Saturday, September 30, 2006

A Welcoming Church

From Kevin Little in today's Toronto Star:

The United Church of Canada has embarked on an expensive campaign called Emerging Spirit to attract 30- to 45-year-olds. Some grumble that this money would be better spent on social justice work or hiring additional staff, but I disagree. The fact is, our land of affluence, greed and narcissism needs to hear the radical "good news" of Jesus (See Matthew 25 and 28).

The United, Anglican and Presbyterian churches have watched their dominant position on the spiritual landscape fade to the margins. While a few formerly mainline Christians have found their way into friendlier, more dynamic evangelical churches and the soberly certain fundamentalist churches, most now just stay home and embrace libertarianism.

Why aren't more 30- to 45-year-olds going to conservative and fundamentalist churches? So-called Bible-believing churches are hardly that. They select carefully what they like from the Bible and downplay what makes them uncomfortable. They are thrilled to quote Paul on sexuality and gender roles but less keen to discuss Jesus' thoughts on wealth. Success theology pastors like Joel Osteen are not likely to remind Christians what Jesus told the rich young ruler to do: sell all you have and give it to poor.

Meanwhile, the yuppies who left the mainline churches in the '60s are finding affluenza leaves them feeling unfulfilled. They have a deep hunger for meaning and purpose in their lives.

We in the target demographic have never being challenged to sacrifice for a cause bigger than our self-interest. Let's be clear that this age group is interested in spirituality, not religion, and it's easy to see why. To attract my generation, the churches must make every effort to free themselves of patriarchy, racism and homophobia. And amen to that.

But with the focus on "welcoming," when does the sincere effort to be hospitable morph into a naked attempt to ape the culture of the day? If we assume the 30- to 45-year-olds are roaming from church to church trying out the sermon, the Sunday School, the activities, at what point do we as Christians stop saying anything that might offend and focus exclusively on the privileged middle-class?

While it is true the church must do more to reach out to those who hunger for God but are allergic to religion, it is also true that deep spiritual yearning can only be satisfied by a message that actually has something to say to the culture.

I can hear the Christian right nodding their heads and saying "Amen, brother!" But aren't these folks even more guilty of letting the culture distort the Gospel? Conservatives and fundamentalists are more in love with 1950s America than they are with the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

What I long to see within my denomination is outreach to newcomers and the marginalized. Both resonate strongly with the Jesus in the Gospels and the early church of Luke-Acts. In addition, I think we mainliners have more to learn from our Anabaptist sisters/brothers in Christ than the ultra-successful evangelical worship centres in the suburbs.

I can hear my liberal progressive pals tapping their Birkenstocks to that tune. But wait. What Anabaptists do that we mainliners have thus far refused to do, is to be unabashedly focused on Jesus. I believe this allows them to be far more radical and effective as alternative communities than any of our mainline churches. If you want to see Jesus alive and liberating in the world, look no further than the Mennonite Central Committee.

I often hear my colleagues and the churches they serve buying into the idea that what my generation needs is more affirmation, less stress, less talk of sin, guilt, and judgment. But they're wrong. If we want to open someone's heart to his neighbour, we must first remove the idol that prevents that connection from taking place. We must name the addiction that drives us to distraction but can never satisfy: endless self-obsession and materialism.

Instead of asking the congregation to stand up and give themselves a hug (I was a witness to this one vacation Sunday), we should ask them to reach into their wallets and examine their credit card receipts. As it says in Matthew 6:21 "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." And we need more connections to the lives of people on the margins, here in Canada and around the world (Matthew 25).

Our churches can share the positive message that within their walls is a different community, where the homeless and the CEO kneel to receive the Sacraments together, where the mentally challenged and the workaholic hand out bulletins together, where the convicted criminal who has done her time and the president of the United Church Women can count the collection together. It is a church where success is not measured by attendance or how happy we feel when we leave. Instead it is a place where we learn to love our neighbour as God loved us, as we love ourselves.

We must be more welcoming. And we must have something to say.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Sermon: Pentecost 16 - Year B

“O, get out of here, kid! You’re getting in the way! People are trying to hear the preacher!” Simon snapped as he kicked young Joseph where the sun isn’t supposed to shine.

Joseph ran and hid behind a row of baskets usually filled with bread, but empty from lunch. His two friends were already waiting for him there.

“What were you doing out there?” Joseph’s friend Maria asked. “You could have gotten in BIG trouble, and taken US with you!”

“Shut up,” said Joseph, looking at his dusty toes.

“What’s that’s guy saying, anyway?” asked Jake, Joseph’s other friend hiding behind the baskets.

“I don’t know, I can’t hear when you’re talking so loudly,” Maria said, craning her neck to see over the baskets without being detected.

“Who cares, anyway? Let’s get outta here and find some food, I’m starving,” said Jake.

“Let’s wait ‘till everyone leaves,” said Joseph, “Then, hopefully, no one will see us.”

Remembering what happened to Benjamin, they decided to stay put. Their eyes grew dark as they summoned up that night when they heard Benjamin scream as his father reached for the knife. They remembered watching Benjamin’s dad dig the grave while his mother looked straight ahead into nothingness. They watched Benjamin’s father’s eyes, vacant of remorse or regret -or even anger – when his son died.

Benjamin got sick. He couldn’t work yet still had that great big mouth to feed. So he had to go. Simple as that.

Joseph, Maria, and Jake watched as Benjamin drew his last, blood bathed breath.

They had told each other this story countless times, not with words, but with their eyes. Benjamin’s death haunted their dreams and their waking eyes, because they knew that - at any moment – it could happen to them.

Each had their own story. Joseph’s dad was killed after the uprising when Caesar’s army murdered 50 men in retribution. Maria’s dad drank wine each night until he passed out, leaving her and her brother to wander the city looking for food. Jake’s dad treated him the way he was treated by his Roman boss: with hard words and an even harder fist.
Their moms weren’t treated any better than they were. Heaven help them if they couldn’t have children.

Survival was their world. Joseph, Jake, and Maria knew each day brought them closer to safety, the magic age of 13 when they were finally adults, finally receiving protection under the law. But before then, anything could happen to them. And it did. Think of Benjamin.

It’s hard to call people evil when it was just the way it was. Nobody taught them any differently. There was only so much food to go around. If you couldn’t work, nobody could take care of you. If you got into trouble they wouldn’t think twice about the harshest punishment.

Maria yelped as the baskets that were keeping them hidden suddenly disappeared. Looking up, Joseph’s eyes bore into preacher’s henchmen’s, whose furrowed brows reminded him of Benjamin’s dad’s. All angry men reminded him of that man because they could all do the same thing.

Jake tried to run. But a hand grabbed his collar and yanked him toward the crowd. He looked up, and there was the preacher standing in front of him. His eyes blazing.

Jake looked at the preacher’s hands. Hard, crackled skin. No blood under his fingernails.

The preacher knelt down, looked deeply into Jake’s red eyes before lifting the boy’s trembling body on to his lap as he sat down on a tree stump.

“Those who welcome this little child, welcomes me,” he said. “And not only that, whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

The disciples gasped. So did everyone else within earshot.

The preacher certainly wasn’t making it easy to be his follower.

First he says that a terrible death waits for anyone who becomes his follower. And he says that this is a GOOD thing!

If that’s not bad enough, he then has the temerity to say that they need to welcome children as they welcome him.

“Give me a break, preacher. That just isn’t practical,” a voice from the back said. “Children are tools.

“Also, they probably won’t live past age five so why would I want to get attached to them?” another blurted from the middle of the crowd.

“When an ox gets lame and can no longer plow the fields, we get rid of it. If a horse breaks its leg, it gets disposed of. If a child gets sick…”

The preacher brushed the hair away from Jake’s forehead, and again, looked deeply into his eyes. And without looking away from Jake, he said, “Whoever wants to be first, must be the servant of all.”

Jake’s eyes grew large. He leapt off of the preacher’s lap and ran away. Joseph and Maria quickly followed behind.

They ran to the outskirts of the city where they knew they were safe.

“What just happened there!?” Joseph asked, in between breaths.

“I dunno,” said Maria. “What do you think, Jake? Jake?”

Jake was quiet. He sat staring at his dusty toes.

“I’ve never heard preaching like that before,” Joseph said. “It’s like I heard them with my soul instead of my ears. I remember being at the synagogue and hearing the rabbi read from the scriptures, and thinking that’s what God must sound like. But today, I don’t think I heard what God sounds like. I think I heard God actually speak.”

“It’s weird, isn’t it?” said Maria, “Usually we get beaten to an inch of our lives when we sneak around and listen to the adults talk. But this guy wanted us to be there. He said that when big folks welcomed us – US – it was like welcoming him.”

“And also, he said that who wanted to be important – or big or great-, had to become like a servant - a slave. That doesn’t make any sense? Aren’t the biggest and brightest people the ones who are supposed to have servants and slaves? How is that supposed to work?”

“Maybe being great and being his follower are very different things, or at least the way we usually think of what it means to be great,” Jake wondered out loud. “When he put me on his lap, he looked at me the way no one else has in my entire life. He looked at me like I was worth something, like I was worth more than the fields that I plow or the fish that I catch. I’ve never been looked at like that before. No one has ever looked so deeply into my eyes. It was like he looked into my heart. And when he did that, everything bad about me seemed to disappear. No more shame. No more dirtiness. No more feelings of worthlessness. When I looked back in to his eyes I felt no fear. Only love.”

A tear ran down Jake’s cheek.

“If someone with a dirty old cloak, scraggly beard, and dusty shoes can make me feel loved and if he can make the world feel like that, than he really is great, despite what anyone else might say or do. And he makes me feel like we all can be just like him. Imagine that, a world where everyone loves each other and serves each other instead of fighting with one another.”

Joseph and Maria smiled at each other and at Jake.

“So, maybe greatness depends on how much we love, rather than how much we have,” said Jake. “Maybe that’s what that preacher was saying.”

As Jake turned around his heart jumped when he saw his dad hunched down with his arms stretched out. Jake stood still for a moment. Then reached for his father’s arms.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

A Joke

How do you drive a Unitarian family out of town?

Burn a question mark on their lawn.

via SoMA

Friday, September 15, 2006

Stupid Church People

A cool blog I recently encountered has this:

As we reached my house and it was time to say goodbye the most amazing thing happened. The pastor and his wife gave me an invitation that I couldn't refuse.

No... they didn't invite me to come to their church.

No... they didn't invite me to join them for a small group meeting.

No... they didn't invite me to join hands with them and pray for my life.

No... they didn't do anything vaguely resembling what a "good" pastor might do.

No... what they did was extraordinarily human-like.

They invited me (and my kids) to their home to hang out and watch TV with their family.

And guess what? I said I would... and then we shook hands and hugged goodbye.

Simple. Easy. Effective. Relevant.


Stupid Church People

Who's to blame?

Who is to blame for the Montreal shootings?

That’s the question that many people are asking this week.

For me, the answer’s obvious: Kimveer Gill is to blame.

Not “goth culture” not media violence, and not “loose” gun laws. As someone suggested to me this week, do we turn our schools into barricades? Do we ban violent video games? Do we destroy all guns?

Would that have stopped Gill from shooting innocent people?

I doubt it.

But we do like to play the blame game. Am I a “goth”? No. Do I think the video game based on the Columbine shootings is morally reprehensible? Definitely. Do I think tougher gun laws keep guns away from those who are set on acquiring them? No, but neither do I think gun ownership is a basic human right.

I don’t think there should be a political face on this tragedy. When these sorts of events happen we need to pray for all involved: the victims and their families, the shooter’s families, and for those who struggle in the dark, fighting their demons of hate.

First rabbis ordained in Germany since Second World War

Daniel Alter, 47, of Germany; Thomas Cucera, 35, of the Czech Republic; and 38-year-old Malcolm Matitiani of South Africa were officially named rabbis Thursday during a ceremony in Dresden's synagogue, which was rebuilt after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

No rabbis have been ordained in Germany since the Nazis destroyed the College of Jewish Studies in Berlin in 1942, midway through Second World War.

Read it here.

As it has been said by people wiser than me: the best way to counter anti-semitism is for Jews to live as faithful Jews.

This is good news, indeed.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

My second blog-o-versary!

Here's what was my first post on this blog. I can't believe its been 2 years. It feels like I've always been doing this!

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Jesus is better than beer and sex

For those of us ego-maniacs, here's a Flikr for preachers.


Why are young adults not finding their faith in their parents church?

These families share something in common: their young adult kids are not easily finding their places in the church of their parents. The problem is widespread. I have been in two groups of pastors lately where someone asked how many of our post-high-school kids were actively involved in the church. No pastor in either group had a majority of his kids involved in the church; most had no kids actively involved

Read the whole thing here.

Separated at Birth?

Thanks to Confessing Evangelical via Ship of Fools.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Water's Edge

Here's a new blog by a buddy of mine. Check it out. Bookmark it. Do whatever you want to do with it.

Here's an except:

After seeing Al Gore’s Doomsday Scenario I’ve been hording canned beans and bottled water. I’ve been riding my bike and shooting deadly glares at SUV drivers.

Is Kyoto the way to help bring the earth back to normal temperatures? Maybe. But it’s better than doing nothing. Or denying that there is a problem.

(the whole article here)

The Bible

I’ve been reading – actually listening to (I picked up the audiobook) – Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian where he outlines, in story form, our culture’s shift from Modernity to Post-Modernity.

He makes some compelling arguments. But I couldn’t help by think to myself as I listened, “Been there. Done that.”

Much of what McLaren describes as “postmodern” is actually good, orthodox, historic Protestantism.

For example, take the bible. McLaren suggests that Christians have been reading the bible like a textbook (which is true for many), a systematic outlay of good, godly, moral behaviour, and as a formula for finding salvation.

But the historic (aka “mainline”) churches have never read the bible that way. As I was taught in seminary: the bible doesn’t give us information about God. It proclaims God’s activity in the world. Scripture doesn’t tell us anything about Jesus, it announces Jesus as saviour. The bible preaches Christ.

I guess I don’t have the same Modernist baggage that many of my evangelical friends have. My brand of Lutheranism has never – for the most part, there are exceptions to every rule – fallen victim to fundamentalism. We’ve never said that the bible is inerrant or infallible. At least not in the way that many evangelicals say it is.

My father-in-law, a New Testament scholar, said that the bible isn’t historically, or factually infallible. But the bible is doctrinally infallible. I still don’t know what that means, especially since there are many differing doctrines within scripture. Which is why we have so many differing denomination, or even factions within churches.

Martin Luther said that the bible is like a “wax nose” that can be twisted in any way a person wants. There’s great wisdom in that. We all have, as, again, Luther puts, it, a “canon within a canon.” Everyone sees some passages as more important than others. Lutheran theology places Paul’s letters, specifically the doctrine of justification, as the key to interpreting scripture.

Mennonites, on the other hand, emphasize the ethical demands of the Sermon on the Mount as the centerpiece of their faith.

For Calvinists, it's Paul’s doctrine of election.

I would contend that NO ONE reads the bible literally. Some passages, yes. But most, they do not. For example, I’ll bet someone a month’s salary that most North American Christians own two coats, despite the CLEAR teaching of scripture.

That’s why it sticks in my craw when some folks condemn others for ignoring biblical teaching, when everyone has passages that they deem more authoritative than others.
I think the bible asks us to open up our imagination to God’s workings in the world. The bible is weird little stories, rugged poetry, moral aphorisms, personal correspondence. It is not for the faint of heart, for it can burn you with its heat.

Do I read the bible literally? No. I take the bible much more seriously than that. I read it not as newspaper accounts, or moral instruction, or even for spiritual enlightenment. I read the bible to find Christ - crucified, risen, and ascended – and in him I find newness of life, today and into eternity.

That’s why I read the bible.

A day to remember

We sent out oldest child off to kindergarten today. It went a lot easier than I expected.

But I think I need to re-stock my Kleenex stash.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Children's Sermon: Pentecost 13 - Year B - "Reggie"

“C’mon Reggie time for dinner! Go wash your hands, please,” shouted his dad over the din of the TV.

“When this show is over!” said Reggie.

“No, now, please,” said his dad.

Reggie sighed then turned off the TV. He pushed his Reggie-sized stool into the bathroom and placed it in front of the sink. He climbed on top of the stool and stretched out his arms to reach the taps.

A few minutes later he was ready to sit at the table.

He sat down next to his brother, Steve.

“Where’s mom?” Reggie asked.

“She should be home soon, she had to pick up some paint on the way home from work,” said his dad.

As if one cue, the door opened and their mom came in carrying three buckets of Banana Cream paint that she was going use on their bedroom.

“Just in time mommy! We’re already at the table to eat!” shouted Reggie.

“Mmmm…smells yummy! I’ll be right there!” his mom shouted back.

After putting down the paint and hanging up her coat, she came to the table and sat down.

“Okay,” she said, “let’s pray.”

“But you didn’t wash your hands, mommy!” shouted Reggie.

“I know, dear. I was in a hurry,” replied his mom.

“But that’s the rule. We have to wash our hands before we pray!”

“I know, but it will take too long, and don’t you want to eat? I’ll wash them after we pray.”

“No, you have to wash them BEFORE we pray,” said Reggie. “That’s the rule.”

“Reggie, I know that’s the rule, but we don’t have rules for the sake of rules. Your dad and I said that hands were to be washed before we pray so we don’t have a lot of running around before dinner.”

Reggie stared at his mom. His eyebrows scrunched.

“Remember in Sunday’s bible reading, where some of the religious leaders were giving Jesus a hard time for not washing his hands?”

“Yeah,” said Reggie. “They were mad because they were supposed to wash before eating, to get all the dirt and junk off their hands.”

“Well, the religious leaders didn’t really care about how clean the disciples were, like I know you were. They only cared that people followed the rules. And when people didn’t do what they thought was right, they got really mad.”

“So we only obey rules when we feel like it?” Steve asked with a twinkle in his eye.

Their mom laughed.

“Not quite,” she said. “It means that rules are there to help us, not to hurt us. But it also means that being a Christian is not a bunch of ‘do’s and don’ts’. Being a Christian is about being loved by God, even when we sometimes break the rules. Now, after we pray, I’ll go wash my hands, okay?”

“Okay,” said Reggie.

Then they said a pray like this as we do now: Dear God, thank you that you love us even when we break the rules. Amen.

Sermon: Pentecost 13 - Year B

“Be doers of the word and not merely hearers…”

Many Lutherans don’t like the letter of James. In fact, Martin Luther once said that the letter of James was made of straw, only good to help light his fire.

Inflammatory language about scripture, don’t you think? Wanting to rip out a whole book from the bible to use for kindling doesn’t quite have the reverence we attach to the reading and study – let alone, the application - of scripture.

As one who has been trained in the Lutheran theological method, I always need to reach for the Tums when I...(the rest here)

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Who do you think are the top ten most powerful women in the world throughout history?

Other than my wife, and my two daughters being the runners-up, here are some answers from many Yahoo Readers

1) The Virgin Mary
2) Mother Teresa
4)Jennie Wade
5)Queen Elizabeth
6)Queen Victoria
8)Susan B. Anthony
9)Ann Frank
10)Rosa Parks

and here are a couple extra:
11) Helen Keller
13)Sojourner Truth
14)Harriet Tubman
15)Clara Barton

Who do you think should make the list?

For a bigger list, see here.

Here's a list of Forbes
' most powerful living women.

Michael Coren: "I think we should nuke Iran"

I guess Jesus was only kidding about that peacemaker stuff. C'mon, Jesus that hippie-dippie crap about loving your enemies won't fly in this post-911 world!
It is surely obvious now to anybody with even a basic understanding of history, politics and the nature of fascism that something revolutionary has to be done within months -- if not weeks -- if we are to preserve world peace.

snip. Here's how it ends:
The usual suspects will complain. The post-Christian churches, the Marxists, the fellow travelers and fifth columnists. But then, the same sort of people moaned and condemned in 1938. They were clearly wrong then. They would be just as wrong now.

Call me post-Christian then, if by "Christian" he means shedding some of Christ's most basic teachings, let alone any sense of humanity.

Holy Act of Congress, Batman