Monday, October 15, 2012

Choosing to die?

Listen up churches,

You have the option, and it's not one I'm going to choose on your behalf. You may choose to die. But if that is the option you have chosen, don't pretend, be honest about it. There's no shame in answering the call to death so that new life may spring up.

But don't pretend that you're interested in growth if you're not willing to change.

Growth is a kind of change.

When churches change, one of the complaints that ministers often here is that "This doesn't feel like my church anymore." Here's my response:

Was it ever yours to begin with? Or is does the church belong to Jesus Christ?

A church with whom I used to be associated has recently realized that their old members keep getting older, and new members are not replacing them. The result has been that they are trying to grow those young families, they say they want them, and are implementing programs to gather them in.

But they're not willing to actually change anything. It's like they're looking for young families who are already the same as they already are.

Well if you're not attracting new members, perhaps that oppressive sameness is the reason? Each generation has its own needs, its own issues, and for a church to fail to deal with them ignores their existence and doesn't feed the hunger that each group has. You may as well have worship in a different language!

If you are choosing not to change how you do things, you are choosing to die as an institution. Which is absolutely ok. If God is calling you as a church to minister to congregation as it declines and dies, we believe in the resurrection, and if God so wills it, a new church will rise up.

But don't pretend you want new people if you're not willing to change to accommodate them. The holy spirit is active in every time and place, and "that's the way we've always done it" is not a good enough reason.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Lord of the Bullies...and the Bullied.

I had the great privilege this weekend to watch a newly ordained minister preside over the sacrament of the Lord's Supper for the first time. It was, as my generation would say, totally awesome.

I was at the Calvin Center for their annual Middle School conference, the topic of which was bullying. Our keynoter, a long time friend of mine, was also charged with preaching and presiding at table on Sunday.

Oh, and Sunday was world communion Sunday. So there's that.

So we'd been talking all weekend about bullying, covering the obvious topics such as "God still loves you even if bullies don't," and there was a little bit of "if you see bullying, you should intervene." But the hardest thing about which we talked was the bit about loving those who bully you.

And we came to the table together on Sunday.

I was struck by how theologically correct the outdoor worship space at Camp Calvin is, there's a table, a place from which scripture can be read and proclaimed, and a large lake that serves as the visual reminder of the waters of baptism.

The image that has stayed with me though, is one of Christ walking on water, coming to us in the midst of our stormy lives, to sit at table with those who are bullied, and those who bully. That's terribly uncomfortable for those who are victims of bullying, but the bullies themselves will feel a thrill of fear when they too are invited to join.

Because at the table, all of our posturing and posing falls away, and we are left as the forgiven sinners that we are. If that is not a humbling experience, I don't know what is.

It was the pastor's first time presiding, and he served both bullies and their targets with the same words, the same bread, and the same cup.

Because when one member suffers, the whole body suffers. And we come to the table to live that out.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Spanking God's Children

"God's justice gives people not what they deserve, but what they need." - Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine

I used the above line in my sermon yesterday. After worship, during the handshaking period, a congregant came up to me and asked me a question:

"What if what we need and we deserve are the same thing?"

My answer: "Then that's what we get."

I used the Guthrie quotation in the context of receiving grace, rather than punishment for our sins. I think that's a large part of the good news of God. We deserve death, but in Jesus Christ, we are given life instead. That grace empowers us to encounter a world that is still tainted by its own limitations and sins. We can go boldly into the world and know that no matter what happens, God will not give up on us. Grace is a huge part of my theology, and I think it's one of the central traits of Christianity.

But I think from time to time we need a wake-up call.

Just as a loving parent will discipline their children, God's loving judgement is visited upon us. Sometimes, what we need is a taste of what we deserve. We receive that wake up call because we need it, and the fact that it's what we deserve is a coincidence, not a cause. In the same passage on which I preached, Jesus asserts that those who lift themselves up will be brought low. My interpretation of that statement is a warning that from time to time, when we forget that we need God, we will find ourselves faced with a harsh reminder.

I'm not sure of the source, but I have heard it said that the task of preaching is to "comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable." It is not my place to judge who is whom, but I think that both are necessary.

I wonder, Does the Church spoil God's children when it preaches only grace, and omits how badly we need it?