Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Asking Questions in Church

I spoke at length today with an old UM pastor-friend.  We talked theology, societal needs, and ministry in the Church.  We have some of the same questions about God and the Church.  Together we wondered how safe people feel in our churches to ask certain questions. 

For example, I envision a safety continuum something like this.

           1          2          3          4          5          6          7          8          9          10

How safe would it be in your church if someone asked, "What's wrong with a non-literal view of the Bible?"  Would this be a 1 or 2?

How about this one?  "Is Jesus really the only way to God?"  In your church would this rate a 2, 6, or 9? 

I suppose what I am raising here is not only questions, but statements about our faith that appear to contradict orthodox Christianity.  I recall a time in seminary when I questioned the virgin birth of Jesus.  A family member was deeply concerned that I was losing my faith. 

I have always contended that any question should be honored and faced within the Church.  One of the reasons that the Church is declining is exactly because people have not felt the freedom and safety to ask their questions within the Church.  It is possible that some questions are viewed as a threat to mainstream Christianity?

If the message of our faith is going to speak to new generations we need to not fear the questions.  For it is in the dialogue that historical truth begins to make sense to those who doubt.  It is in the holy conversations that the traditionalists among us can include a new insight here and there.

I, for one, pray for our churches to be safe places where questions can be honored and respectful debate can take place.

Grace Always,

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Worshiping with Alaska Lutherans

Last Sunday I had a rare treat...the opportunity to lead worship at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Wasilla.  The ELCA and UMC have a full communion agreement which means that clergy can be shared between the two denominations.  Pastor Duane Hanson who has served this congregation for 24 years retired last month.  Not only was I needed to preach and preside over communion, but I baptized a baby.

Here are a few of my observations.  I cannot say how many of them are unique to Good Shepherd or present in most ELCA congregations.
1. The very first part of worship was confession.
2. The baptism was done in the back of the sanctuary at the font.
3. Children were invited to sit on the floor next to the font to witness and participate in the baptism.
4. The Lord's Prayer is virtually identical to the UM version.
5. They use wine, juice, leavened bread, and offer gluten free wafers for communion.
6. They all come to the table with open hands to receive the bread.
7. During the offering the children walk forward to place their offerings in a large barn bank.
8. They love to laugh.
9. They do announcements at the very end of the worship.

I was most struck by how they received communion with open hands.  Every one made eye contact with me to listen to the words, "The body of Christ given for you."  It was a holy time for me.

I can't help but think that worshiping with Christians from other traditions now and then helps advance the kingdom of God in this world.  I give thanks to God, to Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, and Bishop Shelley Wickstrom for the grace shown me in recognizing my leadership.

Grace Always,

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Different Frames

Being a systems person I am always asking bigger questions when confronted with an issue or conflict.  For example, in one church conflict I kept asking, "Is it possible that the Alaskan climate, especially during our long, cold, dark winters is contributing in significant ways to this conflict?" 
I do the same thing with theology.  All of our beliefs about God come from somewhere.  We can say they come from the Bible, but it is our interpretation that has been shaped by how we have been raised or what we are reading.  We can say they come from our experiences, but these often have meanings we and others impose on them.  We can say they come from our own thinking, but our thoughts about God are never pure, having been shaped by other forces. 

So I find myself backing up when I have thoughts about God.  What is the larger picture or frame I am looking through to think this way about God?  Maybe, just maybe, my frame needs adjusting.  Or perhaps I need to peer through a totally different frame.
Marcus Borg in his book, "Speaking Christian," talks about two frames of Christianity.  The predominant and historic one he calls "Heaven and Hell" and the other "Historical-Metaphorical".  I don't think Borg uses this example but a good one is the flat earth view that existed centuries ago.  We become attached to our big picture frameworks and don't give them up easily.  Think about Christians today who refuse to believe in evolution despite the evidence and cling to a literal view of the Bible.  How about Peter's dream in Acts 10 where he was persuaded to change a long standing belief and tradition of circumcision?  What did it feel like for Peter to look at new Christians through a different frame? 

What would it be like if you looked at God or the world through a frame other than the one you are currently using?  Frightening?  Unsettling?  Freeing?  Giving up our frames is not easy.  But perhaps God is not calling us to give them up completely.  Perhaps it would benefit God's purposes if we considered another frame for awhile, just for the experience of it.  We would return to our comfortable frames.  But somehow we would be transformed a bit, even looking at the world and God slightly differently than before.
Grace Always,

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Church is NOT a Building!!

I confess one of my biggest pet peeves about Christians is how we perpetuate the myth that Church = Buildings.  We know the world does it all the time.  They talk about that lovely church on Main Street.  The reason they do it is because WE do it.  I have a meeting at church tonight.  We go to First Church.  Are you going to have a church wedding?

In some annual conference sessions of the United Methodist Church appointments are announced by displaying a photo of the pastor and one of the church BUILDING.  I thought pastors were appointed to communities and churches consisting of PEOPLE. 

Perhaps one of the consequences of hundreds of years of such references is the current decline in attendance across all Christian denominations.  We are losing our identity as a living, breathing, body of Christ.  And over the course of centuries we have replaced it with the notion of nice buildings with members. 

In reality the Church of Jesus Christ lives in the hearts and minds of people who confess to be followers of Jesus who seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.  It is not a physical building.  If the building where your church meets burns down today, your church would still exist to carry out the mission of God in the world.  

So let's use our language in ways that reflect our theology.  When referring to our buildings let's say buildings.  But when we are talking about the body of Christ let's use Church.  As many of us learned in Sunday School...

The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people. I am the Church, you are the Church, we are the Church together. All who follow Jesus all around the world, yes, we’re the Church together.

Grace Always,