30 September 2010

Exercise Evangelism

I have been having an evangelism experience at the gym lately.

I've struggled with back pain off and on for the past two years, and I'm finally mostly pain-free after well over a year of physical therapy, chiropractic care and essentially taking better care of my body.  About two months ago, I was sharing my struggle with Michelle, our kick-ass spin instructor who has fought cancer and won over the past year (you have no idea what a simpering little weenus you are until you watch a bald woman lead your spin class with a chemo port in her arm).  As we were talking about juggling parenthood, vocations, exercise and all the other important stuff in our lives, she said, "Hey, we've got this new class starting called Centergy - you should give it a shot!  It sounds like it could be just what you need."

My friend Rachel doing yoga at her family's former vacation home in Florida.
Rachel has been pushing me to do yoga for months and will hopefully be happy I'm finally taking her advice (somewhat).
So, last Friday I gave it a whirl.  Centergy is a combination of yoga, pilates and other stuff set to music.  You come in, lay out your mat, and proceed to spend the next hour stretching, working, and sweating.  At least, that's what I did.  It was the weirdest thing:  I never moved more than four feet in any one direction, but by the end of the hour my shirt was drenched and I was in heaven.  Was Michelle ever right - the class worked all the muscles my PT and chiropractor identified as trouble spots for me, and since it was a class where everyone was trying to do the poses, I didn't get that dreaded feeling of "oh, shit, I look like a total fool flopping around on this mat in the weight room."

Tuesday night, Beloved and I both had time free to exercise together, so I suggested we go to another Centergy class.  I had an even better experience than the first, and Beloved liked it as well.  I've pretty much decided that the Tuesday night and Friday afternoon sessions at our gym are going to be added to my regular exercise rotation.

Now, here's where the evangelism part comes in.  Some of my blogger friends have been visiting the topic lately, and I think they've presented some valuable insight.  I think they've covered why we (the ELCA) aren't particularly good at evangelism, but here I'd like to offer some thoughts on how we could be better.

  1. Evangelism addresses the need of the evangelized, not the need of the church.  My friend Michelle wasn't teaching that particular Centergy class, nor was she going to receive a commission if I attended.  She had no thought of her own reward for getting me to sign up:  what she saw was my need for something new and a way our gym could provide it.  Our most effective (and, dare I say, most holy) evangelism comes when our concern is for our neighbor, not our church.  Evangelism driven by the need of the congregation cheapens the gift of the gospel by offering the holy community for the sake of its own benefit, which seems far too much like prostitution for my comfort.  
  2. Effective evangelists listen and hear before speaking.  Michelle didn't break into our conversation with some sort of ham-handed script extolling the benefits of Centergy.  We were talking, as friends, and she heard and understood what I was saying before mentioning the class.  It felt natural and good because it was natural and good.  If the church is to be trustworthy in a post-Christendom environment, it starts by listening to others for the sake of their own story, not that of the church.  Yes, the church has a good story to share, a wonderful story, but the evangelizing moment is not the moment to unload it all on the evangelized.  A simple acknowledgment that "hey, I've heard what you're saying" creates a bond of trust from the very start of the evangelized's relationship with the church - and that trust is essential to the life of the church itself.  
  3. Effective evangelists believe they are offering a real, concrete benefit to the lives of the evangelized.  Again, Michelle didn't suggest the class because it's what she was "supposed" to do:  she offered the class because she thought it could help.  Our gym has a lot of other classes and programs, including a very spendy personal trainer program:  if Michelle's concern was helping the gym's bottom line, she could have done so a hundred times over in the year we've been going to spin class.  But Michelle saw that this class could directly address the very problem I was facing.  Is it so much to ask the same of the church?  Effective evangelists, having heard, offer a benefit that can contribute to the life of the evangelized.  In other words, they don't evangelize because the church needs people:  they evangelize because they believe something in the church can help people in their real, actual, present circumstances.  This is why "Bullhorn Guy" pisses me off:  he doesn't give a fart in a stiff wind about what your problems are now, since if you're hellbound anyway your abusive boyfriend or unemployment or addiction or concern for your kids doesn't matter (and chances are if those things don't matter before you join his church, they won't matter afterwards, either).
There are a few corollaries to these points as well.  First, we who are the church need to understand our role as givers, not receivers.  As Bonhoeffer wrote and others have affirmed, "the church is only the church when it exists for others."[1]  When we use the term "effective" as an after-the-fact descriptor, we emphasize very clearly these are not techniques to develop so much as they are gifts embodied in the act itself.

Second, it is incumbent upon the church to actually offer real, concrete benefit in the here and now.  Life is no longer "nasty, brutish and short;" in fact, for most Americans, life is at the least pleasant, civilized and long.  Any remaining social pressure to join the church in order to be a member of "polite society" is dying a swift death.  These two forces have driven much of what passes for evangelism in the church for the past few centuries.  Now we live in a different world, where God, it seems, is humbling the church in order that it may serve the world in which it is planted.  All of us who read the Sermon on the Mount with a sense of delicious irony may now be realizing, to our horror, that Jesus wasn't being ironic at all.

There is a new reality afoot for the church, especially the mainline American Protestant tradition.  Our comfortable position as the de facto guardians of middle class morality and decency has been pulled from underneath us by a God who "takes by its corners this whole world and shakes us forward and shakes us free." (Rich Mullins)  This new reality may be uncomfortable for a while.  It may even feel like we're dying.  Some of our churches may indeed really die.  But death hasn't been a barrier to stop God in the past - why should the present, and God's future, be any different?

Grace & peace,

[1]Bonhoeffer, Dietrich.  Letters and Papers from Prison

26 September 2010

Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost - "A Chasm of Compassion"

A pop quiz.  According to researchers from Princeton University, which of the following is the income level beyond which more money does NOT guarantee more happiness:
a.     $50,000
b.     $75,000
c.     $100,000
d.     $125,000
If you guessed $75,000, you’d be right.  Researchers from Princeton
“found that not having enough money definitely causes emotional pain and unhappiness. But, after reaching an income of about $75,000 per year, money can't buy happiness. More money can, however, help people view their lives as successful or better. [1]
I did some further research on my own, and according to the 2007 census, well over 40% of the U.S. is going to clear that $75,000 threshhold.  So, it seems that most of you can count on making enough money in your lifetime to be financially assured of maximum happiness.  In other words, you’re going to be rich.  Congratulations.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “Hunger begins only when people desire to keep their own bread for themselves.”[2]  In the movie “Wall Street,” Gordon Gekko said, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”[3]  The task for you, as American Christians in the 21st Century, will be learning how to overcome the chasm between these two polarities. 
            There is a chasm in Jesus’ parable.  But it is not a chasm of riches or poverty.  It is not a chasm of greed.  It is not a chasm of luck or good fortune.  The chasm exists from the start of the parable right through to the very end.  The chasm in Jesus’ parable is a chasm of compassion.  It has very little to do with wealth and everything to do with blindness.  Jesus did not tell this parable to make the rich give up our riches.  Jesus told this parable so that the blind might see.
            In Bible Study Tuesday night, as we were discussing this parable, one of our folks said, “Okay, so when do we know we’ve given away enough so we won’t wind up in the rich man’s spot?  Who do we need to save?”  The quick, snarky answer to that question is, “Who are you thinking about, and what are you waiting for?”  But that’s missing the point of the parable.  Jesus isn’t talking about an actual person burning in hell – he IS, however, warning actual people that their actual blindness to the needs around them could actually place them in actual danger of actually getting in big, big trouble.
            The deep, true answer to the question from Tuesday night is this:  it isn’t how much you save, it’s how well you see.  You are not the savior of the world; that’s Jesus, just in case you’ve gotten confused lately.  But if you claim to follow the Savior, then within that following you are called to open your eyes to more than just your own needs.  The rich man wasn’t condemned for being rich:  he was condemned because someone was suffering right on his doorstep, and he either couldn’t see it, or refused to see it.
            One of my seminary professors used to remind us that “the parables are told for us, not against us.”  This parable, with all its talk of Hades and burning and poverty, is good news for us.  Forget the abstract suffering of the poor man Lazarus, the abstract sorrow of the rich man who ignored him.  They are imaginary, fiction told with a purpose.  Remember that for you, this parable comes in time.  For you, this parable is good news:  you can bind up the wounds you encounter in this world.  You have Moses and the prophets.  You have the witness of Jesus, risen from the dead as proof that God’s love will never be conqured.  You can see the chasm of compassion that separates us in this world, and you can trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to venture into that chasm for the sake of your neighbor, rich or poor.
            Jurgen Möltmann, a German theologian, once said that “the opposite of poverty is not property:  the opposite of both is community.” [4]  The chasm Jesus shows you cannot be filled with money – it can only be bridged by the love of Christ for rich and poor alike.  Yes, we are rich – but our riches will not heal the wounds of this world.  Only the love of Christ poured out through us can bridge the chasm of compassion.  As a baptized and beloved child of God, you are part of that bridge – take the love of Christ with you this week, and let those riches loose for the sake of the world.  Amen.           

[1] http://www.chicagotribune.com/health/la-heb-money-20100906,0,7805444.story
[2] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich.  DBW Volume 5:  Life Together – Prayerbook of the Bible.  © 2003 by Fortress Press.  p. 65
[4] http://adammlowe.com/2010/05/23/holy-spirit-in-the-world-today-conference-london-htb/

23 September 2010

Pop Culture Roundup

How long has it been since my last PCR?  I dunno, but it's been a while.  Got a few minutes to share it and so, here we go.

I finished Anne Tyler's Noah's Compass a few days ago via our library's free audiobook system.  It was my first experience with Tyler, and I enjoyed it, though the book itself certainly wasn't life-changing.  I kept waiting for the big moment, the denouement (thank you, Mrs. Heier and Mrs. Sundell!) wherein I would understand the larger narrative arc that was going on in the midst of the story.  It never came.  From what I've read, this is a common feature of Tyler's writing, which makes me a bit cautious about trying another.  We'll see, I guess.

Now I'm on to Kraken by China Mieville.  This is certainly a change of pace from Anne Tyler.  On first listen, Kraken reminds me of a cross between Neil Gaiman's two masterful novels Neverwhere and American Gods.  The narrator even sounds like Gaiman doing his own work narrating Neverwhere, which is fantastic in my humble opinion.  Anyway, the basic plot involves a museum curator who specializes in mollusks discovering that the world's best-preserved giant squid has been stolen.  He is subsequently dragged into the underground conflict surrounding that squid, its worshipers and a host of other characters far too bizarre to spoil here.  Suffice it to say that if you liked Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar from Neverwhere, you're going to love this book.

I'm continuing to journey through the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan - currently I'm reading Crossroads of Twilight, with hopes of finishing the published works in the series before the next volume is released in November.  Stephen King once noted that Jordan's picture of how this series would develop was insane.  I dunno about that, but I fervently hope that the ghostwriter who's finishing the series does it well - I'd hate to invest this much time in a series to wind up as disappointed as I was in the last two volumes of The Dark Tower.

On the telly, Sons of Anarchy is back, and picking up right where it left off.  I'm really beginning to love this show.  I imagine much of what I love is due to the superior talent within the cast:  I'm no biker, but I believe with every ounce of my TV-watching eyes that these folks are exactly who they seem to be.  It's gritty, it's human, and unlike Grey's Anatomy or many of the other navel-gazing shows popular at the moment, I don't feel like kicking Jax or Tigg or any of the Sons in the nads on a weekly basis.  With other seasons starting in coming weeks, I'm very much looking forward to Fringe, Big Bang Theory, NCIS and CSI getting rolling again.  Beloved has gotten hooked on White Collar, but I also got her on Fringe this summer, so in coming weeks we'll be furiously working through Season 2 on DVD so we can enjoy Season 3 together.

We haven't caught many movies this year.  Dropping upwards of $50 when you figure babysitter, tickets, soda and popcorn means we will watch a lot of stuff on DVD, but even then by the time we get the girls into bed we're usually too tired to make it through a movie.  So I really can't comment on anything movie-wise at the present, though I'm hoping to catch Inception at the matinee tomorrow if I can get teh Sermon rolling early in the morning.

If you've got good recommendations for books/movies/TV/music, let me know!

Grace & peace,

19 September 2010

Sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost - "Real and Messy"

We’re going to begin this morning with a little bit of readers’ theatre. A Presbyterian colleage of mine in Alexandria, VA wrote in her blog about some conversations she's had in the church over the years:

Sweet Church Lady: I sat beside Betsy at the women's luncheon the other day and she wouldn't stop criticizing you.
Pastor: So what did you say?
SCL: Oh, I would never say anything. I wouldn't want to make waves.

Church Leader: Would you pray for my daughter? She's back in rehab again.
Pastor: Of course I will. Shall we add her name to the prayer list?
CL: Oh, please don't. I couldn't face my friends if they knew. I've never told them about Deena's problem.

Church Officer: I think ___ (another officer who is a recovering alcoholic) might be drinking again.
Pastor: Do you think we should go talk with him?
CO: Oh, no. I wouldn't want to embarrass him.

As a child of the 1960s, I remember dressing up in patent leather shoes and donning a bow in my pin-curled hair for Sunday School and worship where I would join dozens of other little girls dressed just the same. Little boys wore little jackets and ties. Moms and Dads also donned their Sunday Best. And everybody filed into their pews and smiled at their neighbors and worshipped the LORD and went home.

At home, there might have been marriage/addiction/financial/mental health/sexual problems. But - God forbid - we disclose such family secrets, especially in church. We wouldn't even tell the pastor unless we were desperate.

As late as the 1980s when I served as a summer intern in a NY church, I met a family who disappeared for the summer, only to return my last weekend. They asked to speak with me and shared that their only son had died of AIDS in another state.

Me: Oh my gosh. I am so sorry. I didn't even know he was sick. And no one said anything to me.
Grieving Mom: We didn't tell anyone he was sick. That's why no one told you.
Me: ? Well . . . would you like to have a memorial service here after the pastor's back from sabbatical?
Grieving Mom: Oh no! Please don't tell anyone. We can't tell people about it. It would be too embarrassing.
Me: (long pause) So . . . you aren't going to tell your friends that your son died . . . because it would be too embarrassing?

I will admit that, like many preachers, I’ve struggled with the Gospel text this week. This parable, as well as the verses that surround it, is one of the most confusing passages in scripture for me. Now I know I’m not supposed to say that – I know I’m not supposed to comment on the Bible as if it were a novel under review. But it’s the truth: I honestly don’t know how to understand this parable. I’m not the only one, either.

Deciphering what Jesus meant to say in this parable is a tough nut to crack. Was the manager merely shrewd, or was he corrupt? The manager said, “I’m too weak to dig, and I won’t stoop to begging.” Jesus insisted all along that beggars and laborers were as much children of God as anyone else – does this parable invalidate all of what Jesus said? Under the accusation of squandering the rich man’s property, the manager confirms the accusation by squandering even more in an attempt to cover his butt for the time he gets sacked. But at the end of the parable, Jesus tells his disciples to be faithful and honest in all things, whether it’s a little or a lot. How again is all of this supposed to work?

I’ve read several attempts to decipher the meaning of this parable, some old and some new. Some look closely at the Greek to find an escape hatch; others use socio-economic policies of the time to try and determine how the manager might have been working for his master's benefit. An Episcopal preacher for whom I have a lot of respect says that this is a story about how the shrewd manager actually freed the peasant farmers from their oppressive debt to an incredibly wealthy landowner. These are all valid attempts to make sense of a very difficult parable – but none of them rang true to me this week. This is one of those moments in the story of Jesus where I'm not really sure what's going on, but I don't want to try to escape the uncertainty by changing the rules of the story – that seems false to me.

Philipp Melanchthon, the Greek and Latin scholar who was Martin Luther's most trusted colleague during the Reformation, once said that "to know Christ is to know His benefits." So, if that's the case, let's take a look at this parable in terms of benefits, shall we? The landowner doesn't really gain any benefits, other than possibly in the goodwill of his debtors. Important, but not essential to the story. The manager gains the benefit of shelter and protection, but at the cost of his honesty; even though the landowner says he's been shrewd, the manager has in fact squandered his master's property. But the debtors – they are the ones who gain benefits clean, aren't they? The end result for the debtors is forgiveness; their debts have been significantly reduced. Even if it's unfair – even if it's a cheat – even if the manager did it to save his own skin, the debtors have in fact found their burden lessened and now may walk that much more free. It's messy, it's not fair, it's bad economics – but it's also a gift to the debtors which they couldn't have gotten for themselves.

We have a choice when it comes to forgiveness – we can take it real and messy, or we can take it false and clean. The Pharisees, who had been grumbling about Jesus dining with sinners, wanted their forgiveness clean – so clean, in fact, that Jesus once described them as “white-washed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.”[2] Jesus came to forgive sinners – and we were so offended at the thought that we crucified Him for it. In that sense, we are all Pharisees – all people who try so very hard to maintain that no, we’re not messy, we’re not sinful, and we don’t need forgiveness like that. If we just maintain the illusion that everything’s okay, no one will notice that we’re covered, head to toe, in our failings, our disappointments and our sins. Real and messy, or false and clean: how do you want it?

Perhaps the manager really was squandering his master’s property; we’ll never know if the accusation was just or unjust. What we do know is that the people to whom he offered forgiveness of their debts took that forgiveness without a second thought. When you’re under the load of an unpayable debt, you don’t question whether or not you’re too proud to accept the gracious gift that lifts the burden: you take it. What Jesus offers us is the same reckless, squandering gift. We owe God a debt for our sins that we could never repay. But Jesus offers to forgive the debt: no payment, no required sacrifice, just forgiveness and mercy. Jesus gives up what is “fair” and “just” for the sake of obtaining what he desires: the justification of sinners. Your righteousness cheats the Law for the Gospel. The question is: can we accept the grace He offers?

Every faith community has a choice: either we can be a bunch of real, messy, forgiven sinners or a bunch of false, clean, white-washed Pharisees. We are messy and in need of forgiveness. We make mistakes and we cannot be what God has created us to be. We have no hope at all without the squandering grace of a Son who cannot resist giving his Father’s forgiveness away. This is the real, messy truth about who we are: sinners in bondage to sin who cannot free ourselves. Living together in a faith community isn’t about pretending nothing is wrong – it’s about admitting that with all that IS wrong, we have hope in Jesus that all will someday be right.

Jesus offers you forgiveness, I suggest you take Him at His word and accept it. Take it as the free gift of a manager who is recklessly giving away His Master’s property. Stop pretending that you can stay clean when you’re up to your neck in your sins and burdens. Put away all your false pretenses to righteousness and purity on your own, and let the gracious Son offer you the new, clean garments He washed in His own blood, the garments of forgiveness and mercy. Let it be real if it’s real. Let it be messy if it’s messy. Let it be squander if it’s squander: you are free, regardless. Amen.

[1] Jan Edmiston. “What We Talk About When We Talk About Life” http://churchforstarvingartists.blogspot.com/2007/09/what-we-talk-about-when-we-talk-about.html

[2] Matthew 23.27

01 September 2010

Wishing for Perfection

Before moving to Ames in 2008, we lived in Barrett, MN, a small town surrounding a lake much like the one in this picture. In fact, I took several sunrise photos that looked quite a bit like this in the four years I served Peace Lutheran Church in Barrett. Our house was just across the road from the lake, and when the conditions were right, you could get the most beautiful scenes when the sun came up across the lake.

I had a somewhat disheartening meeting today, one that reminded me that no matter how much we might wish for it, no Christian community is ever perfect. As I walked, sweating, over to the bus stop for my ride home, I thought of how nice it was last week when it was so cool, and how few days there have been this summer that weren't either rainy, steamy or (more often) both. Imperfect weather today, to do with an imperfect church (with an imperfect pastor, I might add).

Not every sunrise in Minnesota looked like this one. Most were ordinary, unremarkable, and passed without notice. Some were as beautiful as this one, some were even more spectacular. Some were, frankly, ugly - especially in March and April when the snow was finally melting and everything was grey and brown and mushy.

Gordon Atkinson, who blogs at Real Live Preacher, wrote a piece in which he reminded everyone that churches, at their heart, are "a silly bunch of dreamers and children, prone to mistakes, blunders and misjudgments." This doesn't excuse us from apologizing and trying to make amends when we blunder and misjudge, or when others make mistakes. It also doesn't allow us to go searching willy-nilly for "the perfect church," because that church only exists in fantasyland.

That town in which we lived and worked in Minnesota had its share of flaws. We had some genuine disappointments and struggles in four years there. We also had some really wonderful moments of grace, which were not of our creation but simply moments to see what wonders God can do in communities dedicated to living in faith with one another, with all our mistakes, blunders and misjudgments.

Perfection this side of heaven is a fairy tale. God chooses what is weak, foolish and imperfect to shame the strong, wise and seemingly perfect. We trust that God will supply the grace and faith necessary to live together as part of the body of Christ: forgiven, set free to enjoy grace when it comes, and dedicated to living together as one community, no matter how imperfectly we might do it.

Grace & peace,