Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Heart of the Church

Prayer for today:

Bend what is rigid in me, warm up what is frozen in me. (Old prayer quoted on Pray-As-You-Go podcast for Mar. 23, 2006).

From In The Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen
“Every time we see a major crisis in the history of the church, such as the Great Schism of the eleventh century, the Reformation of the sixteenth century, or the immense secularization of the twentieth century, we always see that a major cause of rupture is the power exercised by those who claim to be followers of the poor and powerless Jesus.” (76-77)
            It does seem like power is an intoxicating temptation for so many in the church. It is so easy to fall back on our own devices. Sometimes I am sick to death of hearing about strategic plans, leadership training, evangelism techniques, and all the rest. Yes, all this is good information to have, but where is a church that depends on the latest business strategy (or more typically, the strategy that was popular in business about ten years ago) instead of truly and really depending on the leadership of the Holy Spirit.
            It is so odd. How often do a hear a flurry in clergy circles about some new author, consultant, evangelist or pastor that we should all emulate because they have written/done/taught such amazing things? And most often, they have written/done/taught amazing things. But what they all seem to have in common is a humble willingness to go wherever God leads and do whatever God asks. So should we be amazed, then, that God blesses their work? Not at all, although maybe we should be amazed that there are still people in our corporately-styled churches who are willing to listen and to go.
            I understand that it is a natural tendency for bureaucracies to turn inward and to begin to feed on themselves and to eventually become entities whose primary purpose is no longer to look outward, but to turn inward in order to ensure their own survival. And I understand the temptation to give in to the easier path of recognizing that as long as the church survives in its present state I will always have a job and a salary and even a pension, but if the Holy Spirit ever changes the church (or me) too much, all that might be at risk. I really do understand that. But what does that say about the nature of our churches when the survival of the church in its present state is of more real concern to us than the spreading of the good news?  As much as we hate to admit it, these two goals are not always the same thing.
            And so, we become lured in by power. I am increasingly convinced that the survival of the church as we know it does not depend on better strategies, better technology or better training aimed at luring in a new generation, but a radical transformation. Not necessarily a transformation of the structure of the church, but of the heart of the church.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Streams Have More Than One Response to Rocks

So, I've been reading Margaret J. Wheatley's, Leadership and the New Science and been thinking about the theological as well as the organizational implications of what she's suggesting. Today I ran across this quote, "This stream has an impressive ability to adapt, to change the configurations, to let the power shift, to create new structures. But behind this adaptability, making it all happen, I think is the water's need to flow. Water answers to gravity, to downhill, to the call of ocean. The forms change, but the mission remains clear. Structures emerge, but only as temporary solutions that facilitate rather than interfere. ... Stream have more than one response to rock; otherwise, there'd be no Grand Canyon. Or Grand Canyons everywhere."

So I got to thinking, what if this is the model for the way the church is supposed to work--more like a stream than a man-made canal. Maybe our job as the body of Christ isn't to erect rigid edifices and institutions, but to flow. Maybe instead of analyzing and planning we should be more interested in just answering our call, in moving downhill from resources to need and to responding to the call of the Holy Spirit saying, "Look, I need you over here. Stop strategizing and just find a way to get here."

Just a thought. And yes, I really recommend this book.

Saturday, October 23, 2010



Luke 18:9-14

9He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”


It has been said, “Parables are like fishing lures: they are full of attractive features—feathers, bright colors—and they end with a sharp little barb!”[1] This certainly seems to be that kind of parable. It starts out easy enough, and in one quick reading we’re pretty sure that we can identify who’s the good guy, who’s the bad guy and that everything turns out in the end just like it should. But if I remember correctly, Jesus’ parables never end the way we expect. So where’s the barb in this one?

Let’s look first at the Pharisee. We’ve been sort of conditioned to assume he’s the bad guy. They certainly always seem to fall short of expectations in Luke. So he must be our villain. But wait a minute. While unpleasant and arrogant, there’s nothing at all to say that anything the Pharisee says is untrue. He isn’t a thief, a crook or an adulterer. Unlike the tax collector, he doesn’t oppress his own people in order to benefit the invaders who have taken over the country. In fact, if you just look at the scorecard, this Pharisee is probably more righteous than most of us. The requirement was to fast weekly, but he fasts twice a week, while most of us don’t do it at all. He tithes everything he owns at the full 10%, while statistics show that most church people give at best 4% (and that, by the way, Methodists as a whole give less than that—somewhere around 2%). And I bet, even though he doesn’t say it, the Pharisee studies the Torah every day, while only about 17% of American Christians just read the Bible daily, much less study it. Good thing we aren’t like that Pharisee. But he sure is pretty good to be the bad guy, isn’t he?

The tax collector, on the other hand, well he is sorry. He knows that he’s pretty scummy. He knows that he cheats people and makes them suffer. Who cares that it’s the only way he’s got to feed his family? Who cares that maybe he inherited the business from his dad, and that since he was the son of a tax collector no one would hire him to do anything else? But we know that he’s the good guy because he’s sorry. Of course, nothing in the parable says that he actually repents. He’s penitent, sure. But he never promises to make restitution the way Zacchaeus will do in next week’s story. He doesn’t even promise to quit doing what he’s doing. But Jesus says he is justified, even though when you think about it it’s hard to see why, so he must be the good guy.

So yeah, we’ve got this story. We need to be humble, like the tax collector. Good thing we’re not like that Pharisee.

But wait, doesn’t saying that make us just like the Pharisee? He was thankful that he wasn’t like that sinful tax collector, and now we’re grateful that we’re not like that righteous Pharisee.

Wait a minute, that can’t be right. We would never be like that Pharisee. We’re the good guys. We never look down on anyone that’s having trouble (well, except sometime when we say, “There but for the grace of God go I,” but we don’t really mean it that way. Really we don’t).

So we’re supposed to forget the rules and be like the tax collector, but just be sorry about it? No wait, that doesn’t work either.

I think, brothers and sisters, that maybe we have found the barb in our fishing lure. This parable traps us. No matter how we draw the lines trying to figure out which group we should be in, we look over and see God on the other side. So we re-draw the lines to include that group, and then God is over in that other spot. How do we figure out where Jesus wants us to sort people out when every distinction we make is wrong? What is he trying to do here, just confuse us?

Or maybe we are looking in the wrong place. Maybe the story isn’t about either the Pharisee or the tax collector. Maybe it’s about God and how God sees things.

The Pharisee certainly wasn’t looking in the right place. Instead of looking at God and God’s unmerited graciousness toward him, he was looking at his own goodness. He had done everything right, so he had actually, in his own mind, done more for God than God had done for him. Wasn’t God lucky to have someone like him on God’s side? Kind of like maybe the flip side of what we do when we worry that maybe we aren’t doing enough, haven’t lived a perfect enough life to please God. Well, if you look at it that way, of course we haven’t and we are all doomed.

But the tax collector, on the other hand, wasn’t looking at his own goodness. He was looking at God’s. He knew he had blown it, and would probably blow it again in the future. He didn’t have a hope in the world of pleasing God. He just didn’t have it in him. All he had was the knowledge that our God is gracious and merciful. And that was enough. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” And Jesus said that he was the one who went home justified. That word justified means, made just by God’s mercy[2].

It’s not what either of these men did, it’s where they were focused, and that is the very place where this parable seeks to focus us—on God. It’s not what we do or who we are, it’s what God does and who God is. And God is a merciful God who is gracious to us even when we can’t possible deserve it. And it’s not that the Pharisee couldn’t have received God’s mercy as well. It’s just that he was so focused on himself that he couldn’t even see what God was offering to him, much less accept it.

And that’s what this parable is all about. It’s not about being or not being the Pharisee or the tax collector. At think that at times we have all been, and will probably be in the future, both. It is about how eager God is to love us not because of who we are or what we do, but in spite of it.

[1] Marjorie Proctor-Smith, Feasting on the Word, Year C Volume 4, 213.

[2] E. Elizabeth Johnson, Feasting on the Word, Year C Volume 4, 217.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Saturday already?

OK. So I've been on the equivalent of Spring Break all week--my school calls it Reading Week. I've gotten some stuff done, but not nearly enough and not nearly as much as I'd hoped--and I didn't fool around this time either (reading novels, watching movies, etc.) I did manage to get in a cooking session yesterday and put 5 meals in the freezer plus generating a giant pot of leftover soup.
Anyway, here it is Saturday again and I still don't know what I'm preaching on tomorrow. How does this happen?

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Getting ready for Easter

Struggling with the Easter sermon. I know it's last minute, but I just haven't been able to find something that would put on the 'light bulb.' I thought I might talk about Mary Magdalene. Then I pulled last year's sermon and realized that I talked about her last year. Still might, though, just from a different perspective. Every preacher knows this, but just let me say it again--Christmas and Easter sermons are the hardest of the year!

Wednesday, September 09, 2009


Lately I've been thinking about suffering quite a bit. I'm not sure why that is. Partially I think it's from being with some friends who are in really difficult times in their lives and suffering quite a bit, and partially I think it's from working with the book of James.
Anyway, I have noticed that the people that I know who have the deepest, most vital, most robust relationships with God are those who have suffered the most--physically, spiritually, emotionally. I don't know why exactly that is, although I kind of think it has something to do with the fact that most of us have to reach the end of our ropes before we'll really and totally turn to God. And these people have all, at one time or another in their lives, found that end point of their personal ropes.
So, the question is, "Is it possible to have that kind of relationship to God without suffering?" This is a critical question for middle class Americans, because so many of us have been blessed to avoid so many of the major causes of suffering, all those caused by extreme poverty. The answer, I think, may be "Yes" and "No." I think that maybe if you have been fortunate enough in your life to have mostly avoided true suffering, you are obligated, especially if you are a Christian, to open yourself to, and help carry, the suffering of others. Your security is gift, not to yourself, but to others, so that you can, by sharing their pain and doing what you can to relieve it, not only be a gift and a blessing to them, but also grow yourself.
This is just a tiny, short 'brain dump' about what's been rattling around in my head the last few days. There is certainly much more to be said.
What do you think?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

What do you want?

In, The Big Necessity, the author talks about how difficult it is to change people's habits. Since the whole book is about sanitation, you can guess which habits we're talking about. If not, read the book. Anyway, she talks about the fact that you can't get anyone to change their ways by talking to them about what they should do--doctors who smoke being the prime example. Instead, you have to connect with them about what they want to do, not what they should do. When you it say it out loud, that sounds like a 'duh' statement, but somehow we seem to miss it most of the time. Talking to kids, talking to friends, talking to co-workers, talking to spouses, and especially, preachers talking to congregations always seem to want to start with should instead of want. What are we thinking? Well, obviously we aren't thinking at all or we would know better. All we have to do is look at our own new year's resolutions. They are almost always about should, and they just fall by the wayside. But we don't even need to make resolutions to go after what we want, we just do it.
So, what do the people in the pews want? What do we all want from God? What 'want' brings us to church? Some want to know, not just think or believe that their souls are secure. Some want peace. Some want comfort. We all want to know we are loved. We don't want to just think about God, believe God. We want to feel God. We want to know God. Makes this week's sermon start to look all different.