Monday, January 17, 2011

A small thought for the morning

I just cannot get past the notion that the fact that Martin Luther King was a clergyperson was integral to his mission and historical persona. There is power in that robe, in the calling and the ordination, and we forget just what drove Dr. King at our own risk. King was a Christian pastor, who preached and lived out of Christian scriptures. His message of reconciliation and justice was a deeply Biblical one.

Incidentally, I am pretty sure he read the same Bible as the rest of us.

Lest this read as some call to repentance for the Christian church, let me simply say that it is.

Dr. King on Avoiding Tension

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Letter from Birmingham Jail

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

On what the church is, part 2

In part 1 of this thrilling series, I talked about how the church lives out its call as the body of Christ. In this post, I want to talk about what the church needs to do in order to change--and how it must evaluate whether change is worth it. In my next (and I suspect final) post on this issue, I'll talk about the fundamental issue of what the body of Christ is in the first place, and how our human structures and bureaucracies can bear witness to this scriptural understanding of the church.

I should introduce this notion two ways. First, the reason I am thinking about this particular issue is that I recently read Adam Hamilton's Leading Beyond the Walls. I will say that this kind of "Look what I did" book usually does not appeal to me, but I just really enjoyed this book, and reading Hamilton's discussions of why he does what he does was really eye-opening to me as I think about what the church is and could be, even if I did not always agree with his rationale and actions.

Second, I must admit my general unease at the talk about fundamentally changing what the church does and how it operates. I am one who immediately turns off when someone talks about having a "relevant" church with a "relevant" pastor and "relevant" ministries. We have spent so much time bending church structures and functions in the name of relevancy that the minute the church launches these ministries, they are no longer relevant. In the name of reaching out to people outside of church culture, we have created a whole new church culture. If you have seen churches in which Hawaiian shirts are common, or with rock concert-like lighting, or with holographic presentations of the preacher, or with awesome video, etc.--then you know what I am talking about.

I also serve a very traditional church, and I'm happy for that. If I were creating the perfect church for me (congregation of one), we'd have high liturgy, traditional hymnody, exquisite vestments, smells and bells, the whole nine yards. I am at a church that values traditional, high-church liturgy, and I find myself more uplifted by worship--even while leading it--than I expected, or than some pastors I know. Johns Creek UMC does worship awfully well. I am a traditionalist at heart.

And yet I find myself wrestling with tradition as I come to terms with what it means for the church to be the body of Christ, because while I am a traditionalist, I fully recognize that some of the church's traditions have less to do with being the body of Christ than they do with preserving whatever it is the church has become.

This is not to say we should get rid of tradition. I value tradition as part of the Wesleyan quadrilateral, and I believe it has much to teach us about who God is and how God works. I likewise believe that church tradition need not always have Biblical foundation for it to be a valuable, viable, faithful witness to Christ. We discount two thousand years of Christian tradition at our own peril. Those pastors who want to start entirely fresh, who want to forget who has gone before, are the picture of hubris, believing that their vision for the church is greater than all others.

I do not believe we should get rid of tradition. But, as Phyllis Tickle has said, about every five hundred years or so, we go through another period of enlightenment when we look at who we are and reevaluate how the church functions as the body of Christ, because it is very well likely the case that we have some fine tuning to do.

So we have some sorting to do. Tickle calls it a "rummage sale," which is cute, I suppose, but does not do justice to just how difficult it is to figure out what to hold onto and what to toss. Thankfully, this responsibility does not fall on one individual, church, or denomination; the process of reinvention takes place over many years. But we as church leaders of all stripes must wrestle with this issue, of what to keep and what to get rid of.

In some ways, we've already begun. Many churches, for instance, have tossed that traditional hymnody in favor of "contemporary" music. There is much to celebrate in this shift towards finding a way to meet people where they are, and I have no beef with electric guitars in worship. But the theology! The theology in much of what I have heard described as contemporary music is just awful, just terrible, totally devoid of any thoughtful, reasoned reflection on how Christ works in the world, or how we are to respond to Christ's love. It is all about me: me, me, me.

I don't mean to harp on contemporary music. Much of it is good, and there is some good theology within it (and some good music!). I use contemporary music as an example of the implications of tossing out a vital part of the church's witness, without much thought about the implications. Throw out traditional hymnody, even with good intentions, and a great theological witness is lost.

Is it worth losing that witness? I'd say no; obviously, many folks would disagree with me. But we can't pretend that nothing is lost. As we strive to figure out how to faithfully be the body of Christ, we have to be careful. We are, if you will excuse the pneumatological pun, playing with fire, after all. There are consequences to our changes.

But as long as we pay attention to the consequences, and recognize they are there, change is important, as we do what we can to be the most faithful body of Christ we can be. As we--the church--have learned more about how God works in the world, and especially of how Christ fits into our lives, we have two thousand years worth of witnesses to whom we can listen. As we have listen, and as we pick up insights, we also pick up some baggage: the gum on the bottom of the shoe. The problem is not that the gum is on the shoe; the problem is that we think the gum is part of the shoe, and so we hang onto it.

There is baggage we can leave behind, certainly, and there are changes that need to be made. The question I am wrestling with today is this: how can the church wrestle with its fundamental mission of being the body of Christ, reinventing itself without losing much of what gives it its power? How can we be disciples who are faithful to God's continuing call without tossing out the baby with the bathwater?

Let me close with a final example that I think illustrates my inner conflict.

I have always felt that preaching was a central part of my calling as a pastor. I love to preach, have a gift for it, am energized by the whole sermon process. I enjoy reading about preaching, thinking about how stories impact our identity as humans and Christians, and wrestling with the Biblical text in a way that leads to faithful exegesis. I love to preach, and I am a good preacher.

But something Adam Hamilton talks about in his book has me rethinking the whole preaching act--maybe not in my current context, but in the context of my entire ministry. Adam Hamilton talks about his process of selecting sermon materials, and about his delivery style, and he argues that the state of Biblical and theological illiteracy being what it is, any pastor worth her salt should preach thematically and in a teaching style. Most folks don't know the language of the Bible, or the themes, and so rather than telling stories that either bring about an experience of Christ in the sermon, or which point to some moral truth, Adam Hamilton talks about teaching during his sermons in a way that helps people learn.

My struggle is this: my style works for me. It is natural, I have good response to it, and it fits the model, I think, of mainline preaching. I work hard at crafting sermons, and because this is a gift for me, I usually feel good about what I craft. Part of the reason I use a storytelling style is that these are the kinds of sermons that most appeal to me as a listener. I could listen to Fred Craddock preach all day, and feel the whole time that part of what he has done with his stories is call upon Christ to be present in the room with us. I love this kind of preaching.

But what if another style is more effective? What if a teaching style--which I do not find as natural--is what people need? What if teaching sermons lead to more change within people, more making disciples and more transforming the world? Then wouldn't I be crazy to continue preaching the way that I currently preach?

And yet, if I change the way I preach, something will be lost. Is it worth it?

Friday, January 7, 2011

On what the church is, part 1

I almost titled this post, "On what the church is, and could be," but I'll go ahead and give away the punchline: the church is the body of Christ. It should work to be the body of Christ, whatever that looks like, and it should seek to be nothing else.

Of course, it is not quite so easy. There are two specific issues the church has got to deal with, if it is to truly be the body of Christ. The first issue is that the church needs to figure out what that means--being the body of Christ. The second issue is that the church need to figure out how to live in the world as the body of Christ without losing its essential character.

In this post, I'm going to be dealing with the second issue--that of how the church can live in the world as the body of Christ, and nothing else. In a few days, I'll take up the bigger issue--just what being the body of Christ means for the church--but in this first installment let's explore how the church lives out its call.

I have been thinking a lot about vision statements lately, and my provisional ministry group is supposed to talk next month about visioning: how a church does it, what the process looks like, etc. I am thinking about visioning in light of two different arguments I've been hearing about the process of visioning for a church.

The first argument goes something like this: the vision is everything. If it does not fit in the vision, it is not done. The church's vision, for reaching the lost or transforming the world or whatever it is, informs all that the church does. The pastor--and leaders of the church--must take great time to discern God's vision for the church, and painstakingly ensure that the vision is implemented. You can find the vision on the church's website, you will find it on signs in the church, you may even read it as a congregation. The vision is everything, and if the congregation is not moving towards that vision, then the church is being unfaithful to its calling.

The second argument is that a church having a vision fundamentally warps that which God has called us to be. A body does not have a vision--it simply is. Once you add a vision to a church family, it ceases to be a family and begins to be a purpose group.

I must admit that if I had to choose one stark reality or the other, I am on the side of vision. I find that writing things down is helpful--this practice helps us all get on the same page and keeps us from scheming. So much harm is done in the church because of folks scheming to bend things their way, and a stated vision helps focus us. If there is one thing I know about churchpeople, it is that we are not a very focused bunch.

I am also sympathetic, however, to the idea that the church is not only a group of people who do; it is a group of people who are. It is true: once we steer people towards a goal, and push them to work towards it, we necessarily lose some of the emphasis of being and begin to focus on doing.

I was reminded, in an interview I read from Bishop Willimon (hat tip), that Jesus's message to us is "follow me." As much as I worry about what happens when the church becomes a group of doers, Jesus's message is a "do" message just as much as it is a "be" message. Yes, Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart, but I also want to follow Christ, which may be something else entirely.

Following Christ means that the church is called to live in the world with a message of redemption, but also with an agenda of action.

And this call to action, of course, has profound implications for the first question above--about what it means to be the body of Christ. There is a certain model for church (and, I'd say, a certain model for mainline church in the United States), and I have a deep and abiding love for it. But if God is doing a new thing, how can the church reevaluate and retool in light of its, well, vision of being the Body of Christ?

I look forward to exploring that issue next. I have some thoughts that are surprising me.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

On wedded bliss

We got married on Epiphany, four years ago. What a day--and what a great four years.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

On music

"Albert Blackwell's The Sacred in Music makes a compelling case for the "sacramentality" of music itself. Tracing two distinctive Christian sacramental traditions, he draws on both the central theological claim of the Incarnation and the contemplative tradition linking music to silence. Music is sacramental in that it contains the mystery of the inexpressible depth of reality, yet makes it audible and palpable to human sense. Both of these dimensions, he claims, mirror the very idea of the self-incarnation of the invisible God in the physical world of time and space, perceived by human senses. Thus music in its depth dimension bears the sacred mystery of God, who is transcendent spirit, made flesh."
Don Saliers' Music and Theology, Abingdon 2007, p16

Saturday, January 1, 2011

On time

"Another year has passed," as they say, and it is only natural to think about time: what it is, how we live with it, how it affects our lives.

I think it is fair to say that 2010 was the first year I realized that I was getting older, in any substantive sense. Oh, we all notice getting older as children, but we tend to see this getting older retrospectively, in terms of where we have been and how we have grown. Each year is a year to grow into something more, when we are children, but this realization that our shoes do not fit anymore and that next year we'll be learning multiplication is a far different realization than understanding that we are growing older, because growing older is quite different than moving up a year in school.

I realized I was getting older in 2010, in my 27th year, as I have laughed at Stacey's comments about my hair turning gray, and as I have watched my forehead grow, and as laugh lines appear around my eyes. I do not mean to sound overly grand; I am only twenty-seven, after all. But even as a young adult I can begin to see how aging affects life, for this is the first time in my life when I have really experienced aging. I have also seen dear friends and family members wrestle with the aging process. Some have refused to believe aging exists, which I suppose is understandable. Others have embraced aging as a sad, if inevitable, fact of life. Still others rejoice in aging, even as it throws the mind and the joints for a loop.

Maybe I am just thinking especially lately about my ankle, which has been smarting for the last few weeks, or my back, which seems to stiffen every now and again. But I have this sense that I am getting older: not in terms of growth, though there is of course some spiritual and emotional and mental growth--but in terms of age, in terms of finitude, in terms of living in time.

And I think this is what I mean when I say that 2010 was the first year I realized I was getting older. Perhaps a better way to say it is that 2010 was the first year in which I understood time to be something that went before me and goes after me, rather than some infinite expanse full of possibility.

Coming to this realization is part of being an adult. At some point, you must choose for yourself which path you will take. The choices you have are not entirely your own; I am not so naive as to believe that I am master of my own destiny. There are others (and an Other) involved in this process. But at some point, paths emerge, and you choose. This is in some ways a liberating choice, because it enables you to put on clothes you were born to wear, and they feel good. They feel awfully good.

Still, there is implied in this choice unchosen roads, and while I do not mean to suggest that all choices are permanent, it is the case that an unchosen road necessarily ceases to be a viable option, and it dies: sometimes a quiet death, fading into the ether, and sometimes a violent one, thrashing until the very end.

Once those choices die, there is grief. Grief is only natural, and I have to believe that God honors that grief as the natural extension of a life lived passionately and deliberately. I could have chosen road A, but I did not, and now it is gone, forever. Grieving is natural.

I do not mean to suggest that I spent 2010 drowning in grief. Though it was a difficult year for us in many ways, there were many life-giving moments and people, and I leave 2010 behind feeling more full than when it started. But I do not want to ignore what happens when we choose a path. This is not to say the path will not change--there are always forks in the path, down which we can travel, for whatever reason--but a choice implies other roads not taken. A choice without alternatives is not a choice, after all.

I suppose I am thinking especially about time because in addition to the lines around my eyes--I noticed them in the mirror tonight, as a matter of fact--2010 was the year I began in full-time ministry, the first time I put on the robe in an official capacity, the first time I had to tell people at parties that I am a minister. This is a strange business, the clergy, and I find myself loving what I do and who I am and what God has called me to more each day, even as I find myself rolling my eyes and wondering what on earth I have gotten myself into.

As I experience this passing of time, I am also beginning to understand what it means to "live into" something. I have heard the phrase over and over--in seminary, it was a buzzword akin only to "in the tension"--but I am beginning to really get what living into something means, especially as it relates to living into the life I have been given.

I am not someone who believes God has planned out my entire life in advance; besides wondering about the theological and scriptural basis for such an argument, it just does not sound like much fun. So living into my life is less about finding out God's plan and more about discovering what it means to live, as a person, in time, with God, and with the people who share my journey.

Maybe this all sounds a little "out there." I am ok with that. Living into my life requires me to understand that having made peace with God as it relates to my calling, I am also called to make peace with time, and with the roads I did not choose.

I am called to understand that what goes before me goes after me, too. Time is not merely something to catch: some limitless goal which, having been caught, calls me forward again. Time goes before me, too, and will go on long after I am gone. Time, being God's medium, is the canvas in which I live--in which we all live--and just as it goes before me and goes after me, it goes before everybody else and after everybody else, too.

Even as I make choices that necessarily narrow my life's focus, it is not as if there is a life waiting at the end of each road which must die; though there is grief in this life decision-making process, there is no finite time that dies with each choice. God's time is such that rather than losing each prospective person at the end of each path, I am gaining the person I continue to become, the life I continue to live into.

This is a liberating thought to me: that time is God's medium, that time is not only the number of days until my next birthday, but rather it is forever, in both directions, and that while God does not have my entire life planned out for me, God promises to go along with me as I stumble along the way. And not only does God promise to go along with me, but God promises that fellow travelers will share the journey. With these folks' help, no heartache is unbearable, and no joy worth keeping under wraps. Come to think of it, that's not a bad hope for the kingdom. You know, as Wesley said, "Heaven opened in the soul."

At the beginning of 2011, as I stumble, this is enough for me: that God is with us, and that you stumble alongside me.

I hope it is enough for you. Here's to a good year.