Archive for July, 2010

A long time ago, I threw the movie “Amazing Grace” into the queue on Netflix.  It ended up falling somewhere behind the first three seasons of Mad Men and I, honestly, had forgotten about it.

So when it arrived in the mail, I left it sitting around the house for a few days.  At one point, I thought about sending it back without watching it.

But then, I decided why not.  Nothing else was on on a Friday and I gave it a watch.  Now, I’m glad I did.

It’s your typical biopic movie.  Most of it is based in truth, but there are a few things that are turned around for dramatic impact.  Overall, this movie about William Wilburforce was an incredible tale of one person willing to risk everything for a cause worth fighting for. 

William Wilburforce was a British politician who was influenced greatly by Pastor John Newton.  Newton was a former slave ship captain who penned one of the greatest hymns in church history, “Amazing Grace.”  Through the influence of Newton and others, Wilburforce began a crusade to abolish slave trade in the British Empire.  He devoted nearly three decades of his life, sometimes standing alone, to push the idea that no human should be sold as a slave.

There are some things that struck me as I watched this moving, including the following:

Civic Duty and Faith.  There’s a scene in the movie where he makes the assertion that he doesn’t have to separate his faith and belief in God from the work that he is doing for the Crown.  It’s through his work in politics that he is able to address social justice issues in England. His work wasn’t just confined to trying to address the problems of the slave trade.  Wilburforce was also addressing social issues in England including education.

The fight is worth the price.  In all, Wilburforce gave nearly three decades of his life to the fight against slavery.  At some points in that time, he was viewed as being opposed to the crown — making stands against the war in America and the war with France.  There are times in the movie when he is depicted as being shouted down by nearly everyone around him in the British parliament.  The battle for what is right is worth the price it might cost us personally.

The fight for what is right is sometimes lonely.  It’s close to what I just mentioned, but at one point nearly all of his friends had abandoned him.  Wilburforce is seen as a borderline lunatic for his vocal opposition to the slave trade. At one point, he’s even viewed as a seperatist for his anti-slavery stance during the war with France.  There are moments when he is ready to give up, but others push him to fight the good fight.

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I believe the sacrament of Holy Communion should be celebrated as often as possible in the worship service.  I am not ashamed of that fact. In fact, I’m proud of that belief. 

Soon the campus ministry at Lander will be ready to start for the Fall and it’s always awesome for a pastor when students ask, “Can we celebrate Communion together?”

What is Holy Communion?  It’s more than just a “remembrance” of something Jesus did.  In fact, Holy Communion is a re-presentation of Christ.  As Methodists we affirm the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine used in Communion.  We call that the Holy Mystery!  Eucharist, another word for Communion, means thanksgiving.  And it is at the Communion Table when the Church of the past, present and future are connected with the Kingdom of Heaven (We call that Communion of the Saints!).

One of my favorite sermons from John Wesley is called, “The Duty of Constant Communion.”  It’s really a sermon with two key parts.  First, Wesley lays the groundwork for Communion and then he answers the common objections that he heard to “constant Communion.”

What follows is my attempt to ask the objection as a question and then to provide a summation of Wesley’s response to that objection:

Objection: God doesn’t command us to do this as “often as we can.”

Answer: Wesley’s response is that Holy Communion is a command of God and he asks the question, “Are we not to obey every command of God as often as we can?” And Wesley says that we can see how absurd that objection is when we think through the contrary view — that we are not obligated to obey every commandment of God as often as we can.  It means that we are not bound to obey God at any time or place.

Objection: I’m not worthy to participate in Holy Communion.

Answer: Wesley says you might feel that way, but God has offered you “one of the greatest mercies on this side heaven, and commands you to accept it.” Wesley says that God offers us a pardon for sin and we’re not worthy of that, but if God is “pleased” to offer it to us, then why wouldn’t we accept it?  He also asks if, when we say we are not worthy to participate, if we are really asking if we are unworthy to obey what God commands.  In other words he says, it’s like choosing that, since we are already unworthy of God, we don’t have to make an effort to be obedient.  In fact, Wesley goes on to say, that if you’ve committed sin, then repent and come to the table, don’t just neglect to participate.

Objection: I just can’t truly prepare myself for Communion if we have it all the time.

Answer: Wesley says that all the preparation needed for Holy Communion is contained in the statement, “Repent you truly of yours sins past, have faith in Christ our Savior, amend your lives, and be in charity with all men.” 

Objection: Constant communion takes away from the reverence of the Sacarament.

Answer: This is something Wesley seems to have heard before and his answer to this is direct and to the point.  Wesley says, “Suppose it does.”  Wesley asks, does the fact that Holy Communion is “less reverent” because you do it constantly take away from the fact that God has commanded you to do it? He continues by asking, has God ever told you that you don’t have to obey a command just because it seems less reverent? 

Wesley really points to two kinds of “reverence.”  There is this reverence that people have toward something that is new, something that we don’t understand.  He calls this natural reverence.  And then there’s the reverence that we have out of our faith, out of our love or fear of God.  Sure, he says, receiving constant communion does diminish the natural reverence, the human reverence, but it doesn’t lessen true religious reverence — in fact, constant communion confirms it and increases it.

Objection: I’ve tried constant Communion and I see no benefit in it to me.

Answer: Wesley points to our sense of obedience to God — we are called to obey God’s commands because they are God’s commands, not because they bring some benefit to us.  Constant communion keeps us from falling back (or backsliding) and it makes us more fit for Christian service, according to Wesley.  Wesley says that if we find “no benefit” from Holy Communion, then we need to examine ourselves to make sure that we are prepared to receive it.

Summary (From Wesley!)
If we consider Holy Communion to be a command of Christ, then we have no excuse not to celebrate it as often as we can.  Second, if we see Holy Communion as God’s way of showing mercy to us, then a person who doesn’t participate in it as often as possible isn’t showing much Christian prudence. Third, there is no excuse that can be made that excuses us from obeying this command and accepting this mercy.

What does Holy Communion mean to me personally?

There are so many things today that separate us from one another.  There are so many differences even among people in the church.  Holy Communion is a reminder that, despite all of the differences we have with one another, we all still come before God in the same place.  We are need in mercy and we are craving grace.   One of the coolest parts for me as a pastor is to see a line of people who are very different from one another standing in line to take part in the Lord’s Meal.  They take the bread, dip it in the cup and find places around the altar rail.  In that moment, everything that makes us different is pulled away and we are truly children of God.

Maybe you’ve seen the movie, “City Slickers,” starring Billy Crystal and Jack Palance.

It’s a movie that deals with a trio of friends who are experiencing mid-life crises. They decide that the answer to their problems is to go away together and take part in a trail ride — they want to experience life as an authentic cowboy.

And the old Cowboy, named Curly, is a gruffy, weathered character who goads them all along on this journey. Curly, played by Jack Palance, has a one-on-one conversation with Billy Crystal’s character.

Now, this talk is peppered with the language of a seasoned cowboy, so we aren’t going to watch a clip of it this morning. But Curly says that the secret of life is one thing — finding that one thing and realizing that everything else just fails to measure up.

Or something that’s close to that in meaning.

I don’t know a lot about Curly or where he got his views, but he might have been reading this passage that we read this morning from Luke.

In the words of Jesus, and our key verse for today, this passage tells us that “one things matters.” What’s that one thing? Let’s keep going and find out.

This report from Luke begins in the way that many of the Jesus passages begin. Jesus is on his way — he’s on the move with his disciples. And he comes to a village that clues from other Scripture passages will tell us is Bethany.

Bethany is the home of Martha who lives in a house with her sister, Mary. In other scripture passages, we know that Martha and Mary also have a brother. The brother’s name is …. Lazarus.

And if you remember back to a couple of weeks ago, previously in this chapter, Jesus sent out 70 followers to go ahead of him into villages. They were instructed to go into the homes that showed them hospitality. And they were to give a blessing to those homes and eat food there until they moved on. So, Jesus is in Bethany doing the very same thing that he had told his followers to do when they went out on their own.

And Martha offers her home up as a place for Jesus to find hospitality. Now, what about this would have been strange in the time of Jesus? It’s the fact that Martha is listed as being the owner of the house — it’s not something that we normally hear in a culture where women were not on equal footing with men. That’s not the point of the sermon, just a brief aside.

And Jesus goes there.

And that’s where we are introduced to the third participant — Mary. Mary is described as sitting at the feet of the “Lord.” Throughout our passage today, Jesus is referred to as Lord. That’s a sign of respect, a mark of status. Lord isn’t necessarily a word that means “God” but sometimes we use it that way.

There’s some significance to this statement that she is sitting at the feet of Jesus. Now, she could have literally been sitting on the ground at Jesus’ feet. That does fit with the wording of the Bible. But what really fits in this world of the Jewish people is another meaning. Jesus is called rabbi and teacher throughout the Gospels. His followers are called disciples.

When we say that a person sits at the feet of a teacher, we’re saying that they are listening and learning, they are respecting a rabbi. In other words, Mary is doing the same things that disciples do. She is listening to and learning from Jesus.

And Martha is busy, busy, busy. Martha doesn’t have time for this. She’s got to get the meal together, set the table and get it ready. She’s got to clean the house and do the dishes. Martha has so much today because she invited Jesus into her home. She’s busy, busy, dreadfully busy.

It’s a tale of two sisters.

On one hand there’s Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus and learning as a disciple learns. And then there’s Martha who is described as distracted and she’s trying to do all of those things that need to be done when a guest is in the house.

Distracted is an interesting word that’s used in this description. In this context, it means that Martha’s focus is somehow turned from the things of God to the things of the world.

Now Martha isn’t really doing anything that’s unexpected in this situation. We invite a guest to our house and we do the things to prepare. You find out your parents are going to come by later in the day and you frantically clean up. Martha is just focusing on the things that make this a good event. But, this “distracted” Martha has enough of the situation and she goes to Jesus.

Notice that she doesn’t go to the person she has the issue with, she goes to the guest in the house.

And why? Why would she choose this route?

What Martha is seeking is validation. She wants Jesus to tip the scale, to side with her, to show her sister that she has the better way.

And Jesus, as God, never really seems to care much for our complaining and whining and excuses about why we can or can’t do certain things. He doesn’t respond to Martha’s concerns in fact, while he brushes them aside.

Martha, I know you have many concerns and worries, Jesus says, but there’s only one thing you need.

And here’s the kicker for Martha… you don’t get it, but your sister does. And she’s not going to be asked to give that up.

So who are we in this story?

Sometimes we read these Biblical accounts and there’s a temptation for us to put ourselves automatically into the role of the hero. In this case, we’d say Jesus.Jesus

Jesus understands how we are tempted and what we go through. Jesus understands that we fall short.

And Jesus understands that we need a relationship with our Holy Father if we truly want to live lives of eternal significance and importance.

Jesus is our pathway to that relationship with God. And just as did in this story, he’s in our village, he’s in our town and we have the opportunity to invite him in, to show him hospitality and to experience that relationship that comes through him.What about Martha?

Sometimes we give Martha a really bad rap for what is happening in this story. But Martha probably represents many more times than we care to admit. Martha represents all those times that we try to earn our way into God’s good graces.

It’s those times when we choose coming to something at church out of some sense of duty or obligation. She represents those times when we get hung up on rules and making the rules and the do’s and the don’ts try to fit places they don’t fit.

She represents every time we want to say, look at me and what I’m doing, “Can’t you see how busy I am for God?”

Martha represents when we get it wrong. And we do get it wrong a lot of times.

And let me say this, Martha probably has very good intentions with what she is doing. You invite a guest into your house and you take care of that guest. There’s no bad intention there. But even so, she’s missing out on what it means to know God, to experience Jesus.

Martha is just too busy going through the motions of doing churchy things to ever experience the living God.And so then, what about Mary?

Mary is for us our goal, our encounter, our role model of discipleship, if you will. Mary sits at the feet of the master, the Lord, and she listens. Sure, the dishes can be washed in a little while. Sure, the meal might be later than it would be otherwise, but Mary is taking the time to get to know Jesus on a personal level. She’s relationship building with the only one that matters.

And Jesus says that Mary knows the one way — the only way — and it will not be taken away from her.

What it really comes down to is a matter of priorities. Martha chooses the priorities of actions and chores and tasks. Mary chooses the priorities of being near and knowing Jesus.

What matters to you?

Is your religious life one of duty, obligations, chores, tasks, etc., because that’s what you have to do or you already know that someone else isn’t going to do them.

Or, do you have one thing that matters?

The world or Jesus?

Are you standing and doing the chores or are you sitting and getting to know Jesus?

What matters to you?

represents for us the relationship that we seek in our lives. He is God, but he’s more than that, and maybe you ask how that’s possible. But Jesus is God Connected. God became human and walked among us in the form of Jesus. Jesus felt and experienced and lived his life as we live it.

If you aren’t a member of a church right now, if you haven’t felt loved and welcomed, or if you haven’t experienced grace in your life, this open letter is for you.

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’  “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'” — Matthew 25:37-40

Dear friend:

I know that you come here on occassion and you’re looking for something.  Maybe you’re dealing with something in your life or maybe you’re dealing with heartbreak.  You might even just be away from what is familiar and you’re looking for a place to call home.

So, you walk into our sanctuary on Sundays and we give you a less than enthusiastic, “Hello.”  Many times, we don’t even speak to you.  Sometimes you hear us talking about other people that you don’t know — and some of our comments aren’t the particularly loving.

Sometimes we stare at you as we try to figure out who you are and why you’re here.  We don’t go out of our way to let you know where the important things such as nurserys and bathrooms are located.  We don’t do a great job of explaining in our bulletins what goes on during the service.  And if you really wanted to get involved our announcements with such precise directions as “Regular Meeting at Joe Smith’s House” aren’t really going to help. 

During our times in which insiders are enthusiastically greeted by other insiders, we give you a token hello, how are you or what is your name?  But you go away from these insider times feeling as if you are completely out of place and we help to reinforce your inner-most feelings that you don’t belong here.

At various times throughout the service, you are confused because we stand up and sit down and sing or say things that you can’t find anywhere in a bulletin.  And what we call the sermon sometimes seems to be focused only on what those who are here on a regular basis would know.  We’re sorry because our preference is for  insiders.

When we pass the plate to get the money, or the “fee for attending,” we look to see if you are putting anything in.  We want to know if you’ll pay your part.

At the end of the service, we really don’t speak to you or share anything about ourselves.  You start to leave and we tell you, “Thanks for visiting with us today.”  It’s another reminder that you aren’t a part of this group, merely an outsider allowed to participate this week. We say, “Hope you come back next week,” and you say, “We’ll see” while thinking, “Are you crazy?”

And you get in your car and you drive out of our parking lot and we hope that you’ll be back next week.

We apologize for not realizing that when you drove into our parking lot this Sunday morning that you were doing one of the hardest things that you could do.  You opened the doors of a strange building, a strange institution and you came in to see what Christian love was all about.  We apologize in our pettiness, in our fascination with ourselves and what we want that we failed to recognize you as you visited.  You came here seeking love, grace and mercy and we failed to show it.

We hope that you will accept our apologies for not engaging you in conversation, for not sharing our stories with you and asking for yours.  We apologize that the material we provided to you about our church is out of date or completely insider-driven. 

We apologize that we failed to see that when you came to be a part of this worship service that Jesus Christ was in you.  We failed to see Him, we failed to see You.  We failed to take the first steps in helping to build a relationship with you.

We promise to do better.  We promise to change.

Until the next time someone such as yourself shows up.  And we do the same thing again.

We apologize for just not getting it.

Sincerely,

Written by the building that you sometimes mistakenly call “the church”

“ReThinking” outloud

Posted: July 9, 2010 in Uncategorized

Maybe you’ve seen some of the “What if Church” ads that pop up from time to time on televison or on the Web.  It’s possibly an admission that we know that things aren’t exactly the way they should be and we’re (the UMC) wanting more.

I’ve been re-thinking outloud and wondering what would a re-“thunk” church really be like.  We’ll for me, here’s my top 10:

1) The focus is on Jesus, Grace and Love. As someone recently said to me, it’s ulitimately all we have to preach.   But I’ll give the credit to Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola on this one — Jesus Manifesto is an awesome book!  But who we are as Christians begins with a new creation in Jesus, it is redeemed through grace and sustained through love.

2) The church would practice Holy Communion on a weekly basis.  Holy Communion is not an act of pennance, it’s thanksgiving, it’s a celebration, it’s a re-presentation of Jesus’ actions on the cross and in the resurrection (not a reenactment and not a mere remembrance).  We believe that there is the real presence of Jesus in what we do.  We’re connected to the church of the past, present and future.  Yeah, I say something along those each week I do this.

3) The emphasis is not a budget, it’s on a vision.  A church’s purpose is much bigger than simply surviving.  Young adults don’t care to give to meet some budget line item.  They want to give to a cause that is bigger than themselves.  They want the donation to matter. And I tend to agree.  As a pastor, I have to find a way to move from meeting a budget to aiding in a vision for the church.

4) Musicial style doesn’t matter as long as it is good.  I like modern music. I like hymns. I like songs from the Faith We Sing.  I really don’t care what the style is or how they are played as long as they are good and singable.  Some modern praise and worship songs have terrible theology.  Some hymns are completely unsingable and I don’t want to hear “anthems” that sound like funeral dirges.  I love “And Can it Be” (probably the greatest statement of Methodist theology there is) but I also love “How He Loves” By John Mark McMillan.

5) The focus isn’t on an obligation when it comes to discipleship (praying, reading Scripture, mediation, etc.)  This focus really just doesn’t work.  Saying that folks need to commit to praying everyday or reading the Bible everyday moves it from a desire based in my love for Jesus to being an act that is done out of guilt or obligation.  Which is better: Finding myself wanting to read scripture more and more each day because I’m learning something amazing or trying to force myself to read two chapters every day because I’m following someone else’s guide to reading it?  In the end what really matters?  Thanks to Francis Chan for Crazy Love!  Another awesome book.

6) It’s a church that has no pews.   I’m not a big fan of “pews.”  I’ve never found them to be particularly comfortable. And I also think that pews lead to some wasted stewardship issues because we have spaces that can only be used for one thing.  I love seats (movable seats) that can be rearranged and repositioned, seats that can be moved and circled up. 

7) It’s a service that’s modern, but also still uses liturgy.  I love modern worship services and, yes, I dig experiential worship and emerging worship.  But there’s also something about the words of worship (liturgy) with the back and forth of the conversation between the pastor and the congregation.  There’s something comforting about those words of worship especially when we are experiencing those down moments.  Liturgy means something and it speaks to us where we are (now that sounds like something that the one I mentioned in No. 1 liked to do!)

8.  The church has both an inward and an outward focus.  In keeping with Methodist theology, this is not an either/or, it’s a both/and.  There has to be a focus on growing and moving closer to the image of Christ in the community of faith.  Salvation is ongoing (hence, the Biblical reference that we (the group) are being saved).  But the church also needs a focus that looks out into the world.  It is through those mission and ministry experiences that our theology moves from something we talk about to something we do.  It’s how we really transform the world. 

9) It’s a church that’s made of “all” and open to “all.”  I know it’s bad to have to say that.  But a church should be open to anyone who wishes to attend and participate. I’ve heard too many in Christian circles talk about who would and wouldn’t be welcome in a church.  The call of the Gospel is all people and the more diverse the congregation, the more diverse and deeper the worship experience.  It’s not about serving a multi-racial church — it’s about serving a church. period. No colors attached.

10) The guiding principle of the church is, “How does this activity build the Kingdom of God?”  There are a lot of nice church activities and a lot of great programs.  But there has to be more than just providing a fun couple of hours for youth to hang out, eat snacks and play games.  There has to be more than just a yard sale to make money for a church group.  There has to be some emphasis on Kingdom-building.  If it doesn’t promote, add to or point to the Kingdom of God, maybe it’s time we took the energy and talents being used up in one area and put them to work in an area that does.

Of course, now that I look at them, I basically have the chance to influence whatever church I serve on all of these areas.

Bumps in the road of life

Posted: July 1, 2010 in Uncategorized

I’m feeling a lot of things this week.

Frustration. Anger. Disappointment.

Maybe it’s just where I am these days. I’m tired of this constant ear-nose-throat debacle and the continuing rounds of antibiotics that mess with my head and all of the other medications I’m taking.  Maybe it’s the constant pseudo-migraine headache I’ve been carrying around for the past few days.  Maybe it’s just that when I bend over or stand up everything spins.

In a word, this is the kind of being sick that sucks.

And I’m bummed out with how many of my friends and cohorts seem to be going through so much right now in their own lives.  And I’m frustrated with passivity.  I just want to see action — active, going out and doing something faith.

And did I say, I’m frustrated?

And I keep hearing that little voice in my head that says, “Grace, Dean. Remember grace.”  Now I know it can be confusing for a pastor to have a daughter named Grace.  Sometimes it’s hard to determine whether I’m talking about the Grace that walks around and wants to get in the big bed every night or the Grace that the Bible talks about that comes through faith in Jesus.

I’m talking about that Grace.  Confused much?

Well, the little Grace that sits behind me in my car is an excellent pastor — far better than I am.  She already knows how to read people’s faces and knows when something is wrong.  She knows to go up to people without fear and ask, “Are you OK?”  She even scribbles on paper and calls it a sermon.  Sometimes I feel I’m doing the exact same thing.

But when we’re riding in the car together, we have the best conversations.  In the subdivision where we live, there are speed bumps along the way.  Generally, I hate speed bumps.  They annoy me because I have to slow down and make the car go slowly.

Grace likes them because they make the car go bump.  I’m mad about a speed bump getting in the way and Grace is squealing, “Bounce the car again, Daddy!”

And it made me think yesterday and today that too often I see these moments in my life as annoying speed bumps.  I’m thinking about how they’ve made me slow down, how momentum comes to a halt, how I fuss about having to drive over them.

And then there’s that enthusiastic voice in the back that sees the speed bump as an opportunity to do something fun.  It’s an opportunity to break the monotony of the road.  It’s an opportunity to hold your arms up and say, “WHEEEEEEE!” And do it again.

Please Lord, give me the strength to view these speed bumps through the eyes of “grace” and Grace and see them for something more than they are.  Let me see them as opportunities and not as roadblocks. Amen.