will and seize power over your life. It will enslave you.

And that's what it was doing to me. I hadn't realized it before, didn't recognize it, but it was wrapping it's tendrils around my life. Fear was suffocating me. I was afraid to trust the Spirit to lead me, to go where I needed to go, say what I needed to say, to minister to people. I was wrapped up in a straightjacket of expectations, mistakes, and guilt, and I couldn't move.

And then it was like God was talking to Nance instead of Joshua. (That's a good feeling - don't imagine that happens to a preacher more often than it happens to anyone else.) 
Be courageous; don't be afraid. That's what I needed to hear. And I could breathe again. Green Lantern and Joshua, of all things, brought me face to face with this poison in my life and with the truth that overcomes great fear: "the Lord your God is with you" (1:9).
And my chains were gone.

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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

we are here as we have never been before

I hope you have had a blessed Christmas season these last few days.
I stumbled onto this poem last winter while reading Wendell Berry's volume, A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997, and I've had to sit on it all the while, until the right time. Merry Christmas.

"Remembering that it happened once"

Remembering that it happened once,
We cannot turn away the thought,
As we go out, cold, to our barns
Toward the long night's end, that we
Ourselves are living in the world
It happened in when it first happened,
That we ourselves, opening a stall
(A latch thrown open countess times
Before), might find them breathing there,
Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,
The mother kneeling over Him,
The husband standing in belief
He scarcely can believe, in light
That lights them from no source we see,
An April morning's light, the air
Around them joyful as a choir.
We stand with one hand on the door,
Looking into another world
That is this world, the pale daylight
Coming just as before, our chores
To do, the cattle all awake,
Our own white frozen breath hanging
In front of us; and we are here
As we have never been before,
Sighted as not before, our place
Holy, although we knew it not.

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Monday, December 16, 2013

You better watch out, You better not cry...

Yesterday morning in worship, the choir at Grace Church presented its Christmas Cantata. Every year it's a fun, pretty, jubilant sort of service, an hour of celebration of the coming of Jesus at Christmas.

This year, right before the music began, I stood up and read our gospel lesson, Matthew 3:1-12, about John the Baptist. John was yelling at the Pharisees and Sadducees - "brood of vipers!" - and warning folks about judgment: "Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
The passage ends with the words "unquenchable fire."

This is not really the best way to lead into a Christmas Cantata.

The Cantata is full-blown Christmas. The last thing the narrator says is "Christ has come, Hallelujah!"
The gospel reading is full-blown Advent. We're still waiting on Jesus to come - waiting for his birth at Bethlehem and waiting for his coming again in glory.

John the Baptist doesn't seem very Christmas-y, yet every December he rears his shaggy head in our worship services, bellowing his words of judgment. (Think Charlton Heston in The Greatest Story Ever Told.)
We hear about John each year because the weeks leading up to Christmas are the weeks of Advent, and part of the hope of Advent, one of the things we're all waiting for, is Christ's coming again to judge the world. Jesus is the one appointed by God to judge the living and the dead (Acts 10:42).

And that's a good thing!

Throughout scripture, judgment is actually something God's people eagerly anticipate. Why on earth would that be?
There's an Old Testament way of answering that and a New Testament way. The OT answer would be: because the Lord will judge the world with righteousness and truth and equity, that's why! (Ps 96:13; 98:9) The NT answer might say: Well, who is in a position to condemn? "Only Christ, and Christ died for us, Christ rose for us, Christ reigns in power for us, Christ prays for us!" (Rom 8:34)

Judgement is good because the Judge is good.

That's why we hear about judgment during Advent, while we wait for Jesus, no matter how un-Christmas-like it might sound. Judgment is something we hope for, not something we fear. This time last year, two days before I was supposed to preach on John the Baptist and judgment, a young man walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, and killed 26 people. That's what made me understand: judgment, God putting an end to all the mess in our world, that's a good thing. God's going to judge the world and set things right.

Or maybe Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it best. When faced with the very un-Christmas-y words of John the Baptist in the gospels, Bonhoeffer wrote:
God comes in the midst of evil, in the midst of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And in judging it, he loves us; he purifies us; he sanctifies us; he comes to us with his grace and love.

We've still got a week of waiting until Jesus comes in Bethlehem. May God fill you with anticipation and hope for the arrival of our Lord, for his birth at Christmas and his coming again.

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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

God is actually quite Great: Antonia Brenner

I remember hearing, back in October, that Sister Antonia Brenner had passed away.
If you are like me, that news makes you wonder: who's Sister Antonia Brenner? 

As if turns out, she was a faithful sister in Christ with a beautiful story. After several marriages and raising children, Sister Antonia felt called to move into La Mesa penitentiary in Tijuana, Mexico. So, in 1977, she moved into a cell at La Mesa, and she ministered to the prisoners and staff there until her death this year.

When Sister Antonia died, the Los Angeles Times published a powerful obituary telling her story, which you can read here. I started to share this at the time, but I fell behind in blogging and didn't get to it.
But today I was reminded when I read Richard Beck's recent post about her life, "The Little Way of Mother Antonia." It's a quick read, but it paints a vivid picture of the kind of life this woman led. I hope everyone will check it out; it's absolutely worth your time.

Here's a snippet from Dr. Beck's post, to give you an idea and hopefully whet your appetite:
From her cell in La Mesa Mother Antonia cared for sick and dying prisoners. She brought food, medicine and dental care for the poorest of the inmates. She fought in courts for those wrongfully imprisoned. She buried the prisoners who died without family. She tirelessly spoke out against the torture and harsh treatment of inmates. And she loved and cared for the guards as much as she loved the prisoners, spending untold hours holding their hands, listening to their problems, offering advice and spiritual counsel.

No one was beyond the love and embrace of La Madre.

She had such respect that she could walk into the middle of violent prison riots and shut them down. When the men saw La Madre in their midst they threw their guns out the window.

And every night she went back to her cell to sleep in the exact same conditions of those she cared for.

Reading about this woman, in her 70s and 80s, living in a prison cell like everyone else... it sounds a bit extreme. A little nuts.

Until I remember how God came to dwell here with us, a baby sleeping in a feeding trough - whatever it took to bring healing and salvation to the world.

You can read the rest here. Take some time today and learn about this woman of faith.

More posts from the "God is actually quite Great" series:

the Rwandan martyrs
Father Damien
Annalena Tonelli
Churches that raided slave ships
Maria Skobtsova