Nov
16
2013
0

The Contradictions of Christian Condemnation & Some Thoughts About Love

Christians have a lousy rep these days for being overly judgmental. This is bad for a lot of reasons.  The first reason is, of course, that judgment hurts. It hurts the minds and hearts of those burdened under the weight of the sneers and grumbles, and it also hurts the person judging, as they themselves fall into the darkness surrounding ignorance, and get stuck in that sightless space, blindly doing far more harm than good to the life inside of them and around them.

The second reason this is bad for our faith as Christians is that in feeling puffed up enough to say something negative about the way another person is living, is in direct contradiction to the very foundation of belief which causes some to unjustly feel they have a right to judge.  In short,  it’s the complete opposite of everything Jesus taught and stood for, while he was alive and with us (Ref: Matt7:1-3 , John 8:7, Luke 6:37, and on and on it goes. Basically, just open The Book and you’ll find this truth, there).

As Christians, if we are faithful to our belief, we’re called to do something different. We’re supposed to be the people in the world who accept anyone and everyone, regardless of the countless ways they’re shunned by the rest. And, in fact, if we’re doing our jobs, if we’re living into our belief, the more someone is condemned and pushed away by larger society, the more deeply we should be led to embrace them, and help them find sanctuary inside our doors. When someone faces a sneer, we’re called to smile. When someone is pushed away, we’re called to take them in our arms and show them the real meaning of unconditional love.  That is the heart of the gospels, and the true passion of the life of Christ.

To use Christianity as a justification for judgment is to destroy whatever Christianity dwells inside of us.

But alright—let’s be honest. It’s unfortunately a natural thing to judge. It’s a human thing to judge. This is one of the reasons the teachings of Jesus were so startling to begin with. To hold back from judging someone is entirely awkward to our experience as people. It’s a pushing away of a very natural  urge (as dark as it may be) inside of us.

So it takes a lot of practice. If we’re being honest with ourselves, and hope to truly face that dark stuff inside of us, we have to first acknowledge that it’s there. We have to admit the fact that holding back from judgement against others—whether we’re Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic, atheist, etc— unfortunately takes a lot of work and attention,  if we hope to one day get it right. Judgement sneaks up on us, in some of the quietest places in our minds and souls.

As a pastor, I’ve been a part  of a lot of conversations with fellow Christians about some horrible thing that had happened to someone else at the hands of another who’d committed a brutal crime against them. Often, the response goes something like this:

“Well, it’s not my place to judge. God will do the judging, and I just hope God will give them the  punishment they deserve.”

Seems simple enough, right? But—youch. Even beneath that very simple statement, the darkness of judgment still bites at each word.

It sneaks up on you.

Mentioning the harsh punishment someone “deserves,” is basically just a deferred judgment, rather than the absence of judgment, itself.  And if we’re trying to reflect from inside of us what we hope to see shine down on our own experience of this life (Ref: Matt 7:12)—our own experience of  God —we can’t hope that God will “punish” those who’ve done wrong, unless we’re hoping God will “punish” us for each of the wrongs we’ve committed in our own lives, right?

And it becomes even sneakier, here.  In mentioning all of this, am I right now being judgmental toward judgmental people? Ugh! Really sends the mind for a loop, doesn’t it?

When we try to stand high enough to look out at the world and see what’s “right” and what’s “wrong,” we’re standing atop a very slippery slope. One which usually sends us tumbling down to fall flat on our asses.

So maybe we can find balance here: Maybe what we’re called to do, is not to try and climb up to a higher place than we belong, but to let ourselves settle into that down-to-earth place that is our home, with everybody else. Knowing that we’re all in this together. Knowing that we all do things which are sometimes okay, and sometimes not. Knowing that we’re all screwed up, just in different ways. Knowing that not one of us lives a perfect life, free from flaw (and what is a “perfect life,” anyway, aside from the Holy Living God?). Knowing that what’s “right” and what’s “wrong” is always, always, always, in the eye of the beholder, changing from mind to mind, experience to experience. Knowing that when we look into the eyes of another, we’re only looking into a different part of ourselves, all being one in God; and that when we condemn others, we’re only condemning ourselves. … And in knowing all of this, letting ourselves love each other—love ourselves—no matter which different imperfect part of us we look into as we walk around.

Living into the heart of Christianity is to live with a heart of acceptance, love, compassion, and care for all parts of the one Life of God, which lives and breathes and moves through each one of us as tiny fragments of the Holy Whole.

So to make a long blog longer with a short, simple thought:  Unconditional love is the way of Christ. Hate over particulars is something else.  If we are Christians, we will love all people, at all times, in all circumstances, and in all places, just as we know we are loved by God.

And as complicated as some of the questions in our minds might sometimes seem, if love is our response, I think we’ve found the answer.

 

 

 

 

Oct
13
2013
0

Yes, God Still Speaks: A New Testament–aka ‘Some Stuff That Happened’

God still speaks. All of the time. To each of us, in amazingly unexpected and beautiful ways.

Last week, we asked the question, “Does God still speak?” and thought about the ways we still experience God in ways just as miraculous as those mentioned in “The Book” (aka The Bible), only we don’t document these moments anymore in scripture, as the biblical canon was unfortunately and untimely closed off to new stories, a long time ago, in an ancient galaxy far, far away.  ;)

God lives and moves in our own personal lives each day, and we talked about the benefits that come with the spiritual practice of writing this stuff down. If no one else will put it into a sacred text, where these moments belong, it’s up to us to record and document when these things happen in our own lives, so we can remember, and maybe flip back to those times in moments of questioning or struggle, and recall in comfort that God lives with us every hour, and is more deeply involved in our experiences than we can ever imagine.

So I thought I’d do this myself, here, just to give you guys an example. I hope you gain some benefit from reading this, and can apply it to your own moments of spiritual connection.

I’d mentioned in our last blog that God had worked and moved a whole lot in my life over the past month and a half, but didn’t mention how.  Here’s what happened (some of it, anyway).  Bare bones. And we can look into these things more, after I type those moments into this box.

Some brief back story: I’d been experiencing some frustration, recently, over where my life was going. Nothing new. Happens to us all at different times. I was called into the ministry when I was very young and have lived into that call since; but I was plagued by doubts, not too long ago, as to whether or not this was still the right path. I knew I’d been called, and answered that call the best I could; but I just wasn’t sure if where I was heading was still where God wanted me to go.

Overwhelmed with the question, I got down on my knees, in my study. Face-planted to the floor, arms spread long in front of my prostrated body.  Laying it all out on the line. And I talked to God. Deeply. Personally. Sometimes I didn’t even think a word, knowing God knew what was in my mind, already.  But through all, the conversation I had with God started with me asking God (Life) to show me where to go from here.  I asked God to talk to me, and to talk LOUD, so I could hear past all of the clutter in my mind.

Blinking away the darkness of my eyelids, I finally stood from that rug, my early-thirties bones cracking from bending so low. The blood hadn’t even flushed from my face back down to my legs, before my phone rang on the desk. My mind still in that limbo state between prayer and the day-to-day, I staggered over to answer the call.

It was one of my parishioners. One I hadn’t heard from in long, long time. One I’d thought I’d lost from the congregation awhile ago.  One whose recent absence on Sunday mornings had contributed to my sense that maybe I needed to journey on a different way. In that moment, just after I’d asked God to talk loud, his/her voice rang through my ear, telling me how excited he/she was about the ministry I was doing at the church, and about how confident he/she was that beautiful things would come from my working as a minister in the parish. In that conversation, all of the insecurities and doubts which had so heavily plagued my mind—each of the things I’d mentioned to God, only minutes before—were addressed. Spoken to. Eased. In audible words I could hear, and not confuse.

This was the first moment God spoke to me, in response to what I’d just said while my face buried in the floor.  And it was loud, alright. Instantaneous, even. Beautiful, and breathtaking.  I thought this was the end of the conversation, but I was wrong.

Only three days later:

I received another call.  Very similar. Another congregant who I’d never before spoken with on the phone, called me in the middle of the day. Once again reaffirming and repeating what had been said in the last conversation. Once again—as if they’d been eavesdropping on my silent prayer—addressing each of my fears and doubts, like a subtle reminder from God, in case the effect of the first moment had worn off and faded away.

Seven days later, that following Sunday:

Our general church attendance had been another factor causing me worry about the effectiveness of staying this course in God’s ministry.  Dropping numbers, across the board—in every church—had caused me to wonder if there was a different way I could be in ministry. A different way to answer God’s call that might be more effective.

The Sunday after I got down on my knees, our sanctuary *flooded* with people. Now, this is unusual, folks. Our “Little Green Church on the Hill” is a small one—our congregation intimate.  But we had more inside our church walls that day than we had bulletins to hand out. Overwhelmed by the sight of all of these faces,  I stood up to lead the congregation in prayer; and when I looked down at the pulpit, “randomly” splayed beside the prayer I’d written, were the words,  “Don’t worry, He understands all of your frustrations.” I saw those words laid out right there, for me to see, at the pulpit where I’ve worked all of this time, and tears filled my eyes before I snapped myself back into focus to lead the group in prayer.

At this point, I could barely believe God was still talking to me—and at such mind-blowing volume. I’d thought Life had made Its point pretty clearly, but this still wasn’t the end. God was still speaking to me, even louder than I’d asked.

And I can’t for sure say why, but I think God understood better than I could myself, that even through all of this, my confusion was still with me. Because we’re stubborn people, right?

Even after all of this, about half a week later (I suppose, again, about three days—interesting),  I laid it all out on the table in front of me in the family room, and I stood up, prepared to tell my husband I’d made a final decision. After this appointment, I was going to move on from parish work, into something else. It hurts to even type the words, now… but those were the words that filled me up in that moment, in front of the coffee table; and I’ll admit them.  Ky walked into the kitchen, and I followed him. I breathed deep, and started the sentence. “I’ve made my decision,” I said to him, my voice almost pompous–belligerent—with my confidence in the choice.  “I’m moving on from—-”

Before I could speak another word, the entire room fell pitch black. I kid you not. Every light in the house went away. Every sound disappeared. In that millisecond of shock, I waited for the lights to flicker back on so I could finish the thought. Nothing. Pitch black. I couldn’t even see Ky’s face in front of mine, less than a foot away.  This was a moment of biblical proportions, in my book. I could barely believe it… but just because I couldn’t believe it, didn’t mean it wasn’t the truth, all the same.  In that moment, God stopped me. God interrupted our conversation, like someone jumping in to save a close friend from accidentally playing the fool.

The lights didn’t come back on. Not for the rest of the night. We had no candles in the house (all of ours being burned down to the wick), and the only place we could find light was from inside of the church. There was a big box of candles in the fellowship hall, so with our flashlights, we walked through the dark into the church walls to find the light we needed, then returned home, to the parsonage. All night, our sight and footsteps illuminated only with the light used for Holy Service.

And friends, there was more. So much more. God kept talking with me, still in higher volume than I’d ever asked, through the rest of that month. Each time, the words coming louder, and louder, and louder again.  I haven’t even yet come to the best parts; but this blog box is filling up fast.

I could write a book on what happened. Maybe one that, back in the day, would’ve made it into the canon. But I wanted to share at least those few moments with you, so you can gather a feel for what I’m saying when I mention that God still speaks.

We just don’t write this stuff down anymore, and we unfortunately can’t add them to our scriptures.

These were moments of miracle. Of course, we perceive and communicate things differently, now. If I’d been a biblical author of antiquity, when I first received that phone call after standing up from that prayer,  I might have written:

I fell to my knees, beseeching the Lord, and behold, God’s voice rang from the heavens, saying, “I am the LORD your God. The father of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I have heard your prayers and will answer them with mighty deeds. You have been charged to proclaim the name of the Lord from this day forth, and I command that you live each of the days I have given you, speaking of the truth and love which I have shown you.” (Miracles 1:1-4)

But ya see, we just don’t talk like that anymore. Instead, I say, “I  got down on my knees and talked to God. Then my iPhone rang on my desk, and I heard exactly the words I’d told God I needed to hear, in order to keep going.”

God works in the world today, still, in biblical proportions. Miracle after miracle, God lives and breathes in our lives in moments that stun us to silence and move our hearts in unimaginable ways.

God still speaks. The question is, do we still listen?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jun
28
2013
0

Tips for Talking God

… You’re sitting at the table.  Coffee and dessert plates lie scattered between wrists, partly empty. Conversation is becoming more and more open through the night,  moving from skirting around small talk to dabbling in the deeper stuff. To keep things lively(?), someone mentions a recent headline about the corruption in the Vatican.  The others shake their heads, grunting disapproval in some way or another through a bite of pie.  *Ugh* You just wanted to enjoy the syrupy apples.  Words quiet for a moment, until the person across your plate looks up from a sip of their half-caff and mentions God. From the safety of a cautious distance, they quickly mumble something about their belief, or lack of belief, or hate of belief…

Can you feel it? That tension rising up the sides of your neck, and through your throat, and up into that very tiny strip of nerves traveling the back of your scalp, just at the sound of the words?

Your heart thumps a little harder. Your thoughts scramble, then you do your best to clear all of those feelings away. All in just a handful of ticks on your watch.  You swallow, then look to that person and say________________________.

…Been there, right? At that very table!

This kind of anxious scrambling hits us all, of course.  And it doesn’t, in any way, signify your lack of faith or relationship with God, or your inability to express your thoughts logically, and clearly, and (most importantly) soulfully. This reaction in no way shows us these conversations are in some way bad, or dangerous, or threatening.

What these feelings do reveal, is the excitement rising in our hearts over the thought of God, and what’s been mentioned.  They show us the importance of the ways those words connect to the innermost parts of our lives. These awkward feelings twisting our brains in these moments,  show us the very deep and visceral passion that dwells foundationally within us, as Christians, regarding our love of God, and our hope to give that love back the best we can, whenever the opportunity pops up here or there.  And a lot of times, it’s so much, we just don’t know what to do with it. These feelings being so very real, and so very critical to our understanding of ourselves and the life around us, we feel there’s just too much at stake;  so our pulse pounds hard against our ribs, and our breath grows light.

…And that, dear friends, is a beautiful thing.  And definitely nothing to be afraid of.

But there’s something else all of this reveals along with this heated inclination in our souls.  Each of these things together show us the benefit of being prepared.

Now, yeah, I hear ya. You’re right: you can never predict what a person will say, and where the conversation will go, so how on earth are you supposed to “prepare?” You can’t just come up with some kind of rote list of one-liner responses you feel will certainly trump all doubt a person might ever feel in their life toward the existence and love of God.  You might be able to anticipate some classic phrases, but it’s impossible know, before hand, the intimate places a person will speak from, in a conversation about the Holy or lack thereof. The beauty of these conversations is they can go anywhere. When talking about God, you’re talking about the Infinite, so there are infinite thoughts to be shared.

But what you can do, is assure that you prepare yourself to better approach these conversations, so that the exchange shared across those smeared plates of half-eaten pie can be as life-giving as possible for each of those faces around the table.  So that the words spoken between minds and souls can truly be a conversation, rather than an argument.

I’ve listed some helpful tips for “talking God” that might lift you up and carry you along through these often tense moments more healthily when you will (and the keyword, there, is “will”) find yourself sitting at that table again in an unexpected minute on a later day…

Tips for Talking God

1) Listen.

This is the first and most important thing to remember when entering into a spiritual discussion (and any discussion with another person, really). If you’re hoping to find some common ground (which is the only way we really share between each other), you need to know where they stand, so you can meet them there and set out to walk along together, for a while.

2) Respect each word.

Too easily we fall into black and whites: “I’m right. You’re wrong.” At the end of the day, it’s better to acknowledge that we’re each coming from an equally human perspective. The wisest of philosophers, poets, authors, and scientists are sure on one point: we don’t know Jack.  Only what we call “God” knows the full truth of absolute reality.  Remember that it’s not “you” verses “them,” but both of you working on a team–together–sharing personal thoughts and experiences to gain a better sense (in our equally limited view) of where we stand together in the mystery of this beautiful and mind-blowing life.  Acknowledging the other’s statements, and commenting on the ways you can make sense of them (and possibly even identify with them), helps the other know you’re in this to actually explore and discuss, rather than aggressively persuade.  Respect shows partnership, and that’s what keeps a good conversation moving into mutual mind expansion.

3) Be informed.

I know it’s close enough to impossible to spend every night reading deep into the bible by book light. I know it’s difficult to finally follow through with heading over to Barnes&Noble to pick up that cool looking paperback about the oppression of women in the Old and New Testament; but whenever you can,  it’s good to find some time to look into these things. It will give you a fuller sense of the religion you follow, it’s roots, it’s problems, it’s usefulness, etc. Many, many, many non-believers strangely tend to know more about religious history and the development of the church than most church-goers. The points they bring up are valid, so it’s good to be capable of being in dialogue about the things they pinpoint. This way, you can provide a layer of spirituality, love, and faith lacking in the straight-academic stuff they read awhile back.  Being an informed “insider” helps the other know you’re not blindly following the herd, but willfully and consciously walking with the shepherd.

4) Don’t get defensive.

Like I said up there, this is some sensitive stuff. Stuff that makes up the core of who we are in the world. So, sometimes, we feel if we can’t answer a question, all of our beliefs will be destroyed and our world will come crashing down. Understandably, this makes us feel just a wee bit defensive.  A good way to get rid of that conversation-destroying fight-or-flight reflex, is to remember that not being able to answer a question in no way erases your relationship with God.  This actually opens the door for you to deepen that bond. That connection. Acknowledge you can’t answer, with the other. This helps them remember you’re rationally minded.  Then, in later moments,  let yourself explore the questions it brings to your mind and soul… either through some reading, some thinking, or maybe even a talk with your pastor.  Being sure in your faith means being sure of God; and being sure of God means you are sure more exists in this universe than you can ever possibly imagine. You don’t have all of the answers, and you’re not supposed to.  Let yourself not know. Don’t be afraid when it inevitably happens, and allow yourself to grow.

5) Have fun.

These conversations can be some of the most interesting, entertaining, breath-of-fresh air moments you’ll experience in your life, if nurtured into what they are: a time of sharing, a time of understanding, and a time of connection. Let your thoughts be free, and your chest be easy. In a lot of those moments sitting that table, we each find some good times laughing at ourselves and taking a deep breath, celebrating the complicated and amazing existence we’ve been blessed to experience in this crazy, confusing, awe-striking life.

 

I pray the next moment you share the words from your soul over coffee and pie, that you leave that table with a smile on your face and warmth in your heart;  I pray that the angst of your passion and excitement quickly transforms to comfort and ease, leaving you open and relieved to give and receive what’s inside; I pray that you spend that time with that person lifting each other up and helping each other along; and I pray that you really enjoy yourself, and God, and that person, as much as you possibly can in these short minutes we’re so blessed to be with each other through the hours of our lives. Amen.

 

Feb
15
2013
0

Keep Riding

Your dad’s hands on the bike handles and the rear of the seat, while you awkwardly wobble.

Your small fingers squeezing tight to the grooves of the rubber grip, your feet peddling harder.

You remember that feeling? So unsure.  But even then, so young, you know it’s got to be done.

So you keep going. You keep your eyes forward. You pick up speed to move you faster and faster ahead.

And soon, you no longer feel that wobble.  You’re really moving! You can feel it! Something is finally carrying you along reliably— smoothly—letting you glide forward into all of those places ahead you strained so desperately to reach, just before.

You look back to the handle bars to make sure you still see those hands holding you tight, and find only your own.  Your face jerks to the left. Nothing but rushing trees and bushes.  Your dad’s not there. In fact, there’s no person there at all! It’s only you! Panic overtakes, until you realize something else is holding you up. Something powerful. Something you can’t see. Something that’s a part of all of the movement you’re now a part of, too. Something that if you trust, and realize is there, and let yourself feel and accept with each turn and each movement of your legs, it will hold you up steady as you go, no doubt.  So you move with whatever that silent, invisible force is. You embrace that fact of the universe, you feel both around you and inside of you. And you go with it. Letting it carry you as far as you’ll go.

How do you feel God in your life? How do you trust God to move you forward to the places far and close ahead?

Where do you find your faith?

 

A thought to meditate on this week:

On Faith and Doubt:
“An act of faith is an act of a finite being who is grasped by and turned to the infinite. It is a finite act with all the limitations of a finite act, and it is an act in which the infinite participates beyond the limitations of a finite act. Faith is certain in so far as it is an experience of the holy. But faith is uncertain in so far as the infinite to which it is related is received by the finite being. This element of uncertainty cannot be removed, it must be accepted. And the element in faith which accepts this is courage.” –Paul Tillich (Dynamics of Faith)

 

 

 

Feb
08
2013
0

Smiling Back at God

I opened my eyes this morning with a feeling in my chest—a powerful urge moving down from my mind to my heart. (Or maybe it was the other way around…hard to tell sometimes, isn’t it?).  The feeling was sudden, but deep. And that feeling was  a want to worship God.

Strangely, I just woke up with that lifting-up feeling inside—that need to smile back at God, from where I stood.

So, I breathed deep. I went to the study and sat with the Quiet for a while. I read words from books I thought tapped into my sense of God, and lifted up thoughts of praise. I even found some powerful music of worship. The good stuff. Not necessarily church-brand, but other songs that really captured the power and beauty of Life.

Of course, being a pastor, I naturally started sensing an urge past all of this. I wanted to shout from the top of the mountain, and help other people feel what I was feeling, too.  Because it was good.

So I logged onto our Deer Park facebook page, and started posting some of this stuff. Some of the readings. Some of the music. … All of it to keep lifting It up and out.  Just a little later, I noticed there were some people outside,  going in and out of the food pantry; and I wanted them to hear it, too—on the off chance that it might lift their soul up just a little higher, and give them a sense of God in their own lives.

I opened the windows wide, and turned the sounds up so they might carry through the air.

And then… it hit me.

Just as suddenly as that sense of worship came, a very real sense of God’s movement in our lives filled me up and ran over. The silent words of God—maybe God’s response to all of that worship, I’d been shouting—rang out loud past all of those sounds I was hoping might reach the outside air, “…Well, thanks! Feels real good to hear.  … Sooo…. What are you still doing in here?”

I looked down at the volume remote in my hand,  and to the speakers rattling in the corners, and had to laugh at myself for a second.

Of course, God was right. (As usual) ;)

All of this time, inside my house, while I was trying to get these sounds of worship out into the world, and spread that goosebump-feeling of God through other people’s skin—-all of those folks outside had been moving back and forth from the food truck, stocking the pantry to help people in need. And there I was, sitting inside with my volume remote.  In this makeshift Sunday I’d set up, I’d been so happy feeling God move through my soul, that I hadn’t noticed all of that movement of God through the life just outside my door.

I didn’t turn off the music inside; but I put down the remote, and I tied my shoes tight.

Walking out the door, I found that all of that volume inside didn’t go much further than my doormat. The wind carried it away, just past the first step from the porch.

Downstairs, I grabbed a box of food and joined the others.  Greeted with voices, and smiles, and hellos, we worked together with our hands to do what we could to make life better for people experiencing  the bad stuff.

And it was then that I felt all of that reaching out to God I was trying to do from inside my house, was finally and actually happening.  From hand to hand, God moved back and forth through all of those willing fingers, spreading the warmth and love of God’s soul as we passed the boxes. There was no music. No readings. But there was love.  And that’s what all of those sounds and thoughts are for, anyway, right?  In the end, that feeling of worship inside is there to lift us up from where we are, into the heart of God, and fill us with enough heat and passion to stand up and move. To step out from our sanctuary doors and give praise to God’s overwhelming life and love in the world, by showing it in our own.

As a pastor, I know that so many of our conversations about the larger church’s survival, these days, center around the question of how our music and words can sound out loud enough into the surrounding community to draw more people into our sanctuaries.

But there might be a different question for us to think over.

…Maybe the question to pass between us as we shout out our love for God in worship is, ‘what are the ways we can step out from our walls, to be with all of them?’ Which days and ways can we step out from God’s house, our hearts and minds full of the sounds and words of worship that empower us to move, and hold out our hands in love to help the people outside our church walls survive the tough stuff of the world?

The way I see it, each of us holding our love and worship for God in our hearts, live as little sanctuaries.  Our church is mobile. It doesn’t exist in drywall. It exists in us. And these temples can move through the world and touch more lives than could ever fit in our pews.  These temples can move to move the world, and finally help that goosebump-feeling of God’s love spread through the skin of each of those faces standing outside, just past our window.

And, who knows? Maybe all of those ways we let our little sanctuaries move into the world to spread God’s love outside, will fill up each one of those hearts surrounding ours, and leave behind a strange urge in the morning to smile back at God, and stand with us,  singing those songs and reading those words of worship, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jan
25
2013
0

Let’s Be Honest (Rethinking Church pt1: The Dilemma)

I mean, this is the only way we ever move toward positive change, right?

When it comes to ourselves, as individuals facing different personal issues, or when it comes to addicts facing a need to break ourselves from the cycles of self destructive habits…

The first step is admitting there’s a problem, right?

Like each one of us, our churches are not perfect temples, either.  Just as we don’t always do what’s healthiest for our own bodies (try as we may), as a church, we don’t always do what’s healthiest for the Body of Christ. We don’t always do what will allow the church to live the longest, strongest life possible.

One thing going for us though: Like a first time member standing in front of a large crowd of no-so-anonymous alcoholics, the church has—very openly—admitted it has a problem. The church—very openly—knows something needs to change, in order to ensure its thriving in the future; because the way things are going now, well… let’s just say the higher ups have looked at the statistics like a doctor at the chart of a seriously ill patient.

Unless we do something to remedy where we are—to remedy the illness and injury befallen our sacred institution and God’s holy home in the world—it’s going to die. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not next year… but far sooner than what would have been the natural course of its spiritual existence in the world.

All across the nation, churches are struggling with decreasing membership (for the most part), and our pews more and more fill with whitening hair. Meaning, basically, that our membership is on the decline and those members we do have, are growing older by the day, without the sight of younger faces coming to join them and replenish the lifeblood of the church through each continuing year.

Now, to set things straight– we cherish our older congregants as much as the younger. All are fellow companions and friends in our journey through the heart of God. But once we see pews filled with only one type of person, it becomes clear–without room for a doubt–that we are excluding other portions of the population from feeling welcome in worship.

Okay, so that’s the problem: What is happening in our churches today, has very little appeal to the younger generation, yet we stick with our habits, because that’s what we’re comfortable with. That’s what we know. That’s what makes *us* feel good inside, despite the fact that we know staying with these habits is slowly killing this Body of Christ, day by day.

Sound familiar? It is the definition of addiction. (And believe me, as someone struggling on and off to quit smoking over and over through many years, I know this feeling–this problem—all too well. (And, yes, we are all imperfect! So don’t beat yourself up, or anyone else, over this easy truth.))

As the Body of Christ, we are *addicted* to ways which destroy the possibility of fresh life from entering into the lifeblood of the church—leaving us here, where we are today. Still alive. Still present in the world. But a far weaker spiritual force than we’ve lived as, in the past. One that has started to feel the effects of this weakness overtake its ability to stand straight at times, and I think we’ve finally checked ourselves into the hospital.

Now, as I grow older, myself, I know I edge further and further away from still being a member of this group of missing younger people, in the church. But as of this day, my shoulder still leans inside of that crowd. I am thirty-one years old. And I can tell ya, there are a lot of reasons people my age don’t want to be a part of the church.

I always tell my congregants that they have sort of the “inside scoop” on this situation, as far as my relating is concerned; because not only am I within the age group of people needed, but distantly absent from the church—but the vast majority of my friends also happen to be vehemently anti-organized-religion, and more specifically, anti-Christian. And believe me, I could write a *book* —-one that would need to be edited and cut drastically for length!—on the reasons I have heard over the years as to why the Christian church is… unappealing (to put it nicely)… to those young individuals who were born into the world after the year 1980.  To those young individuals we preachers look out from the pulpit for, and see only empty spaces where their fresh faces might have stared back.

So how do we fix it? How do we fix it?

These are the tension filled words whispered across tables at church council meetings and, in fact, across conference halls between bishops and clergy as well.

And in all of these conversations, the dilemma we, as a church, face right now is this:

How do we make our churches more open to the people who are not here (i.e. the younger generation), without isolating and ignoring the needs of those who are already with us (the older generation).

Several ideas might be coming to your mind already. Some rise into my own thoughts, too.

I’ll share some of those thoughts as we come back together to sit and think with each other, next week. And feel free to let some of the stuff inside of you out, too! This doesn’t need to be one way. I don’t need to be typing in silence to myself. I’d love to hear from you, because we’re all in this together.

Take care, and talk to you soon.

In God’s Love and Peace,

Pastor Laura Hehner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jan
03
2012
0

Did You See the Sunrise Tuesday Morning?

Tuesday morning I woke up to darkness without the aid of my alarm.  I don’t know why. Guess I just felt refreshed enough from the sleep I already had, and was ready to pick up where I left off with yesterday’s work.  As I moved through my morning routine, I noticed a slight pink slowly overtaking the rocks behind the house. I paid little attention, and continued rinsing and stacking dishes.

The dishwasher loaded, I moved to the family room to fold the blankets on the couch, and saw this pink had lightly soaked the creases of my sheers. Still, I continued folding.

It wasn’t until I moved around the corner to open the door and let the sun in for the day, that I saw it.   Beyond the glass separating me from the outside, wide expanses of smooth cloud billowed up from over the tops of the mountains like cotton sheets from a clothes line, while the slight touch of the early sun set fire to their breadth, brightly spreading the light of yellow flame from end to end. The pink I’d seen from the sink and over my couch, soaked through each curve and dip of the clean-sheet clouds, just as it did my sheers, until all waved gently into a brilliant blue, waiting in the west.

It was nice.

In fact, the sight was so gorgeous, I had to share it immediately with the first set of sensing eyes I could find outside my own; so I grabbed my cat, and lifted him to the window to see.  I wasn’t sure if he could appreciate life from an aesthetic perspective, or if that was more of just a human thing; but I at least wanted to give him the chance.  As I suspected, he didn’t look once at the sky, but instead batted downward at the screen, in search of tiny bugs.

It got me thinking about what we let ourselves see in life. About what distracts us. About what opportunities we give ourselves to more fully experience the world.  I didn’t notice the sunrise either,  in those early minutes of waking; and I would have missed it entirely had it not been a typical part of my morning routine to open the front door for extra light during the day.   My opening the door had nothing to do with expectation toward anything beyond, at that moment. I opened it merely for the sake of the light coming later.

During this season of Epiphany, let’s remember the breathtaking light of  God which enters our minds and our souls, and gives us direction through each day we wake up in this crazy life; and lets think of the ways we open ourselves to receiving it, all the while thanking God for this beautiful gift of being alive, and having eyes to see what God has done.

 

 

 

 

 

Nov
04
2011
0

Some Food for Thought

Not too long ago, one of our closest friends came up to the parsonage to meet me and my husband for a weekend camping trip into the hills. He showed up a little earlier than expected so we killed some time outside on the dirt while we waited for my husband to pull up from his long commute.   As we talked about all of the random things we tend to discuss together, one of the volunteers pulled up to the food pantry below the house to unload the many boxes of food we’d so thankfully received from Food Bank of the Rockies to supply the people around us who’ve had a hard time making ends meet (like so many people these days), with food for their families.

I looked down at the truck, then back to my friend; and he knew before I said a word that I was hoping we could head down together to help.

Immediately he shook his head. “Huh-uh. I’m not going down there with all of those Churchies around.”

I “lol’ed” just now, typing the word.  “Churchies” is what this good friend of ours calls people who regularly show up at services on Sundays.  He knows I’m a pastor, of course, and we mutually respect the details of each other’s lives; but you’d be hard pressed to find someone more against organized religion than “Jim” (this isn’t his name, but for the sake of privacy, this is the name we’ll give him for the blog).

His reasons for being against organized religion are legit. He’s aware of the ways Christian history has played out in the world over the centuries, and of how the various, and unfortunately, multiple moments of corruption have hurt good people.  As a result he’s become deeply jaded.  No surprise there.  I hope we all are, to a certain extent, or else we’d have to wonder whether or not we’ve been fully informed about the details of our own religion, and the accuracy of that nagging needle on our proverbial moral compasses, right?

On top of all of this, Jim was hesitant to head down because he tends to rattle more traditional church-goers with his tattoo sleeves, which on one arm extends into the second knuckles of his right hand.  He didn’t want to go through the awkward pains of being judged.

I assured him the people down there were laid back, and absolutely wouldn’t push him away—that they were down there to help people who needed some support, and wouldn’t shove pamphlets into his pockets or bible verses into his brain.

With one last look of hesitation, Jim nodded his head, gave me some chuckled grief on the way down the stairs, and walked with me to the bed of the truck to unload. Inside the pantry, Jim helped the kids move containers of frozen food to the freezer, worked at organizing the non-perishables, and broke down boxes.  The volunteer downstairs burst out with endless thanks for us coming down to help, and gratefully let Jim know how much time he took off the task by lending a hand.  No one looked twice at his well-crafted tattoos (at least not in any way a person could notice from the outside).

As we all worked together, I noticed Jim smiling—often. He isn’t the type to grin without reason.

With all hands together, the time we spent in the pantry was short and sweet; but to my complete shock, the impact was long.  Jim talked about the experience of being down there on and off for almost the entire hour before we finally got on the road to go camp. As he later sat down with my husband by the fire, he brought it up again, cautiously mentioning how good it made him feel to do something to help people who were down on their luck.

The afternoon highlighted very brightly in my mind the fact that so many people these days (of my age, or younger, or older) stay away from Christianity for what Christians have done, but I think something inside – some spiritual spot which sits in the deep parts of us all— still wants to be filled with these moments of doing something they know is right and good to do in bringing loving support to the people around us.

Ironically enough, being a part of the moments of doing something good—of bringing loving support—to the people around us, is the very heart of that Christianity so many people have labeled as a spiritually superficial and socially destructive religion.

Where does this leave us, as Christians, then? And where does this leave all of the people who share the very well-founded opinions floating around in Jim’s mind?

Some food for thought.

 

 

 

 

 

Oct
13
2011
0

Stepping Outside of Our Open Doors: A Meditation on our Vital Congregations

While my feet trudged through the thousands of frail wafers of yellow and white dropped by the aspen trees surrounding my home,  a fellow seeker of God walked beside and behind me, filling the quiet with news and info about the current state of things for the people who come to sit in the chairs together each Sunday.

Our conversation was supposed to take place inside of a big room under florescent lights, with multiple folders and papers; but we decided to ditch the rug and metal and head up the side of the mountain across from the church.  The conversation was, at first, business. As planned, we went over the news we’d received from the bishop, who’d provided guidelines for each congregation, each year, regarding our growth and calculating all of those nice statistical digits congregants and clergy hope will fill their eyes each week, but prefer not to see on paper.

The two of us quickly tossed between each other the numbers and projections; but  as our legs moved over the dirt, lifting us higher through the trees, our conversation changed.

The cold crunch of the  fall air had finally reached down to the bottoms of our lungs, deepening our talk with the color of the leaves under our shoes; and our minds pushed past the conference room jargon to consider where we’re supposed to go, as people who hope and yearn to find a closeness with this beautiful force of Life we call God.

We talked about a lot of things.  The history of the church, the old ways of missionaries, and all of the ways people, over the years, had come to resent the church for its role amongst people; and how this history — which stands as flawed as each one of us— had worked, over time, to actually isolate people from their natural movement toward God.

What a horrible and wonderful thing to let ourselves consider.

Acknowledging this truth is horrible, because it leaves us with a sense of fear and anxiety toward what has already been done; but it is simultaneously beautiful and wonderful for us to let this truth enter, because it allows us more clearly, and with more bravery, and strength, to walk ahead from where we are.

People still search. People still yearn to be closer with the Higher Force of Life we’ve all felt invisibly present inside and around us since the beginning of our human experience on the dirt.  Sit down at any table with any group of intoxicated college kids (funny, I just turned thirty, and now find it natural to call these adults, “kids.” Oof.), and you’ll find this deep yearning and searching in each of the words expelled from their souls, as long as you don’t ruin the conversation early, by safely and simply regurgitating dogmas and creeds.

People want God.  People search for the God they sense in the deepest parts of who they are; but they haven’t yet found a place to go, where they feel they will find what they seek.

The church is not the church if it is not this place.

While I walked with this other seeker through the trees on the mountain, I couldn’t help but feel a connection with those yellow-white wafers dropped from the aspens to the ground, blowing without attachment to the source of their natural life.

In that cold fall air, I also couldn’t help but remember that life moves in cycles, each beautiful, and necessary, and unique as they are; and that though this seeker and I moved through leaves which right now lied scattered and dry all around us, a time is coming soon, when our eyes will again fill with the green connected strong to each branch of the tree which grows and spreads life through each extended wafer.

As a church, as a branch reaching out from the life of God, we are vital.

And all of us seeking the sight of growth and change, will find it, as long as we’re willing to take a step outside of the conference room, and surround ourselves with the life outside of our open doors.

Sep
30
2011
0

A Conversation Over Coffee

We all get tired.

You’d think exhaustion should only be a physically-based problem, and that our thoughts, being made of who-knows-what invisible substance of existence, should be exempt from running out of energy. … But it certainly happens.  And it usually happens when we need them most, doesn’t it?  This loss of thought-strength comes just as our loss of physical strength occurs– at the point of being taxed by situations outside of ourselves which demand repeated, and consistent use.

Yesterday morning I woke up to my alarm at five o’clock (I know this sounds ridiculously early for someone who works from home, but strangely, when the only face you have to answer to in the morning is your own reflection, you for some reason no longer mind waking up in the dark). After situating my feet in my slippers, I performed my same routine of folding the blankets on my couch, feeding my fish, putting wet food in the bowl for my cat, Beans, and unloading the dishwasher from the night before.

Everything was mechanically following the usual process, until I sat down to prepare for my day’s work.

As a pastor, my “day’s work,” blessedly is doing work for God, and working to help people feel closer to God in their own hours; but when I flipped open my bible (and accompanying “scholarly” resources handed down from my over-priced seminary tuition), I found myself hesitant to look at the print. I found my eyes skimming the words of scripture like a text book of boring material I resented being forced to stare into.  At first, I didn’t even realize this was happening; but the moment the reality struck me, I burst up from my chair in the kitchen as if I’d just found a black widow spider by my foot.

At that moment, I wasn’t looking into The Book, but into the very heart of spiritual exhaustion. And I didn’t want to see it.  I couldn’t see it. I had too much work to do.

Feeling like a complete schmuck, I paced over to the kitchen sink, and stared into nothing for a moment; when all of the sudden, my mouth moved and words pushed persistently out from my mind like typed paper from a printer.  I was talking with God, with no barriers, and certainly no specific intention. I wasn’t trying to pray. This was not a moment of set-aside meditation. It was a moment of needful interaction—like one of those moments, when you’ve been holding something in for too long that you’ve needed to say to your spouse, and it suddenly just bursts out while you’re grabbing a box of cereal from the shelf at the grocery store.

As absurd as it might sound, I found myself talking to God for so long in fact, that I eventually wound up pouring myself a cup of coffee as I spoke, staring up and out the window.  This conversation over coffee lasted a while, and I call it a “conversation,” because the expression, and understanding, and communication, was not a one-way rant, but a two-way time of connection between myself and the Life around me. In this conversation I told God I couldn’t lose It (God/You/”Him”)—-that I couldn’t let the fact that I had responded to God’s call, cause me to fall away from God, or become detached from God. I told God that I understood “Him” (“Him” being used here and after only for the sake of structural ease) to be the very Life inside of me, and that I could not live without that Life for the sake of trying to help others find that Life for themselves. It simply wouldn’t and couldn’t work that way.

In saying these things, my words then fell to fear and skepticism. I asked God what the point of being in ministry was, anyway–and why He’d called me to such a strange and seemingly futile task. I asked God, how many people really felt Him in the world; and how many people even could feel Him in the world; and if most ever did at all, no matter how often you spoke about “Him” with each other in a sanctuary or on couches at each other’s homes.

Between all of these comments and questions, I sat still, and let myself connect with the loud silence of the presence of God.

As I stood there, staring out while absurdly sipping from my coffee mug like God was sitting across a table, God shared God’s Peace with me, and responded to the words which pushed out from my mind.

It was a long conversation, but there was one bold and blunt truth God’s Silence told me so loudly, that  the words were strangely and clearly defined in my mind, as if my ears had actually heard them through sound.

When I asked if people experienced God,  God told me this:

‘Some never do. Sometimes it’s only our own experience of God which allows them to even come close to feeling the presence of God while they’re alive.’ God said, ‘And that’s why you are a minister.

…So get back to work.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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