Friday, August 29, 2008

Trusting in the Light . . .

God is our mighty fortress, always ready to help in times of trouble. And so, we won't be afraid!

Let the earth tremble and the mountains tumble into the deepest sea. Let the ocean roar and foam, and its raging waves shake the mountains.

The LORD All-Powerful is with us. The God of Jacob is our fortress.
Psalm 46:1-3, 11 (CEV)

Hurricane Gustav is churning . . . although not in the direct path of Katrina we still carry the emotional and spiritual scars of her . . . anxieties are running high here . . . folks are evacuating prior to a reported mandatory evacuation.

Day before yesterday one of the projected paths indicated the house I rent may not be here when I got back . . . yesterday the projections when west . . . I was relieved . . . This morning I talked to a friend of mine who is now in the projected path . . . I feel guilty now . . . the proverbial question of our faith -- why do bad things happen to good people (sounds like a book title!).
After Camille in 1969 I attended a revival with a Baptist friend of mine . . . The preacher told us that this was God’s punishment for evil . . . When I got home my Mom and Dad asked if I had enjoyed myself . . . “no” and I told them what the preacher had said.
You see we didn’t leave for Camille . . . it was horrible . . . Five humans, one cat, two dogs and five puppies . . . huddled together in my parents bedroom while water (5 nd ½ feet rushed into our downstairs, wrecking havoc then rushing out again . . . A friend of mine with his little brother spent the night in a tree after seeing the water taking not only his house but his Mom and Dad . . . we weren’t evil . . . he and his family weren‘t evil . . . I couldn’t understand this man’s words.

For the first time as my parent talked with me I (not yet a teenager) about how some people view God differently than we do . . . My Dad guided me to some reformed writings -- my introduction to what has become a lifelong passsion . . . And this was the birth of the question that has dogged me since then . . . “why bad things happen to good people?”

It lead me to social work and an area of speciality that still rears it head from time to time . . . enticing me to a new vision of ministry . . . it was the driving force for the electives I took in seminary . . . it continues to color the way I read and think today . . . It is the question that I think we as a Church do poorly in addressing.

What I do know and what I can share that . . . " the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5),

Thursday, August 21, 2008

More steps on the journey . . .

A while back at Carol asked folks about blogging. Although a novice to blogging I have been reading blogs for about two years. I began following those who were being critical of the denomination to which I belong . . . and I realize it was almost a sickness. Now, I find myself drawn to those blogs that challenge me on what it means to be a follower of Christ and pastor of a smaller membership church rediscovering what it means to be church.What does this reveal about me . . . could it somehow be a part of this journey of intentional transformational ministry that we began about a year ago? In moments when I take time to do a self assessment I find that there have been many positive changes in me, especially in my letting go of my control issues and taking time to listen . . . trying to hear what is really being said behind the words that are being said then trying to address the underlying message. This is not easy in this congregation as we don't really engage in healthy communication . . . but I don't think that this is unusual for churches . . . after all churches are imperfect because they are filled with fallible human beings.

One of the cool things happening at the church is that even in the midst of conflict over the Narthex -- Sunday one of our lay leaders addressed the congregation head on with a confession that we the governing board didn't handle things well and "were licking our wounds" but weren't giving up on making the church more hospitable. What honesty . . . but also how refreshing that he was willing to talk honestly. He didn't say it in a judgemental or condemning fashion . . . just honestly that it isn't about us it is about the "other" . . . the stranger at our door.

GET OFF THE RABBIT TRAIL . . . back to the cool thing . . . we've been working on focusing on small groups . . . one of the women in the church came Sunday to ask could she start a small group that meets to discuss the sermon . . . TO DISCUSS THE SERMON . . . "of course" . . . now although this isn't exactly a small group that will be an avenue for welcoming the "other" it does say something about people wanting to go further and deeper . . . and the great thing, "Lydia, we'd love for you to be able to come, but don't feel you have to!" . . . how great.In recent weeks I have been preaching the Kingdom parables of Matthew 13 . . . I am preaching through the parable of Matthew so the first meeting will focus on the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant . . . it will be interesting where this leads . . . last year we had a really bad conflict between two key leaders . . . this congregation is notorious for conflicts between members and between the congregation and pastor . . . intervention came too late . . . the family of one of those involved in the conflict ended up leaving . . . this week we got notification that they joined one of our sister congregations . . . the one who remains still hasn't let go of the bitterness although I think she is working on it . . . we have talked about it . . . she says "I need more time" . . . she is one of the people who is committed to attending . . . I pray that the sermon Sunday and the subsequent discussion will help her break through her wall of bitterness . . . and forgive . . . not for the other person as he may never know, but for her . . . for her relationship with Jesus . . . "Then Peter comes to Jesus to ask, 'Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?' Jesus says to him, ' Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times!"


Friday, August 15, 2008

Trying to refocus . . .

I am spending the weekend trying to refocus (and finish a sermon) as way too much has been coming my way . . . a friend use to tell me that I need to learn no . . . and I have learned to say no, but not often enough.

Sunday the CORE Team for transformation and the congregation talked about possible changes to the Narthex . . . my head has been spinning since . . . I still can't make sense of their concerns . . . I understand the fear of change . . . the fear of the unknown . . . but the veiled -- really not that veiled, threats that were made really threw me . . . and the fact is that even if these threats came to fruition it wouldn't have that great of an impact on the church tangibly . . . those who were complaining, for the most part, don't tithe (some don't even give to the church) and their involvement is primarily to attend Worship 2 to 3 Sundays out of a month. But this is what I don't get . . . these are the same people who have said that the church will die if we don't get new members . . . of course, numerical growth is a byproduct of church transformation not the goal . . . yet, they are opposed to losing 20 seats . . . "we need them for weddings (one since I have been here has been SRO), funerals, Christmas and Easter" . . . is this the function of the church? Then this, "what if those who left come back?" . . . they don't realize that they aren't coming back . . . we need to move on . . . I say, "if we need those 20 spaces it means we need a 2nd service" . . . in fact, we are talking about the possibility of a 2nd service . . . something less traditional . . . not contemporary but more of a coaching type Worship service.
Get this . . . they don't want to have fellowship in the Narthex before and after Worship because it isn't reverent . . . I could understand this if these weren't the same people who go to the Fellowship Hall to get a cup of coffee around 10am and stand around the Narthex visiting until Worship begins . . . and Sunday these were the same people that stayed around the Narthex for Fellowship almost for an hour after Worship . . . this never happened in the Fellowship Hall or when we had fellowship outside . . . what's up!

I guess what was most interesting to me is that before our conversation the sermon had asked the question what would happen if a church were to take the Great Commission seriously and 5 members converted one person a year to a personal relationship with Christ and then those converts did the same . . . at the end of a decade there would be 4000 new Christ-followers . . . the point was what might our smaller membership church look like were we to take the Great Commission seriously.

But I wonder will this ever hit home . . . we had two new families join us Sunday and an older couple come back for third time and now have about 1/2 dozen ready for membership. Of course, none of these were unchurched folks . . . this is the story of this church (most churches) . . . people move into the area and are looking for a church or get upset with their church and transfer their membership . . . and yet there are hundreds probably within a 5 mile radius of the building who are yearning for that which will fill their emptiness . . . we know that this is Jesus and yet, we won't share that Good News. I was reading something to day that indicated each congregation should have a goal of growing a net of 10% a year in membership . . . I wonder if this really shouldn't be in terms of Worship attendance and discipleship . . . unfortunately, membership in the church has come to mean very little.
Then there is still the on-going melodrama at the non-profit on whose board I serve. We still have our older members who are wanting to fire the Executive Director although we all see what a great job she is doing. Yesterday we had a CPA come in to report on the result of our Audit. At the end he said that he had been asked to comment on the salary that we were paying the Executive Director . . . by whom I am not sure, but I suspect . . . anyway he indicated that it was too much . . . I asked if he knew what her role was . . . that she was also hired as a case manager . . . that according to the state chapter of the National Association of Social Workers her pay was comparable with other salaries? . . . didn't think so!
Things are going well . . . the two women who were having problems are working well together as a management team . . . the image of the agency is changing from an entitlement agency to an agency that wants to help. Then this morning I get a call . . . there is a sick out by all the employees for today and tomorrow except for management and one employee . . . this in response to a decision by the Board to stop a decades long practice that has produced bad PR in the community.
Spent Monday through Wednesday meeting with other ministers and lay leaders in this part of the country talking about the future of our denomination . . . meetings were frustrating but hopeful. As I struggle with how we are to faithfully live out the Great Commission I am reminded of Paul's words . . .
Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever. I didn't take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I've become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn't just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it! I Corinthians 9:19-23 (The Message)

Striving to live out the Great Commission,


Friday, August 1, 2008

Trouble brewing . . .

Wednesday night I received an E-mail telling me that people are not happy with making some changes to the Narthex . . . actually makingg a Narthex in the back of the Sanctuary so that we can begin to have coffee fellowship before and after Worship right there in the Worship space . . . for the past month or so we have been doing this in a cramped, dark space instead of asking folks to walk through a breezeway to our Fellowship Hall . . . we usually lose visitors this way or if the weather permits or stand outside under the drop off where the heat index can be over a 100 degrees.

The E-mail indicated that they plan to come to the next board meeting to complain.

Now let me be frank . . . I don't think this is about physical changes, I think it is about change, but I also think it is about the possibility of the church actually growing.

It is human proclivity to say we want to see something happen as long as it doesn't mean that we have to change . . . I thought we were done with this discussion, I see that we aren't . . . perhaps, for some folks it hasn't even started.

The discussions we have had at our recent Visioning Team meetings have centered on the role of the church in people's life . . . they view it as their safe place . . . we have one member who has taken exception with this image as she believes that the church isn't called to be a place of safety . . . I am not sure I agree . . . this is what I sent to her . . . interesting, more and more of our communications here at the church, especially with some of the younger, professional folk is via E-mail . . . good or bad I don't know, but it resonants with me . . . so here is part of that E-mail:

We are not all in the same place spiritually . . . and this means a couple of different things, but for this discussion I confine it to our maturity on our walk. I am reminded of Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth . . .

"My friends, you are acting like the people of this world. That's why I could not speak to you as spiritual people. You are like babies as far as your faith in Christ is concerned. So I had to treat you like babies and feed you milk. You could not take solid food, and you still cannot, because you are not yet spiritual. You are jealous and argue with each other. This proves that you are not spiritual and that you are acting like the people of this world." (I Corinthians 3:1-3)

Now, I am not being critical of any one, but the fact is that like many churches we still have immature believers who need to be weaned off milk. It saddens me that this is the case just, as it saddens me to hear people think that we don't have to change . . . and although I hear this on one level as talking about the physical plant, I think on a deeper level, without even knowing it they are speaking about their spiritual lives.

What I have come to understand is that some people are happy where they are spiritually and do not believe in the process we know of as sanctification. [As an aside: I have also come to believe that happiness is not our goal in life as Christians, contentment is our goal.] However, on the other hand, in the past several months I have been privileged to witness lives being transformed in remarkable ways as the Holy Spirit is working in and among us in this intentional process of transformation . . . people are going deeper and further with Christ . . . the Holy Spirit is sanctifying them . . . making them more holy . . . more like Jesus.

The second place I want to push is, what is the Church, even the local expression, if not the Body of Christ? If it is the Body of Christ in and to the world, it is where I am called to and sent from, it is where I am comforted and afflicted/challenged, it is where I find my refuge/safety from the storms of life and where I am strengthen to go and face the storms of life and equipped to bring others in from the storms to find refuge and safety, comfort and strengthening for those storms.

The analogy of the Desert Mothers and Fathers is reminiscence for me of the movement of the Church/church -- being called in to contemplation on and in the Holy only to be sent out to share the Holy in and to the world in word and deed, being called in to contemplation on and in the Holy only to be sent out to share the Holy in and to the world in word and deed . . . a repetitive pattern lead by the Holy Spirit, grounded in relationship with the Father through Jesus Christ. Even in the Early Church my guess is that this metaphor played a large part in the church being though of in terms of a boat -- the safety of the harbor the hazards of the seas . Leonard Sweet, a UMC minister and transformational guy has written a great book called Aqua Church with this as the overriding metaphor. Recently, I have read of a new church called The Harbor.

When Tom Bandy first challenged Debbie, Brad and me to catch a vision, mine came through a song . . . Jackson Brown's "Running on Empty." I believe there are many people both in the world and in the Church who are running on empty and that we, the Church, have the One who can really fill them up, Jesus. Brad joked that maybe we needed an old timey gas pump outside the church -- "Stop here to fill up with Jesus!" As I prayed about vision the pump turned into a water pump pumping the Living Water . . . in recent weeks the woman at the well has been on my heart. These are my visions that speak to me about who Jesus is . . . THE Source of life.

It has dawned on me as I have prayed about the trouble brewing that it is brewing because people are afraid . . . afraid that is the church changes and grows it may not be the safe harbor for them . . . so how do we help them see that it isn't either/or but can be both/and. Just as they need a safe harbor from the storms of life there are others out there that needs the safety of this harbor and they need to find the Anchor of Life -- mixing metaphors, I know, I know.

Praying for the words when we make a premptive strike this Sunday by bringing it up for open discussion at a congregational luncheon.

May God's peace surround those of us who are discerning God's voice to move forward into the 21st century,