Attracting the “other sheep”

Today I marked off visit number 35 to our churches as I make my way around the presbytery during what is beginning to feel like a whirlwind tour. I had always heard that the geographical nature of our presbytery was a challenge to making meaningful connections and now I have the worn tires and the aching back to prove it as I shuttle my body around this beautiful place we call home.

I have promised you that for a time—whether that is for a few months or a few years—I am going to write my way into our emerging vision. Each week I am writing this blog post as I reflect on our lectionary texts, the conversations I am having with churches, the experiences I am having in your communities and good old-fashioned prayer and discernment. This week the lectionary text collided with what has become the most common question that I am hearing from our congregations.

“Brian, what can you tell us about how to attract the people of our community to our church?”

Isn’t it interesting that in our lectionary text for Sunday, April 22 is this juicy tidbit from John 10:16 where he says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

It is interesting to see the contrast between our question about trying to attract people into the fold and Jesus’ promise to bring people into the fold. There seems to be something missing in translation, right? If Jesus was serious about this “one flock, one shepherd” promise then why isn’t he doing more to fill our Presbyterian pews. Or maybe the problem isn’t Jesus. Maybe we should be doing more to make sure that Jesus’ voice is heard loud and clear. Or maybe we aren’t the problem. Maybe those “other sheep” are just more stubborn than Jesus and we ever imagined.

Or maybe none of these are the problem. Maybe we have forgotten that the fold is not a church, but is a community. Maybe we have forgotten that the “good shepherd” wasn’t interested in membership, but seemed more interested in bringing people together in unity (one flock, one shepherd). Maybe we need to remember that Jesus didn’t expect people to come to him. He went to them.

Maybe sheep prefer pastures to buildings!

Breaking News! Jesus Ate Broiled Fish

couple-at-altarImagine if Martin Luther King, Jr. suddenly had a nasty coughing fit in the middle of his “I Have a Dream” speech. Or if the beautiful bride had to suddenly run off to the ladies’ room right before the exchange of wedding vows. Or if Jesus needed a bite to eat before he could continue his resurrection monologue.

I have always stumbled over Jesus mundane question to his disciples in this passage from Luke 24: 42 where the disciples can’t seem to make sense of the fact that Jesus had died and yet stood before them. In order to put two and two together they had to either confirm that Jesus was a Zombie (in other words, actually still dead, but acting like a sleep-walking human) or was actually a Jesus-copying ghost—something along the lines of a Star Trek hologram. Being formally dead and now fully alive was not an option for them!

The mundane and ordinary exchange goes like this. Jesus asks the disciples, “Have you anything to eat?” The disciples give him a piece of bland, broiled fish. Jesus sticks it into his mouth and eats it while the disciples watch.

Broiled fishI wished I could say that I am exaggerating how utterly uninteresting this text is. There is no dressing it up all. Jesus could have asked, “Do you have anything good to eat that will make my special once-in-a lifetime resurrection visit worth my time?” The disciples could have said that they had a piece of leftover fish from the catered wedding reception from the night before. The author could have said that Jesus dipped the fish in a rich, creamy full-bodied tartar sauce made completely of locally grown organic ingredients.

There could have been something to make this text worthy of the Holy Bible, the Word of God, the very ground of our spiritual existence. But no! All we get is a simplified children’s book version of the most mundane events. Jesus asked for food. Jesus got food. Jesus ate. Disciples watched. C’mon!

spiritual and humanOr COULD IT BE that I have fallen for the same spiritual trap that this text is attempting to address? COULD IT BE that I am guilty of thinking that something can’t be truly spiritual and also mundanely human at the same time? COULD IT BE that I just can’t seem to accept that a piece of broiled fish and resurrection life can exist in the same moment and the same person? COULD IT BE that I expect God to act like God and people to act like people and neither to act like each other? COULD IT BE that God also has a boring, mundane, and uninteresting side?

COULD IT BE that the distance between God and us really isn’t all that far?

Becoming a “Weird” Church

“There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.”  Acts 4: 35

tent citiesThere, in the above words, is a picture of the early church as portrayed in the book of Acts. I suppose it depends on which side of the tracks you live on as to whether this is received as good news or bad news. If you are surviving in an REI tent along I-5 the possibility that a redistribution might put you in a clean and sturdy one-bedroom apartment is pretty good news. But if you are lounging around in a 4-bedroom condo overlooking the river and that same redistribution also puts you in a clean and sturdy one-bedroom apartment this text might sound like bad news.

I love the invitation of this text: true communal, connectional living—that is, until I ask myself, “Does that mean I have to share some of my pension earnings?” “Do I have tell my grandchildren that the couch is good enough for them when I lose my guest room?” “Does a night out on the town now constitute a few games of pool at the local bar rather than a mid-priced ticket to the unstoppable Blazers?”

luxury homeLike I said, I love the invitation of this text until it asks me to trade in my creaturely comforts for Christian mutuality; until it asks me to downsize my worldly possessions in order to upsize my spiritual connections; until it asks me to give up my socio-economic standing in favor of standing with the formerly poor and oppressed. Until it asks me to step out of what feels normal and acceptable into something that is strange and weird.

I was struck when I read this text that as foreign as it felt to our current church culture I also recognized that we are, in our own way, letting the radical call of this text call us into a new and possibly more authentically Christian future. Yesterday when the Omnibus, our presbytery’s monthly newsletter, was published there was an article highlighting First, Portland’s experiment with a “Presbyterian Community of Practice.” The experiment seeks to bring four young adults together to live, work, eat and pray in an Acts-like intentional community at Menucha.

taize groupOrganizers at First and Menucha were inspired by the community in Taize, France. They write, “As at Taize, participants in this community will live together, study together, eat simple communal meals, and worship regularly together.” The Rev. Spencer Parks, Menucha’s Executive Director, was quoted as “describing the year-long community’s purpose as spiritual development of young adults in a world where they hunger for authentic ways to live their faith.”

Hours after seeing the connection between our lectionary text and Menucha’s experiment I came across another article in The Guardian with the title “So Christianity is no longer the norm? Going underground will do it good.” The article points to the trend in Europe where young people have largely rejected Christianity yet still seem to yearn for the kind of mutual community portrayed in Acts where “there was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.” The author concludes that maybe it is time for the church to once again live into its radical “weirdness.”

I admit, it’s not a very American ideal. But it may be more Christian.

Sorry, gotta run. My brand new luxury car is being buffed and polished today.

“The Rising”

I know in recent years I have become a bit of stick in the mud when it comes to Holy Week. While I always relished the increased attendance and enthusiasm of Easter Sunday I also have been known to make snide comments to a few confidants about the trend to skip straight from the high of Palm Sunday to the even higher high of Easter. It seems that many in our culture pretend that Good Friday is just a typographical error on the calendar.

sugar and spiceI have always been a sensitive type, but without leveling too much guilt I have also been known to admonish people, “If you really want the Easter experience you have to be willing to slog through the despair of Good Friday.” Without Good Friday Easter is just “sugar and spice and everything nice.”

I love Holy Week—all of it! The expectation and hopefulness of Palm Sunday, the intimacy of Maundy Thursday, the deep, dark despair of Good Friday and the stunning ecstatic appearance of resurrection life on Easter. I used to believe, before I knew any better, that the Holy Week narrative was just a story. I have come to appreciate that it is a mirror for life.

Another person whom I think sees the Holy Week narrative as a reflection of our lives is The Boss—the rock and roll legend, Bruce Springsteen. A few years ago I preached a sermon series on the faith of our contemporaries. I was serving a congregation that was comprised of members who spanned the theological spectrum from evangelical conservative to progressive. Trying to give expression to the variety of spiritual orientations I chose as my subjects the Rev. Billy Graham, President Jimmy Carter, Mother Teresa, the poet, Mary Oliver, and finally The Boss himself.

springsteenI had already had an intuitive sense that Springsteen poetically and lyrically played with the same themes that we often preach from the pulpit—despair, hope, faith, love, and justice. What I wasn’t prepared for was how one his albums would feel like it was lifted straight out of the gospel narrative. When I listened to his 2002 album “The Rising” I found myself exclaiming out loud, “This is just a regurgitation of the Good Friday/Easter story!”

As I researched it more I was struck by how much this album was the product of our culture’s yearning for Easter in the midst of a Good Friday experience. The album was released within months of 9/11. Springsteen recounts the moment he knew he had to do this, saying, “A guy drove up next to me, rolled down his window and said, ‘We need you now.’”

Springsteen has been called an American poet, prophet and priest and this encounter supports how many people look to him in the same way our church members look to their pastor. In times of grief and tragedy our priests, pastors and prophets are called upon to speak the message of Easter—sometimes from the pulpit, sometimes from the street corner, and sometimes from the rock and roll stage.

Silhouettes of Three CrossesI won’t go into all the lyrics that point to “The Rising” being a contemporary reflection of our Holy Week narrative (seriously, with a name like “The Rising” is there a need to!). But just a quick review of the song titles reveals how much this Catholic boy was shaped by the narrative of Holy Week—Lonesome Day, Into the Fire, Waitin’ on a Sunny Day, Countin’ on a Miracle, Empty Sky, Worlds Apart, Mary’s Place (a veiled reference to Jesus’ mother and the Kingdom of God), My City of Ruins, The Rising, and Paradise. Every title has Good Friday and Easter allusions.

While Springsteen, when asked, just smiles but never confirms the religious parallels, writer Jeffrey Symynkywicz writes of “The Rising” that it is “an Easterlike anthem arising out of the darkness and despair of September 11, a national Good Friday experience if there ever was one.”

To all the priests, pastors, poets and prophets out there this Holy Week this is your moment. We need you now.

A PG-Rated Palm Sunday

Humility.

I have to admit that Palm Sunday has been one of my favorite liturgical Sundays of the Christian calendar. I am still not completely clear what that is about. But I am pretty sure it is rooted in this image of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, or as many translations put it, an ass. But I want to be careful about the use of my language lest some Presbyterian purity police threaten to, well, you know, kick my you know what.

rusty vw bugJoking aside, I do know that my love of this story really has to do with this particular image of Jesus.  I know it has been preached a million times before. A real messiah would have ridden in to Jerusalem perched high on a chariot clad in colorful armor, guarded by over-sized body guards and with miles of red carpet laid out before him. A real messiah would have arrived in the first century’s version of a bulletproof black limousine. This Jesus shows up instead in a rusty old 1963 VW bug.

The story blares out a thunderously simple, down-to-earth message of divine humility.

I remember talking to a woman nearly twenty years ago who was ready to read me the riot act about why she didn’t go to church. She said, “Look, I grew up in the church and when I came back from college my church told me to quit asking so many questions.” I nodded my head and said, “Yeah…the church hasn’t been very good at honoring people’s questions.” The woman paused for a moment and then said, “Seriously, you think that? I’d go to a church that was willing to admit they haven’t always gotten it right. I am not looking for perfect. Just for real.”

riding a donkeyI wonder sometimes if we in the church feel like we need to present a polished image of ourselves. We need to pretend that have the answers even if we don’t know the questions. We need to wear our Sunday best even if we have been at our Saturday night worst. We need to present a chariot-riding Jesus afraid that an ass-riding messiah won’t be good enough to get people in the doors.

But if my conversation with this woman is representative at all of our deeper human needs I wonder if the world is less interested in a polished and bulletproof messiah and more interested in a humble, vulnerable and down-to-earth Jesus.

I wonder if we should concentrate less on being perfect and more on being real.

I wonder if the better translation really is, “He rode in on an ass!”

The Trouble with Jesus

“Now my soul is troubled.” (John 12: 27)

FearI just couldn’t get my mind and heart off of those five words in the gospel lesson for this Sunday. Jesus knows that his own literal version of carrying his cross is just around the corner. Contemplating his fate he says partly to himself and partly to God, “Now my soul is troubled.” It would have been easy to dismiss the words as being utterly obvious. Of course, his soul was troubled. He was too committed to his divine mission to run away, but human enough to picture the torturous fate that was surely facing him.

But I couldn’t dismiss it. I couldn’t let it go as if it was almost too obvious to be worth mentioning. What was it about it that kept me mulling it over, repeating it to myself, and chewing on the words? Some faint memory kept nagging at me that told me that this might not have just been normal human terror when our bodies are threatened. There was something deeper to it, something worthy of Jesus character.

Betrayal“Now my soul is troubled,” he says, but I wonder if he wasn’t as troubled by his own fate as he was by state of the world that was leading to his torturous death. I wonder if he wasn’t as disappointed in what people were doing to him as he was disappointed in the people who were doing it.

Do you know what I mean? Have you have ever been hurt or betrayed by someone you loved and the real pain was not the wound itself that you endured but the fact that it was your loved one who had committed it. Like the first time your spouse or lover intentionally tosses a verbal barb your direction. The verbal barb itself would hurt if it was a stranger, but the betrayal if often worse than the verbal barb when it comes from a loved one.

I wonder if, when Jesus said, “Now my soul is troubled” he wasn’t shaking in his sandals, but he was hurting for those who were about to commit this atrocity. I wonder if, at his core, he was shaken by those who had stood by him and who would shortly either betray him or deny him. I wonder if Jesus wasn’t so much fearing for his own life, but was hurting and fearing for the world.

praying in churchEvery week we get together in worship and we take time to offer prayers of intercession as we pray for each other and for our world. We make a plea to God to be present, to heal, to comfort, to correct, to convict, to remind, to guide and to love. But I wonder too if part of being the body of Christ is, like Jesus himself, to take on the feelings of the world, to hurt for the world and to feel the world’s pain.

I wonder if Jesus was more troubled by what the world did to him than he was by what was done actually done to him. I wonder if this how he prayed. I wonder if this is how we ought to pray.

Twinkie Spirituality

I wouldn’t say that it is the most famous single verse in the Bible for all Presbyterians, but John 3: 16 is certainly the one verse that American Christians are most associated with. For years, I couldn’t watch a football game without seeing some young enthusiastic chap in the end zone waving his John 3: 16 placard right next to the man completely painted in blue and orange.

John 3_16“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” That’s the King James Version—not necessarily the version that we Presbyterians pound our pulpits with, but it is likely the preferred version for many a banner-waving evangelist who is out to save us from certain eternal death.

I will admit to a certain sarcasm in my tone, not because I think that John 3: 16 has no spiritual merit. No. The assumption that salvation could be as simple and as clean as giving one’s intellectual assent to a Biblical proposition baffles me. Justification without sanctification. Right belief over righteousness.

Translating the Bible is a delicate business that can have life-long, if not, eternal consequences. John 3: 16 is one of those. In the Greek the word eis is most often translated as “in” as in “believeth in Jesus.” But eis can also be translated as into, unto, to and for (as well as a dozen other miscellaneous translations). In fact, in the King James Version, of all the above-mentioned translations “in” is the least often choice. “Into” is the preferred translation in 573 cases compared to only 138 cases of “in”.

TwinkiesAnd this is one of those places where I think the translation “into” serves us better. I don’t think that “in” is a bad translation for eis, but it seems to leave itself open to a particular brand of Americanized Christianity that brings out the sarcastic side of me. If believing “in Jesus” is nothing more than an intellectual affirmation that proves that we believe the right stuff, but doesn’t call us to a “right life”, then this faith of ours is about as satisfying as a twenty year-old Twinkie.

It might last forever, but life-giving it is not.

No More Mr. Nice Guy!

I guess Jesus missed the memo from his “aunt” Elizabeth when she surely must have admonished him, “If you don’t have something nice to say, say nothing at all.”

If your Jesus is the world’s number one Mr. Nice Guy then you better read this. In our gospel lesson for this Sunday, March 4, Jesus has entered the temple near Passover and, to put it mildly, “He doesn’t like what he sees.”  Seeing the temple being turned into a capitalist marketplace we read this: “Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.”

It’s utterly shocking to imagine that the same Jesus who sat around telling stories to children and reminding folks to turn the other cheek and to love our enemies could also have within his body and soul such violent anger. I am, of course, assuming that no one was harmed in this carrying out of divine justice. It appears that the whip was restricted just to the animals and that when the moneychangers tables were overturned he probably tossed them away from the people rather than toward them. But even if no one was harmed there was no doubt that Jesus was as red in the face as any red letter Bible can depict.

I grew up in a home where anger wasn’t allowed and I had that same behavior reinforced in the Presbyterian church that I called home and where I eventually became an Eagle Scout. Both Christian and Boy Scout virtues reinforced that service, kindness, courtesy and being helpful were marks of the highest and most moral character. The highest compliment one could receive, it seemed to me, was, “He is such a nice boy.” Never did I ever hear anything about threatening a public gathering with a whip, tossing pennies and quarters from the offering plates and upturning chairs and tables. It just wasn’t in my Christian, Scout and Heron lexicon.

But there it is. Jesus is as close to throwing a divinely-inspired tantrum as one can get. I don’t know if he snapped as if he had been simmering for years before this explosion or whether it was strategic and premeditated or whether he hadn’t taken his medication that morning. But what I do know is that it shatters any assumptions that we might have that this Jesus thing is about being nice. I do think being nice is a rather nice quality. But don’t tell me that we ought to aspire to ultimate niceness on account of Jesus. He may have been kind, but I don’t think he was always nice.

This text really got me thinking about the place anger plays in our faith and spiritual lives. I don’t think all anger has a spiritual basis. I have seen it enough and shared it enough to know that anger can sometimes erupt in completely unexpected places and at inappropriate times. You know what I am talking about—the type of anger that shows up in kicking the dog because you had a bad day at the office. We are all guilty of that kind of anger.

But there is another kind of anger and I wonder if this is the type that showed up on this day near Passover in the temple. This is the type of anger that we sometimes call righteous anger and often shows up on behalf of someone or something that we love. This is the kind of anger that goes to the defense of someone we love. This is the type of anger that says, “You can’t do that to them!” Or in the case of Jesus where he is aghast at what he sees in the temple and cries out, “You can’t do that in my Father’s house!”

I think that there is a relationship between love and anger—at least healthy anger. When you love something you can’t help but to have a fire lit under your soul when a boundary gets crossed or a person is violated. This is the problem with the Mr. Nice Guy virtue. Those of us who were taught that niceness was next to godliness also sometimes become guilty of apathy. We can’t muster up the anger when it’s needed because we are wedded to niceness as a virtue.

In the last few weeks I have had a few conversations with church leaders who have expressed some frustration at the presbytery and some anger toward the way things have been done. And on more than one occasion I have assured those people, “It’s not frustration and anger that disturbs me; it’s apathy. The church of the future will be built on the passion of people like you.”

I am convinced that love and anger have close but uneasy relationship. The only things that don’t make us angry are the things that we could care less about. What makes us angry is when, like Jesus, we look at someone or something that we love who is being violated and find ourselves suddenly exploding, “You can’t do that to them! You can’t do that in my Father’s house!”

At our best we Presbyterian Christians are a passionate people. Not all forms of passion are healthy, but if I had to make a choice I would take passion over apathy any day.

Saving the church Jesus-style.

I remember so very clearly a few weeks after I became engaged the phone call from one of my best friends as he complained to me, “Brian, it feels like we are losing you.” My good friend was right. We had grown up together. We had backpacked together. We had studied together. We had cheered and waved our arms wildly along the roadsides as professional bike racers flew past us.

But after I became engaged and later married most of what we had shared as young bachelors was lost to a different time and stage of our lives. I was the first of my friends to marry and it wasn’t long before they too put one life behind them in favor of embracing a new life.

I thought about that experience as I read those words made famous by Jesus as he said to the crowds, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake…will save it.” Mark 8: 35. The truth was, when my good friend said that he felt like he was losing me, he was exactly right. If I was to take marriage seriously I couldn’t also try to save my life as a single man. I couldn’t be both single and married at the same time. I would have to lose one life in order to open myself up to another life—a life I wanted and chose, but one that still required the giving up of a former life and identity.

Over the past few weeks I have visited over two dozen of our Presbyterian churches. If one consistent question has emerged in these visits it is this: “What can the presbytery do to help us figure out where we are going to be in five to seven years?” It has come from congregations who appear dwarfed in their roomy sanctuaries and from congregations who fill the pews, but who still worry about the aging of their congregation.

 

And I wonder if Jesus words to the crowds about wanting to “save their life” has any bearing on some of our congregations who are thinking a whole heck of a lot about surviving into the future. I wonder if he would, just like he did to the crowd, remind us that too much energy spent on saving our life will likely end up with us losing our life. I wonder if he would remind us that losing our life in service to his mission and his life will ultimately end up saving our life. It is sort of a saving the church Jesus style!

This language of losing and letting go is not easy. If we had our way we wouldn’t ever lose anything; we would only gain things. We wouldn’t clear out our garage to make room for new toys; we would just build extra garages!

But I am thinking about those words from my good friend from childhood when he complained to me, “Brian, it feels like we are losing you.” The truth is there are some things in life where one can’t simply add a new identity like adding the letters from another degree to one’s name. There are some things that require a losing of an old identity in order to embrace a new identity. Being single and married was like that. I couldn’t be single and married at the same time.

I don’t know if this holds true for our congregations as well. But I do know that Jesus is serious when he says we have to lose ourselves for his sake in order to save ourselves. Is Jesus saying we would do better to lose the church for his sake than to save the church for ourselves?

Eek! Those are sobering words.

 

Will the real enemy please stand up?

“Do not let my enemies exult over me.”

Those are the words of the psalmist in our lectionary text for this Sunday. “O my God, in you I trust” this verse begins before it transforms itself from a safe religious Hallmark-like affirmation to the real source of the psalmists petition—being rescued from the threat of one’s enemies.

enemies-listI have to admit that at times this prayer is pretty darn satisfying to pray. “I trust in you, O God, so treat me a little a little better than you treat my enemies.” When things get tough and others don’t see the world the way I see it, it feels pretty darn good to retreat to these words, “Do not let my enemies exult over me.” “Don’t let them have the satisfaction of standing over me in victory.” “Don’t let me be humiliated and embarrassed by those who are no friend of God.”

But I have been thinking about this notion of enemies lately. I noticed as I read the text that my mind, at first, immediately pictured certain people who might fit the category of enemy in my life. But as soon as I pictured them I also felt immediately uncomfortable with the word enemy. I don’t think I have any real people enemies.

It is true that there are some people in my life that I find more challenging than others. It is also true that there are people in my life that I find rather annoying. It is also true that there are people with whom I disagree at a real basic and visceral level. But to label those people as my enemies feels too simple. Should it be that easy to dismiss someone as an enemy just because I find them challenging, annoying or difficult to agree with? And aren’t most people a little more complex and multi-layered to be put in a box simply labeled “enemy”?

I don’t know exactly who or what the psalmist was referring to in this 25th psalm. I am not enough of a Biblical scholar (or maybe too lazy) to seek out the name or nationality or class of people that the psalmist might be referring to.

But I do know that when I thought about my real enemies I discovered that they weren’t people; they were attitudes.

the-enemy-is-fearThe truth is I do have some real enemies. My enemies are fear, hopelessness, despair and lack of trust. Those enemies I fight on a consistent basis. Those enemies I have to go to battle with every day. I know what it means to feel fear or despair and then to call out to God, “Do not let my enemies exult over me. Do not let fear and despair find a permanent home in me.”

We in the church live in an uncertain time. Anxiety runs high. Concerns over the future seem to lie just below the surface of every conversation. We have become a worrying people. And sometimes in our anxiety and worry we hurt each other. And sometimes we even start to picture each other as enemies.

I do think the psalmist is right. We do have enemies. But our real enemies are not each other or the culture around us or the people with whom we disagree. Our real enemies are the attitudes that so easily separate us one from another. Our real enemies are the walls that we erect to create an us and them world. Our real enemies are inside of us, not sitting next to us.

“O my God, in you I trust.” Please don’t let my fears keep me from the holding the hand of the person next to me. Please don’t let my worries get in the way of living and loving.