Archive for March 2013

Luke 24:1-12

[The women] came back from the tomb and told all these things to [the men]

I remember my first funeral, it was Flo Chisholm. I was a halfway through Dr. Zeigler’s dreaded Systematic Theology student pastor who had just been hired to drive the hundred miles from Bangor to Danville and bring the word. Flo was beloved by the whole congregation and they spoke her name in a worried tone during the morning prayers. I visited her as she lay upon her rented hospital bed, parked in the living room. For a month of Sundays, I chitchatted and she gave me wise insights into life as it is lived in a quiet Maine village. The last of those Sundays I arrived in a new three-piece navy blue suit with a reversible vest. She appreciated it and I said, “Yep. It’s my marrying and burying suit.” She raised an eyebrow and asked, “So, who’s getting married?” Then, when I stumbled for words, she laughed. 


From Flo I learned what I was there for. I needed both in her presence and at her funeral, to speak transparently about death and our shared hope for what follows. This is one of the few remaining gifts that our secular society still gives to clergy; the opportunity to speak frankly about death. If we can face it in all of its forms, and not stumble; then we are given permission to say what we believe about eternal life. 


In each of the seven hundred odd funerals since, I have, in the words of Johnny Cash, walked the line. On the death side of the line I say; the person’s name and what made them unique, the person’s faults and what needs now to be forgotten, and the person’s relationship with Jesus, even if it was most tenuous. On the eternal life side of the line, I speak the person’s name again and share how God’s love overcomes any doubts previously expressed. I speak my faith and what I believe about eternal life. I remind those gathered to be thankful for the gift of this life, and not to be resentful of the fact that it has been returned to its giver. Then I remind myself and everyone present, that we too shall soon cross the line.


From Good Friday through Easter, we all know what we are in worship for. We are there to hear and to speak the line; how the faultless lover of our souls died in our place, how death winnows out the chaff of our lives for the burning, but the precious metal of faith proves true. We cross the line into eternity. Those who have been given permission to speak on Easter Sunday, must like the women who came from the tomb, speak as clearly and transparently as possible, about what they know. We need to tell people what we believe about eternal life and why. It is what we are there for.

Caravaggio "The Entombment"
Motivational speaker, salesman, Zig Ziglar

Zig Ziglar says that every sale [of a product] overcomes five basic obstacles: no need, no money, no hurry, no desire, no trust. This list deserves our attention; witnessing involves selling the church and our Lord. The five barriers translate easily into five problems that every congregation has to solve. For the average congregation trying to sell the Gospel of Jesus Christ to their unchurched neighbors, Ziglar’s list is in a rising order of importance. 


#5 Need: Even Plato was clear that an unexamined life [without philosophy] wasn’t worth living, and Buddhism, which opposes proselytizing, still holds that every sentient being needs enlightenment, but most Christians no longer believe that people need the Lord. Church leaders also have to consider what people need, as opposed to what we have always given them, in designing church programs.


#4 Money: To outsiders, churches look expensive and demanding. They fear that becoming involved will suck their time and money away. What has your church done to counter this misconception? What would Jesus did do to overcome this barrier?


#3 Urgency: Church people have forgotten how painful and confusing a secular lifestyle is. We lack a sense of urgency as we invite people to today trade in their slavery to sin for something far better. 


#2 Desire: A close second, is our failure to make our faith look desirable.  Jesus and the early church did not have this problem. They were infectious with their joy, loving in their actions, and confident with their hope of heaven.


#1 Trust: The number one reason most people do not buy the Gospel today is because they no longer trust religious institutions. Trust is earned through sincere contact, persistent communication, and being there when needed. It is lost when Christian fellowships look too much like businesses or institutions.

Philippians 2:5
John 12:1

Let the same mind be in you...

The night before Palm Sunday, Jesus was in Bethany and Mary came to anoint him (John 12:1). In the novel that I am writing about Holy Week, I have Mary proclaiming that Jesus is King. Her perfumed oil wasn’t just given in thanksgiving for her brother’s life, but was a well timed political statement. She does this public act, just a short walk away from Jerusalem’s Eastern Gate, where the Messiah (anointed one) is expected to enter. She does it knowing that the thousands of pilgrims camping nearby, know of Jesus’ miraculous power and will rally to bring him to his throne.


Those who anoint kings, as Samuel did for Saul and David, know that they are doing prophesy. They are doing a dramatic act and speaking sacred words with the intention of revealing to all a previously hidden spiritual reality. Mary isn’t just voting Jesus king or liking him on Facebook, she putting before the court of human reason, the evidence, the smoking gun, of the fact that Jesus is, and always has been, the Lord of all. One word, “Messiah.”


In the same way, when we break bread and share the cup this Thursday, we will be doing prophesy. With a dramatic act and sacred words, we will be proclaiming that Jesus is, and always has been, present with us in our worship. All of the political realities of our church and its declining reputation in the community can’t erase the essential truth, Jesus the Lord of all is here. One word, “Communion.”


Jesus knows what is going on as Mary pours the perfumed oil. He then takes her sacred word and dramatic act and twists it to a new meaning. He says, “She has done this to prepare me for my burial.”   


In spite of this wet blanket, Palm Sunday’s “Jesus is King” Parade still happens. I can’t help but think that Jesus’ response made Mary angry. I picture her pulling her hair out. She goes to the middle of the parade route, with lumps of hair in her hands, ready to throw it in his face. The crowd parts and he looks at her. Seeing the great sadness in his face, she suddenly knows. She shifts gears. Yes, Jesus will die this week. 


Shifting gears doesn’t change spiritual realities. What the prophets know, see, and touch, is still true. We have to let the cogs of our mind grind on that for a while. Don’t make Palm Sunday or Mary’s vision an anomaly. As people who live between two worlds, we have to constantly shift gears. Every day, Jesus is for us both a beaten man and king. Taking on the mind of Christ, we are constantly for the world both humiliated servants and children of the Almighty (Philippians 2:1-11). One word, “Paradox.”

Dagan-bouvert Painting at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum
Lent 6
Palm Sunday
Your church's next small group could be in a prison or nursing home

In his book “Leading Change,” John Kotter makes the point that nothing changes in an organization until a sufficient sense of urgency has been established. You can have the right people in leadership and a clearly communicated vision, but if a “plenty of time for us to consider this later” attitude prevails, needed change will never occur. This is the missing step in most church goal setting processes.

I believe that a healthy sense of urgency can arise from church leaders doing the math and looking at their church statistics, but it rarely does. When church statistics are favorable, they are usually lies and half truths, tailored to suit the pastor's ego. The right numbers are rarely tracked. The numbers I want to see relate to the church's witness in the community. We need to keep on top of social trends. Leaders need take a step back and get a broader perspective on the church's current situation. Each new era brings new opportunities. Social change also brings real penalties for those who fail to adapt. The trick is to name these change points without becoming defensive or falling into the blame game. We also need to spend time in prayer, discerning how the numbers relate to our congregation's God given vocation.

Consider the following example:

Ten years ago, 10th Street Church received most of its new members from its confirmation class and transfers from other churches in its denomination. This year its three new members came from a nearby group home. Even though the Nurture Committee had to consolidate three Sunday School classes into one, they were excited by reports from the their newest small group located at the Federal Prison. The average age of a Tenth Street member continues to rise, as deaths out number baptisms. The church council has learned not to be discouraged by these statistics. They instead have a healthy sense of  urgency as they contemplate new ways to minister to the marginalized of their community. The church’s declining finances may mean that they’ll soon have to move to part-time pastoral support. They have made a commitment, however, to insist that their next minister continue to help them expand their outreach.  

When a local church experiences flat or declining income over a several year period, it is reason for concern. This doesn’t mean that the church is headed in the wrong direction, though. Holy urgency comes from vision and Spiritual Passion, not the fear generated by bad statistics.

You get old and you realize there are no answers, just stories.

Garrison Keillor
Lobsterman in a Storm

There’s an old story about a Maine Lobsterman who was caught in a bad storm at sea when the engine on his boat suddenly quit. Anxiously he fiddled trying to restart it. All the while, he heard the waves crash upon the rocky shore. Soon, he’d be dashed to bits. He prayed, “Lord, I have never asked you for anything in the past. If you rescue me this one time, I promise not to be bothering you again in the future.” 

    The passionate thing about Spiritual Passion is that we expect a lot of things out of our relationship with God. People with low Spiritual Passion expect God to bail them out of some of their jams. People with high Spiritual Passion expect every crisis to intensify their relationship with God. They pray in good times and bad, as if they expect God to hear and do the thing that raises the spiritual stakes. It is an easy and safe thing to pray for good luck. It is a passionately risky thing to pray for God to manifest himself in real world events.

    When a young person enlists to be a soldier, he or she expects the army to provide room, board, transportation, and the appropriate weaponry for their combat duties. Expectations flow in both directions between soldiers and their commanders. The closer a unit is to the front, the more intense the level of expectation. The general expects the troops to be courageous, utilize their training, respond intelligently to a changing battlefield, and if need be, sacrifice their lives. The soldiers ask that their lives not be wasted, that their training be sufficient for their duties, and that rations will arrive when needed. Soldiers with passion, do not pray to be neglected or left aside while others fight.

    Being a disciple of Christ involves a similar exchange of expectations. Passionate disciples pray that their lives will have meaning. Whether they are laity or clergy, they pray to understand God’s calling on their lives and to be spiritually equipped for that vocation. They do not pray to be spared trouble, but for the courage to live for God in all circumstances. The spiritual formation of disciples is the primary task of every congregation. This cannot be done without teaching people to pray with expectation.

    Praying with expectation is not about expecting God to magically give us what we ask for; its about believing that God wants to build a more intense relationship with us through prayer and His response. Congregations with high Spiritual Passion see a relationship between their prayers and real world outcomes. 

Joshua 5:9-12

‘Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.’

Today I picked up a book about how blogs are changing the world. The book began with the story of 9-11-2001, as it unfolded in the blog-o-sphere. It was a day that changed many things in America. The day before 911, web pages that provided news content were valued less than the paper they weren’t printed on. In January of 2000, Time Warner had spent half a gazillion dollars to purchase AOL.  In March of 2000, the stock market bubble burst, making AOL practically worthless. Everyone associated with posting news on the web slinked off the stage in disgrace. On 911, all that changed. The real-time posting of events and commentary throughout the tragedy rolled away any shame the new fangled media might have felt. Before that day, no one would have expected the internet to become the dominant provider of news content that it is today.


Joshua 5:9 tells us how on a particular ‘Today,’ God rolled away the disgrace of the children of Israel. They had been slaves in Egypt. Then they became pilgrims wondering across the Sinai desert and depending upon quails, manna, and magical water bearing rocks to stay alive. But this day, this today, they became inheritors of a promised land. On that day, they celebrated the passover with joy and ate the first fruits of Palestine. What is more important, that day they stopped thinking like slaves. They stopped being homeless people. They start being ‘Israel,’ the people who God fights along side.


The fourth week of Lent is perhaps a good time to point at where the wilderness journey of our spirit will lead us. There is coming a day in which we will smell the sweet lilies of Easter. The shame of being people who grow old and die will disappear. The disgrace of being sinful and rebellious murmurers will be rolled away from us. Perhaps it is also worth mentioning that on Easter, we will for a limited time not feel embarrassed for being church going Christians in a post-organized religion world.

Lent 4