Sunday, January 19, 2014

What are you looking for?

For a long time, I dated people through internet dating sites. It’s an interesting process where you fill out a questionnaire telling stuff about yourself, like your age, your level of education, and if you like cats. And then they try to match you with someone who would appear to be somewhat compatible based on the information you both have shared.  

I’ve often mused about what it would be like if someone developed a similar process for people who are searching for a church. The church would fill out a profile about their ministries, their style of worship, congregational demographics, and so on. And then an individual would answer questions about themselves and the kind of church they’re seeking, then we could match them.

Of course, the big problem with that system is similar to the big problem with internet dating. In order for a system like that to work, the person answering the questions has to be completely honest. That means they have to honestly know what it is they’re looking for. And most people are clueless. They wander through life like the person who is hungry and goes to the grocery store and starts wandering up and down the aisles, not sure what they’re looking for, but hoping they’ll know it when they see it.

What are you looking for? That’s the question Jesus asked of his first disciples in John’s gospel. As he was walking down the street he had the feeling he was being followed. So he turned around and saw two guys who were obviously tailing him. “What are you looking for?” he asked them.

 Notice they don’t answer his question. They don’t tell him what they’re looking for. Could it be that they don’t really know, but are hoping that they’ll know it when they see it? Maybe that’s why, instead of answering Jesus’ question, they reveal that they were following him to find out where he was staying.  Of course, when they ask where he’s staying, it’s pretty much like inviting themselves over to his place. So, Jesus says, “Come and see” and they do. In fact, they remain with him for the rest of the day and into the evening. Jesus wasn’t someone they could learn about from a distance, they had to experience him firsthand, in relationship. They had to abide with him.

In his gospel, John talks a lot about living in a relationship with God. The word meno that we translate into English remain, or abide is one of John’s favorite words. It conveys the idea of staying close to home and not wandering off. God abides in Jesus. Jesus abides in God. We abide in Jesus. Jesus abides in us. John uses meno 34 times in his gospel. When Jesus invites his first disciples to stay with him, it’s an invitation to abide with him, to be in relationship with him, which is really the only way they can come to know him, and find what they were looking for.

What are you looking for? It’s a universal question. And I wonder if the answer isn’t also universal. Could the answer be -- a life-giving relationship with the God of love? Or, at its most basic level, union with God? Isn’t that the way people of most religions might answer the question, “What are you looking for?”

And that leads me to wonder what it is people are looking for when they first come to us at Holy Trinity? Every week new people show up. Some haven’t been to worship in a long time, maybe decades. At one time, they were ready to give the church up forever, but here they are. Why? What is it they’re looking for? They may go from church to church never really sure how to answer that question, but hoping they’ll know it when they see it. And therein lies the problem.

What you’re looking for in a church is closely related to what you’re looking for in life. And a lot of is aren’t really sure, but we’re hoping we’ll know it when we see it.  There are some churches that count on that. They market their product and convince you that they know what you’re looking for and they’re there to provide it. You’re looking for high tech, we’ve got it. You’re looking for  music that rocks you to core, we’ve got it. You’re looking for exotic mission adventures, we’ve got it. You’re looking for quality programming for your kids, we’ve got it. You’re looking for preaching that will both inspire and entertain you, we’ve got it. When you really don’t know what you’re looking for, it’s easy to be convinced.

I haven’t had to choose a church in about 40 years.  And I’ve been thinking about what it will be like, after I retire, to find a new church home.  So, here’s what I’ve decided. I intend to be clear about what I’m looking for. Size doesn’t matter. The preacher doesn’t need to knock my socks off. It doesn’t have to be a Lutheran church. It doesn’t even have to be liturgical. Although the Eucharist will be important because I’ll be looking for a community where I can experience Christ. In the ways people care for one another, in the ways they care for the world around them, I will see, and know, and experience Jesus. I will be in relationship with Jesus through my relationship with this community. That’s what I’ll be looking for.

Mind you, I’m not just talking about a sense of community. You can find that lots of places. In fact, atheists, thinking that’s what they’re missing by not being a part of organized religion, have been forming communities for this purpose. There is a very large atheist community in Charlotte. And that’s cool. But it’s not the same thing as experiencing Christ in community.

I resonate with author Rachel Held Evans who was asked why churches fail to engage the millennial generation. She said: “We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.”

I get that because I have found Jesus in the faith community I’m a part of now. No, Holy Trinity is not perfect. We’ve got issues, just as all churches do. But what I have come to know through the people of Holy Trinity, despite our very human limitations, is Christ in community. And that’s what I’ll be looking for someday, when it comes time for me to find a church where I’m not the pastor. I know it’s not something I’ll find by reading about a church on the internet. It’s not something I’ll find on one Sunday morning visit. It’s something I’ll find by hunkering down over the long haul.  I’ll be looking for a community where I can abide in Christ. That’s what I’m looking for. How about you? What are you looking for?









Friday, January 10, 2014

Counting Sheep

Most churches are busy counting sheep these days. It’s time for denominations to collect statistical data for their congregations from the previous year.  How many new members do you have? How many baptisms did you do? How many people died? And the tell-tale number that most pastors pay the closest attention to, how many people did you average in weekly worship? It’s all about the numbers.

I always bristle at this. I know that followers of Jesus aren’t called to be successful in the eyes of the world, we’re called to be faithful in the eyes of God. And I know that Jesus wasn’t hung up on numbers. In fact, he seemed to do everything he could to thin the crowds out with the things he taught and the way he lived.
I also know that what really matters in ministry can’t be measured numerically. How are the people in my faith community striving to follow the Jesus Way in their lives? How are we embodying Jesus by making a difference in the world around us? How are lives being transformed in and through our faith community? Those are the questions I wish my denomination was asking at the end of the year, not, how many people are coming to our Sunday school?

The questions that really matter seem antithetical to counting sheep. It would stand to reason that when a faith community is striving to follow the Jesus Way, they would not be popular, they would go against the status quo, and their numbers would be small.
But, of course, congregations and denominations care about numbers because they are institutions. And institutions are wired for self-preservation. As a pastor, I do everything I can to resist getting caught in the institutional trap.

Nonetheless, I have my own problem with numbers. It’s a problem that’s hard for me to admit. But, if I’m completely honest, I have to confess that counting sheep tends to hit me where it hurts the most-- right in the ego.  
Before I came to Holy Trinity, had you asked me if I cared about the size of the church I served, I would have insisted that numbers had no effect on me. A pastor serving a large, thriving church is no more valued than one serving a small, struggling one. But then, when I made the decision to actually leave one of those thriving churches and go to a struggling one, I learned something painful about myself. Apparently, my ego did care about the numbers. I had a PhD. I had served on the bishop’s staff. I had been a senior pastor of a large congregation. I had 25 years of experience. I should be moving up the ladder, not stepping backwards. I wasn’t proud of my pride. But there it was, staring me in the face.

When I came to Holy Trinity, our worship attendance was in the 40s, on a good Sunday. It didn’t take long for those numbers to increase. New people started attending and joining, and we stopped worrying about surviving. The congregation breathed a sigh of relief. It was enough for them. But it wasn’t enough for me. I wasn’t going for a mega-church, but I had it in my head that in order to be viable, in order to do the kind of ministry that a church needs to do, we needed to have at least 100 people at worship on a Sunday. I was sure that it would happen within a couple of years. I knew I was a good preacher, and I could bring them in. But it didn’t happen as I expected. We crept up into the 70s and got stuck. At about the eight year mark, we even started to slip backwards.
I coped with this by convincing myself that I wasn’t going to get hung up on numbers. I focused on the way we had expanded our mission, how we were offering people the opportunity to grow deeper in their faith, how lives were being changed. But I have to admit that there was a part of me, a part I was trying hard to deny, that was feeling beaten down. I would look at pastors who served larger churches, churches that were adding staff, churches that were building additional space, and I wondered what they had that I didn’t have. In my head, I knew it wasn’t personal, but in my gut I was feeling the punches. Maybe I wasn’t the pastor I thought I was. Hmmm. Or, here’s an idea. Maybe this didn’t have as much to do with me as I thought it did. Maybe it wasn’t my church after all. Maybe it was God’s church.

I decided to go with the latter explanation. Holy Trinity is God’s church, not mine. I will do my best, but ultimately, I’m not responsible for the outcome.
The thing is, I’m not sure if I really believe that, or if it’s an idea I’ve latched onto because it helps me protect myself from feeling like a failure. It’s always so hard for me to sort these things out. Have I convinced myself of this because living with self-deception is always so much easier than being honest about my own shortcomings?

So I wonder how much of my faith in God’s sovereignty over Holy Trinity is, in fact, a way of protecting my ego. I don’t know. What I do know is that, for whatever reason, it helps me to recognize that this isn’t my church, but God’s church. If I hadn’t struggled so much with the failure of my ministry at Holy Trinity to meet my expectations, I would still be living with the illusion that I can be the church’s savior. And that was an illusion that had to go.
This year, our average worship attendance went way up. And maybe I should be feeling really good about myself, as a result. But I know better. I realize that the new people in the pews had absolutely nothing to do with me. I didn’t do anything in 2013 that I hadn’t been doing in 2012. By what might be considered an “odd set of circumstances”, a large number of new people found their way to Holy Trinity last summer. Of course, I would call that odd set of circumstances the Holy Spirit.

This year Holy Trinity will be reporting to the ELCA that we went from an average worship attendance of 70 to 90 in one year. And it will be just another number to them. To me it means so much more. That number humbles me as a pastor. It reminds me that it’s not about me.  And it fills me with renewed faith in the God who is at work in the world. Sometimes even in churches.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Have the wise men changed, or is it me?

I’m thinking about how I’ve grown in my understanding through the years because of the lesson for Epiphany (January 6), the story of the wise men visiting Jesus. The first sermon I ever preached was all about how the Jesus way is the only way to live in this world. It’s the sort of thing that you hear from a lot of Christians. Like I said, it’s what you would have heard from me when I was younger.

But I can’t say that now. Not since coming to Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Charlotte and taking seriously what it means to live like Jesus in the world, loving not judging. Being a part of this community has helped me see that God never excludes. God always includes. God’s grace is impartial and offered to everyone. And that includes people who may understand God differently than we do. Even if they completely reject the idea of God, it doesn’t change the fact that they are included in God’s embrace.

So, when I consider the significance of wise men from the East coming to pay homage to Jesus, I realize that they mean something completely different to me now than they did even 10 years ago. Back then, I saw them as representatives of other nations that we need to reach with the gospel message. The wise men were a call for us to go out and bring all people to Christ.

But now, when I read this story, what jumps out at me is the fact that these were absolute foreigners in every way. Completely outside the circle of Jesus’ world. The word often used for the wise men is magi is related to the word magician. These people were regarded as pagans. They were into astrology, perhaps Zoroastrian court advisors. They must have been wealthy, based upon the gifts they brought. I picture them dressed in elaborate brocade robes and jeweled turbans -- looking terribly out of place in the little town of Bethlehem. They didn’t come to be converted. They came to pay their respects to the new king and then they went home again.

We get two stories of Jesus’ birth in the gospels: one from Luke and this one from Matthew. In Luke’s story, the first people who came to visit the new-born baby were shepherds. They learned of Jesus birth through a direct revelation, angels appearing in the midnight sky. But Matthew’s visit of the wise men is a little more difficult to understand. They learned of Jesus’ birth by observing a star. The star didn’t audibly speak to them. They had to interpret this natural sign to know what it meant and where it would lead. They trusted the movements of the stars to speak to them. I don’t know many Christians who would be comfortable including people like the magi in their circle of the elect. I wonder if we would at Holy Trinity. 

Here’s a way to test that. The communion table is central to us. It’s a strong symbol of who we are as God’s people. How comfortable would we be with some astrologers from Iran who weren’t Christian showing up on a Sunday morning and taking communion with us?

The presence of the magi in Bethlehem challenges our narrow thinking about who’s in and who’s out. Often, when we say all are included, we mean, all are included, as long as they meet our standards. And the whole point of Christianity is to convert those who aren’t like us to become like us so that they’ll be included, too.

It’s all about “winning people for Christ.” I used to talk like that. Now, it makes me cringe. It comes from a theology that says God only saves those who believe the right things, which, of course, means, believing the way we believe. And, out of the goodness of our hearts, we set out to tell others about Jesus so they can be included within the circle of the elect just like we are. This way of thinking reduces God to our size.

It’s closely related to the whole idea of Christian triumphalism, which also makes me cringe.
                Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
                with the cross of Jesus going on before.
                Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;
                forward into battle see his banners go!

The idea is that it’s our job to make everyone into Christians. That Christians have a responsibility to dominate the world. Because we’re right, and they’re wrong. We’re God’s people, they’re not. We’re saved, they’re going to hell. And so, we’re on God’s side and everyone else must come around to our way of thinking. This kind of theology is rampant in our culture, and it’s scary. It goes all the way back to Constantine who literally made people convert to Christianity if they wanted to live.

I think about this every year at Christmastime when I hear from someone who is all bent out of shape over the phrase “Happy Holidays.” Now, no one is saying they can’t say “Merry Christmas.” But the fact that some people say “Happy Holidays” is offensive to them. They see it as an attack on Christ, who, of course, needs us Christians to defend him.

Christianity, after all, is the only true religion, and anyone who thinks otherwise is our enemy. If you acknowledge that not everyone is a Christian and it would be good if we respected their differences without trying to dominate them by insisting that Christianity reign supreme – if you take an open approach like that, you are perceived as anti-Christian. Allowing people to say “Happy Holidays” without insisting upon “Merry Christmas” is an affront to Christ. It’s giving in to all those Jews and Muslims and atheists who are trying to take over our Christian nation.

I’ll tell you, every year this just makes me crazy. And I wonder, is this really the way Jesus would deal with the religious diversity of our world today? Would he be offended with the greeting “Happy Holidays” as a way to include everyone in this season of joy to the WORLD?

And then, into the Christmas story walk pagans from Persia. Ironic, huh?

When I was younger, I was overly concerned about who could and couldn’t take communion. I was like the altar-Nazi. “No communion for you.” But I’ve changed. And I’d like to believe the magi would be welcome at our communion table at Holy Trinity. Mainly because I could never imagine Jesus would turn them away.

The Jesus way is the way I have chosen to live my life. That’s no secret. And I share my faith story with others because it might also be the way they choose to live their lives. It’s a good way to live. But I don’t have to win people over. Everybody doesn’t need to be a Christian. The Jesus way isn’t the only way.

I never would have said that 30 years ago. But when I’m in a relationship with the God of love, every time I think I’ve figured out exactly who is in God’s circle of love, God comes along and challenges my narrow thinking. It’s happened again and again. The circle keeps expanding until I have come to the conclusion that God is a circle whose center is nowhere and whose circumference is everywhere.

We don’t have to all agree on the same theological points before we can be included in the circle of God’s beloved children. When we say all are welcome at our communion table, I hope we don’t mean all people who think like us. Or all who believe like us. I hope we just mean ALL.

On a cold morning three palm fruit farmers were warming themselves by the fireside. Soon two of them were engaged in a heated debate comparing their religions to decide which one was the true religion. 

Okoro, the oldest among them, sat quietly listening to the debate. Suddenly the two turned to him and asked, “Decide for us, Okoro. Which religion is the right one?” Okoro rubbed his white beards and said thoughtfully, “Well, you know there are three ways to get from here to the oil mill. You can go right over the hill. That is shorter but it is a steep climb. You can go around the hill on the right side. That is not too far, but the road is rough and full of potholes. Or you can go around the hill on the left side. That is the longest way, but it is also the easiest.”

He paused and then added, “But you know, when you get there, the mill man doesn’t ask you how you came. All he asks is, ‘How good is your fruit?’”