Thursday, July 30, 2009

Apologetically Christian?

Sometimes it feels like I’ve spent most of my life apologizing for being a Christian. For so many people in our culture, when they think about Christians, all kinds of negative images come to mind and I find myself apologizing for the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, the Crusades and any number of other atrocities that have been committed against humanity in the name of Jesus. Most recently, I’m apologizing to those who have been hurt by the homophobic stance of my denomination.

As a parish pastor, I often encounter people who want nothing to do with the church because they’ve had negative experiences with a particular congregation. They tell me stories of back-biting and petty disagreements, ill-placed priorities and blatant hypocrisy. I’ve been around the church long enough that I don't doubt the truthfulness of their stories. I could tell a few of my own. Churches are filled with messed up folks who fall far short of the vision God has for his people.

Usually, when I get into a conversation with a disillusioned Christian who has left the church, I’ll try to point out how perhaps that person has expected too much. After all, the church is made up of very imperfect people, so it’s not fair to expect perfection. In other words, “Maybe if you lower your expectations you’ll find the church to be more acceptable.” Don’t expect so much.

Now I'm thinking that I’ve been wrong about that. Lowering our expectations isn't the solution. A prayer to the church in Ephesus has challenged me to see this in a new way. “I pray that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (3:16-19)

What we need to do is raise our expectations, not lower them. Yeah, it makes perfect sense not to expect a whole lot because the church is still filled with sinners like you and me. But there’s more to the story of who we are than that. We belong to Christ. And because we're in Christ, we can dare to expect great things to happen through his Church.

It’s always amazed me that Christ chose to have the Church act on his behalf, as his Body in the world. The question, “What were you thinking?” has often been on my mind and on my lips as I’ve watched the ways we’ve all but obliterated the gospel message by our actions. And yet, I know that God has a habit of choosing the least likely candidates to do his work. Stammering Moses, lying snake-in-the-grass Jacob, adulterous/murdering David, a handful of dim-witted fishermen, a self-righteous persecutor of God’s people. Apparently, God enjoys a challenge! And the thing is, when God chooses people who seem all wrong for the job, something powerful has a way of happening, and there can be no doubt where the power comes from. Clearly, it’s God’s doing. Without God in the mix, we have every reason not to expect a whole lot. But as people of faith, we know that God IS in the mix.

We’re all waiting to see what will happen in a few weeks when our ELCA meets in Churchwide Assembly. Will we vote for change or maintain the status quo? Clearly, a change will be a move toward removing walls that the Church has erected over the years, walls that have been used to separate people within the Body of Christ. These walls are not God’s walls; they are human walls. (see Ephesians 2)

People ask me what I think is going to happen at our Churchwide Assembly. Of course, I don’t know. I do know that we’re dealing with a very human institution. By nature, institutions make decisions that are for the sake of preserving the institution and not for the sake of the gospel. So, considering what we’re working with, my expectations should be low. And without God in the mix, I would say, “No way in hell our ELCA is ever going to change.” But, God IS in the mix. God has chosen to work through us, his Church, flawed as we are. In the past, our church has acted boldly in ways that have surprised me. I know that was God’s doing and not our own. And God continues to be a God of surprises. So my expectations of our Churchwide Assembly are anything but low. I have great expectations.

The conclusion of the prayer to the Ephesians says it all: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (3:20-21)

Monday, July 27, 2009

Now, for a Limited Time Only...

Have you ever heard of the scarcity principle? It’s a marketing expression. The scarcity principle tells us that if an item is only available in limited quantities, or for a limited time and you let people know that, its value goes up. If people are afraid that there isn’t going to be enough of something, then they’ll grab whatever they can. It’s why people run to the grocery story and buy all the milk and toilet paper off the shelves if they think there’s going to be bad weather.

It’s funny the way the scarcity principle works because if people think there’s not going to be enough of something they’ll actually do more than just pick up what they need to get by. They’ll actually accumulate more than they need. Whenever you see people who have an over-abundance of something in their lives, more than enough of what they actually need, it’s a sure-fire sign that they’re afraid. The scarcity principle plays on people’s fears. During this time of economic scarcity so many of us are experiencing right now, there's more than enough fear to go around.

Imagine being with thousands of people who have nothing to eat and daring to offer up your little lunch to feed them. Perhaps only a child who hasn’t yet learned to be afraid of not having enough for himself could do such a thing. In John's version of the gospel, that's where Jesus gets the food he uses to feed over 5,000 people. It's the offering of a little boy, who in his innocence doesn't realize that he should be afraid of not having enough for himself if he shares what he has.

The one thing that I notice being sold more than anything else in our culture is happiness. We have been convinced by advertising that we don’t have enough happiness, but that could all change if we’d just get some more of whatever it is they want to sell us. We are sold the desire for happiness. We hear the message all around us: Until and unless you buy what we’re selling, you will never be happy. Don’t the people in the advertisements we see look happy? They’re wearing fabulous clothes and drinking the best coffee in the world, and sitting on the most comfortable furniture. When we look at them we realize that we’re not as happy as they are and want what they have.

A thousand times a day, in a million forms, calling to us from billboards, magazines, television, radio, newspapers, web sites, and telemarketers, every single message without exception is this: you are not enough. You do not have enough. You are not happy. You have not achieved the American Dream. Not “You are the light of the world.” Not “Together we can make the world a better place.” Not “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” But rather, the message is “You are not happy.”

The lie is this: While they’re promising happiness, what they’re really selling is dissatisfaction. Our entire economy is based upon dissatisfaction. If we are satisfied, we don’t need more than we already have. Once we have eaten our fill, we don’t ask for another helping. If we’re happy in our marriage, we’re not desperate to have an affair. If we’re satisfied with our home and community, we feel no desire to move. When we’re happy, we aren’t driven to grasp for more than we have.

I was born in the 50s and I’m very much aware of how much more we have of everything than we had when I was a little girl. I grew up in a house where 6 people were living at one time. And we had one small bathroom. I wonder how this was even possible. Now I live alone with three bathrooms all to myself. One of my friends lives alone and he has nine bathrooms all to himself. We expect more of everything now. Our cars are faster, our telephones reach farther, our computers are everywhere, our dishwashers are more efficient, our armies better equipped, our police have more weaponry, our medicines are more powerful, our interstate highways are bigger and take us more places, our buildings are safer, more modern, and temperature controlled. But here’s the thing… Although we purchase twice what we did in the 1950s, can we honestly say we are happier for it?

The miracle of a little boy giving his lunch away reminds us that we’ve got it all wrong. What brings us that elusive happiness is not seeking more of whatever the world convinces us we just have to have. It’s nothing out there. What we seek is the kingdom of God. And we find it, not out there, but inside ourselves. Mother Teresa has said it so well, “Let us remain as empty as possible so that God can fill us up.”

There are many native cultures where wealth isn’t measured by what one possesses, but by what one feels able to give away. In those cultures they celebrate the great giveaway, when gifts are freely given to others in the community. These aren't leftovers or castoffs, like we’ll dump off at the Goodwill. They’re the best of what they own, their very finest. The rationale for giving this stuff away is that “If I can afford to give away my best – if I can give away what I love the most – then I must be very wealthy, indeed.”

Can I challenge you to learn from the miracle of the boy who gave his lunch away? No, I’m not going to challenge you to give away whatever is most precious to you in your life. That may be too much too fast. But I want to challenge you to let go of something that’s become a part of your life and is more than you need. Something that is more than enough for you. Maybe it’s a coat you no longer wear. Or a book that you’ve finished reading. A project you feel responsible for that brings joy to no one, especially you. Pick one thing that has become unnecessary in your life and let it go. Pick one thing this week, and another next week.

When the boy let go of his lunch, Jesus blessed his offering and multiplied it so that all were fed. When we let go of our fear, we learn that our God is the source of true abundance and we have been given more than enough.