This Is Our Story: Finding God in the Mess

A Sermon for Sunday, July 5, 2015, Genesis 32:22-32, Luke 7:36-50

Bulletin graffiti art by HS youth Courtney Henry

Bulletin graffiti art by HS youth Courtney Henry

I don’t know if you are aware, but the Bible is full of poop.

Now, I’m not suggesting the Bible is a bunch of nonsense. Indeed it’s not. What I mean is that it’s literally full of it!

There are piles of scatological references in this sacred text, which shouldn’t be too much of a surprise considering that throughout history people have always had to figure out how to deal with their crap.

In the time of the Israelites, modern conveniences like trash bags, compost bins, and indoor plumbing didn’t exist, so folks followed specific guidelines for handling waste, whether animal or human:

But the flesh of the bull, and its skin, and its dung, you shall burn with fire outside the camp; it is a sin offering. (Exodus 29:14)

With your utensils you shall have a trowel; when you relieve yourself outside, you shall dig a hole with it and then cover up your excrement. (Deuteronomy 23:13)

And much like the graphic violence that one finds in cable TV shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, the Old Testament writers didn’t pull any punches when it came to stories about killing the crud out of oppressive rulers:

Then Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into Eglon’s belly; the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not draw the sword out of his belly; and the dirt came out. Then Ehud went out into the vestibule, and closed the doors of the roof chamber on him, and locked them. After he had gone, the servants came. When they saw that the doors of the roof chamber were locked, they thought, “He must be relieving himself[e] in the cool chamber.” (Judges 3:21-24)

God also doesn’t shy away from using manure to make a point. In the book of Ezekiel, God commands the prophet to do the grossest thing possible as a symbolic way of showing the people of Israel that they would be eating unclean food in the pagan lands of their soon-to-be exile.

And you, take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt; put them into one vessel, and make bread for yourself. …You shall eat it as a barley-cake, baking it in their sight on human dung. The Lord said, “Thus shall the people of Israel eat their bread, unclean, among the nations to which I will drive them.” Then I said, “Ah Lord God! I have never defiled myself; from my youth up until now I have never eaten what died of itself or was torn by animals, nor has carrion flesh come into my mouth.” Then he said to me, “See, I will let you have cow’s dung instead of human dung, on which you may prepare your bread.”

Even Jesus mentions human waste as he gives practical advice to his disciples about what will happen when they share the news of God’s kingdom:

“When people realize it is the living God you are presenting and not some idol that makes them feel good, they are going to turn on you, even people in your own family….A student doesn’t get a better desk than her teacher. A laborer doesn’t make more money than his boss. Be content—pleased, even—when you, my students, my harvest hands, get the same treatment I get. If they call me, the Master, ‘Dung Face,’ what can the workers expect? (Matthew 10:21-25)

Likewise, the apostle Paul explains to the early Christian church in Corinth that those who follow Christ will be treated by the Roman Empire as if they were scat on the bottom of a sandal:

 When others choose taunts and slander against us, we speak words of encouragement and reconciliation. We’re treated as the scum of the earth—and I am not talking in the past tense; I mean today! We’re the scraps of society, nothing more than the foulest human rubbish. (I Corinthians 4:12-13)

Let’s be honest: The Bible is a mess.

And it isn’t solely because the word “dung” is mentioned more than 30 times in the NRSV. There’s so much dysfunction, pain, suffering, weirdness and plain ole messiness within the pages of the Bible that TV reality shows and Shonda Rhimes primetime dramas look tame in comparison!

The Bible is full of messy stories about messy people doing messed up things and finding themselves in a whole heap of mess, right there in front of God and neighbor.

It is essentially one hot stinking glorious mess.

And that’s exactly what I love about the Bible!

It’s not a 12-step guidebook to success or a rulebook to be followed faultlessly, verse by verse so one can dwell in the clouds with golden wings and a harp. The Bible is a collection of stories about God’s love for all of humanity throughout time, despite all its sins and crap.

Some Christians, like the TV evangelists, often say that the problem with this messed up world is that we’ve strayed away from the good ole values of the families in the Bible. We need to return to those stories, they say, so we can make the world and our lives more perfect.

But you and I know that’s bull honkey.

Yes, we need to go back to these stories again and again, but not because they give us examples of how to live an impeccable existence.

Montreat Youth Conference, Week 1, June 9, 2014

Montreat Youth Conference, Week 1, June 9, 2014

We return to these scriptures about messy, flawed people so that we can be reminded that no matter how messy life gets, God is there with us in the muck; and that no matter how much we mess up, God still loves us; God still calls us to show love to the most messed up among us.

What was true in the ancient world remains true in this post modern one: Life is messy and thus our stories are messy.

Sometimes the mess is of our own making as human beings.

We dump our waste on the earth, filling the land, skies and water with garbage and pollution. And we dump on one another—people we like, people we love, people we hate and people we don’t even know.

We have difficulty seeing God’s image in our fellow human beings. We have trouble showing dignity and respect to others who are different from us. We spew a lot of hateful things instead of speaking in love, and the garbage that comes out of us only makes the situation messier.

Then there are the messes we put ourselves in as the result of a bad choice we made…

—The traffic tickets we receive for constantly zipping through a red light.

—The tummy aches we get after eating a pint of ice cream and two bowls of tater tots for dinner.

—The moody demeanor and poor health we experience following months of late night partying with illegal drugs and bottles of alcohol.

—The cutting marks we make on our skin because it’s the only way to release the amount of pain we feel inside over things that we dare not tell another soul.

Isaac's Blessing of Jacob by Suzanne Cherny, Google Images

Isaac’s Blessing of Jacob by Suzanne Cherny, Google Images

These messes threaten to consume us bit by bit by bit until our identity is completely lost, much like Jacob in the Book of Genesis.

Jacob caused quite a mess when he manipulated his father Isaac into giving him the blessing that belonged to his brother Esau. And after fleeing home for fear that Esau will kill him, Jacob still manages to wade even deeper into trouble in an encounter with a man named Laban and his two daughters Leah and Rachel. Many years later as Jacob is passing through a territory belonging to Esau, he realizes that he no longer likes the man he has become, and he struggles to make amends.

Other times the messes are beyond our control—the stuff that suddenly happens without any reason or explanation…

—The family dog that has an accident in the middle of the living room during a party.

—The child who flips out in the middle of a department store because the annoying pop song is blaring too loudly from the overhead speakers.

—The tree that falls onto your fence during a heavy rainstorm.

—the landscaping crew who kicks up a rock while mowing and breaks your car’s back windshield

—The boyfriend who breaks up with you and gives you the silent treatment.

—The grandparent who gets cancer.

—The sudden death of a friend.

These messes comprise a lot of daily life. And more often than not, we try to stick our chins out and wallow our way through the messes in the best way possible.

And finally there are the messes that the world and society has deemed to be a problem, but actually aren’t messes at all…

 —The working poor and homeless

—The LGBTQ person

—The African-American man wearing a hoodie

—The transgendered athlete

—The developmentally challenged child

—The woman with a black eye

—The young adult struggling with depression and anxiety

—The man with severe skin burns on their face

—The middle-aged adult battling their weight

Each of these folks is declared to be a mess by society, and they hear the message so much that they start to believe it themselves. They start to hear their inner voices say: “You’re a mess, you’re a worthless piece of trash!”

But it is up to us to tell those who are viewed as rubbish that they are indeed worthy of a whole mess of God’s love and grace. It’s up to us to say to the marginalized and downtrodden, “You are not a mess.”

Even when we’re in the middle of a mess; whether it’s our own doing or otherwise (and all of us have our own messes to deal with), that mess doesn’t completely define us.

We are much more than our messes because we are beloved creations of God.

Therefore we should show great compassion to others who are dealing with their own mess, unlike the religious leaders who dismiss the sinful woman who comes inside the Pharisee’s home to greet Jesus.

While the details of her mess are not known, the woman is viewed as one who is unworthy of human contact. To Simon the Pharisee and his cohorts, the woman might as well be a pile of dung. Even if she has managed to distance herself from whatever mess she created, the woman can’t seem to escape the label of disgust that has been placed upon her.

And yet hope is not completely lost. Because it’s in the mess that we find God. Or better still, it is in the mess that God meets us face to face.

oil on panel - 12'x8' - 2012

Jacob Wrestling by Edward Knippers, oil on panel – 12’x8′ – 2012. edwardknippers.com

In Jacob’s case, it took an all-night wrestling match of the soul and the cracking of a hip for God to get him unstuck. And the resulting limp in his walk slowed down this slick thief who’d been on the run for so many years. It made him wiser and more tuned in to God’s presence in his life.

 

 

It’s always the messy struggles that leaves us with a scar and shapes us forever. As one of my favorite authors, Rob Bell, says in his 2010 book Drops Like Stars: A Few Thoughts On Creativity and Suffering:

We are going to suffer. And it is going to shape us. Somehow. We will become bitter or better, closed or open, more ignorant or more aware. (We will become) more or less tuned in to the thousands of gifts we are surrounded with every single moment of every single day.

From the mess, we can emerge as stronger, open-minded and more aware individuals. Often it’s a matter of laying the mess at the feet of Christ so that we can be changed.

Anointing of Jesus' feet, artist unknown, Google Images

Anointing of Jesus’ feet, artist unknown, Google Images

For the woman who has become a pariah in her own community, there is nothing else she can do but interrupt a dinner party to bring all of her pain and tears to Jesus and pour it into the washing of his feet—an incredible act of humility and servant hood.

Jesus responds to this act—in the midst of the Pharisees who want to make more of a mess out of the situation—by showing the woman compassion and mercy. And the woman, we assume, is changed for a lifetime by Jesus’ love.

When the mess is too much to bear—too much to lift an arm to wrestle with—the only thing we can do is humbly bring it to Christ so that we can be cleaned and made whole.

And just as Jesus awaited the woman at the table in the home of Simon the Pharisee, he awaits us at this communion table now—ready to forgive our messes, to promise us hope of a kingdom and a future without messes and to send us out in peace to clean up the messiness of the world.

And all God’s messy people say Amen.

Notes:

This sermon is a short version of the 45 minute keynote I will give during Week V of the Montreat Youth Conference, Day 2 “Our Stories Are Messy.”

The sermon was inspired by the 2014 book Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by The Skeptical, The Faithful and A Few Scoundrels, edited by Cathleen Falsani

Shonda Rhimes is the creator, head-writer and executive producer of the primetime TV dramas phenoms Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder, which all air on ABC.

Post-Sabbatical Reading Reflection: The Divine Magician by Peter Rollins & What Does the Church Do with His Message?

Unknown-1I desperately wanted to “love” this book or even like it a whole lot. The concept grabbed me right away when I read it on Amazon.com a few months ago:

In this mind-bending exploration of traditional Christianity, firebrand Peter Rollins turns the tables on conventional wisdom, offering a fresh perspective focused on a life filled with love.

Peter Rollins knows one magic trick—now, make sure you watch closely. It has three parts: the Pledge, the Turn, and the Prestige. In Divine Magician, each part comes into play as he explores a radical view of interacting with the world in love.

Rollins argues that the Christian event, reenacted in the Eucharist, is indeed a type of magic trick, one that is echoed in the great vanishing acts performed by magicians throughout the ages. In this trick, a divine object is presented to us (the Pledge), disappears (the Turn), and then returns (the Prestige). But just as the returned object in a classic vanishing act is not really the same object—but another that looks the same—so this book argues that the return of God is not simply the return of what was initially presented, but rather a radical way of interacting with the world. In an effort to unearth the power of Christianity, Rollins uses this framework to explain the mystery of faith that has been lost on the church. In the same vein as Rob Bell’s bestseller Love Wins, this book pushes the boundaries of theology, presenting a stirring vision at the forefront of re-imagined modern Christianity.

But reading Rollin’s latest work was painstakingly hard to get my head around at times. Maybe it’s why it took me more than a week after my Sabbatical ended (during Holy Week at beginning of April) to finish reading and two more weeks to write this post.

This is not to say that the book is poorly written or horrible theology.  I just struggled (and still struggle) with the practical implications of his message for myself as a Jesus follower and for the Church Universal which is called to be the body of Christ in the world.

I suppose it bugs me because Rollins completely flips the whole centuries-accepted notion of discipleship, servant hood, and being a part of a faith community upside down. More accurately, he doesn’t simply turn over the empty magician’s hat. He blows the sucker to smithereens!

And that’s what’s so unnerving and uncomfortable about the book: like a swirling, mesmerizing magic show, there’s no satisfying conclusion or answer at the end. You are left stunned and bewildered; unsure of what happened and the seemingly impossible was achieved with the wave of a hand.

If I’m understanding Rollins correctly, he essentially implies that we as Christians and members of the Church are not living–as we have tricked ourselves into believing–the Jesus way that is meant to be separate from the ideologies of institutions.

Instead, says Rollins, we are living smack dab in the midst of ideology that keeps us from actually following Christ.  In other words, the Church’s mere presence and close ties with society and culture is not what Jesus intended when he sent out the apostles to serve the poor, oppressed and broken.

Jesus actually called/calls us to model a different way of living based on his teachings and actions (which, of course, ultimately led him to a cruel death on the cross). But from the early days of Constantine to now, we’ve turned Christianity into a commercialized endeavor and the Church into a vast enterprise or, dare I say, Empire that is concerned more about attracting members and having a building that offers comfort and luxury for joining than living a nomadic life of poverty that is constantly moving down the road helping others.

(This, again, is my summation of what Rollins demonstrates more intelligently and somewhat esoterically in the book. And I will be the first to admit that I don’t fully grasp every statement he makes concerning pyrotheology).

Now granted, there is a lot of good things happening in churches (Protestant and Catholic)–lots of authentic recognition and worship of the triune God in our lives; lots of humble acts of love and service toward the marginalized; lots of compassion and hospitality shown to people regardless of gender, sexual orientation, economic status, race and culture, etc.

However, it is also fair to say that we’ve created an institution or system of doing ministry that can hold us back from taking great leaps of faith from our comfort zones to follow Christ in the wilderness, never to return to them.

We’ve created a way that keeps us more grounded than ground breaking.

We’ve become settled in one spot when we should be unsettled as we move from one spot to the next, never completely satisfied that the work of God’s love is done.

We’ve become more about preserving the institution of the Church (the buildings, the names on the signs and the denominational structures and symbols) than being a fluid community of believers that helps out in one place before disappearing to another, never waiting to be thanked or recognized.

We’ve become prideful about cornering the market on God, absolutely certain that God resides within our particular church or denomination’s walls and no others.

And Rollins reveals that actually what we’ve kept in our holy boxes is an idol of God that serves our own interest. Not the God of the Bible and life experience that dwells in the world.

I agree with Rollins’ overall assessment even if my brain got tied up in knots at times to understand what he was communicating. However when I turn the last page and close the book shut, I’m still confounded by a single gnawing question:

So what do we do now?!!!???!!! (Again, like a true magician or illusionist, Rollins doesn’t offer any answers. He just leaves us to figure out the solution on our own.)

Do all ministers like myself sell our houses and our possessions and began a nomadic existence with our families? Do all Christians leave their churches, hand over their buildings and land to people in need of housing and move down the road from one town to the next preaching the gospel and living in people’s homes?

We know the disciples/apostles did. And there are some folks, ministers and congregants who, along with their families, travel all over the place with their families, staying in the homes of strangers and carrying only the most minimal of essentials on their backs and trusting in God that all needs will be provided for.

But is it reasonable to expect the majority, if not all, Christians to do the same in this day and age? Think about how hard and impractical that would be.

Is there a middle ground in all of this or is looking for something that falls in between the “living in the comfort zone” and the “constant journey on the road” just a cop-out?

If Rollins is to be believed, the Church will die and cease to exist and have any relevance if we don’t return to those ancient practices of Jesus and his first followers.

Returning to those practices held long before we got too focused on ourselves and the idea of Christendom means a lot of sacrifices have to be made to do that, right?

Or am I missing something?

I invite you to share what’s on your minds and hearts, especially if you’ve read Rollins’ book and find yourself wrestling with these questions and concepts.

And in our wrestling, I will pray this beloved Franciscan blessing for all of us:

May God bless you with a restless discomfort about easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart.

May God bless you with holy anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may tirelessly work for justice, freedom, and peace among all people.

May God bless you with the gift of tears to shed with those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.

May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you really CAN make a difference in this world, so that you are able, with God’s grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.”

For now, that gives me comfort in the midst of the wrestling and wondering and wandering.

 

Can You Picture That?

A Sermon for Sunday April 12 (The Second Sunday of Easter and Holy Humor Sunday), Acts 4:32-35 and I John 1:1-7a (The VOICE translation)

Have you heard the recent rumors?

The Presbyterian Church (USA) is deathly ill.

It is dying.

It is irrelevant.

It is out of touch.

It is unfaithful and toxic.

It is irredeemable.

So say a small group of loud obnoxious voices about our denomination choosing to become more loving and welcoming of all of God’s people.**** However, to borrow a phrase from Mark Twain, the reports of the PC(USA)’s death was exaggerated.

True, Presbyterians have traditionally been known to be more stiff and reserved in the practices of faith, i.e. “the frozen chosen.” Fozzie the Bear gets it right when he walks into the church, sees the rocking band and says to Kermit: “They don’t look like Presbyterians to me.” The colorful, zany muppets of Doctor Teeth & The Electric Mayhem, we are not.

We Presbyterians are not inclined to raise our hands during a hymn or shout “Amen!” during a sermon or call loudly on the Lord Jesus while the pastor is delivering a prayer. We’re not eager to talk about the work of the Holy Spirit, as in “I believe the Holy Spirit moved me to connect with you today.” We like things to be decent and in order—a Reformed maxim that is often beneficial but sometimes can be a detriment for ministry.

And yes, not all Presbyterian churches are healthy. There are several churches that are stagnant and unsure of its calling or hurting from conflict or heavily divided over the interpretation of scripture or struggling with aging members and financial debt.

All churches, Presbyterian or otherwise, go through times of hardship, conflict and transition. And some churches do cease to exist. They close their doors because there are no more members, the funds dry up and the congregation doesn’t ever ask hard questions bout the purpose of their ministry.

But none of that means the denomination—with 1.7 million members and more than 10,000 congregations in the U.S.—is dying. It doesn’t mean that Presbyterians are longer viable or creative or imaginative or faithful or passionate about following Jesus and being Christ’s body in the world.

Nor does it mean that Presbyterians should accept that they are eventually headed to the precipice of death without hope in sight, even if the current state of Church and religion seems shaky at times.

Like billions of other Christians around the globe, we actively proclaim in this season of Easter that we are Resurrection people! We are about spring, and rebirth and new life! We are about planting and cultivating and growing! We are about sharing and loving and walking in the light of a bright dawn and a fresh day! We are Resurrection people!!!!

This is not a naïve rose-colored-glasses believing that ignores brokenness and suffering and strives for nice, cute answers to life wrapped up in a bow. It’s risky, faith-filled believing that says that even in the midst of the muck, we will painstakingly forge ahead in God’s hope so we can fill the cracks and holes of life with love and grace.

Image: Buddy Christ statue from the 1999 movie "Dogma"

Image: Buddy Christ statue from the 1999 movie “Dogma”

It’s the topsy-turvy wildly creative Jesus believing that says we can create life in the midst of destruction and death and shine light into the darkness.  As the late theologian and writer Mike Yaconnelli puts it:

Jesus was a dangerous man—dangerous to the power structure, dangerous to the church, dangerous to the crowds of people who followed Him. Shouldn’t the followers of Christ also be dangerous? Shouldn’t everyone be awed and dazzled by Christians? Shouldn’t Christians be known by the fire in their souls, the wild-eyed gratitude in their faces, the twinkle in their eyes, a holy mischief in their demeanors? Shouldn’t Christianity be considered dangerous—unpredictable, threatening to the status quo, living outside the lines, uncontrollable, fearless, wild, beyond categorization or definition? Shouldn’t those who call themselves Christians be filled with awe, astonishment, and amazement?

The answer is YES! YES! YES! That’s our purpose as Resurrection people!

The early Christians, the Jews and Gentiles who were figuring out how to follow Jesus post-Resurrection, embraced wholeheartedly that call to be dangerous, unpredictable, uncontrollable, fearless, and wild! According to the Book of Acts:

During those days, the entire community of believers was deeply united in heart and soul to such an extent that they stopped claiming private ownership of their possessions. Instead, they held everything in common. The apostles with great power gave their eyewitness reports of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Everyone was surrounded by an extraordinary grace.

The actions of the first Jesus followers may seem foolish and unrealistic in the 21st Century, particularly in a more individualized, capitalist society.  And yet it’s not all that strange when you pause to consider that their practice of being deeply united, sharing ownership and holding things in common is reflected in how the Church operates today.

PC(USA) churches (as an example) contribute financial tithes, offerings and stewardship pledges to make up the budget which provides pastor salaries, curriculum for church school, meals and resources for the poor and much more. And members creatively share together their time and gifts for preaching, teaching, praying, serving, inspiring, healing, comforting, nurturing and creating so that the church can be a presence of grace in its community and world.

So if holy mischief  and being united in heart and soul is part of our DNA as Presbyterians and Christians, then why are so many congregations in our denomination and Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, including Pleasant Hill, been experiencing drops in worship attendance and budget shortfalls?

Could it be that while we aren’t dying, we are sometimes lost and stumbling around a bit in the darkness or at least in a gray haze of uncertainty about the future?

Our wandering would be completely understandable, of course:

In less than two years, we’ve had two major staff changes, encountered a dip in our finances and said goodbye to beloved church members who have died, moved away or left for other reasons. We’ve also been going through some transitions with our mission programs. And we’re trying to determine what Pleasant Hill’s ministry looks like in an ever-changing multi-cultural community and evolving social-media connected society.

Change of any kind is hard to embrace and change of this magnitude can be so overwhelming that it spins us around and causes us to stumble on one another. We have the gifts and ideas to move forward and do something incredible and extraordinary, but we’re unsure if they will be accepted and given the opportunity to thrive.

The author Marianne Williamson suggests that:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.

Image is from Biblia.com

Image: Biblia.com

It is God in Christ whose light shines brightly in our lives as the First Letter of John to the early Christian churches testifies:

This One is the manifestation of the life-giving Voice, and He showed us real life, eternal life. We have seen it all, and we can’t keep what we witnessed quiet—we have to share it with you. We are inviting you to experience eternal life through the One who was with the Father and came down to us. What we saw and heard we pass on to you so that you, too, will be connected with us intimately and become family… What we are telling you now is the very message we heard from Him: God is pure light, undimmed by darkness of any kind.

Many of us have seen and shared God’s light in our lives and we are invited to illuminate the lives of those in our midst and beyond that are having trouble getting their light to shine.

It doesn’t do us any good to play small and not make manifest the glory of God that is within us. Nor does it help for congregations to rely solely on their church leaders to manifest God’s glory. Each of you are capable of shining light in amazing ways. Each of you are capable of transformation. And you don’t have to have a Masters of Divinity or be an ordained elder to shine!

You just need a touch of love like the nuns of Sister Katherine’s Catholic Church in the movie Sister Act. The 1992 comedy stars Whoopi Goldberg as Dolores, a lounge singer who is goes into hiding after witnessing a murder. Pretending to be a nun named Sister Mary Clarence, Dolores soon realizes that the church is on hard times. In addition to a dilapidated roof, graffiti on the building and a chain link fence to keep out thieves, worship attendance is down to a handful of people and the choir’s music is quite stuffy and sleep-inducing. Being an outsider who sees the potential for something better, Dolores suggests to the other nuns that they can make a difference by leaving the safety of their church walls.

Did you notice that even though St. Katherine’s had a repair-the-roof fund sign, they didn’t ask a single person to give to the project? The nuns also didn’t invite people to come to worship or attend a class or a program. Instead they did something much simpler and more important: they went out to meet their neighbors and build relationships!

Although it wasn’t their intention to fill the pews with more bodies, the result was that more people came in the church to be a part of their ministry, and more people shared gifts of time and money to ensure the ministry would continue. And people did this not out of guilt or obligation or coercion, but because the nuns truly cared about them and desired to be in authentic relationships with them.

Image:  Joachim Wendler/shutterstock.com, on nextchurch.net

Image: Joachim Wendler/shutterstock.com, on nextchurch.net

This concept of taking Church “out there” is something I learned by attending the NEXT Church Conference in Chicago last month.  The NEXT Church is a network of leaders across the PC(USA) who believe the church of the future will be more relational, more diverse, more collaborative more hopeful and more agile. More specifically their mission is:

to foster relationships among God’s people:

sparking imaginations;

connecting congregations;

offering a distinctively Presbyterian witness to Jesus Christ.

Trusting in God’s sovereignty and grace,

NEXT Church will engage the church that is becoming by cultivating vital connections,

celebrating emerging leadership and innovation,

and working with congregations and leaders

to form and reform faith communities

From a conference filled with breath-taking worship, captivating workshops and testimonies of new and vibrant ministry occurring across the country, I’ve discovered that the key to sparking imagination and vitality in the local church, the key to making sure a church stays viable and relevant, is about discerning important questions:

What biblical stories are we telling that  feed people’s hunger to know more about their faith and beliefs?

What might happen if we focus less on attendance in worship and other areas; less on the church building to hold classes, programs and events; and less on the cash it takes to run programs and maintain the building?

Image: "Imagination" search on google.com

Image: “Imagination” search on google.com

What cultural shifts are we willing to make so we can nurture and embolden others (who hardly participate in the life of the church) to be the body of Christ? Could we offer online worship devotionals and church school videos for adults, children and youth?

What does ministry look like out in the world God created as opposed to being in our church building? What happens if we change from being magnets that attract people to bring slingshots that go out among the people? For instance, what if we:

* held an adult church school class at a coffee shop near the church?

* attended Bible study on Psalms in a hospital waiting room?

* led VBS at a community rec center? 

* worshipped in the food court of a shopping mall?

* gathered for The Blessing of The Animals at a local park? 

* offered the imposition of ashes near the Five Points Metro Station at the beginning of Lent? 

* create worship stations or a spirituality walk in downtown Atlanta?

What is the purpose of the ministry we do:

* Are we passionate about participating?

* Are we comfortable with failing or afraid of trying something new?

* Are we doing something because “we have to do it even though we hate it” or because we feel deeply called to use our gifts to serve?

* Who is being spiritually nourished and what relationships are nurtured from the ministry we do?
 

* Who is being transformed to become more faithful? Who is being impacted?
 

Image: paper prayer cranes in the sanctuary of Broad Street Ministries in Philadelphia, PA

Image: paper prayer cranes in the sanctuary of Broad Street Ministries in Philadelphia, PA

How might our worship on Sunday morning be filled with more creative and artful collaborations:

*Hanging paper cranes with prayers of forgiveness from the ceiling of the sanctuary?

*An artist painting on a large canvass during a sermon or anthem to express the message in a different way?

*Offering prayer concerns out loud from the pews?

*A social-media focused service where people dialogue with the sermon or share their responses to liturgy on Twitter and Facebook?

How can our ministry take us beyond Sunday worship and spill over into every aspect of our week and lives?

Image: God created the Earth by Couboo, May 15, 2010, http://coubo.fr/category/t-shirt/

Image: God created the Earth by Couboo, May 15, 2010, http://coubo.fr/category/t-shirt/

How is God moving us to do something different, unexpected, colorful and imaginative with our ministry?

What might be revealed to us when we move beyond ourselves, our fears and walls and do more out there with a “touch of love”? Friends, I believe we must all grapple with the answers to these questions so that we—the community of believers who are deeply united in heart and soul and who walk step by step in the light of Christ—can join God in creating what’s next for our church, our lives and our world.

 

Can you picture that?

Amen.

****Google “PC(USA) is dying” and many articles and blog posts will appear, claiming the death of the denomination. Also, several news articles about the PC(USA) passage of Amendment 14-F have received numerous comments, stating that Presbyterians are irrelevant, toxic, unfaithful, condemned, etc., none of which is true. So let’s not ever give them the satisfaction, eh?

Image: The Electric Mayhem performing "Can  You Picture That?" in an old country church

Image: The Electric Mayhem performing “Can You Picture That?” in an old country church

 

Instagram Reflections on Easter and Resurrection by Rob Bell

On Easter 2010, pastor and author Rob Bell released the provocative video Resurrection. Five years later, he released more reflections on the powerful meaning of the Resurrection with six handwritten messages-posts on Instagram:

Resurrection 1

Resurrection 2

 

Resurrection 3

Resurrection 4

Resurreciton 5

Resurrection 6

 

Bell’s words are a beautiful affirmation of how God’s victory over death in Jesus (non-violent, unconditional Divine love)–Resurrection–connects each of us to one another and frees us to embody Christ’s love, God’s goodness and grace, in all that we say and do. The Body of Christ. Children of God. Easter people. Resurrection reminds us who we are, to whom we belong and how we must live.

A Song for Dead Saturday: Hurt by Johnny Cash

“Hurt”
(originally written and performed by Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails)

I hurt myself today 
To see if I still feel 
I focus on the pain 
The only thing that’s real 
The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting 
Try to kill it all away 
But I remember everything 

[Chorus:]
What have I become 
My sweetest friend 
Everyone I know goes away 
In the end 
And you could have it all 
My empire of dirt 
I will let you down 
I will make you hurt 

I wear this crown of thorns 
Upon my liar’s chair 
Full of broken thoughts 
I cannot repair 
Beneath the stains of time 
The feelings disappear 
You are someone else 
I am still right here 

[Chorus:]
What have I become 
My sweetest friend 
Everyone I know goes away 
In the end 
And you could have it all 
My empire of dirt 
I will let you down 
I will make you hurt 

If I could start again 
A million miles away 
I would keep myself 
I would find a way

Maundy Thursday Reflection: Moving Toward The Cross

Toward the end of tonight’s Maundy Thursday Worship Service, following a hand-washing ritual where worshippers washed each others hands and then partook in communion, I offered the following reflection as we moved toward the Cross:

Holy_Week_Pics_2015-3Jesus goes from the water basin where he washed the disciples’ feet in love to the hands of Roman soldiers who will spit on his face, strip away his clothes and beat him unmercifully. 

Jesus goes from the table of communion where the bread was shared and wine was poured to his execution where his body will be broken and his blood spilled.

Jesus goes from having his followers faithfully by his side to his disciples abandoning him as he faces his earthly demise.

Jesus goes from being a breathing human being to the Cross  where he will cry out to God: “Why have you forsaken me?!?!” and breathe his last.

Jesus goes from the light of life into the darkness of death.

 And we go from following Jesus in joy and faithfulness to 

abandoning him in his final hour. 

staring teary eyed at an empty cross where the full embodiment of God was murdered.

locking our doors, turning off the lights and pulling down the shades to grieve his loss.

hiding and shaking under the covers as the world comes apart.

lamenting how we rejected the Divine Love that created each and every one of us.

wondering if this is the end of life as we know it.

The triune God of our beginnings and endings, goes with Jesus and all of us through the entire journey 

from nothing to something

from sorrow to happiness

from hardship to redemption

from judgment to forgiveness

christ-in-gethsemane-pAnd God declares that this is an end but not THE END,

as we go from sin to grace

as we go from darkness to light

as we go from the cross into the future of a new world–a place unknown

A reality and kingdom that lies beyond ourselves, our fears and our walls.

Sabbatical Reading Reflections: Small Victories by Anne Lamott

I don’t know of a single author who writes with such raw honesty and vulnerability than Anne Lamott. Her razor sharp wit, fantastic sense of humor, incredible humility and self awareness of her own short-comings and ability to find God’s presence in the midst of life’s worse messes is both convicting and inspiring.  Her latest collection Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace is Ann at her utmost best. Each essay shines with truth about humanity and God. And the truth is not a perfect fluffy sentiment wrapped up in a pretty bow, but instead something more real and tangible that readers can grasp and see in their own lives.  A truth about our own failures and struggles and God’s grace that rises out of the midst of the ugliness to move us toward hope, love and life–even if it’s one difficult, begrudging step at a time.

The passage in the book which grabbed me by shoulders and forced me to look in a mirror pertained to Lamott’s thoughts on forgiveness. Upon realizing that she needed to forgive her father for writing disparaging remarks about her in a journal she discovered years after his death, Lamott writes:

People like to say, ‘Forgiveness begins with forgiving yourself.’ Well, that’s nice. Thank you for sharing. It does and it doesn’t. To think you know is proof that you don’t. But forgiveness sure doesn’t begin with reason. The rational insists that it is right, that we are right. It is about attacking and defending, which means there can be no peace. It loves the bedtime story of how we’ve been injured. The rational is claustrophobic, too. The choice is whether you want to stay stuck in being right but being free or admit you’re pretty lost and possibly available for a long, deep breath, which is as big as the universe, stirs the air around, maybe opens a window. …

You can forgo the arithmetic of adding up the damage again, lay your Bartleby ledger in your lap, and look up. Looking up is the way out. …Rumi wrote, ‘Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and righting, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.’ In that field, you’re under a wide swath of sky, so the story becomes almost illimitable, instead of two small nutty people with grievances and popguns. You have to leave your crate, though; this will not happen inside your comfort zone. But if you can make a break for the field, you might forget all the whys, the nuance, details, and colors about the story that you’re sure you’ve gotten right, that doom you.

So you sacrifice the need to be right, because you have been wronged, and you put down the abacus that has always helped you keep track of things. This jiggles you free from clutch and quiver. You can unfurl your fingers, hold out your palm, openhanded…Forgiveness is release from me; somehow, finally, I am returned to my better, dopier self, so much lighter when I don’t have to drag the toxic chatter, wrangle and pinch around with me anymore.

For the last month, I’ve been dragging my toxic carcass of anger, sadness, irritability, self-righteousness and depression everywhere because I have felt wronged by a good friend. I’ve been quite a pitiful and sorry sight and not at all my more goofy, humorous, loving self.

And it’s not that I don’t have a right to feel angry and sad or share those feelings honestly and calmly. Those emotions are certainly justifiable. However, as my wife pointed out this evening, I haven’t moved (or worked) through those feelings in four weeks. I’ve let them imprison me in a terrible funk of inner rage, resentment, and doubt–consuming every breathing moment and preventing me from enjoying life, particularly my family and friends.

My hope, especially when I have a conversation with that friend this month, is that I can make a faithful attempt to set aside rationality and an insistence on being right, put the ledger away, look up and hold out my palm open handed.

May the unfurling begin.