Thursday, September 30, 2010

Here's Why Christians Flunked the Test

I took the quiz that’s been circulating around the internet. You probably heard of it. It’s the one provided be the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life which asks basic religious questions. I scored 14-15 correctly (I missed a question on religion in American classrooms).
The news is not good. Apparently, according to the final report, most protestants couldn’t identify Martin Luther as the father of the Reformation. And many Catholics didn’t know that their church believes that the communion wafer has been changed to the true body of Christ. They believe communion is merely a memorial meal. Zwingli would raise his fist in triumph.
Atheists and Agnostics, as well as Jews and Mormons scored the best. Which doesn’t surprise me. Atheists tend to be better educated than average church folks. And makes me wonder if the Christians who answered correctly got their religious knowledge from school or church.

And it makes sense for Jew and Mormons to do well in this test. Minority religions are often more intentional about teaching the faith to their children. Those of us from historic, usually European State Church traditions have been resting on our collective laurels, leaving the knowledge of the faith to the pros - people like me. Those with collars around their necks and “Rev” in front of their names.
When churches become established in the form of state churches, faith loses it’s edge, it’s fire and passion. Jesus becomes a house pet, a religious functionary who blesses all our ambitions. And the church serves as a religious affirmation of the culture’s enterprises. Be they noble or self-serving.
Church history and religious belief then play second trombone to the culture’s aspirations. The church then makes good citizens rather than disciples of Jesus who ask difficult questions. We teach basic rudiments of faith which then morph into easy religious cliches. The fire of faith is snuffed in favour of a cozy relationship with established power. 
But as churches decline and lose cultural power, our influence as a prophetic minority will emerge. Fewer people will participate in churches, but those who do participate will be more committed to the counter-cultural message of the gospel. Churches will be smaller but stronger, and have more impact and influence as we live our faith more passionately, bearing witness to God’s Kingdom rather than the culture’s.
So, show us the test again in 20 years and see how we answer. (Click here to take the test)
This is a test. A simple test. Nothing to see here. As you were.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Funeral Sermon

(NB: I was getting numerous requests for this sermon, so with the family's permission, I"m posting it here)
When I heard that Agnes had passed away and I began to reflect on her life, I turned to Seneca, the early church’s favourite Roman philosopher, whose little treatise called “On the Shortness of Life” had as deep an impact on me as it did on the first Christians in Rome. 
You might think that reaching for a book called “On the Shortness of Life” may seem a little strange when considering Agnes’ longevity. After all, 96 is a long time in human years. Few people make it that far. 
But as we now know, even 96 years is too short when you love someone as much as Agnes was loved. Any span of time would seem too limited for someone as dear to us Agnes.
But Seneca’s main idea wasn’t that mere fact life is short, but what do we do with the time we’ve been given? How do we use the moments that add up to a life? Is time our friend or our enemy?
The preacher of Ecclesiastes as we heard this afternoon, also spoke of the flowing seasons of time where everything has a place. He asks us to remember that one season begins just as another ends. He asks us to remember that any span of time is limited.
But unlike Seneca, the preacher in Ecclesiastes sees the limitations of time as reason to weep and wail over our mortality, and what he sees as the meaningless of life. He begins his sermon with these words:
Vanity of vanities, cries the preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. 3What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?
4A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. 5The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises. 6The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. 7All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow. 8All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing.
It’s easy to be dragged down with the preacher of Ecclesiastes into the despairing notion that life is meaningless; that all that we have and all that we do will end up disappearing, swept into the sandstorm of eternity, vanished in the unending ocean. That the meager time we’ve been given will be forgotten. Lost. That our brief appearance on this planet will have no more significance than the ant under our shoe.
For everything, yes, there is a season. A time to be born and a time to die. This is true. 
Then again, Seneca didn’t see time the same way that the preacher of Ecclesiastes did. Yes there are seasons that come and go. There is a beginning. And there is an end. For everyone and everything.
But where the preacher saw meaninglessness in the limitations of those seasons, Seneca saw opportunity. And so he would probably ask the preacher: simply because there is a definite beginning and end to our earthly lives, does that necessarily mean that “all is vanity”? 
And again Seneca would remind the preacher that it’s not the length of time that’s important, but what you DO with the time you’ve been given is. He would ask, What are YOU doing with the moments provided for you? How are you filling your seconds, hours, days, and years?
I think I know how Agnes would answer Seneca. She’d answer him the same way the apostle Paul would in the reading from 1 Corinthians that we heard today.
And the answer she would offer him is “Love.” Love is the only lasting thing anyone can give. Love is the only way we can reach into eternity. Love is the legacy left by people who know how to truly live. The only meaningful life is a life of love. As Paul says, “Love never dies.”
 Agnes knew that life is a moment-by-moment event, crafted through the love she had for Tony, for her children and their children, for her church family, and for her community. For Agnes, life was love. And love was commitment.
Agnes slipped away peacefully. In fact, she said the word “peace” over and over again as she felt her life drawing to a close. After I prayed with her, she looked me in the eye and said “Peace be with you.” To which I responded “And also with you.”
I began to wonder what peace meant for her. How she could fall into death with the word “peace” on her lips. Not everyone could do that. Most people fight against the on-coming train that will take them away. 
Agnes knew peace because she knew her saviour, and she trusted him with her life and her death. She trusted the promises of a new and everlasting life because she knew Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life, who died on the cross and rose again for her. She knew that Jesus had claimed her as his own with a grip that would never be let loose. She knew that her name was written in the Book of Life with permanent ink. She knew that nothing would separate her from the love of God in Christ Jesus her Lord.
But also, she could say “peace...peace” while life drained from her body because she could see the fruit of a life well lived. That fruit gathered around her bed, and surrounded her with prayer. She could see the good she was leaving behind. She knew her legacy of love will be honoured and lived by all who’d been touched by her kindness. She could say “peace...peace” because she lived the most meaningful of lives: a life of love. That is the gift she’s left behind for us. That is our inheritance as those who have received her love.
So, the question her life asks you, what are YOU doing with the time you’ve been given? What will YOU leave behind? How are YOU filling your seconds, hours, days, and years?
Agnes left behind a legacy of love given and love received. The love of her family and the love of her church. And the love of her saviour Jesus in whom she now rests, taking her place among the company of all the saints in light.
May her legacy be our legacy as well. Amen.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Sermon: Pentecost 17C

Text here:

This is one of my favorite gospel readings. It’s wonderfully, ethically ambiguous. It comes put of nowhere and leaves the listener with an itchy scalp.

To me, it gives permission to color outside the lines and to push the edges of acceptable behaviour, Jesus demolishes any sense of ideological purity.

What we have is a guy who really likes his job and wants to keep it. Or at least to clear a smooth exit for himself. So he goes to each of his clients and takes an axe to their invoices. It looks like he’s more interested in keeping these folks as customers then in keeping his boss happy. Maybe he wants to strike out on his own since he knows that a pink slip is waiting in his mailbox when he gets back to the office.

But when his boss finds out what the manager has done, the pink slip becomes a promotion. Apparently, the boss liked the way his manager played the game. Dishonest initiative is rewarded. A weird reaction, isn’t it? Or as one bible commentator put it, “ethically reprehensible.”

The punch line to this story makes even less sense, Especially after the story he just told, “You can’t serve God and money.”

So, which is it Jesus....(Whole thing here)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

How to Stop Church Decline

A few weeks ago the United Methodist Church in the U.S. published the results of a survey intended to solicit ideas for how to stop the decline in Methodist churches. The “actionable” results were:
  • Small groups and programs, such as Bible study and activities geared toward youth.
  • An active lay leadership.
  • Inspirational pastors who have served lengthy tenures at churches.
  • A mix of traditional and contemporary worship services. 

Hmmmm. Small groups? Active lay leadership? Inspirational pastors? Mix of traditional and contemporary? This is new and cutting edge? Did we just take a time machine back to 1979?
And what I found most interesting about this survey is that it's chief aim seems to be protecting the viability of the institution. It sounds like they’re trying to stop their decline rather than build disciples of Jesus; recouping their losses rather than being good news people. It’s all very churchy rather than Jesusy (with apologies to Anne Lamott).
It’s not my intention to pick on the UMC. Most mainline churches (and a growing number of evangelicals) are in the same boat. We’re trying to survive as an institution and so we’re searching for a magic formula that will stop or even reverse the hemorrhaging and move us into a sustainable future.
However, I’m not convinced there is ONE formula, a magic pill that will make us thrive again. Each congregation is different. Small group ministry works well in one church, but can’t get off the ground in another. Some pastors with long stays in a congregation build strong legacies to be passed to the next generation, where other long-tenured pastors rest on their laurels and snooze their way to retirement. 
But then again, maybe we’re all asking the wrong question: “how do we grow?” Maybe God doesn’t want us to grow. At least not yet. Perhaps God wants us overfed, culturally coddled, western Christians to sit on the sidelines for a while to remember what it feels like to be a minority. 
It could be that God wants us to finish the transition from Christendom to Post-Christendom, and change us from the inside out, before adding crowds of people to our numbers. 
I think God might be worried that we haven’t yet learned the lessons of history, and with revived numbers, we might be tempted to re-visit the sins of cultural captivity, where we prostituted ourselves in exchange for political power, and lost our distinctive, prophetic, voice. 
But in the meantime, I think our job as Christians is to make disciples of Jesus, doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God. And we’ll see where the road takes us.
(h/t to Greg for the heads up on the Methodist survey)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Book Review: Outlive Your Life

One thing for sure, Max Lucado can turn a phrase. He’s my confere. In. The sentence. Fragment. Which makes his upcoming book Outlive Your Life: You Were Made to Make a Difference such a fun and quick read. And in typical Lucodian fashion, he illuminates the bible text by pulling it forward into our time. In his hands the bible speaks to us today.
Outlive Your Life is about making a difference in the world with the time we have. Lucado interweaves bible stories and other contemporary stories of people making a difference in their own communities and in the world.
Personally, despite his creative literary choreography, I found his re-telling of the bible stories the weakest part of the book. Yes, his writing was fun to read, and he drew some interesting details by how he re-constructed the narrative. But dare I say there was too much bible. Yes, it’s important to interpret our lives and our world through the lens of scripture. But since most of the book a re-fashioning of the bible stories, the contemporary connection wasn’t as strong as it could have been.
And the stories were strong. Like the man in Sarajevo who weeped over a child’s death. Micro-lending in Rio De Janeiro. The football game in Gainesville between the high school and the reform school. Stories of people making a difference.
It’s these stories that make the book so-readable and adds power to Lucado’s mandate to move people to action (there’s a study and action guide in the back). People hear so much about what God has done in bible times, but we need to hear more stories about what God is doing TODAY. Those are the kinds of stories that give people hope that God is still doing something in the world. And when they see that God is active and alive, people feel more compelled to contribute to the on-going blossoming of the new creation, leaving behind a legacy of compassion and grace.

NB: Book has been provided courtesy of Thomas Nelson and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available this Fall at your favourite bookseller.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Sermon: Pentecost 15C

“You cannot be my disciple if you own any possessions.”

This passage from Luke’s gospel is one that no one takes literally. Even the most ardent, fundamentalist who insists on the literal, word-for-word Truth (capital “T”) of the bible finds a way to weasel out of this passage. 

I’ve heard some folks say that this passage only applies to those who let their money and their possessions get in the way of their relationship with God; those whose wealth is hurting them spiritually.

This is often followed by a declaration that this doesn’t apply THEM, because their money is not an idol. They could EASILY give it up if their wealth was hurting their relationship with God. And, of course, in this area, they were without sin.

But that’s not what Jesus is talking about here. He’s talking about the cost of following him. He’s warning those who might be his followers of what might happen them if they walk away from their old lives and jump feet first into their new lives. It was as if he was pushing them away, turning on the crowd of would-be disciples, pleading with them not to enter into a contract for which there is no escape clause. He’s asking if they REALLY know what they’d be getting themselves into if they dropped everything and followed him.

It’s said that the crowds were much...(whole thing here)

Saturday, September 04, 2010

What's Right With the Church.

After a post about the problems in the church, I had written a post about what’s good with the church. But I deleted it. The writing didn’t feel right. Although all of it was true, it felt like I was borrowing someone else’s words. The writing seemed plastic. An artificial defense of a very real group of people. 
The post included such things as our rich theological history, the faithfulness of the members, our message of grace, our acts of justice, etc. And while I can affirm each one of these, it didn’t get to the heart of what I love about the church.
What I love about the church is its messiness. Its chaos (and I’m not talking about my office). The more we try to regiment our life together the more turmoil we get. But God has a way working through the muddle, giving life, creating a family, building a people.
The regular morning phone call to the blind shut-in to read to her the daily devotional. The neighbourhood children who sneak in the front door and do crafts in the basement. The genuine word of concern for the man who lost his wife. The generosity toward the homeless guy knocking on our door after worship looking for food. The warm welcome of member who’d fallen away after a tragedy, received once again into the fellowship of the broken and hurting.
It’s in the sudden, spontaneous, human moments that the church is at its best. These are moments we can’t control or plan, moments that happen despite ourselves. The best planning and management cannot create these moments. They just happen because because the Spirit of God still hovers over the chaos, bringing fulness of life, gathering us together in a unity that is not our own making. 
What I love about the church is what God can do with us messy, chaotic, hopelessly human, and gloriously sanctified people of God. It’s how I know that Jesus is alive and living within all of us together. It’s what’s right with the church.

Friday, September 03, 2010

What's the Problem With the Church?

1. We’re fighting an uphill battle against decline. Being the church today is hard. This is the problem that amplifies all the other problems. Since we’re not being propped by the culture like we used to be (thank God!) we actually have to get our hands dirty and push that rock up that hill. Ministry takes work and creativity. And a lot of us are tired. Worn out by working harder for less results. 

2. We’re using outdated tools. Our churches often mirror the bureaucracy of non-profit organizations or the least efficient of government agencies. I think we need to pair down our governance model into a simple and nimble series of networks rather than a top down  pseudo-hierarchy. At the local level, our church council oversees the bulk of the ministry. But we also have ministries that function and thrive with very little oversight: Stephen Ministry, ChristCare, and Creative Fingers (quilters) leap to mind.

Another example is Christian Education: is our present classroom format the best way to teach the faith? Is learning doctrine the most effective means of building disciples of Jesus? I dunno. I’m just asking.

Perhaps we need to ask ourselves if our current institutional model, born and baptized in Christendom is the best way to meet our current -post-Christendom ministry objectives. Especially when we’re experiencing so much decline, when resources are dwindling, when fewer people are doing the bulk of the work. If we truly believe that God’s kingdom is an alternate reality running loose in the world, doesn’t how we organize ourselves need to reflect that reality?

3. We blame our synodical and national leaders for our local failures. I have a great deal of admiration and affection for Bishops Ron and Susan. They are both gifts to the church and have a great deal of faithfulness to their positions. But I also know that they can’t do my job for me. As the pastor, I’m accountable to Christ and the congregation. Too often I hear some colleagues blame our leaders for the decline we’re experiencing, when our leaders have little to no involvement in the day-to-day work of the church. If we’re being ineffective in ministry we have to look at what WE can do to make our ministry more effective. The best ministry happens at the local level, where normal, everyday, Christians live out their faith.

4. We spend too much time worrying about what other churches are doing. In other words, we spend too much energy on church politics. Non-church people (or most church folks) don’t care about who is fighting with whom, or what a church across town or on the other side of the country is doing. They care about their local church and how they can minister to others. It’s the church leaders who get their people all riled up and involved with wider church issues that will never touch the grassroots.

5. We look to the past rather than to the future for our inspiration and hope. As Christians, we believe in the resurrection of the dead - God’s New Creation - springing forth in the world. We are a people who live our lives with the end in mind; the end, not as a pie-in-the-sky disembodied heavenly existence, but an end where God will make all things new. 

This is not to say that we don’t remember with thanks what God has done in the past, and draw inspiration from the saints who have passed on the faith. But we are a resurrection people, a people whose eyes are fixed on God’s horizon, where justice, mercy, peace, compassion, healing, and forgiveness blossom over everything God has created. And we live our lives as people of that kingdom.
Tomorrow: What’s RIGHT with the church.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Why NALC Doesn't Bother Me: Part Two (or Why I have Hope)

Yesterday I said that the newly formed North American Lutheran Church (NALC) doesn’t bother me for two reasons:
1. The new church body doesn’t affect my ministry at all. It’s not even on peoples’ radar screens, and I have no real interest in putting it there. 

2. God has not given up on the ELCIC.
Today, I’m going to talk about Number Two.
I’ve been distressed by some of the rhetoric from some of the NALC supporters and sympathizers who say that they have no hope for the ELCIC. Some have even gone so far as to say that the Holy Spirit has left our church. Such an assertion flirts dangerously with the unforgivable sin.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that the ELCIC has deviated from God’s will. Find me someone who hasn’t. Present to me someone who hasn’t sinned or continues to sin knowingly or unknowingly. Give me the phone number of someone who has found favour with God outside of the cross and resurrection of Jesus.
To say that there is no hope for the ELCIC is to say that the Holy Spirit no longer the “Lord, the giver of life” who "calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes us holy.” It is to say that Jesus didn’t die for ALL sins, that we have to rid ourselves of sin in order to receive God’s continued favour, that there is no total forgiveness or renewal for those who are in Christ. 
Personally, I see great hope for the ELCIC. I see God’s activity everywhere. Good Shepherd’s youth group just came back from CLAY, the Canadian Lutheran Anglican Youth Gathering in London. And they came back fired up in their faith. If these young people are our present and future, then our present and future is in excellent hands.
But I also have hope because I believe in a God who raised Jesus from the dead. I believe in a God who is still making all things new. I believe in a God whose kingdom of love, mercy, justice, compassion, and grace is growing all around us.
And God still calls us sinful ELCIC Lutherans into ministry to a suffering, broken, and sin-stained world. Not as those who have all the answers or are made of stronger spiritual substance. But as those beggars who know where to find the bread of life.
That’s why I have hope.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Why NALC Doesn't Bother Me

There would gave been a time when the creation of the North American Lutheran Church (NALC) would have given me heart palpitations. I would have groaned about the schismatic nature of a newly formed Lutheran denomination; and waxed on about how churches formed in protest tend to create a culture of dissension that permeates the whole organization’s DNA. Any protestant should know this.
But now I realize that, in my little corner of Christianity, the creation of a new Lutheran body creates mild interest in me, and nothing more. Mainly because I’ve found that the exit of some Lutheran congregations from the ELCA and ELCIC to the new NALC (or CALC or LCMC or...) affects my congregation not at all. Worship, programs, education, Stephen Ministry, ChristCare, etc, remain unaffected. We keep on keeping on.
That’s the joy of being a Lutheran. We are autonomous congregations bound together in a somewhat free association. If a pastor in - say - Edmonton (won’t mention any names) presides over a same-sex blessing, I might be affected in a guilt by association sort of way by those who worry about such things. But I’ll also be  lumped in with the LCC pastor who preaches that women shouldn’t have leadership positions in the church. The non-Christian world doesn’t sit still long enough to make distinctions among Lutherans.
Which is why I find the whole NALC affair so interesting. To my mind, the premise of the newly created Lutheran denomination is that the ELCA (and to a lessor extent the ELCIC) have deviated from traditional, biblical norms, especially around sexuality.
This is an argument that will never be settled.
But what witness does the creation of a new Lutheran body bear except to re-affirm in some peoples’ minds that Christians are a squabbling mass of malcontents. And when they (we) can’t agree among themselves as to their core message, why should anyone else listen to them (us)?
However, I’m guessing that NALC’s purpose is to bear witness to other Lutherans rather than to the world. Because the world doesn’t care about the intra-ecclesial battles over theology and sexuality. The creation of a NALC will not necessarily advance the Kingdom of God. An unbelieving world isn’t impressed with affirmations of traditional doctrine.
This is because the most effective evangelism happens at ground level. People come to faith by person-to-person contact when they hear and experience God’s love through a family of believers - the Body of Christ.
This is why I’m not too worried about the creation of NALC. I don’t agree that this sounds the death-knell of the ELCIC. Even if NALC takes the majority of our churches with them the cause of the gospel will go forward. People will still hear Jesus’ message of new and everlasting life, and will receive the sacraments of new creation.
This may take different form. But God has not given up on us. And never will.