Saturday, September 05, 2009

Bear with me...

Hey there, folks who somehow find it in your hearts, schedules, and RSS readers to follow these sparse musings. I'm midway through 80 pages of waxing theological for the UM Board of Ordained Ministry, and hopefully working my way to full ordination (If you don't know the Methodist system...think of this as finishing residency). So I've not been in much of a mood to blog theological beyond reposting my newsletter articles. I've also got some possible 2nd blog kinds of ideas in the works, for stuff that really doesn't fit here. So come October, or maybe November, expect to see some new content. But for now, be content with following me on Twitter, or just holding out hope that I might yet again post something to these here digital pages. Until then, keep questioning and seeking, and keep your faith!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

You Feed Them

My wife and I have both been working our way through 2nd Kings in our devotional times lately, and happened upon a great series of stories about the prophet Elisha, which parallel in some ways many of the miracles of Christ (although His decidedly out-class Elisha's). One in particular, which I don't think I had noticed before, was a miracle in which he makes 20 loaves of bread feed 100 men. (2 Kings 4:42-44) Not quite as impressive as Jesus feeding first 5,000 (Mark 6:34-44) and then 4,000 (Mark 8:1-13) with much smaller initial quantities. And let's remember, that's only 5000 guys that were counted. We don't get a count of the women and children, though we're told they are there. So figure more like 8K and 10K people. So Jesus' miracle is 1000 times more awesome than Elisha's, which it should be, But it is interesting as one looks to recurring patterns in Scripture, and what they tell us about the nature of God.

Depending on which version of the 5,000 story you read, you get various sources for the food. Some say it was a small boy, others just say the disciples have it collected somehow. Probably, one eye witness missed the boy, the other saw him. Anyway, this kid offers five loaves and two fish. And that doesn't seem like it would make it around the table at home, much less to a multi-thousand crowd. But as the story goes, Jesus makes it work, in such miraculous portions that folks can take home doggie bags of leftovers.

If you're familiar with the accounts of this miracle, it can get easy to gloss over it as one more story about Christ's power over the elements of nature. But don't miss the crucial detail of this incident... Jesus puts the initiative into the disciples' hands. He doesn't just pray to God and call down bread from heaven to feed the people, as God did for the Israelites in Exodus 16. He doesn't summon fish to jump out of the sea, which He seems to do for the fishermen to get their attention time and again (Luke 5:1-11, John 21:1-14). He says “You give them something to eat.” Tough words, especially since the disciples are the ones raising the concern to Him in the first place. You can almost hear their minds whirring and clicking with that one... ”Us? Feed them? Uh, Jesus, we haven't done that one yet. Yes, we cast out demons in Your Name, and even healed some sick people, but you haven't taught us how to feed people. Maybe you could show us how that one works next?” But nevertheless, despite the possible misgivings of the disciples, they come up with the food, and then the miracle begins.

Recently, our church has been partnering with a local ministry know as Gleaners Dispatch, or simply the Gleaners. This ministry does a lot in the way of food distribution in the area, from bread and produce on Monday afternoons, to Wednesday night dinners that are currently feeding upwards of 200 people each week, both up at the Nassau County Fairgrounds. (When they started this past May, they had 50 coming to the dinner. You do the math.) This ministry is a incredible benefit to our area during these hard economic times. Our work with them in June was an amazing time for all parties. And although we are not “officially” partnering with the dinners at the moment, I know several of our members have continued to help serve on Wednesdays, and we're considering some additional financial backing.

But let me tie back into the Scripture here. We pray for the economy. We pray for people's jobs. We pray for those who are unemployed, and we ask God to provide for them. And although He has been known to echo the miracles of Exodus, bringing food out of thin air for people who are earnestly in need, most often He calls to us as He once did to the disciples: “You feed them.”

It can be overwhelming to consider the needs in our community, especially as this downturn flows out to further and further layers of our population. And we look at the masses gathered before the table, and look at our meager food stores, and turn to Jesus and ask how. But if you are willing to offer what little you have, a few dollars, an hour of your time, a home cooked dish, then you will be amazed at how far Jesus can make that little bit go.

It doesn't take great acts of heroism to show Christ's love. Sometimes, all you have is a dinner-for-one to offer. But if you submit those things to Him, whether through ministries like the Gleaners, or our food pantry and contingency funds, or other outlets, then He can do great things with them. If you'd like some more information on these ministries, let me know. But I strongly encourage you, if you have something to give, even if it's only a little, offer it to Christ. It could feed 10, 200, or 10,000. But it will, as we pray during the offering, be more in His Hands than it could ever be in ours.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Survivor, Chess Strategy, and Ritual in Today's World

There has been a trend in the last generation or so to move away from traditional worship. There is a sense that the traditions and rituals of the church are a thing of the past, remnants of a by-gone era, and barriers to new seekers finding Christ. There is almost an anti-traditionalism in many churches. One church I was a part of, the Contemporary Service had no order in the bulletin...only a note that we followed the Spirit's lead for that service. It just so happened the Spirit led about the same every single week.

But as I look at the culture around us, I see some signs that the ritual may be making a comeback. There is a particular group, that meets together every Thursday night, that follows a particular liturgy every week, led by it's pastor. In fact, this group of faithful numbers around 20 million every week. See if their rituals look familiar to you...

"Want to know what you're playing for?"
"In addition, the winning tribe will send one member of the losing tribe to Exile Island. Worth playing for?"
"Survivors ready. Go!"
"______ wins reward!"
"[Losing tribe name]: I've got nothing for you."
"We now bring in _____, returning from Exile Island. We're now ready to get to today's challenge. First things first..."
"On my go."
"_____ wins immunity!"
"I'll go tally the votes."
"______th person voted out of Survivor: Gabon is.... The tribe has spoken. ...Grab your torches, head back to camp."

Every week on Survivor, Jeff Probst (ironically enough an ordained pastor) leads a small group through this rite, and is followed faithfully by an extensive home viewing audience. Probst does not deviate from this formula in the slightest, except to insert personal/tribal/locational names as appropriate. Watch for a couple of weeks, and see what I mean. People eat this stuff up, even though he's been doing this for 9 years (with only a few changes, such as the addition of Exile Island). And if your a fan of ritual, like me, you even get a little chill at certain phrases, especially "the tribe has spoken" (usually followed by the sound of a digeridoo). So why, when 20 million people participate in this liturgy every single week, do we believe that ritual is a thing of the past?

I've got a theory. Because, you see, there are two types of ritual, and a particular rite can move back and forth between these two categories on any given day. There are those that have meaning, and those that exist for their own sake. Ritual is meant to serve a purpose. In our case, to point believers and seekers alike to Christ, to guide them through the worship of God in meaningful and practical ways, and to facilitate the communal life of the congregation. It's a container, as it were, for things of God.

But there are times that ritual becomes an end unto itself. Whenever it begins to be done a certain way "because it has always been that way," then the signs are apparent that it's sliding (or has lept) into the self-serving category. Rather than creating meaning and guiding worship, they take up space, time, money, personnel, and give nothing back in return. They cause us to serve them, rather than benefiting us through their practice.

In Survivor, the rituals make sense. There is a flow to every episode. You can set your watch by it. It allows the story to progress, and provides the challenge and drama for the players and viewers alike. It means something. If Jeff decided one week to just say "The Tribe has spoken," and snuff out a torch, but never actually asked anybody to leave ("we voted because we always do"), the game would devolve rapidly. But every week, Probst provides a sense of order, and acts as a guide through what would otherwise be a complicated clash of diverse personalities in a stressful situation with limited resources. Kinda like some weeks at church...

So what can we do with our rituals? In chess strategy, there is such a thing as a "bad bishop". A bad bishop is stuck behind a bunch of other pieces, with no room to move, no open lines for attack, and serving no actual purpose. It is taking up space, and providing no benefit. It may even be hindering you by being a target for your opponent to attack, which you have to commit resources to defend. So two courses of action are recommended if you have a "bad bishop." (1) Sacrifice him to gain some other advantage, perhaps in trade for an opposing piece or to clear some space, or (2) get him out from behind the other pieces somehow, into the open, and give him purpose again.

What does that have to do with traditions? Well, if they're serving no valuable purpose, we either need to (1) get rid of them, in order to free up space/time/money/personnel for other more beneficial ventures, or (2) rediscover their purpose, their meaning, and put them out in front where they can do some good in pointing us to Christ.

This involves asking some questions...How did this ritual start? What was it's original purpose? Is that benefit still needed? Is there something that would better accomplish that goal? Have we added or changed it's meaning in order to justify it's presence? Does everyone understand why we do it this way, or only key people? How can we share that meaning with others?

To paraphrase what many say about technology...Tradition is great...when it works. And it's goal is to take the collective wisdom of previous generations, what's worked, what hasn't, what's provided benefit, what's created meaning and guided purpose, and use that to inform our daily lives with Christ. Whether it's candles on the altar, or the practice of Lent, we should be habitually (haha) reexamining our rituals, our traditions, and making sure they serve the purpose of pointing us to Christ. Because if they exist for their own sake alone, we either need to light a new fire within them, or remove their torch entirely.

The pastor has spoken. May God bless you on your journey with Him this day.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Click to return religion to factory default settings...

Recently I was reading an article from the George Barna group, in which the contention was made that Christianity was no longer America's "default" religion. Much as it was usually assumed that if you were of a particular nationality, you were of a particular religion (ie, Irish were Catholics, Arabs were Muslims, residents of Lakeland, FL were Methodists), it was typically assumed that Americans were some form of Christian.

Now Barna's survey (at least this one...they do so many...) does not deal directly with the stats on who claims what faith, but rather handles a more perceptual issue. "The survey shows half of Americans believe the Christian faith no longer has a lock on people’s hearts. Overall, 50% of the adults interviewed agreed that Christianity is no longer the faith that Americans automatically accept as their personal faith, while just 44% disagreed and 6% were not sure."

They also explore stats based on region, denomination, and ethnicity. On the other hand, they also note that 74% of adults surveyed agree that their faith is the most important factor in determining their morality.

Now, there are lies, outrageous lies, and statistics, but let me play with that for just a second. If Christianity is the default religion of our country, you can make the assumption that your neighbor at least understands the basic tennets of the faith, even if they are the one guy in town who would never darken the door of the church. Which defines your evangelistic technique in a way. Because then yoAur goal is to take the knowledge Billy already has, and move them to make a decision based on it. Much 18th and 19th (and, well, 20th) century evangelism was based on this idea. You know about heaven and what would happen if you died tonight? "Smoking or non?" Or so goes most bumper sticker evangelistic efforts. They were pushy, not to be mean, but because your target audience was sitting on the fence of faith, maybe even putting it off til they were older.

But we live in different times, which call for different ways of explaining the same Gospel.

1Co 9:19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.
1Co 9:20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law.
1Co 9:21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law.
1Co 9:22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.
1Co 9:23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

Nowadays, we can't make the same assumption that we used to. Your neighbor is as likely as not to have grown up in church. They may have a basic understanding of Jesus, they may not. They may have an informed understanding of Christianity, or they might only know what they see on TV. They might have had a good church experience, a bad church experience, or no church experience. They may even have a set of beliefs already, as a Buddhist, a Wiccan, a Muslim. Or they may be in that ever growing category of people in our country who proclaim themselves "spiritual but not religious." The fact is, until you start talking, you have no idea.

Our current pluralism in this country is not unlike that which Paul was living with. On any given day, he was running into Jews, but also Greeks and Romans with an amazing diversity of religious different pagan mystery philosophical systems that may or may not include deities. And to each of these, he took a different approach. With Jews, he might point to Christ as the fulfillment of prophecy. To Greeks, perhaps the Unknown God they had built an altar to centuries before. But it varied. You couldn't convince a Roman based on Messianic promises...but you might be able to appeal to something else, once you got to know them.

All that to say...probably our best evangelistic tool today is listening. Because in order to understand how to share with someone about Christ, we first need to understand what they do and don't know. Maybe their experience of church has been judgement and condemnation. Best not to start with explaining how much of a sinner they are...maybe they need to hear more of Christ's sacrificial love for them instead. Maybe they've found comfort believing in Allah, because the structure of Islam guides them. So understanding their journey to get there might reveal that along the way, nobody's ever explained that our God has a plan for their life, and that Jesus was more than just a prophet.

Assumption is the absolute worst thing we can do as we share our faith. Assuming that the gal at Winn-Dixie is a Christian. Assuming you never see Paul at church because he just likes to fish on Sundays (as opposed to how his church growing up treated his dad when he was out of work). Assuming that people just need to "make a decision," when they may not have all the facts in the first place. The same "safe" assumptions that guided us before aren't necessarily true today.

So if you want to share your faith, start by asking questions...good, caring questions. And go lovingly from there.