Sunday, November 30, 2014

Thankful for Dysfunction

I am a little behind on my post for Thanksgiving!

Each year my mother’s side of the family gets together. This year there were 32 of us…I think. After we had gotten around the table, my great aunt, the eldest at the table in her 90’s, said “I am thankful that we are not a dysfunctional family” to which some conversation followed. Aunt Eskie revised her statement, “I am thankful that we can all put up with each other’s dysfunction.” We all happily accepted that amendment.

None of our families are perfect, and in the holiday seasons when we are thrown into close quarters, it is inevitable that even in the best of families, there were be frustrations, annoyances, and tongue biting. But God has not called us to be perfect families. He has called us to love others and show grace to each other. He has called us to show grace with each other’s dysfunction, and in so doing receive grace for our own shortcomings.

And when it comes to the church, we sometimes call ourselves a family. It is true that if this is what it means to be family: to love people in the midst of their faults and shortcomings, then maybe the family of God is a good metaphor for who the church is. Like any metaphor, it falls short of being perfect, but it starts to get at the heart of what it means to be together.

I feel blessed by my family to be with people who can live with each other’s dysfunction. I am thankful for the times when we get it right. I am thankful for the times when we get a second chance. I am thankful for not just my blood relatives, but also all those people who have put up with me just the same. And I pray that I will be faithful in doing the same.

I Hate "Stranger Danger"

We went to the store to pick up a few items today, and a kind man engaged me and my two children in a conversation. He showed us his new grandbaby in Palestine on his smart phone’s facebook app. My kids
clung to me like it was the end of the world. Afterwards, I asked them why they didn’t talk when the man asked them their names. My son told me, “I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.” It saddened me, that here they were in a safe public place with their mother present and they were afraid. This is why I hate “stranger danger.”

I hate “stranger danger.” I hate that it is promoted by adults as the best way of life, the only way of dealing with outsiders and that adults preach it to children as gospel truth. Here is why:

1.       It is not gospel truth. The truth in God’s law calls us to “love the stranger among you, as you were once a stranger.” The great sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was their inability to do just that. (no, it was not sexual).
2.       It teaches us from an early age to ignore people we don’t know rather than to show kindness to strangers.
3.       It teaches us to fear what (and those whom) we don’t know. The Bible calls us time and time again to abandon fear for hope, love, and peace. We will never know everything, and many of the most important decisions in life are made when we don’t know. That is the heart of faith. Do
4.       It promotes isolation. If we are unable to speak to strangers, we will find we never meet those who will be our new friends, those who will strengthen our support system.
5.       It doesn’t protect our children. What is even worse is those who are most dangerous to them are attracted to fear and avoidance. In karate, we are taught that the most important tools of self-defense are confidence and awareness of those around us. Looking someone in the eye and being direct usually is enough to avoid danger.
6.       I would venture to say that these early lessons have stolen our ability, even in adulthood, to build new relationships. Because of fear we avoid others. As Christians, we can’t share our witness with new people, because we are scared of new people. 

So we should promote something different. These are our family rules around strangers:

1.       When you are with a trusted adult, talk to strangers. There is no way that man would have chance to walk away with my babies without a fight. We were in a safe zone, and kids need to recognize that so they know when they truly are in danger.
2.       When you are lost, seek out a stranger to help you. Avoiding strangers when you get separated from everyone doesn’t help one bit. That is when you need their help the most. Most adults are safe, and they can help you.
3.       When you feel unsafe with any adult, whether they are a stranger or not, scream. Loud.  Talk to another adult, get help. Silence is not the answer. Noise is. 

So, if you see my kids talking to strangers, know that is promoted in our house. Don’t feel they need reminded to be fearful. And remember, you were once a stranger to them. What if they had never talked to you?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Church We Chose

In the winter of 2008, when Lydia was born, Nick and I were not serving in a church, so for the first time as a married couple, we went out church shopping. With my background in a small country church that sang traditional hymns and Nick’s background in charismatic independent churches with guitars rather than organs, you would think it would be hard for us to find something we agreed on. It was not.

We visited a church that was considered the “mega” church of town, with all the glitz that goes along with that title. They had fancy pagers in case our infant needed us and everything looked as though it was renovated in the last three years. We got a mug full of candy and information at the visitor’s table. There was a full band rocking it out in what looked more like a theater than a sanctuary.

We visited a rural church that looked like it hadn’t been renovated in thirty years, too. The music was mainly organ and piano, and the nursery definitely didn’t have the little pager things. There was no screen and projector either. It felt….old.

So where did we go? I know many of you would answer quickly that it was the first. It is after all what a “young family” like ours wants, isn’t it? A full band, a mug filled with treats and information for visitors, it had everything we possibly could want, even a pastor from glamorous California.
A youth from that church, showing our daughter her 4-h cow.

Of course, that is not the church we chose. We chose the small country church. 

Why? Because after worship that first Sunday, some older couples came up and invited us to lunch. They sat across from us at Bob Evans and asked about our lives and families and shared about their lives with us.  Nothing close to this had happened at the big church. It had nothing to do with the pastor. In fact, it had nothing to do with worship. Our whole decision was based on who we thought cared more about us as human beings.

Recently we started planning for 2015 at La Fontaine UMC. We have some great plans; plans for worthy activities and healthier systems. But my prayer is that no matter what we do, we do not neglect relationships. My prayer this year is that we will become the kind of church that people are drawn to because they feel God’s love, because they know we think they are valuable not for what they do, but because Jesus died for them. My prayer is that we will become a congregation that a young family could choose based on our love and care for them as people.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

My Take on Charge Conference

Charge Conference had one central message this year: Our relationships with unchurched people matter.

So this blog is all about that first part: Relationships.

Christianity, from its inception. No…before Christ…back to the Adam and Eve…has been about relationships. The primary relationship it is concerned with is our relationship with God. The secondary relationship it is concerned with is from person to person.

Yet somewhere along the line in America, we have forgotten. The Body of Christ, the church, whose main role is to promote right relationship with God and right relationship with others, somehow got swallowed up. Church has become about performance in worship, knowledge in small groups, doing for strangers we never intend to meet in missions, and organizing events and programs in nurture. Somewhere along the line, we have made church a business where we all have our assignments to keep the business running. Insiders have become employees and outsiders have become projects and customers. And it’s not working.

It is time to try something new (or old?). It is time to start talking about church, about measuring church by our relationships and their health. That means that our number one priority as a congregation, as individuals is to start building relationships.

So what does it take to build relationships? The most important relationships in my life had these three things in common:
1.       I had to spend time FOR that person. There was something I sacrificed for that person, whether it was my time or some kind of gift at some point. I had to put my interests and resources to the side and make that person a priority. It may have been something as small as the money and time to send a card or something, but I had to do something for them, without any expectation they would do something to return the favor.
2.       I had to spend time WITH that person. This, I would argue, is the main thing that creates relationships. I can give things and time to people and never have a relationship with them. I may know about them and want to help, but I don’t really know them. But, when I spend time with someone, things all the sudden get real. And the more time I spend with them, the more I care about them. The more of Christ I have to show them.
3.       I didn’t give up ON that person. If I spend enough time with them, eventually I am going to do something to tick them off. And then I will have to show them what it means to repent, because that’s what I will need to do. Eventually they will do something that really ticks me off. And then I will have to show them what it means to forgive someone. That is when what Jesus does gets real.

If we are serious about sharing Jesus with the unchurched, all the real work is here. We should all have people outside of a community of faith that we are building relationships with. So, who are those people in your life?

Where Have We All Gone?

Since I finished college 8 years ago, I have had the opportunity to be a part of 6 congregations. No, I’m not a church-hopper. I’m a pastor. At one point a church plant pastor. At another, an unemployed pastor. At another, the pastor of two churches at once. I am 31 year old. 
                One of the saddest realizations for me, is that I am keenly aware that at all of those places I could count the people my age who came regularly on one hand. And many of those people came in connection with a family in that congregation. And it breaks my heart. Now let be clear, it does not break my heart because they are the church’s future. I know many generations older than mine are concerned about this. I am not. It breaks my heart because they are my people.
                Some of the reasons it breaks my heart our pretty selfish. There are not enough people to have a serious small group for intentional faith development. There is not a majority to advocate for the things that make worship meaningful for our generation. Even more, there are not enough voices setting the priorities and values for reaching this generation. So my voice and my generation’s voice becomes a whisper among the enduring faith of the “Great Generation” and drowned out by the drums of the “Baby Boomers” contemporary worship. There is no one to share similar life stage issues with like the balance of family life and the two careers in our household. There is no voice that can say, “I know what you mean, that just happened to me last week.” It is incredibly lonely.
                But even more than that, my heart breaks for God’s kingdom. I grieve for the families, for my friends who don’t know Christ, who don’t have the support of his Body on earth. I grieve that they have to rely on the government when times get tough, which is only concerned with their survival and has stigmatized Capitalism’s losers. I grieve that they don’t have people to hug them, to come to their house and teach them how make laundry detergent for a cheaper price, or take them bargain hunting. I grieve that in those times, they are told they are worthless, instead of being told they have gifts to share with others.  I grieve when I see how lonely, how tired, and hoe empty they are.
                I have been told consistently by baby boomers about my generation and what they need in a church. But I have yet to be asked. When I have shared things, they have told me I am wrong. So I go on, serving the generations before me, who tell me there are no people my age in this community. And I wonder, where have we all gone?