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

 

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.

Sabbatical Reading Reflections: The Bible Tells Me So and Disquiet Time

Product8677_Photo1Although I’m a 39-year-old progressive Presbyterian Church (USA) pastor serving a moderate to progressive church in a mostly progressive denomination, I’ve encountered–since I was a middle schooler–church folk (including Presbyterians) who have staunchly believed that the Bible is a infallible rule book that is not to be questioned…ever. And to question the Bible is to question God and to question God is to permanently seal your fate in hell or in the very least incur God’s disappointment and anger.  As Peter Enns, religious scholar and author of The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read Itputs it:

Many Christians have been taught that the Bible is Truth downloaded from heaven, God’s rulebook, a heavenly instruction manual–follow the directions and out pops a true believer; deviate from the script and God will come crashing down on you with full force. If anyone challenges this view, the faithful are taught to ‘defend the Bible’ against these anti-God attacks. Problems solved. That is, until you actually read the Bible. Then you see that this rulebook view of the Bible is like a knockoff Chanel handbag–fine as long as its kept at a distance, away from curious and probing eyes.

Youth advisers and pastors whom I respected during youth and young adulthood echoed this sentiment in their own teaching, preaching and nurturing of my faith and belief in God, especially when other Christians tried to use the Bible to scare people into believing (which is not what Jesus ever had in mind when he walked the earth), i.e. the popular televangelists preachers of the 1980s in which I grew up or the fundamentalist Christian college students who descended upon my friends and I at our church’s Presbyterian camp at the beach in an effort to convert us.

While I knew this staunch defense of the Bible, God and faith was dangerous, I never felt I had the ability to express exactly why this way of thinking was harmful, bad theology that reduced God to a cruel and judgmental dictator.  Other than saying, “God is love,” I lacked the tools to full understand the larger context of the Bible: the ancient Israelites who lived in that ancient world thousands of years ago and their experience of God and of learning to live a life in faith to only one God, the creator of the universe and father of Abraham, Isaac, etc. I couldn’t counter the misconceptions (based on fear and a need to control) with deeper knowledge about the scripture passages, when they were written, why they were written and what they were intended to say to people of the time.  

This changed when I entered Columbia Theological Seminary at the age of 27 (way back in 2002). In the classrooms of Walter Brueggemann, Christine Yoder, Beth Johnson, Charlie Cousar, Stan Saunders, Mark Douglas, Shirley Guthrie, George Stroup, Bill Harkins, Chuck Campbell, Anna Carter Florence, Rodger Nishioka, Kathy Dawson and Erskine Clarke (just to name a few) I learned how to articulate what I always instinctively felt and believed about the Bible and God’s role in the text and human history:

The Bible is the messy and incredible story of God and humanity told by an ancient people whose message echoes throughout time and in our lives today. The Bible is the story of God’s love and grace that enters over and over and over again into human mess. God creates. Humans destroy. God calls people to create beautiful things (relationships, communities, lives). Humans reject the call. Contaminate and corrupt God’s gift of creation and misuse the gift to create by wielding hate and violence instead. God loves. Humans try to love and some succeed. But mostly they fail. God loves and loves some more. Humans fail. God keeps on loving and calling and encouraging humanity to trust in the Divine and live as people of the divine in their treatment of one another and the world they inhabit. Humans succeed in long moments and in spurts. God loves so much that God-self becomes flesh to show humanity that creativity, imagination, mercy and compassion is always the better way–better than desires to judge, control, manipulate, horde, and act recklessly with our own lives and the lives of others.  

The Bible is inspired by God and written by fallible human beings whom God loves unconditionally. God in Christ remains faithfully involved in people’s lives despite their mistakes, including the discrepancies and errors in their stories, experiences and interpretations of God. It is true for the ancients of the Bible and true for us crazy human beings today. 

Like my professors in seminary and my church mentors growing up, Enns’ book helped me once again to shape what I already knew to be true about the Bible but sometimes have difficulty expressing, particularly the violent, strange and contradictory texts.

End reminded me once again that the Bible’s purpose is not to provide safe and simple answers that solve all of life’s problems:

God did not design scripture to be a hushed afternoon in an oak-panel library. Instead, God has invited us to participate in a wrestling match, a forum for us to be stretched and to grow. Those are the kind of disciples God desires…When we open the Bible and read it, we are eavesdropping on an ancient spiritual journey. That journey was recorded over a thousand-year span of time, by different writers, with different personalities, at different times, under different circumstances, and for different reasons…

This Bible, which preserves ancient journeys of faith, models for us our own journeys. We recognize something of ourselves in the struggles, joys, triumphs, confusions and despairs expressed by the biblical writers. Rather than a rulebook…the Bible is more a land we get to know by hiking through it and exploring its many paths and terrains. This land is both inviting and inspiring, but also unfamiliar, odd, and at points unsettling–even risky and precarious. 

I believe God encourages us to explore this land–all of it–patiently, with discipline, in community, and above all with a  sense that we , joining the long line of those who have gone before, will come to know ourselves better and God more deeply by accepting the challenge. ..We respect the Bible most when we let it be what it is and learn from it rather than combing out the tangles to make it presentable.

And, I might add, to judge others, to use the Bible to determine who is in and out of the church, who is not allowed in heaven or who is not deserving of God’s love.

Enn delves further into how the Bible can be so much richer for cultivating authentic faith when we allow the Bible to be what it is instead of trying to make its most violent parts behave or adhere to our justifications for God’s wrath and why we think God would be ok with all sorts of violence today.  With great knowledge and respect for scriptures and wily sense of humor, Enns tackles the violent and strange and contradictory passages of the Bible head on. Instead of taming the Bible or locking it in a cage, Enns takes readers on an exploration of this wild living thing that breathes and moves across the landscape of the ancient and post-modern. 

49827In their collection of essays, Jennifer Grant and Cathleen Falsani, encourage “Bible-loving Christians, agnostics, skeptics, none-of-the-aboves and people who aren’t afraid to dig deep spiritually, ask hard questions and have some fun along the way,” to not shy way from having Disquiet Time with the Bible.

Essays written by the “skeptical, faithful and a few scoundrels” explore difficult, bizarre and (sometimes humorous) texts that stir up questions and cause discomfort and confusion for readers, like grotesque violence, plagues of frogs, the trippy vision of Revelation, the role and treatment of women, sexual innuendo, angelic body parts, and all the poop references.

Whereas Enns takes readers through a process of how to approach the Bible as a sacred object that doesn’t needed to be defended but to be wrestled with,  Grant and Falsani offer up voices of those who have stepped into the ring with the weird and formidable stories of the Bible.

Admittedly, I haven’t read the entire collection. Only the first nine essays because I’ve been distracted by other books on my sabbatical reading list. I’m realizing now that Disquiet Time is the type of book that doesn’t need to be read orderly from front to back and is actually better enjoyed when you flip to any essay when your own soul is feeling disquieted by the Bible, faith, God or the world in general. (Take a moment to peruse the global, political and entertainment news and you’ll immediately find some disquieting things).

The essays are exposing me to voices I need to hear and I’m in awe of their vulnerability and honesty as they share how particular texts have befuddled, angered, surprised or given comfort to them. To metaphorically see them struggle with disquieting texts to find meaning gives me courage to grapple with glowering behemoths like Genesis 16, Ruth 3, Ecclesiastes 9, and Deuteronomy 23. 

And the most important lesson I’ve learned thus far is that the Bible is full of crap (Deuteronomy 23:12-13; 2 Kings 9:36-37; Exodus 29:12-14, Ezra 6:11, among others) and God is wading in the muck right along with us.

What’s Next For Christian Education?

Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 10.50.56 PM(Note: A slightly different version of this post was published at 7 am on the new Christian Education resource blog HOPE4CE: A Place Where Innovative Ideas and Lesson Plans Can Be Shared For Christian Education)

I recently returned from the NEXT Church Conference, held  March 16-18, in Chicago, and once again it nourished my soul and heart for ministry. Worship services, presentations and workshops (regarding innovative ministry and discernment about what works and what doesn’t) as well as opportunities to connect with friends and colleagues filled me with hope for where the PC(USA) and its churches are headed in the foreseeable future.

While the conference didn’t explicitly talk about the best Christian Education models or ministries (which relate to me as an associate for youth at the church I serve in Georgia), the various leaders, teachers and presenters faithfully teach Christians about what it means to be the body of Christ and to do God’s work in the world—to (according to this year’s theme) go “beyond our walls, our fears and ourselves” to encounter God’s transforming grace. Also, Christian Education is about being creative in the ways we tell the good news of God’s love, and the act of imagining and sharing ideas is the essence of the NEXT Church movement.

Worship in particular is so moving, inspiring and thought-provoking (with liturgy, prayers, music, preaching and visual art) that it is impossible not to remove your shoes because you are standing on holy ground like Moses.

Photo taken by NEXT Church photographer, posted on NEXT Church Facebook page. Art done by NEXT Church worship team.

Photo taken by NEXT Church photographer, posted on NEXT Church Facebook page. Art created by NEXT Church the Rev. Shawna Bowman.

For the closing service on Wednesday, the representation of a bird was hung from the ceiling of the sanctuary. The piece is made mostly of strips of paper (taken from old hymnals) upon which we wrote our prayers earlier in the week and tied to a make-shift chain link fence that symbolized the things and fears that hold us back.  

The bird soaring high above exemplified how God knocks down our walls and sets us free. During the service, these words (written by the Rev. Shawna Bowman who also created the art piece) were offered to help us connect the meaning of the flying bird:

Grounded in the grace of God

Our love takes flight

Not beyond one another

But beyond ourselves

Beyond our fears

Beyond our own limitations

God’s blessing infuses us

God’s spirit blows us

God’s strength emboldens us

God’s beauty beckons us

Out into the day and the night

Out into the world beyond these walls

To be the people of God

In the world God created.

 This poetic and prophetic piece reflected a profound statement made the previous evening by writer/dreamer/theologian Diana Butler Bass who said during a presentation on Christianity’s “Great Awakening:

The best part about being human is that history is ours to make and we make that history with God.

Diana’s wisdom, closing worship and a workshop I attended earlier in the week–“Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast” by the Rev. Jan Edmiston–stirred up many questions about how we might discern the role of Christian Education in a faith community of the 21st century world :

 –What kind of history are we making with Christian Education and what stories are we telling that feeds people’s hunger to know about their faith and beliefs?

 –What does Christian Education look like when it’s beyond ourselves, our fears and walls?

 –What does Christian Education look like out in the world God created as opposed to being in a church building or classroom?

–What is God’s strength and beauty moving us to do differently, unexpectedly, creatively, and imaginative with Christian Education?

— What cultural shifts are we willing to make to keep Christian Education relevant and viable ministry that nurtures and emboldens others to be the body of Christ? (This question and the subsequent ones are adapted from questions that Jan Edmiston posed concerning general ministry).

 o   What does Christian Education look like if we focus less on attendance at events, the building to house classes and the cash it takes to run programs? What does CE look like if we focus on doing the ministry in the surrounding culture and neighborhood of the church?

 o   What if we move a church school class or youth adviser training from the church parlor to a coffee shop?

o   What if we move from doing CE events at the church to attract people (like VBS or a Fall Festival) and send people out into neighborhoods to do VBS or host a Fall Festival in the town square or community center?

o   What if we ask more questions about our purpose for doing a certain CE program and event and whether people are passionate about participating or comfortable with failing or afraid of trying something new?

o   Who is being spiritually nourished and what relationships are being nurtured by CE? Who is being transformed to become more faithful? Who is being impacted?

 o   How can CE better nurture faith and discipleship that carries over into every aspect of our week and lives, beyond Sunday mornings and the Wednesday evening supper and Bible study?

Photo: Joachim Wendler/shutterstock.com. Posted on the NEXT Church website, http://nextchurch.net

Photo: Joachim Wendler/shutterstock.com. Posted on the NEXT Church website, http://nextchurch.net

These questions must be wrestled with and answered so that the people of God can faithfully educate Christians on how to live fully in Christ, so that we can all take flight into the wildly creative imagination of what God has for us next.

Sabbatical Reading Reflections: The Zimzum of Love by Rob and Kristen Bell

One of my favorite Christian authors and pastors is Rob Bell. Whenever he publishes a book or releases a video, I consume it immediately.  His progressive evangelical view of God, faith and scripture capture my heart and imagination and help me look at my own ministry and spirituality in a new way.  Bell’s latest book The Zimzum of Love, co-written with his wife Kristen, goes one step farther by providing profound insights on my marriage and the deeper mysteries of this sacred relationship (and btw, is a great companion piece to Bell’s Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections Between Sexuality and Spirituality).

 A Hebrew word used to “talk about the creation of the world–not in a scientific way but more like something somewhere between poetry and metaphysical speculation,” zimzum is the space which God creates between two people in a marriage for them to thrive in unconditional, sacrificial love.

Through back and forth dialogue, the Bells are honest about the ups and downs of marriage and offer practical advice for couples who wish to strengthen their marriages and live fully in relationship with their partner.

Rob and Kristin present the basis for their book (which divulges, thanks be to God, from the numerous syrupy step-by-step instruction manuals as well as misogynistic and theologically damaging views of marriage) in the following video:

This is one of those books where I found myself highlighting a paragraph or two and making notes on nearly every page. Two passages that stuck out in my reading were:

rob-kristen-bell-marqueeWhen you zimzum, you are consciously deciding to give your energies first and foremost to one person. That’s the power of the exclusive space-out of seven billion people on the planet, you first give yourself to just this one person in just this one way. You direct your love and will and energy to this one.

Like a laser beam, when you direct and focus your energies, they intensify. And when the two of you direct and focus your energies on each other, you create an extraordinary energy field between you. It’s the buzz, the crackle, the electricity that hums between you…

As you intentionally take action for the well-being of this person you love, strengthening and protecting the exclusive space between you, something unexpected happens. Your love overflows. Your love and devotion take you not just beyond yourself, but beyond the two of you. The energy that is generated between you transcends the two of you. By first committing to just each other, you naturally create something bigger than you both. This is why marriage is good for the world. Love that overflows makes the world a better place. It’s a gift–a beautiful, divine, sacred gift to the world.

……………………………

God is described as a relationship of one. Early theologians called this relational oneness of God trinity. God is movement, motion, energy, generosity–a trinitarian community of infinite love, endlessly moving beyond for the good of others. In this trinitarian understanding of God, love is the engine of the universe, the life force that surges through all of creation. The nature of love is that it can’t be contained; it spills over and naturally creates new space for others to thrive.

This love takes us back to the first impulse you had to zimzum for this person you love. When you zimzum, you are aligning yourself with the most foundational creative energies of the universe. You’re experiencing the same love that sustains the world. This space between you is sacred because when you live beyond yourself, orientating yourself around the thriving of another, you are reflecting the image of God. You are unleashing in this space between you the same divine energies that continue to create the universe.

Art Credit: Rob and Kristen Bell

Art Credit: Rob and Kristen Bell

These particular statements made me wonder about how the Church might engage in the zimzum of love.

What would churches look like or how could they thrive and be healthy/healthier if it’s leaders and members committed to creating an exclusive space between them and the ministry of the church?  What would it look like if distractions (like arguments over the color of the sanctuary carpet, signage, worship attendance, the style of the bulletin; and an over-filled busy work and social schedule) were eliminated so more energy was focused on creative and transforming ministry?

What would the life of a congregation look like if members were to align their faith with the Divine energy that creates and sustains the universe? What would it look like if followers of Christ  reflected the image of God in exclusive relationships with the poor and homeless, the oppressed, the victims of injustice, the people whose cultural, religious, racial, sexual and gender identity is different from our own?

What might the church and world look like if Love overflowed, if we unleashed the energies of God in the relationships God has called us to create and cultivate in ministry and service?

My Sabbatical Reading List

While a sabbatical is a blessing, it’s also a personal challenge to figure out exactly what I’m going to do with this gift of renewal. I‘m planning to hear Andrew Root speak in Decatur later this month and attending The NEXT Church Conference in Chicago in March, but those events obviously don’t fill up the entirety of my time away. I will make opportunities along the way to exercise, encounter different worship experiences, participate in Lenten practices, work on keynotes for Montreat Youth Conferences, and hang out with the wife and kids. But I still need a daily practice that keeps me immersed in sabbath reflection, creativity and visioning of my ministry and my service to God and the Church Universal. So I’ve come up with a list of books that I’m hoping to devour and contemplate on this blog between now and April 2. (The synopsis of each book comes from their description on Amazon.com):

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The Bible Tells Me So chronicles Enns’s spiritual odyssey, how he came to see beyond restrictive doctrine and learned to embrace God’s Word as it is actually written. As he explores questions progressive evangelical readers of Scripture commonly face yet fear voicing, Enns reveals that they are the very questions that God wants us to consider—the essence of our spiritual study.

49827The Bible is full of not-so-precious moments, from murder and mayhem, to sex and slavery. Now, an incredible cast of contributors tackles the parts of the Bible that most excite, frustrate, or comfort. Disquiet Time was written by and for Bible-loving Christians, agnostics, skeptics, none-of-the-aboves, and people who aren’t afraid to dig deep spiritually, ask hard questions, and have some fun along the way.

3979da2042813af312594b0ba83ff63aAnne Lamott writes about faith, family, and community in essays that are both wise and irreverent. It’s an approach that has become her trademark. Now in Small Victories, Lamott offers a new message of hope that celebrates the triumph of light over the darkness in our lives. Our victories over hardship and pain may seem small, she writes, but they change us—our perceptions, our perspectives, and our lives. Lamott writes of forgiveness, restoration, and transformation, how we can turn toward love even in the most hopeless situations, how we find the joy in getting lost and our amazement in finally being found.

 

2Q==“This is LIFE, people! You’ve got air coming through your nose! You’ve got a heartbeat! That means it’s time to do something!” announces Kid President in his book, Kid President’s Guide to Being Awesome. From YouTube sensation (75 million views and counting!) to Hub Network summer series star, Kid President—ten-year-old Robby Novak—and his videos have inspired millions to dance more, to celebrate life, and to throw spontaneous parades.

In his Guide to Being Awesome, Kid President pulls together lists of awesome ideas to help the world, awesome interviews with his awesome celebrity friends (he has interviewed Beyoncé!), and a step-by-step guide to make pretty much everything a little bit awesomer. Grab a corn dog and settle in to your favorite comfy chair. Pretend it’s your birthday! (In fact, treat everyone like it’s THEIR birthday!) Kid President is here with a 240-page, full-color Guide to Being Awesome that’ll spread love and inspire the world.

4ec4a8441f6a2273abecd846c92c76d5Despite the divorce statistics, people are still committing to each other, instinctively believing and hoping that theirs is a sacred union that will last forever. Yet when these couples encounter problems, they often lack the resources that keep them connected to this greater mystery surrounding marriage.

Rob and Kristen Bell introduce a startling new way of looking at marriage, The Zimzum of Love. Zimzum is a Hebrew term where God, in order to have a relationship with the world, contracts, creating space for the creation to exist. In marriage, zimzum is the dynamic energy field between two partners, in which each person contracts to allow the other to flourish. Mastering this field, this give and take of energy, is the secret to what makes marriage flourish.

9k=With decision-making trees to help you decide when it’s the right time to wear Blackface (hint: probably never) and quizzes to determine whether you’ve become the Token Black Friend™, Dear White People is the ultimate silly-yet-authoritative handbook to help the curious and confused navigate racial microaggressions in their daily lives.

Based on the eponymous, award-winning film, which has been lauded as “a smart, hilarious satire,” this tongue-in-cheek guide is a must-have that anybody who is in semi-regular contact with black people can’t afford to miss!

march_book_two_72dpi_lgJohn Lewis, an American icon and one of the key figures of the civil rights movement, continues his award-winning graphic novel trilogy March, Book 2 with co-writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell, inspired by a 1950s comic book that helped prepare his own generation to join the struggle. Now, March brings the lessons of history to vivid life for a new generation, urgently relevant for today’s world. After the success of the Nashville sit-in campaign, John Lewis is more committed than ever to changing the world through nonviolence – but as he and his fellow Freedom Riders board a bus into the vicious heart of the deep south, they will be tested like never before. Faced with beatings, police brutality, imprisonment, arson, and even murder, the movement’s young activists place their lives on the line while internal conflicts threaten to tear them apart.

Unknown-1In 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.