The Sheep of God’s Pasture

Sermon for Sunday November 26, 2017, Christ The King Sunday

Ezekiel 34:11-16a and Matthew 25:31-40

Pastor’s Note: This is the recycled and updated version of a sermon I preached in April 2010 called One Flock, One Shepherd

Several years ago, my family and I attended the Dogwood Festival in Piedmont Park.  Along the path that winds around the park were hundreds of booths displaying the works of local and regional artists that were as splendidly colorful, refreshing, and mesmerizing as the spring day that enfolded us.

One of the artists’ booths that particularly caught our eye and prompted much smiles and laughter was entitled “Sheep Incognito.” The booth featured a large collection of whimsical, humorous and thought-provoking oil-paintings of sheep, each one with an outrageous title:

A sheep flying in a bumble bee suit: Bumble Baaaaa

A sheep in a gumball machine: Baabblegum

A sheep in a pickup, wearing a cap and smoking a cig: Billy Baab and his Truck

A sheep standing on a ladybug while holding two bales of hay in its hooves and a stalk of corn on its nose: Baalancing Act

And in a scene that is most appropriate for today’s scripture readings—A sheep, standing in a luscious green pasture near a clear blue lake, is gazing up at the magnificent sky with a sweet smile on its face. The painting is entitled Beside Still Waters, a reflection on Psalm 23. But it could easily be referred to as The Sheep of God’s Pasture, a nod to the illustration in today’s passage from Ezekiel.

The artist Conni Togel, who lives on Lake Hartwell in South Carolina, says this about why she paints sheep for a living:

“They really are just sheep, even though you might recognize yourself or those you know in what you are seeing. Truth be told, sheep are messengers of insane moments around us, fun things awaiting us, and focal points of special things in life that often slip by unnoticed. What’s more, being the peacenik creatures they are, the sheep love being part of a greater cause: bringing some joy and whimsy back to a world that seems to be headed into all sorts of wrong directions…The sheep really are a vehicle for the message I hope to impart to the world around me. It is about hope, laughter, love, courage and just a smidgen of insanity—all the things in life that make life wonderful.”[1]

I love Togel’s view of sheep as symbols of hope, laughter, courage and a smidge of insanity because it’s a perspective that is not commonly shared in society. Sheep are not held in the same high regard as other animals, animals well known for their power, might, wisdom, cunning and loyalty like the eagle, the lion, the dog and the bear.  Whenever anyone asks the popular small conversation starter question, “If you could be any animal, what kind of animal would you be?” rarely do you hear a person say, “A sheep!”

The use of the word sheep carries a lot of negativity, a lot of wooly baggage.  No one wants to be described as “sheepish” because it means they are embarrassed or ashamed.  And no group of people wants to be labeled as sheep because it implies they are brainless conformists for whom passivity is a lifestyle.

To be referred to as a “sheep” is always an insult.  And if sheep knew they were misunderstood and could talk like humans, well, they might loudly proclaim that they’re getting the proverbial short end of the shepherd’s crook.

Sheep, of course, are not intelligent enough to communicate in the same degree as are other animals like the dolphin or horse. But they are a lot smarter and more interesting than they’re given credit. For instance, sheep have good hearing, and are sensitive to noise when being handled. Sheep have horizontal slit-shaped pupils, possessing excellent peripheral vision; with visual fields of approximately 270° to 320°, sheep can see behind themselves without turning their heads.  Sheep do have poor depth perception; shadows and dips in the ground may cause sheep to baulk…but sheep have a tendency to move out of the dark and into well-lit areas.”[2]

 All sheep have a tendency to congregate close to other members of a flock, and sheep can become stressed when separated from their flock members. Sheep can recognize individual human and sheep faces, and remember them for years. And despite perceptions that sheep are dumb creatures, a University of Illinois study  on sheep found them to be on par with cattle in IQ, and some sheep have even shown problem-solving abilities.[3]

There are worse things a person can be compared to than sheep like a venomous snake or a cockroach.  And of all the animals chosen to describe human beings and their relationship to God, the one most often used is…a sheep. Throughout scripture, we are told again and again that God loves us and cares for us like a shepherd cares for the sheep—like a shepherd cares for the flock.

This image of God as the sovereign shepherd and God’s people as sheep has a permanent hold on Christian imagination and… piety, especially among ordained ministers (and elders). It is all too easy and common for preachers, like me, to see ourselves as those who have been trained at the very best religious institutions to “shepherd” and “pastor” a church, a “flock.”

While Ezekiel 34 and Matthew 25, among other texts, can be wonderful theological and practical lessons for how church leaders are called to be guides and caretakers, it’s important for all of us to remember that none of us are The Shepherd. Even when we as church leaders are trying to faithfully model our shepherding after Jesus’ preaching and teaching; we are still following Christ ourselves. We (church leaders) are also sheep and fellow members of the One Flock, and God in Christ alone is our Shepherd, and that is an extremely wonderful and humbling truth to behold.

This concept has particularly significance for us as we learn how to move forward and embrace God’s new vision for Pleasant Hill in the wake of founding and senior pastor Dave Fry’s last day as the church’s shepherd of 32 years.

While Dave gave us nearly a year in advance that his retirement was coming in mid November, there has been a decent amount of curiosity and anxiety (albeit mostly healthy) in the church: What will Pleasant Hill do without Dave? Who’s the Interim going to be? When are they getting here? Who will be called to serve as the senior pastor? How long will the search take?

So far, we’re doing well, which is not to say that the church doesn’t need a senior pastor.  As associate pastors, Jody, Jennie and I are completely capable of taking over some of the head of staff’s responsibilities, and yet we will be the first to say in January, “we’re so glad the church has an Interim Senior Pastor!”  And I know all of you will be equally excited to meet that new person who will help us through a time of transition and the eventual calling of a permanent head of staff.

What Dave’s retirement and absence is teaching me (and I hope the rest of us too) is that the One Flock of sheep, the Church Universal, keeps going no matter which ministers, elders, Christian Educators or church leaders are serving in a particular congregation.  The Church Universal keeps following The Shepherd even when folks leave the fold for whatever reason.

It’s true that a church’s staff and Session who oversee or lead ministries are called to use certain gifts for leadership and decision-making among the flock. But those folks are not the only shepherds nor is any one of them The Shepherd. The designated church leaders are not even the one flock, the Church, the larger body of Christ…not without the other members of the fold.

There are many members at Pleasant Hill who don’t have seminary degrees or master’s degrees or have not been ordained in the church that are faithfully leading, teaching, preaching, comforting, and nurturing the flock with the gifts God has given them. There are people doing extraordinary things among the fold even when one of the “shepherds” or church leaders is unavailable or busy with various church tasks. Ministry happens among the One Flock with, without and despite any one of us because of The Shepherd who leads all of us—who lays down his life for us so that we may live, love and serve abundantly.

The words of Ezekiel and Jesus help the church understand its role as God’s sheep and inspire the members of the one flock to do ministry. As one biblical scholar notes: “The calling inherent in this passage (from Ezekiel) is to do as God does: to care for the least, the last, the lost, and the excluded of society, out of a deep sense of love and compassion. This is a call that goes beyond the normal assumption that this pertains only to the pastor as shepherd; this image calls all in the church to minister to others.”[4]

We, who are nurtured by God like sheep under a shepherd’s care, are to live out a life that is keenly attuned to God’s presence in our midst. With sheep-like abilities we hear God’s voice, we see God’s face and we trust God will seek us out when we are lost, injured and weak and draws us from the darkness. And in return, we answer God’s command of us to minister to the broken and excluded people in society.

The command doesn’t come from a stern, tyrant king-like deity who seeks to condemn and torture our souls, but from a benevolent God who desires to nurture, rescue and protects us.

I realize that sounds odd when considering humanity’s long-held view of how a king or world leader should be. Those images of monarchy and dynasty and absolute power and prestige are engrained in our brains.

But the scriptures and our faith remind us again and again that God and Christ defy our expectations for how a leader should function.

Jesus is not a king like the Israel monarchs or the Roman emperors of his time nor is Jesus like any crowned figurehead, dictator, world leader or president that has existed throughout human history.

Jesus is not a king who rides in on a horse, brandishing a sword or riding atop a tank, sporting a machine-gun as some renowned Christian preachers would have you believe. Nor is Jesus a bloodthirsty revenge seeking action hero or a ruthless drug kingpin as some aspects of pop culture depict him to be.

No, Jesus is the King of love and peace because Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace-filled sovereignty in our world and lives.

And this all-knowing, almighty, mysterious entity arrives not as a power-hungry, oppressive god seeking to wipe out sinners and evildoers.

But as a small defenseless child born into poverty—no less than an animal trough in the poorest part of town—and is visited first by sheep and shepherds.

The Child that grows into a man, who breaks bread with outcasts, heals the sick, and gives comfort to the prisoner.

The Man who does not dress up in regal clothes but who, as Matthew’s Gospel reminds us, appears as the hungry and thirsty person needing a drink; the stranger needing to be welcomed; the naked needing clothing; the sick needing comfort; and the prisoner needing a friend.

The Savior who presides over our lives and world not through acts of coercion and violence but through the supreme act of unconditional, selfless, suffering love.

The Ruler who builds a beloved community where all are welcome and compassion and love are freely and fully given.

The Shepherd who feeds, nurtures, rescues, protects and guides the flocks; and who calls each of us to do likewise for the least of these—the last, the lost, the despised and marginalized—all sheep of God’s pasture.

And all God’s people said: Baaaa—amen!

[1] Conni Togel, Sheep Incognito, http://www.charisma-art.com/

[2] Sheep Facts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheep

[3] Sheep Facts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheep

[4] Feasting on the Word : Preaching on the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 4, Christ the King Sunday, Ezekiel 34:11-16, Karyn L. Wiseman

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Love and Peace or Else

A  Sermon for Sunday, May 1, 2016, The Sixth Sunday of Easter, John 13:34-35; 14:25-27; 16:33

       

Cerezo Barredo's Weekly Gospel Illustration, John: 25-27
Cerezo Barredo’s Weekly Gospel Illustration, John: 25-27

        The peace of Christ—it’s a familiar phrase that’s been heard and expressed by Christians throughout history.

             We know those four words well. We have said them frequently in the context of worship for many, many years:

                     “The peace of Christ be with you… and also with you.”

                      “Go in the peace of Christ.”

               But do we fully understand and appreciate the meaning of the peace of Christ?

              Do we know that it’s more than just a nice Hallmark card greeting that we say as an act of rote memorization every Sunday?

             Do we recognize the significance those four words have in our lives as people of faith

             Do we comprehend that the peace of Christ—which Jesus imparts to the disciples in the Gospel of John—is a holy, powerful, merciful and subversive gift from God for all humankind?

              In 2008, I asked several colleagues and friends to contribute essays on my Internet blog on what the peace of Christ meant in their life. My hope is that by revisiting their words and the wisdom of some notable heroes of the faith as well as the scripture, we all might gain deeper insight into the peace that God gives.

               In the first post on the blog series about the peace of Christ, David LaMotte, singer-songwriter and social justice activist, explains that God’s peace is routinely confused with placidity. It’s often misperceived as being chill and serene with no violence and conflict present—a state of numbing out where all you hear is the voice of Tommy Chung saying, “peace out man.” And thus many consider talk of God’s peace or the practice of peace as weak, lazy and apathetic—a leisure activity for hippies and stoners.

                David says that couldn’t be further from the truth about the function and role of peace. In his essay he wrote:

Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the product and process of doing conflict well. Conflict is not the enemy. In fact, it is a useful tool in the search for what is real and true. None of us has all of the answers, or at least all of the right answers, so our ideas necessarily conflict. That’s not a bad thing. The question is how we manage that conflict, how we listen and struggle together to seek better ways and ideas…[1]

            It’s no secret that we live in a world brimming with conflict due to angst, fear and hate:

            The economy is precarious and people lose jobs without any warning. Poverty and hunger exists in both urban and suburban settings. Bullying runs amok in schools. Terrorism consumes our thoughts. Presidential politics grows nastier and nastier by the minute. The abuse of children and youth by people in power continually make headlines. There is senseless gun violence on our streets and neighborhoods.

              Families grieve over the death of loved ones to cancer or numerous other illnesses. Other parts of the globe are plagued by war, disease, natural disasters and famine. Racism, sexism, gender discrimination, homophobia, xenophobia and Islamaphobia flourish mightily. Substance abuse, suicide and divorce rates are skyrocketing. And many people struggle daily with health challenges; insecurity about their bodies and self worth; broken-relationships; how to be a good parent, spouse and co-worker.

               With epic storms like these swirling around, it’s a wonder that any of us can get out of bed and get ready for the day; much less embody the love and peace of Christ in our encounters with other human beings. How can we possibly find the energy to daily receive and share God’s peace in the midst of the chaos?

                 The disciples, who lived amid the storm of an oppressive regime of the Roman Empire and who were labeled as insurrectionists for their association with Jesus, certainly had difficulty comprehending their rabbi’s command to love one another, to know God’s peace and to not let their hearts be troubled or afraid.

               As soon as the pandemonium of Jesus betrayal, arrest and death arrives, the disciples flee and lock themselves in a dark room—praying that the Empire won’t find them and give them the same fate.

         76b86e1a1aff99776d8ac69e120423e2     And Jesus, knowing the tempest is near, says calmly and confidently to his disciples, hours earlier:

               “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

               “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

               “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

                Of all people, Jesus should be freaking out. He should be packing a bag and saying, “See ya, I’m gone!” Instead Jesus, the eye of the storm coming toward him, holds his ground and expresses his love for his friends by giving them God’s peace—His peace. And Jesus does this again post-resurrection, appearing before the disciples in that locked room to say “Peace be with you!”[2]  In other words, Jesus is saying, “I am here among you. I am the Peace that is eternal and will not go away!”

             What an amazing gift the peace of Christ is to the disciples and to us. It is a gift that keeps on giving and surprising, usually in the midst of turmoil and when we least expect.

            In another essay for the blog series on the peace of Christ, Jan Edmiston, a Presbyterian, shared a story about how the Session of the congregation she was serving had to fire the pre-school director. Although it was done for good reasons (which were confidential for the sake of the pre-school director and the church), the pre-school director vowed to ruin Jan’s reputation and began spreading ugly rumors among the pre-school staff and parents.

             Several pre-school staffers quit. Subs were called in who didn’t have lesson plans or know the kids names. Jan and the Session held a meeting for parents after their kids got dropped off at the pre-school and things were tense. She said:

Children were crying. Parents were yelling. One parent spit on me…. Needless to say, I had asked God for help. I stood in the parlor, ready to offer explanatory words, and once everyone quieted down, I opened my mouth and spoke. And the words that came out sounded…kind of amazing. (“That was pretty good,” I said to myself. “Where the heck did that come from?”) The words were calm and mature and strong and uplifting. One parent said, “I don’t know what’s going on, but it’s obvious that you did what you had to do. Thank you.” It was a God thing. Christ’s peace happens when there is no reason why a situation or a soul or a moment would be peaceful and yet it is. … It is a real peace, authentic serenity rooted in the total confidence that—in spite of all evidence that we should be freaking out—God is with us, and everyone is going to be alright.[3]

               Writing for the same blog series, a seminary classmate, Alan Bancroft opened up about a break-up with his girlfriend of a year while he was serving as an associate pastor in Franklin, TN. The woman he was dating was not sure she wanted to be a pastor’s wife and still figuring out her own life. So they talked and cried and decided to part ways. Alan was devastated and he wondered where God would be in his “cloud of sorrow.” The next day was cloudy and drizzly and after work, he decided to go on a 6-mile run. He said:

As I was coming up on the fourth mile, I began to recite the following mantra: Take it away, God. Give me peace. Take it away, God. Give me peace. Then I added another line: Take hers away, God. Give her peace. Take hers away, God. Give her peace. As I called out to God to take way the pain… the warm drizzly day slowly turned into a warm rainy day. As I continued to recite the mantra, the rain intensified and before long, I was completely soaked. At some point, the combination of reciting the mantra, the purifying, soaking rain and the rhythm of placing one foot in front of the other, brought me a feeling of peace that I truly believe was the work of God. For those two remaining miles, my heart felt peaceful and void of the turmoil that had resided there since the previous evening. …For me, in this time and place, the peace of Christ represents feeling briefly restored and sustained as I wander through a valley of hurt, confusion and frustration.[4]

               The peace that Christ gives is not the absence of pain, loss, conflict, storms or chaos. The peace of Christ is in the midst of the mess. The peace of Christ is in the midst to love us, comfort us, and heal us.  And sometimes we have to push the disorder aside to make more room for Christ’s peace to do what it does best.

             The retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who helped bring an end to the atrocities of apartheid in South Africa decades ago, says that if people take the time to be more loving and peaceful, amazing things can happen. In his book God Has A Dream, he writes:[5]

One way to begin cultivating this ability to love is to see yourself internally as a center of love, as an oases of peace, as a pool of serenity with ripples going out to all those around you. You can begin by biting off the sharp retort that was almost certainly going to hurt the other. … Rather than intensifying the anger or the hatred, you say in your heart, “God bless you.” …Let’s say you are caught in a traffic jam and instead of getting angry and saying, “What a bunch of morons,” you bless them. … If more of us could serve as centers of love and oases of peace, we might just be able to turn around a great deal of the conflict, the hatred, the jealousies and the violence.

Once we allow Christ’s peace to dwell within us, we are then able to share the peace with others—inviting them to first look inside their own hearts before reaching out to more hearts.

          And it is God’s merciful heart that pours the peace of Christ upon us from the cross, and loosens the peace upon the world from the grave to restore human relationships and the Divine relationship.

         And it is that Divinely heart-felt gift of peace that spurs us to seek justice for the oppressed and to care for all of our neighbors.

          Embodying the peace of Christ in word and deed is literally an act of witnessing God’s love in the other whom we meet. Seeing the immigrant not as “illegal” or the Muslim as a “terrorist” or the black man as a “thug” or the poor person as a “lazy bum” or the woman as a “sex object” or LGBQT as “abominations” —but as beloved children of God.

            Whenever we say “the peace of Christ be with you” or embody the peace through our actions, we are a conveying a message to others that says:  “No matter who you are, I recognize that you are one of God’s creations who is loved to death and beyond.”   

             There was once a Presbyterian minister in Pittsburgh, PA who delivered that message every day to millions of people for more than 30 years. His name was Fred Rogers:[6]

 

             There are many ways to say “I love you” and to tell someone they make everyday special just by being themselves, the person God created them to be.

            And so I say to everyone here:

            “The peace of Christ be with you”

Amen.

(Special Thanks to Alan Bancroft, Adam Copeland, Jan Edmiston, Carol Howard Merritt, Emily Miller, David LaMotte, and Derrick Weston for their incredible insights about the “peace of Christ.” God’s work through them was the inspiration for this sermon, even if they are not all directly quoted.)

[1] https://georgiapreach.wordpress.com/2008/08/29/david-lamotte-on-the-peace-of-christ/

[2] John 20:19-21

[3] https://georgiapreach.wordpress.com/2008/08/30/jan-edmiston-on-the-peace-of-christ/

[4] https://georgiapreach.wordpress.com/2008/09/05/alan-bancroft-on-the-peace-of-christ/

[5] God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope For Our Time by Desmond Tutu, 2004. Doubleday Publishing.

[6] The Officer of Make Believe: Being Black in ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ by Great Big Story (2:32)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ObHNWh3F5fQ

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.

 

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.

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?

Sabbatical

Calvin & Hobbes, expert sabbatical takers
Calvin & Hobbes, expert sabbatical takers

(Blog Note: Letter I wrote in October 2014)

Dear Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church,

One of the greatest gifts this church gives to its pastoral staff is a “sabbatical” after they have served at Pleasant Hill for several years. With my 10th anniversary in ordained ministry and my 7th year of ministry at Pleasant Hill coming up next summer, the Session has approved my plans to take a sabbatical in late winter/early spring of 2015.

“Sabbatical” comes from the Hebrew word and the traditions around ‘sabat.’ You’re probably familiar that one of the Ten Commandments in the book of Exodus is about keeping the Sabbath and in Leviticus we find two more references: one concerns letting the land lie fallow every seven years and another refers to the Jubilee Year in which debts are forgiven.

As the author Wayne Muller puts it:

Sabbath time can be a revolutionary challenge to the violence of overwork, mindless accumulation, and the endless multiplication of desires, responsibilities and accomplishments. Sabbath is a way of being in time where we remember who we are, remember what we know, and taste the gifts of spirit and eternity…Sabbath honors the necessary wisdom of dormancy. If certain plant species, for example, do not lie dormant for winter, they will not bear fruit in the spring. …We, too, must have a period in which we lie fallow, and restore our souls.

The church’s sabbatical policy allows for a pastor to take two months away from their ministry in the parish. Mine will begin on Monday February 2, a couple of weeks before the start of the Lenten season, and end Wednesday April 1 of Holy Week. I will not be around on Sundays or responding to emails, phone calls, social media messages during this time. (But know that youth, missions and other ministries I do at Pleasant Hill are in the good hands of many wonderful people in this faith community).

My hope for my sabbatical is to engage in Lenten practices which will fully immerse me into a time of Sabbath and quiet contemplation about who I am as a minister, husband, father and disciple. I plan to spend quality time with my family as well as find opportunities to worship, pray and reflect in different contexts around Greater Atlanta. I will attend the NEXT Church conference in mid-February in Chicago and also being preparing for my first time as a keynote speaker at Weeks V and VI of the Montreat Youth Conferences (which occur from late July to early August). I also have a nice stack of books to delve into that relate to the ministries I oversee at Pleasant Hill. Overall, I’m looking forward to just “being”—of “lying fallow” and allowing God in the Spirit to renew my heart, mind, soul and body so that I may continue to serve this congregation with energy, intelligence, creativity, imagination and love.

Thank you for this amazing gift of Sabbath. I look forward to seeing what God has in store for you and me during this sacred time.

In Christ,

The Rev. Andy Acton, Associate for Youth and Mission & Outreach