I have a confession to make. There are a number of things people of faith say to others that drive me insane. Now, I know that these things are often said with every intent of caring and showing compassion. I also know they are said because we are not sure what else to say. (A word of advice – a listening ear is always a better – and safer – than moving lips). I came across this blog which summed up my list pretty well. You may find it instructive, challenging, even a little annoying. It is a good exercise in thinking through our faith and avoiding superstition. Any other things Christians say that bother you or trouble you? – Pastor Tim
So, I was thinking about this passage from Isaiah, so central to the Christmas gospel:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined. (Isaiah 9:2)
This hopeful proclamation from the prophet Isaiah is part of the Christmas message. Light overcomes darkness. To tell the truth, things have seemed pretty dark to me since Christmas preparations went into full swing weeks ago – around Halloween, I think. On the surface, people are talking about looking forward to the holiday. Underneath, however, I sense an all too frequent dread or stress. I don’t think it has anything to do with the annual “war on Christmas.” You know – Happy Holidays, instead of Merry Christmas (even though the English origin of the word “holiday” is holy-day”); kicking the crèche out of the town square; banning religious songs at the school choir concert. I don’t really buy this kind of war on Christmas as a real issue.
That said, I do think something dark and destructive has been happening to Christmas. Maybe it is a war of sorts. It has shaped Christmas into a rather hideous creation. It has involved us all in a systematic erasure of the meaning of the birth of Jesus Christ. We still call it Christmas, but maybe it should be called “Consumerist-mas” – the “Feast of the great Consumption.” There is little Christ left in its observance. We go on a binge dedicated to dark excess instead of bowing before the Light of the World. Jesus came bring us the light of freedom, yet the post-holiday credit card debt will shroud us in a kind of slavery for the next two Christmases. Jesus came to give us peace, but we end up doubling our antidepressants because our stress over the perfect holiday has plunged us deeper into a dark hole. The real focus of the season is how much money was spent and made, not how light has entered our darkness.
I don’t mean to be a buzz-kill or the Grinch. But, I’m afraid were missing Jesus in the midst of all the jingle bells. I fear we have lost our minds, our hearts and our souls. We live in a world where benefits are cut to millions who are poor and will have no holiday. At the same time the TV encourages us all to buy diamonds and a Lexus for our loved ones so they know we love them. We force the least powerful and poorest working folks to work all day on Thanksgiving so we can all get an early start on our excess. That just does not sound like it has anything to do with Jesus to me. You see, my fear is that the Grinch didn’t steal Christmas – consumerism did, and we all helped. I fear that the true power of God’s incarnation is completely negated by wrapping the manger in foil paper and selling it for $39.95.
Advent is the first act of resistance against this dark progression of commercialism. The holly jolly world of retail Christmas plays on our desire for instant gratification. Advent makes us wait, a spiritual discipline we may despise, but is essential to our maturation in faith. Faith is about joy, but also about enduring the darkness as we await the real light. The strings of bulbs on our houses only decorate the darkness and since they burn out, don’t bear the true light of Christ.
Amidst all our celebrating, spending, preparation and panic, Christ will come. Of this I have no doubt. Notice however, that the only ones who noticed God breaking into our humanity were shepherds, who had nothing but the silent night. Maybe if we get a grip on our holiday, Christ will get a grip on us. Christ came to a manger, not the mall. May Christ come to you whether a new blender does or not.
So, I was thinking my first order of business in this blog post is to say “Thank you!” I asked for input about whether this was a helpful resource in your faith journey and your answers were gracious, affirming and informative. Just what I needed to know as I think about what to think about in the days and weeks ahead!
Some of the feedback encouraged me to keep thinking as I have been. So, I will continue to look around the headlines and the culture and see where faith seems to have something to say. Some of you had some ideas for specific topics and I will work hard to come up with meaningful thought about these things. A couple of you offered that you wanted to hear more about biblical insights, perhaps from the weekly lessons. That makes me think that maybe a separate blog about the lessons might be helpful — weigh in on this if you think it an interesting project.
So, I was also thinking that this is Holy Week – the holiest time of the Christian year in many ways. It is a time like no other to ponder what Christ means to us in our daily lives. It is a time to intensify our worship pattern as we gather on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and for the Vigil on Saturday at 7 PM to walk with our Lord as he loves us with every drop of life and beyond.
I am, each year, reminded of an ancient part of the observance of Good Friday called the “Solemn Reproaches.” Each reproach begins with the voice of our Lord – “O my people, O my Church, what more could I have done for you? Answer me.” Then the prayer proclaims some of the many ways God has blessed us and loved us. And the people say, “Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal, have mercy on us.” It is all we really can say in response to the question. God blesses. We rebel. God blesses, we forget. God blesses.
Let me leave you with two of the Solemn Reproaches that stick with me:
O my people, O my Church, what more could I have done for you? Answer me. I opened the waters to lead you to the promised land, but you opened my side with a spear; I washed your feet as a sign of my love, but you have prepared a cross for your Savior.
O my people, O my Church, what more could I have done for you? Answer me. I lifted you up to the heights, but you lifted me high on a cross; I raised you from death and prepared for you the tree of life, but you have prepared a cross for your Savior.
Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal, have mercy on us.
May the God who loves you enough to do all these things bless you with grace and mercy this week, and all the days of your life.
So, I was thinking some more about the Church this week. I was thinking that it seems like we have one foot in the grave (see The Church is Dead, Long Live the Church post from last week) and the other searching for solid ground. A dysfunctional family, a failing organization, an individual with all kinds of problems all find it easier to stay dysfunctional, to continue to fail, to live with problems than change. It is not because people in these situations are stubborn or stupid. It is often because not only is change difficult, but even the act of imagining a different way of doing things is beyond our reach. Everyone thinks that things as they are represent “normal.” But as Canadian musician Bruce Cockburn sings, “The trouble with normal is it always gets worse.” “Normal” is a state of slavery to the past, it is a state of complacency and comfort – even if it brings death.
If you have ever watched the show Restaurant Impossible on the Food Network you can see the power that “normal” has over people who really want to succeed, but can’t. Each episode brings the burly, Australian chef, Robert Irvine into a failing restaurant to see if he can turn things around. He is often abrasive and intolerant, mostly because he has to be. You have to kill off “normal” before you can move ahead. He rarely suggests radical things – other than remodeling the place. He demands good food, healthy and responsible staff. committed leaders. Usually all of these are lacking because the “normal” that has been established has normalized poor quality, low standards, lazy work and clueless leadership. I often wonder if we could get this guy to do a show called “Church Impossible.”
So, I was thinking about “normal” in the Church and comparing that to what seem to be some core realities of the emerging world around us. I draw thoughts on emergence reality from studies from the Pew Forum on Religion systems theory and people like Phyllis Tickle in her book Emergence Christianity and Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity to name just a couple of sources. My thoughts here are not comprehensive by any stretch of the imagination. Just an exercise in trying to imagine a new way of being the Church.
“Normal” in the Church is neat, tidy, familiar – even if it does not work. The emerging world is messy, confusing, and unfamiliar. It calls every assumption into question.
“Normal” is thinking of the Church as an institution that plays a role in shaping culture, or as an organization that must be sustained. Today, institutions are losing their grip as expressions of collective wisdom and power. There is a general mistrust of institutions of all kinds and shapes, even government and higher education. You may be thinking, “But what else could the Church be but an institution, a denomination, an organization?” (See how hard it is to imagine the new?) Well, the Church was not always an institution of culture. In its earliest form, the Church was the followers of Jesus, hiding from culture. The Bible often tells us of not institutions, but families as expressions of God’s people in the world. The emergent reality seems to be that we will not create institutions to further our principles and visions. It will be (and is already becoming) the other way around. People of shared commitments, visions and commitments come together in covenant. Networks of small groups, individuals working together on a common mission, relationships expressed in a shared vision of life – these all create community, but not through an institution. They can later become institutionalized, but that is a different matter. Lutherans should know this. We are not Lutherans because of institutions like the ELCA, LCMS, LWF or other alphabet soup organizations. We are Lutherans, in a messy and diverse manner, through common confession of faith as articulated in the Book of Concord. Common values, beliefs, vision and mission will tie people together more than organizational structures and that will provide solid ground.
“Normal” is thinking that science and “religion” are at odds with one another; that scientific knowledge is the enemy of faith. The advent of the “modern age” was tough on the Christian faith. It poked holes in biblical stories and challenged the cosmic and moral vision of scripture. A war broke out that still rages – creationism or evolution; scientific fact vs. religious belief. Emergent thinking embraces scientific reality AND seeks spiritual dimensions of life in a unified manner. The “normal” Church standing firm against scientific realities makes the Church irrelevant and look foolish. If forced to make a choice between faith and science (a false choice) people will ultimately choose science because they want drugs that make them better and technology to improve their lives. Putting science and faith in dialogue and synthesizing meaning for life from both is a path to solid ground.
“Normal” is stating ultimate truths as monologue. The institution of the Church, for centuries, spoke with a singular voice of authority on moral and religious matters. There was one answer to every question. Today, people leave the church in droves precisely because it speaks in this fashion. That is because in our age, dialogue is valued over monologue, and contextual realities teach us that what is true in one place is not always the same someplace else. It is true in science, where we know that the observer asserts influence over the observation. It is true in all other areas of life. The strident tones of TV evangelists and preachers who pronounce eternal truths (and then break their own rules) will not sustain us. Dialogue, honoring context and allowing for multiple interpretations seems essential to finding solid ground.
“Normal” is not technological. The Church still seems to think one of two things: Either technology is a passing fad and so it needs no attention; or that technology is a savior and will solve all our problems. These are two sides to the same coin. Neither takes the challenge of technology seriously. Technology is not just making churches use email, Facebook and text messages. It is not just screens and video in worship. Technology is changing the way we relate to each other; it is redefining the way in which we interact with the world. Technology is shaping our brains to receive information and remember in different ways. It calls for us to re-think our faith in ways we never imagined. Solid ground will not be found if we ignore technology.
“Normal” is homogeneous. Through common doctrine, common traditions and rituals, the goal of Christian community was to create a unified community. The result in today’s world is that “church” in nearly any form, does not reflect the racial, economic, intellectual, cultural diversity of the culture. We don’t know how to be a congregation unless everyone looks, acts, thinks, and believes the same way. But that homogeneous vision can’t be realized. It will not give us a path to solid ground.
“Normal” is expecting that everyone wants what you offer. In the movie Field of Dreams a voice said, “Build it and they will come.” So, a guy built a ball field in Iowa and they came. The Church used to, and still does try to, operate that way. If you started a little church and hung a sign out front that said Lutheran, all the Lutherans would come. That was because everyone wanted what you were offering. If you gave them a cup of coffee and welcomed the people who looked just like you into your group, they stayed. That was enough hospitality. That is no longer the case. Many are not looking for what we offer. If they do come, they come checking us out — are we doing what we say? Are we living out the life we proclaim? They are looking for transformed lives and they want to find people whose live have been transformed. In addition, when they come, it takes more than a cup of coffee and a doughnut to connect. Newcomers are looking for healing and hope and they need deep friendships and meaningful involvement that changes the world. Radical hospitality that welcomes people into our lives, not just our lobbies is a path to solid ground.
“Normal” tries to maintain distinctions between right and wrong, good and bad, in and out keeping the world neatly black or white. Sadly that is not how people view the world today – maybe they never did. Life is paradox, it is gray, neither black or white. Good guys and bad guys look the same. Solid ground will be found in finding how we live in the “muddle of the middle.”
So, that is what I have been thinking about the challenge of having one foot in the grave and the other gingerly seeking solid ground.
Pax Christi – Pastor Tim
So, I was thinking that the Church is dead. If not totally dead, it is as Miracle Max from The Princess Bride would say at least “mostly dead” or in very critical condition. I know you probably don’t read a pastor’s blog expecting to hear this kind of thing. You were perhaps hoping for something a little more uplifting. Sorry. The vital signs are, it seems weak.
When it comes to belonging to a church, the fastest growing group of people in our culture simply don’t. 5% of the population said they were “unaffiliated” in 1972. Today it is 16%. People are not choosing other churches, mega churches, new churches or old churches; they are not picking more conservative or more liberal churches, when they leave one church, they are not going to something “better” – they are choosing to do away with church completely. They are often called “nones” because they check “none” on surveys about religious affiliation This is happening to every single segment of the Christian Church – Protestant, Evangelical, Roman Catholic — it across the board.
More facts: 70% of mainline Protestant households have no children; 91% of those same congregations are white (unlike our society). The median age of people in church is steadily and quickly rising (averaging over 62 years). Congregations are getting smaller and smaller on the whole. Only 27% of “members” actually worship each week. Only 7% of Christians have actually read the whole Bible.
The truth is that things have changed in every aspect of our world – economic, political, cultural and yes, religious. The Church that we all remember from our youth is dead, mostly. Think back to the way things used to be:
- You were born into the faith and stayed in your tradition
- Faith was a way of believing, so you learned beliefs first – memorized, understood.
- Christian faith was expected of most everyone
- Institutions played an important part in our lives
- Authority was given to those who had studied – experts
- Keeping the faith = Keeping the traditions
- People seek spiritual connections and religious life on their own.
- Faith is a way of living – doctrines and “truth” are understood to be negotiable or dialogic. So, spirituality is about living daily
- Christian faith is no longer a cultural norm
- Institutions/Denominations have lost their power and are fading
- Seminary training and official teachers are suspect
- Keeping the faith = living with integrity
So, I was thinking that one of the biggest causes of anxiety and fear today (at least for me – but I don’t think I’m alone) is the pace and depth of change. Change to every aspect of life happens at a dizzying pace. The changes are not minor adjustments, they are huge shifts in the way we think, work, eat, spend, and yes – worship & believe. It is as if somebody stuffed the world as we know it in a blender and pressed the highest speed — and left it there!
Think about just a few things: In 1900 there were less than 10,000 cars in the US. We send 247 billion emails every single day. 20 years ago most of us didn’t know what email was. The youngest among us believe that email is a dinosaur and use it less and less. I got my first cellphone in 1996. In 2000 there were 93 million cell phones. Ten years later it was 293 million. I typed my first term papers in college on a portable typewriter. Then I moved to a “PC” – which is now obsolete, replaced by my smartphone and tablet. In 1970, nearly 90% of the American population was “white.” In 2008, less than 75% were “white.” By 2050 it will be closer to 50%. College educations and home ownership, two foundations of middle-class stability, are in serious decline.
Welcome to life in the blender. Change is the agenda for every day in the world around us. It is an exhausting way of life. It is then very natural and expected that we will come to church hoping to avoid the whirling blades of change. After all, as the Bible declares, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. (Hebrews 13:8) The world can change, but leave the church alone, we might declare. Unfortunately, Jesus also says: “See, I am making all things new.” (Rev. 21:5)
So, the reality is that church has to go in the blender too. There is no way to insulate ourselves from the change, or somehow just wish it would go away. Consider just a few facts: The fastest growing group in the religious landscape are “nones” – those who claim or desire no religious affiliation. The growth in the ranks of “nones” comes from previous church members. We often think that when someone leaves our congregation they go somewhere else. The fact is that up to 90% just leave and go nowhere. In 1980, most of your neighbors went to church on Sunday morning. You are a serious minority when you pull out of the drive and head to church today. 25-40% of Christian congregations will not exist in the next decade or two. Of the 4-5 generations that could inhabit the church today, we are losing (or have lost) 3.5. Studies show that when young people disappear after confirmation or high school graduation, they do not often return when they start raising families. Welcome to the church in the blender.
I know by now you are saying “Thanks for completely ruining my day.” That is not my intent. The fact is that the church, and the world, have been through the blender before and God has always made some tasty dish out of the mixture. Change is not evil, nor is it the enemy, it just is what it is. How we respond is the challenge is the crucial issue. Sadly, while everything in the world has changed, the reaction of the church has been to make its mission to stay the same, which makes us irrelevant.
Over the next several weeks, we are moving into the 5th and final section of Foundations – the course on the Christian faith that meets every Wednesday evening. In this module, called Our Calling, we will look at the changes that we face and examine how we answer God’s call to change both as a congregation and as individual disciples. We will work to discern where we are going and what God is calling us to do. If you have been curious, frustrated, angered, worried about the changes around us and in the church, come and join us. If you would like to be part of the discussion about how we respond to the changes in this world as a congregation, come and join us. We meet at 6 PM on Wednesday in the sanctuary.
Pax Christi, Pastor Tim
So, I was thinking that it is time for me to take a stab at furthering the conversation about the cultural trend to “love Jesus and hate the Church.” But, I am also thinking (and feeling very deeply in my bones) that this has been a week that has been about more important things than cultural trends. On Monday, we laid to rest a blessed saint after a long battle with cancer. Today, the congregation will host a visitation for a member, not long into his forties, who died from the same hated enemy, cancer. Today, I learned that my seminary advisor, friend, mentor and teacher, Paul Fransen, died. Death is around every corner, it seems. It leaves a wake of grief and tears, pain and anguish. And I realized as I looked at what death had brought to the table this week, there in the midst of it all was the Church.
In the wake of death, the Church gathered on Monday to sing, pray, serve some food and offer a presence in the midst of the grief and death. Today, members of the Church will stand with a family as they weep and remember providing presence, food, a prayer and a kind word. In the next week or so, the Church will gather in Columbus, Ohio to do the same thing to say good-bye to a third saint. People, people of Christ, will do whatever they can to confront death with acts of kindness and hope. I have witnessed this “non-violent protest” of death countless times in my ministry — every pastor does. This is the communion of saints, the body of Christ, the Church being Jesus to those who wrestle with death. So, with all its warts and foibles, I find it hard to hate the Church because no matter what you think, the Church and Jesus are inextricably bound together. It would be no surprise to say that Jesus was “somehow” present in all these confrontations with death. But it is the Church of Christ that puts His flesh and bones in the room, at the graveside, among the tears and pain.
Now, you know I am not being naive. My last post on this subject owns the failures of the Church. The problem is, if we take Jesus seriously we have to take Jesus’ followers seriously. If scripture is to play a role in defining who Jesus is (and there is really not much in the way of alternative sources that are authoritative) one has to acknowledge that Jesus and the Church are deeply connected. The Church is the “temple,” (2 Cor. 6:16); the “bride of Christ” (Rev. 21:2) and the “body of Christ” (Romans 12:5). Now, temples can surely decay, Hosea’s bride was a harlot, and the body is at least physically capable of showing the marks of sin and death. But this does not negate the relationship between Christ and His Church. Jesus gathered flawed disciples around him – church. In Matthew 6, Jesus said “wherever two or more gather in my name, I am with them.” — two or more, gathered = church. In fact – and this is perhaps the biggest challenge – Jesus’ promise to be present with us comes in Word proclaimed and sacraments celebrated — acts of the church.
Perhaps the confusion rests in the definition of the Church. If you define the church as a human institution or organization with budgets, administrative structures, policies and procedures, then we are no doubt quite far from what Jesus was talking about. If however, you define the Church as that place, that moment, where God in Christ and the people of God come together, something much more dynamic is at work. As Lutherans, we define the Church as follows: “(We) teach that one holy church will remain forever. The church is the assembly of the saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly. And it is enough for the true unity of the church to agree concerning teaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. It is not necessary that human traditions, rites, or ceremonies instituted by human beings be alike everywhere. As Paul says [Eph. 4:5,6]: “One faith, one baptism, on God and Father of us all…” (Augsburg Confession, Article VII)
This understanding of Church is not an effort to define structures or systems. There is no mention of keeping the membership roles of an organization, nor is there concern for buildings or bureaucracy. Contrary to what most of the culture thinks about the church, the church is not a thing; it is the encounter of God and people as they gather around the means of grace – the gifts of God. Church is an event. This definition guards against two things. First, it doesn’t reduce the church to a repository of dead propositions about God. All too often the church is portrayed or presented as an dispenser or protector of some version of truth. Second, this view of the church mitigates an idea that the church (or its leaders) stand in the place of God. This dynamic treatment of the Church also asserts that the Church matters because it is the place of encounter between God and people.
The encounter between God and people that is the Church drives God’s people out into the world where we we live out the Word and become a sacramental presence. Church keeps happening in every move we make. Certainly, it might be countered that while the event called church can at times change the world as it moves into the street, it is also true that this event called church can also all too easily end at the door of the building where the gathering happened having no impact at all on the world. This is not a sign that Church does not happen, but rather is a testimony to the provisional character of the church – it is flawed, broken, simultaneously sinner and saint. So, let’s not throw the saint out with the baptismal water.
What does this all look like? Well, right now it looks like people who encountered Jesus in Word and sacrament in the sanctuary are at this moment in the kitchen arranging food for a grieving family – the encounter with God will continue. Right now, it looks like death’s best effort to be the last word will meet resistance as people gather to pray and proclaim God has the last word. Right now, it looks like the Church is being the people of Jesus. You can’t have the savior without the saved; the redeemer without the redeemed; the Jesus without his Church.
Pax Christi, Pastor Tim