Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Gays and the Church?

          It is possible to stand for truth without being a jerk about it.  It is equally true that we can love another person deeply and still hold firm to the truth.  Somehow speaking the truth in love doesn't seem to apply to the church when it comes to homosexuality.

          I must admit that over the years, and particularly now as my own denomination is having a conversation about gays in the church, that I am genuinely grieved and lament over how people talk to one another about this.  On the one hand, there is the truth tellers.  They have a passion for holiness, a zeal for the righteousness of God.  They point out that Jesus got angry over sin, and did not put up with people watering down the gospel.  Jesus, for them, is the Divine Warrior who is ready and armed to nuke every GLBT that gets near him.  On the other hand there are the lovers.  They are sincerely and often hurt by the constant chatter about how gays are sinners bound for hell.  For them, Jesus loves, period.  He wouldn't hurt a fly, and drives a Prius around trying to leave the most loving impact he can on the earth without a harmful spiritual footprint or a rebuke from anyone.

          I, of course, have painted the extremes on both sides.  But therein lies the point:  all the rhetoric that gets spewed on each side of the fence is extreme.  Somehow love and truth don't co-exist.

          The problem is that few want to take the time to listen.  Few are interested in understanding the other.  There isn't much poverty of spirit, little mourning over sin, and even less meekness.  Instead, we look down our noses at each other.  But listening, really?  Yep, listening is really that important.  "If your brother or sister sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you.  If the person listens to you, you have won your brother or sister over."  (Matthew 18:15).  I guess it is kind of hard to listen when people are taking pot shots at each other through social media and huddling together in their own little world.  Matthew 18 presupposes relationship, and there seems to be little of it going around.

          So, how about this:  truth teller, will you take the time and the effort to build a relationship with a gay person?  Will you seek to ask questions, listen, and understand without making comments?  Are you able to see the image of God in someone very different from yourself?  And, lover of all, do you have room to love someone who is at opposite ends of your understanding?  Are you willing to take the time and effort to see why this is such a passionate issue for someone else without thinking that you already know why they think the way they do?  Can you see that God's love is big enough to extend to truth tellers?

          The reality is that there are hot button issues for every church in which people are at very different ends of the spectrum of thinking.  We in the church must take the lead and have the maturity to learn how to talk to one another without assuming we already know what the other side is all about.  We don't.  We won't know unless we listen.  We won't listen unless we are humble.  We won't be humble unless we become poor in spirit before our heavenly Father.

          Think about having a conversation night in your church, not a debate night.  Have two godly people who don't agree on an important subject speak with the intent of promoting information and understanding - no other agenda.  Allow the audience to ask write-in questions, and screen the best ones to be answered by the presenters.  It has to start somewhere.  Let it start with listening.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

We Need a Few Gray Hairs

          In my previous post I emphasized that older generations need to understand how the younger generations think and act.  I want to balance that with pondering church from the elder perspective.  What do you think of when I say "senior adult ministry?"  We almost exclusively consider this to be a ministry to seniors rather than from seniors.  The bald fact is that ministry is fast becoming so focused on youth and younger generations that the church is being "juvenilized."  Whereas a healthy focus on youth can bring great spiritual renewal and vitality to the church, focusing too heavily on it brings a watered-down understanding of the gospel and the Christian life that is quite unhealthy.

          My wife and youngest daughter recently took a mission trip to Joplin, Missouri.  They drove there and spent a week with an "older" couple from our church (in their late 70's).  It was the New Testament letter of Titus in action for my family.  In fact, Titus chapter 2 stands everything on end by an emphasis of older persons mentoring younger people; it is ministry from seniors and not to them.  This "old" couple had more energy than anyone else on a mission team of over fifty people.  They ate everything put in front of them without complaining.  They worked everyone else in the ground.  They always had something positive to say in the middle of every adverse circumstance.  They had a can-do spirit that was matter of fact.  They loved without ever expecting anything in return.  You see, this couple is not an anomaly; our elders, who have lived the longest with the power of the Holy Spirit, are usually the most able to share the Father's love in a Christ-like manner.

          Values of thrift, simplicity, loyalty, faithfulness, wisdom, and maturity (which can only be gained over time!) are best learned neither from trial and error, nor from the school of hard knocks, but through prolonged exposure to the elders all around us.  Fools are fools because they ignore old people.  The Old Testament book of Deuteronomy is a book that calls people to remember.  In addressing a group of foolish people who had forgotten God, chapter 32 verse 7 says, "Remember the days of old; consider the generations of long past.  Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain it to you."

          What would happen if churches constructed Sunday School programs based on Titus 2?  Can we even think the thought that church renewal could come through spunky and active elders?  Its high time that we in church leadership positions do two things:  first, teach the older persons for the expressed purpose of  them turning around and teaching the younger persons; and, second, stick those teens, twenty-somethings, and young parents out to pasture with godly elders so that they can feed off healthy green grass instead of just talking among themselves in a great circle of collective ignorance.  People rightly lament when there are no children or young families in a church.  We ought also to equally lament when there are no gray heads in the worship center.

          Let us honor the old among us by learning from them, and allow them the respect and decency of listening and working together with them to the glory of God.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Keeping My Options Open

          One of the great problems of today's church, in my humble opinion, is that decades of generational ministry has led to people in the Body of Christ only relating to the parts of the body just like themselves.  Even within family units, parents have difficulty understanding teenagers and grandparents have a hard time relating to twenty-somethings.  We only exacerbate the problem by giving such a potpourri of offerings in the church (i.e. dare I say it?  a traditional service and a contemporary service) that the ages are segregated with no meaningful interaction.  In short, we just don't know each other.  I have heard older generations bemoan the lack of commitment among younger people, and younger people complain of older folks as stuck in a rut.  I believe the onus is always on the older to reach the younger (the New Testament letter of Titus chapter 2, for example).  So, let's reconsider the perspective that young people lack commitment.

          There is a mantra that I have heard many students, twenty-somethings, and young families repeat over and over when considering what they will be doing this summer, how the next academic year will shake out, whether they will stick with a certain relationship or activity, how and when they may commit to any involvement, and if they might show up at a certain event or even church: "I'm keeping my options open."

          At first thought this sounds pretty wishy-washy.  But the thought in a young person's head is typically one of not wanting to close doors that might be open to them, or to not burn bridges with anyone. They want to entertain as many promising options as they can, because they do not want to miss an opportunity, lose control of a situation, or get locked into something they aren't sure of. Thus, many in the younger generations are typically loathe to settling down on any one thing.

          This is why it is commonplace for people under 35 to try a wide variety of religious and spiritual organizations, and may never settle on just one. They move effortlessly between a large group meeting in one place and a bible study in another, and between a small traditional church and a big contemporary worship service. Spiritual experiences for them often take the form of freedom, exploration, spontaneity, and renewal.

          Although it is important for all people to learn the value of loyalty and developing consistent routines centered in spiritual disciplines, in a younger person's modus operandi they typically will not succumb to a dry faith that is done out of sheer duty or habit. So, instead of pressing or expecting them to be in our mold of devotion and faithfulness through closing doors and making consequential decisions, perhaps we ought to walk alongside them and join them in the journey they are on. The New Testament refers to Christianity as a road or a way, and the Christian life as a walk that we take with Jesus and the Spirit. It is in this walking together with another that we can help them consider the options that are before them, and provide counsel, wisdom, and warning concerning the forks in the road and the exits off the path. Younger generations can learn to forego certain options and commit to something particular when we take the time to journey with them.

          So, rather than lament this generation's lack of focus and ever-present flakiness, may we understand their desire to have genuine relationships with God and others that does not miss out on a vibrant life.

-How can we be a help, and not a hindrance to others in their journey?
-What can God do for and with individuals who keep their options open?
-Where is the Spirit taking a young person in his/her walk?
-What are your options in relating to particular persons, and generations of people?

Friday, June 15, 2012

Distracted by Grace

          With summer, church ministries typically take a hiatus from their normal schedules.  Along with that reality, our own spirituality may suffer as we turn to other things like vacations or being around the kids all the time.  Summer distractions may overwhelm our good intentions toward walking with God, as if we have a condition of spiritual A.D.D.  We seem to... "squirrel!"... be easily distracted by the next thing that comes running along, and have a hard time focusing on what is important in life.

                But before we get too perturbed with ourselves, think about the nature of our lives. Teenagers and twenty-somethings are learning to flex their independent muscles and are developing a whole new skill set of handling a budget, paying bills on their own, creating new social networks, adjusting to new schedules, and finding and holding a job.  Young families are constantly adjusting to the next crazy thing their pre-school kids are doing, trying to coordinate both parents working, all while attempting to keep both sets of grandparents happy.  Parents of teens probably aren’t even reading this article because they are driving kids from one end of the planet to the other (it seems), and wonder if they will ever catch up on the sleep they need.  And grandparents in our culture today are just as busy, but with the added irritation of constantly dealing with the next ache and pain.  It is easy in the daily demands of life to have Jesus squeezed to the margins.

                Let me suggest that rather than feeling guilty for our spiritual lives because of all the distractions and seeming lack of discipline, that we shift our distractions by being distracted by grace.  When we sense our schedules are awry, our financial budgets won’t budge, and our work never seems to get done, that we use these situations to be distracted by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.  When we are forever chasing the next shiny thing that comes along, and/or complain about our own schedules as if there are not enough minutes in the day to accomplish God's will, let us be distracted with the forgiveness that is available to us through the cross.  After all, the Christian life is about having a realization of our sin, and of a renewal to our relationship with God.  Allow our distraction to point us to grace.

                Most of life, frankly, is lived in the mundane. How we live for God day in and day out, through all the details and tedium, speaks volumes to those for whom we seek to minister to, whether it is our own children, fellow believers in the Church, or others who do not know God.   Establishing solid spiritual patterns of life can be hard.  But maybe a key for us is in allowing grace to distract us enough to connect us with accepting God’s forgiveness, instead of just running around like a chicken with its head cut off.  Allow grace to distract us toward thinking on these questions:

--Am I living in a consistent rhythm of life that reflects my most precious values?
--Have I learned to practice the presence of Christ in the mundane activities of life?
--Do I have healthy patterns of work, rest, and play that others can emulate?

In being distracted by grace, we may find that we have actually become engaged with God. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


          One day at a parent-teacher conference several years ago when my middle daughter was in second grade, the teacher, as usual for such an occasion, told my wife and I about the things the class had been doing.  The class had been reading some Winnie the Pooh books and the kids were to talk about which Pooh character they liked the most and why.  Since my daughter, Charissa, is a very outgoing and bouncy type of person I was certain that she would immediately say that Tigger was her favorite.  But instead she responded with Eeyore.  Okay.  Not what I would have guessed.  Why?  Charissa said, "Because Eeyore reminds me of my Daddy."

        Ouch.  I wasn't ready for that one.  Yet, as I reflected on Charissa's answer I saw that since I was working as a supervisor in a factory, going to grad school at night, and being a lay minister in my local church had left me drained to the point that whenever my daughter saw me it was as if I was Eeyore just loping about the house with a pinned on tail.  Before that parent-teacher conference encounter I never would have described myself as my daughter did.  Obviously, my reputation did not match my own perception of myself.

          Every church leadership team needs to periodically struggle with this question:  What is our reputation in the community?  Notice the question is not:  What do you think your reputation is?  The only way to know a church's reputation is to interact with those outside of your church.  And the answers may be very different than what you think they might be.  Whenever I have conversations with those in my community who are not members of my church, I will often ask something like:  "So, what do you know of our church?"  "Do you know any people in the church?"  "What is one word that you would describe the church?"

          What should we do if there is a clear disconnect between what the community says about us, and what we think is true about us?  First, we ought to never dismiss what another says about our church.  Sure, we might not like it but we need to weigh the words and glean as much wisdom as we can from it.  Second, if it is a negative perception, or truly off the mark, use the information to help inspire you toward change.  Third, if there are things that you know need changing, discuss what kind of reputation you want to have and begin setting some goals for achieving what you want.  Begin with the results you want, and then focus on the particular tasks you might do.

          There is yet one more critical question to continually ask:  What is our reputation with God?  The way we answer this question is critical and demands the utmost honesty.  Our approach is the same as asking persons in the community:  ask God himself.  Pray.  Read Scripture, especially the Prophets, and the first three chapters of Revelation.  No church can ever hope to glorify God and be effective in their community unless they are genuine and urgent about where they stand before God and what their reputation is with those outside of church.  Resist the temptation of talking the subject to death and instead determine to set a plan of action.

          At your next leadership meeting or team meeting, be brave and ask the questions of reputation.  Use them to spawn the kind of interaction that is needed to help address what God wants for your ministry.

Monday, June 11, 2012

What My Grandson Has Taught Me About Ministry

          It is hard to believe that such a sweet, happy, and healthy looking child is actually not healthy at all.  About a year ago my daughter began to notice that something was not quite right with little Kolten.  He would have episodes in which his body would not act or respond in certain situations, sometimes even twitch or contort in a small way.  Instead of going away they became more frequent.  After thorough testing the diagnosis was confirmed:  epilepsy.

          On the day he went to the hospital for a week of testing to determine the nature and frequency of his situation, his little head was covered with so many electrodes and wires that he looked like something out of an old Frankenstein movie.  The plan was that he would spend five days all wired up to collect as much data from his brain as the doctors could get.  However, after just 36 hours, he had already experienced 170 seizures and given the hospital staff more than enough data to interpret.

          In this last year Kolten has taught me as much about ministry to people as any one of my incredible seminary professors or any of a number of lay persons who have impacted my life.  Here are just a few of the things I have learned, and am still learning:

1. Ministry is about loving people, and loving people always limits your life.  That's right.  Anything worth loving brings boundaries and limits to life.  I love being with my grandson.  But when I am with him it isn't about what he can give to me, how he can enrich my life, or ways in which he can further my career.  No, its all about loving Kolten.  As I write this I am in the middle of several days alone with Kolten.  He is two years old.  I'm fifty years old.  I'm tired.  And its a good tired.  I'm always watching him, even more so than the average two year old.  He takes a lot of medicine.  He falls down a lot.  He gets frustrated with dropping his toys.  It limits my life - a lot!  There are things I don't do, there are places I don't go.  It has helped me to ponder:  how committed am I to loving the people of my congregation?  Am I committed enough to do everything necessary to watch out for them and ensure their spiritual growth?  Are their selfish places in my heart that prevent me from being the best minister I can for them?

2. Its all about grace.  Yes, I said all.  I'm not given to exaggeration.  Everything comes down to grace, and grace trumps everything.  On the day back at the hospital when the data was collected and interpreted, an incredible illumination happened.  When Kolten has a seizure his entire brain lights up, except one small area - the area where his emotion center is.  I am told by doctors that if the emotion center of a child's brain is constantly bombarded by seizures that that child will be always angry, will continually bite themselves, and will hit and abuse siblings and parents.  But, as you can see, Kolten is happy.  The interpretation of the data for me could not be any more clear:  in this arena of heartache and struggle with epilepsy, there is an incredible display of God's grace in the midst of disease.  When it comes to ministry, things can never get so bad, people can never be so far from where you would like to see them that they are not displaying some form of God's wonderful mercy and grace.  I have to look for it sometimes, but I know its there.  And Kolten has taught me to look for it in ways and in places in the Church I have been unable to see.

          Well, Kolten is waking up from his nap.  Its time to go.  Its time to see grace in action.  Its time for me to love again.  Its time for God to keep working through the broken and flawed and fallen world to show forth the riches of his grace to us.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Reflections on Wisconsin Politics and the Church

          Yesterday (June 5) Wisconsin had a recall election.  Since being voted into office, Governor Scott Walker has brought to the surface like no other individual the deep division between union and non-union, Republican and Democrat.  At issue is a law that ended collective bargaining for most public employees and teachers.  Since the law's passing just over a year ago after Walker came into office, it has been a fiasco of union and labor seeking to gain back what was lost, while others who insist the Governor was acting out of necessity to balance the state budget and save jobs.

          I certainly have my thoughts and opinions on the performance of Governor Walker and the political issues at hand.  I was part of the nearly 60% who showed up at the polls to back up those opinions.  Yet, my greater concern here is what I believe to be a deeper issue of people not knowing how to talk to one another in this state.  What most news reports cannot accurately depict is how family members refuse to interact with each other without a fight, how neighbors and friends of years no longer relate to one another, and how even church congregants sit on opposite sides of the aisle believing that their thinking on the subject of Wisconsin politics is the right one.

          The problem is that no one seems to want to listen.  People have become so passionate about the way they think things ought to go or not go that any kind of genuine conversation or dialogue isn't even possible.  The wisdom of the Apostle James from two thousand years ago still holds up as sage advice for today:  My dear brothers, take note of this:  Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.  The Church ought to be taking the lead in demonstrating how to converse with each other over the significant issues that face all people. And it begins with listening.  There can be no understanding of why a person or group of people is so up in arms about an issue like collective bargaining, or gay marriage, or immigration, or a host of issues unless there is the commitment to understand.  Without this most basic of human commitments to each other, there will be a constant presence of demonizing the other while the devil himself gets off scott free as he sits back and eats popcorn watching a lack of grace unfold.

          So, believers in Jesus Christ, it is time to step up and practice what we affirm to be true:  that people, all people, are created in the image and likeness of God and on that basis alone deserve the dignity and respect of a proper hearing without being run out on a limb for their views.  We are to be ministers of reconciliation, as though Jesus himself were making his appeal through us.  Let us redeem our talk by listening first.  That doesn't mean we avoid talking altogether for some nebulous notion of just getting along.  Let us instead pursue substantive dialogue because God's agenda has reconciliation in view.  Working together is our only option because we all share the human condition.  The way that working is done is up to you and me.


Friday, June 1, 2012

The Importance of Baptism and Communion

           Okay, I know there are some people who think that I am out of my crazy skull talking about baptism and communion as things that actually shape a person's worldview as if they play a central role in a Christian's life.  Are they really that important?  The short answer to that is "yes". Here is the longer answer, and I will frame it by asking two questions: what place do the sacraments (or ordinances in non-Reformed theology) have in the Christian life? and, why do we even need them since we have the preaching of the Word?

          We get something in the sacraments that we don't get by sermons alone. The sheer physical presence of the elements of water, bread, and wine engages the whole person in sight, touch, and smell and not just through an engagement with the mind through the ears. The sacraments present the good news of Jesus to us, along with the Word, more clearly. Perhaps all of us have had the experience of receiving an e-mail with an attachment we cannot open. We may gain a certain amount of knowledge and understanding from the e-mail itself, but without the attachment the communication is insufficient and lacking. Holy communion and baptism are the attachments opened to us revealing the presence of Jesus among his people and showing us the incredible union we have with God through Christ's redemptive events.

          The big deal here is that we need more than just talk in communication of the gospel. Just as lovers need more than just the words "I love you" (sermon), they need an embrace, a kiss, some action that reveals and seals the words as real. This is the role of the sacraments in the life of faith, that they assure us, in a material way, of the great love shown to us in Christ (VanderZee, Christ, Baptism, and the Lord's Supper, pp.191-2). They lift us to heaven where Jesus is seated at the right hand of God and help us to know the reality of grace. The Belgic Confession says this of what we are speaking:

"We believe that our good God, mindful of our crudeness and weakness, had ordained sacraments for us to seal his promises in us, to pledge his good will and grace toward us, and also to nourish and sustain our faith. He has added these to the Word of the gospel to represent better to our external senses both what he enables us to understand by his Word and what he does inwardly in our hearts, confirming in us the salvation he imparts to us."

          It is a misguided belief that the only things believers need is a lively sermon and some good praise choruses for their worship experience. Two thousand years of church history testifies to the importance of the sacraments in the life of Christians. We push them to the periphery at our own peril. They are meant to seal the message of union with Christ to us with greater certainty. When they are practiced with the attention they deserve, along with the preaching of the Word, it provides a solid foundation from which to construct a decidedly Christian world and life view of human need and divine redemption. So, how do you view your life and the world around us?