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Posts Tagged ‘discipleship

Rise Up

Image from Mother Jones

Craven and cruel. That’s the only way I can describe the GOP leadership in the U.S. right now, and the unchecked decisions they are making that impact us all. As Christians, how do we respond?

First, the evidence of cravenness and cruelty: deliberately pursuing policies that break up immigrant families; offering aid and comfort to white supremacists while refusing to pursue justice for people of color; passing tax laws that increase income inequality; legislating in the interest of billionaires and corporations against the needs of everyone else; dismantling public lands, institutions and resources; attacking law enforcement and intelligence agencies who uncover crimes by those on their side, while manipulating evidence against the other party; denying health care to children for political gain; ignoring the women who accuse leaders of sexual assault and harassment; claiming faith as a reason for discrimination against LGBTQ people and women’s reproductive health; abiding untruth and advocating lies; rejecting asylum seekers and refugees fleeing violence; stripping protection for our shared air, earth and water; and so much more.

An ocean away, I struggle to know how to resist this movement toward selfishness and callousness. I’m not there to organize or intercede in the resistance movements.

But I realize one of the most important things we must be doing to fight cravenness and cruelty is to form people in the way of Christ, which demands sacrifice, compassion, love of neighbors and enemies. In order to stop this movement of brutality and selfishness, we will need people of moral courage, generosity of heart, truth-telling, sacrificial commitment, and deep kindness. We need to BE those people, steeped in those habits of love, joined together with others of many faiths and no faith, to maintain our common humanity in this time.

While I still look to engage publicly in movements of justice and peace, I am feeling a renewed passion for my original calling–to engage people in the work of discipleship. The forces of cravenness and cruelty abide everywhere around us, not just in elected officials. We must each be a counter-force of courageous compassion, in the places where we live and work as much as in the streets and legislative halls. How can we, in the church, help form people in the habits of love, equipped to speak the truth, moved to care for the earth and for one another even as those around us mock and deride those values?

With this question deep in my mind and heart, I’m planning a Lenten study and sermon series on faith practices and holy habits. It might look innocuous and apolitical to talk about prayer, service, friendship, breaking bread, bearing witness. To me, though, it seems like a return to this most basic work of formation is the strongest bulwark we can build against the urgent drumbeat of callousness, cruelty and cowardice. These practices give each one of us the tools to immediately and locally resist the forces of hate and indifference, in ourselves and in the systems (large and small) we inhabit.

Discussion welcome. Political screeds and personal attacks are not, and will be deleted.

 

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KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThis past Sunday was Pentecost, the day we commemorate the arrival of the Holy Spirit as described in Acts 2, a day often called the birthday of the church. It’s one of my favorite stories in all of scripture. The drama of the wind and fire, the many voices speaking the good news of Christ, the power of Peter’s preaching, the crowds moved to follow.

Inspired by this wonderful article by my colleague Rev. Emily C. Heath, I started thinking about what it meant to be a Pentecost Church. I want to be part of a ministry as vibrant and alive with the Holy Spirit as that second chapter of Acts. What happened at Pentecost, and can it happen in our churches today? Can we carry on the spirit of the Spirit? What would be the marks of such a congregation, a Pentecost Church?

(This is not to be confused with a Pentecostal Church, a tradition which traces its roots to the Azusa Street Revival. The marks of a Pentecostal Church include baptism by the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues.)

Drawing on that original story in Acts, I’ve identified six marks of a Pentecost Church. These are elements of a church alive with the Holy Spirit, and could describe any church that aspired to embody them.

1. A Pentecost Church is touched by the Holy Spirit.

A Pentecost Church actually believes the Holy Spirit is alive and moving among the congregation. They anticipate that God will show up and do something to them and through them that will amaze and inspire.  This seems obvious, but I’ve been in plenty of churches that expect very little of the Holy Spirit in their worship services. Some churches even act as though they are hoping the Spirit in her wildness doesn’t show up, because it might mess with their plans and patterns. By contrast, a Pentecost Church expects the Holy Spirit to surprise  and delight, and also to provoke and disrupt. She may cause a spontaneous outburst of applause, or tears, or laughter, or an “amen” from the depths of the soul. A Pentecost Church gathers with the expectation that the Holy Spirit will join them, and watches with joy when the Spirit blows through.

2. A Pentecost Church speaks multiple languages.

The miracle of the original Pentecost was the ability to share Christ’s good news in all the languages of the ancient world. A Pentecost Church today must speak in the many languages of the modern world. That doesn’t just mean English, Spanish, Creole, Mandarin and Tagalog. Today’s “many languages” include the language of multiple generations. A Pentecost Church endeavors to deliver the good news to some in traditional worship and bible study, to others via Facebook and Twitter. A Pentecost Church pursues fluency in social media and popular culture, in books and movies and television characters. The church must avoid insider language that is only meaningful to those who already attend (see Rev. Heath’s article for a great explanation of this). While no church can be all things to all people, a Pentecost Church constantly works to translate the good news of Jesus Christ into as many languages as possible, so that everyone can hear it. Their translation breaks down barriers between young and old, rich and poor, in and out, faith and no faith.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA3. A Pentecost Church dreams, visions and prophesies.

Peter’s Pentecost sermon promises that “Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young will see visions, and your elders will dream dreams.” The thing about prophesies, dreams and visions is that they all move forward into the future. A Pentecost Church is not preoccupied with the past—it is captivated by the future. In a Pentecost Church, everybody has dreams and visions for what the church can be and how God will be calling them into bold possibilities. Young people have visions for the church’s future, and they are trusted with the power to execute those visions. Elders do not hold tight to current habits, intent to preserve their way of doing church for themselves. They also dream dreams, foreseeing the church living on without them in ways that are even more beautiful and holy than they could have predicted. By the power of the Holy Spirit, a Pentecost Church faces forward.

4. A Pentecost Church is visible in the community.

Pentecost was the day that the church went public. After the disciples and followers spent time alone with Jesus following the resurrection, the arrival of the Holy Spirit carried them out of their upper room and into the streets. A Pentecost Church understands its life as a public witness, a beacon of hope and a mission outpost for God’s love. Whether it is serving hungry neighbors, giving out clothing, taking a stand for social justice, responding to a natural disaster, marching in the local parade, or showing up at a city council meeting, a Pentecost Church is a visible force, a vehicle for the Spirit’s love in the world. They do not hide from the public eye, but strive to be a force for good in their local community. (Again, Rev. Heath’s article tackles this with greater depth.)

5. A Pentecost Church changes lives.

When the crowd/community witnessed the Pentecost preaching from Peter, the scripture says they were troubled and wondered what to do. Peter replied, “Change your hearts and lives.” A Pentecost Church is a church that changes lives—of members, newcomers, visitors and community members. The Holy Spirit comes to disrupt and transform us. A Pentecost Church that expects the Holy Spirit also expects people to be transformed by that encounter. A Pentecost Church anticipates that when people meet the Holy Spirit in worship and fellowship, they will be inspired to greater love, kindness, generosity and faithfulness. They will even be moved to abandon their fears, let go of old wounds, practice forgiveness, overcome addiction, and turn their lives around. A Pentecost Church is full of people who have been changed by grace, and continue to be transformed by love.

pentecost6. A Pentecost Church seems just a little bit crazy.

Changing your life in response to the Holy Spirit, or getting ridiculously happy over seeing someone else’s life changing, or telling people that you have decided to spend your cash and your weekends serving the poor, or spontaneously clapping and rejoicing in worship can seem like strange behavior. That first Pentecost, the crowd declared that the disciples were acting so happy because they had gotten drunk at 9:00 a.m. A Pentecost Church has that kind of joyous intoxication of the Holy Spirit that sparks carefree laughter, unprompted kindness and a willingness to do whatever it takes to share God’s love with the world. Don’t be surprised if a visit to a Pentecost Church leaves you feeling a little high. The Holy Spirit does that.

A Pentecost Church is full of Pentecost People.

This is the most important mark of all. A Pentecost Church is filled with Pentecost people–people who have been touched by the Holy Spirit, people whose lives have been changed by their encounter with Jesus Christ, people who see visions and dream dreams, people who venture out of closed church doors and into the community, people who speak both the language of God and the language of the world, people crazy with the joyous love of God. The Pentecost Church creates, supports and sends these Pentecost People into the world, carrying the Holy Spirit with them wherever they go, in love and joy.

What do you think? Is your church a Pentecost Church? Would you like it to be?

The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, translated by R.H. Fuller and Irmgard Booth, Simon & Schuster, Touchstone edition, 1959, 316 pp.

51G4bZO8VMLThis last Epiphany, the lectionary presented the first two chapters of the Sermon on the Mount. As I approached a multi-week sermon series on those famous words of Jesus leading into the season of Lent, it seemed an appropriate time to re-read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic. I have also been lately pondering the idea of discipleship, its importance in our current context and how, as a church, we direct our efforts toward growing disciples.

The opening chapter on cheap grace versus costly grace always cuts to the quick, and it has made this book such a classic, even though it was written long before Bonhoeffer’s incredible story of resistance to the Nazis. However, in my reading this time around, I focused instead on the themes of discipleship, starting here:

Hitherto the Christian life had been the achievement of a few choice spirits under the exceptionally favorable conditions of monasticism; now it is a duty laid on every Christian living in the world. The commandment of Jesus must be accorded perfect obedience in one’s daily vocation of life. (48)

Reading with different eyes this time, I saw the way that Bonhoeffer’s description of cheap grace accorded with many descriptions of Christian life under Christendom. “The antithesis between Christian life and the life of bourgeois respectability is at an end. The Christian life comes to mean nothing more than living in the world and as the world, in being no different from the world.” (51) Bonhoeffer saw that the easy merger between Christianity and citizenship led to a cheap and shallow faith, because it required neither sacrifice nor dedication to practice it. Authors in our context today refer to this as American Christendom or civic religion–a system of basic weekly attendance, public rituals and shared beliefs that amount to little transformation, and barely resemble the Christianity of Christ. (See Robinson, Dean, and Reese, among others.)

Bonhoeffer then presents the distinct marker of true discipleship: obedience. “Only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes… For faith is only real when there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience.” (63-64) The next several chapters go on to describe the requirements of single-minded obedience to Christ–not to ideas or principles or communities, but to Christ alone. The foundation of discipleship for Bonhoeffer is simple obedience to Christ in all things. The remaining chapters of commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, and the subsequent section on issues of church doctrine (baptism, communion, saints, community) are all teasing out what it means to be absolutely obedient to Christ.

I was struck by the power of this idea of obedience in Bonhoeffer’s own context. The Cost of Discipleship was originally published in Germany in 1937, as Hitler and the Nazi regime were consolidating their power over the German people by demanding absolute obedience to the Fuhrer. Obedience to orders was a ubiquitous concept at the time–and Bonhoeffer simply substituted another figure whom we ought to obey. Replacing obedience to “law and order” or the Fuhrer with obedience to Christ and the law of sacrificial love turns everything upside down.

I also ponder how this works in our 21st century American culture, when obedience is loathed as a word and a concept. Especially in my progressive United Church of Christ context, obedience is connected with behavior that is uncritical, unfaithful, immature, and an affront not only to the individual but to God. We like to imagine that we have a more collegial relationship, even with the Almighty. We do not just follow orders (especially since we disagree about what those orders might be), but we see ourselves as evolving on a spiritual journey. We speak of becoming mindful servants, not mindlessly obedient–not even if our mind is replaced by the mind of Christ. It’s tough to imagine an invitation to absolute obedience to Christ generating a lot of interested new disciples.

And yet, I did not disagree with Bonhoeffer’s perspective about obedience (although I did take issue with some other things later in the book). What hope have we for nurturing new disciples if obedience remains a dirty word? How can we speak of the same thing in new ways? The ideas of fidelity, loyalty, dedication, belonging and identity might address the same concept in a way more appealing to 21st century American ears and hearts, yet I think something would be lost in translation. When it comes down to it, discipleship requires saying “yes” to Christ’s command to follow, which means a resounding “no” to much of the ways of the world.

There are, of course, many other things that can be said of this spiritual classic, but I will leave those to another future re-reading. If you’ve never read Bonhoeffer, or never read The Cost of Discipleship, I commend it to you highly. The first five chapters represent some of the most powerful insights on discipleship in all of Christian theology.

 

 

 

Copyright oracorac, flickr.com

Our family drove to Florida a few months ago. If you’ve ever made that journey, you know that the highways in Georgia and Florida are lined with billboards advertising pecans. Both J and I have mild allergies to nuts, but B loves them and seems unaffected. So, to pass the time, we were pointing out the billboards and asking him, “Hey, B, they have pecans! Wanna get some pecans?” His consistent reply was “Eww, yuck! No.” We assured him they were good and he would like them, but he refused. It became a repeating pattern: “Look, B, more pecans ahead! Good stuff! Don’t you want some pecans?” followed by “eww, yuck! No.”

We finally relented in pointing out the billboards, and another hour or so passed in the car. B spontaneously said, “I can’t believe you guys wanted me to eat that pee in cans. Yuck. Pee in cans. I wouldn’t like that at all.”

As hilarious as that moment was, and as revealing as it is about how I say “pecan,” it got me thinking about vocabulary. Since the advent of Willow Creek and other “seeker churches,” there has been an ongoing conversation about how the church’s extensive insider vocabulary can be intimidating, confusing or exclusionary for newcomers. Words like narthex, doxology, anthem and chancel have been replaced in some churches with less fancy (and more secular) terms like foyer, praise song, choir song, and stage. Other churches continue to use the traditional words, but make the effort to explain their meaning on a regular basis.

A church map to help orient newcomers, filled with words I don't even know.

We may be doing a better job of explaining those words, or putting things in terms people can understand,  but what about the more important words of our faith? Are we taking the time and energy to explain what we mean when we talk about forgiveness, resurrection, disciple, Passion, trinity, sin, prophet, Kingdom of God, grace, or the Body of Christ? In my experience, many of the people in our congregations, whether newcomers or lifelong members, have only a passing familiarity with these words. For example, I recently used the word Messiah in teaching a class.  While most of the class knew that referred to Jesus, that was the end of their understanding. They understood it as another name for Jesus, not a theological proclamation that Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s promise to send a savior for the world.

It’s easy to teach people to understand that the narthex is the foyer, but how can we teach them that disciple does not just to refer to the original twelve men, but to all who seek to follow Christ—and what that act of following means for our lives? Are we explaining that forgiveness, both human and godly, is more than saying “it’s fine, no big deal”? Do our references to the Kingdom of God include a clarification about where that kingdom resides, and our access to it? When we talk about grace, are we sure that people are hearing about the power of God’s love and forgiveness, or are they just thinking about a formulaic table prayer?

I wonder whether our preaching, teaching and evangelism sometimes resemble our car game: “Look, Jesus died on the cross! Forgiveness from sin! Grace! Want some? They’re good–you’ll like them!” It’s no wonder we hear, “eww, no, thank you,” because people don’t even understand what it is we are offering. Let’s be honest with ourselves. To those who do not know the vocabulary of our Christian faith, talk about sin and death on a cross, even with the promise of forgiveness and grace, is about as appealing as pee in a can. If we want to get past the “eww, yuck,” we need to find a way to explain what we’re talking about.

What does it mean to be a member?  Why does it even matter?

The question came from a woman who had returned to our church after an absence of more than 25 years. She had been baptized, confirmed and married at our church, and several of her children were baptized and even confirmed with us. No one in the church remembered her from those years, except the one neighbor who had invited her back. She had approached me to talk about how to get more involved in the church, and we were sitting on her back porch having that conversation. I had—carefully, gently, so as not to hurt or anger her by telling her she was no longer “on the rolls” as a member—invited her to renew her membership in the church along with several others who were joining for the first time.

Her question did not surprise me, but its directness confronted me with my own questions on the subject. We live in a world where loosely-organized and constantly changing social networks are fast becoming our norm for community. Institutional distrust is at an all-time high, and people will avoid church ties just because the church is an institution. Membership organizations of all kinds are losing ground as younger generations may be interested in participating, but not joining or holding office. Most people visiting our churches either have a spiritual journey that crosses multiple ecumenical (and even interfaith) lines, or no history of Christian faith at all. This context has a dramatic impact on the meaning of membership.

People come to our churches seeking faith, community, a chance to serve and to be a part of something bigger than themselves. In my church and many others, our first step in answering their quest is to offer them membership. The returnee who asked me the question sought all of those things, and as I sat with her on her back porch I tried to make membership the answer to her query. After all, my pastoral training has taught me to grow the church and get people to become members. Membership is about belonging to the community, I said, because we take care of one another. Reaffirming your membership vows means reaffirming your commitment to follow Christ and grow in your faith. It is promising to serve Christ by attending and supporting the church and helping us together serve the community. Joining our congregation links you up with the wider United Church of Christ and the church universal, God’s presence in the world.

In reality, though, I knew that she could find all those things through simple participation in my church, with or without ever becoming a member. I can say with some confidence that our church is a place where her spiritual quest can find support and fellow sojourners. We are a vital congregation, and we offer multiple ways to deepen your faith, connect with other people, find ways to use your gifts and talents in meaningful service, and be a part of something bigger than yourself.  But none of those activities require membership.

What would membership do for her? Let her vote in congregational meetings and hold some elected offices reserved for members. Most of our ministry teams are open to all for participation, regardless of membership status, so there is little added benefit to becoming a member. It might make her feel a greater sense of official belonging, but we have had plenty of people become members who never feel like they really belong. Beyond that? I can’t quite come up with much more that membership would do for her spiritual quest.

On the other hand, I could quickly and easily generate a list of ways that her becoming a member would benefit me, the pastor. Clergy have long been taught to measure our job performance by the number of new members added to our community, so there is a great benefit to me in getting someone to sign on as a new member. The church would grow, in a tangible way that I could report on next year’s yearbook forms and in my next job search. Membership also belongs to a care-taking model of ministry, where the pastor-as-shepherd is responsible for the well-being of the sheep. Membership helps me know who I am responsible for and who I am not, who I need to visit in the hospital and who I can put off, who I need to call when they stop attending worship and who I do not. Encouraging her to become a member helps me a great deal.

The church benefits from her membership too. People would see her participate in the public rite of membership, and see the church growing in numbers. People in the pews feel good when new people (or, in her case, returning ones) join the church—it gives them a sense of pride that other people want to be a part of their community. The church can look to her for financial support, and ask her to help in leadership and service. Again acting in the care-taking model, they will know that she is “one of us” and needs us to look out for her.

While membership does a whole lot to benefit the pastor and existing edifice of the church, I’m not sure what it does to build the church of the future or nurture future disciples. I’m still not satisfied that membership might play any significant role in a person’s quest to know the God of Jesus Christ.

Do not misunderstand me—I believe we still need a faithful path for people to commit themselves to the church. Faith grows by commitment, leadership and accountability. The church should be creating communities where people can make deeper commitments, be held accountable in their Christian walk and grow as leaders and witnesses. I just don’t think membership does those things, and I’m not sure exactly what it does do.

I have encountered some new churches that have engaged a different model of membership. Everyone that participates in some way—attending worship, volunteering in a service project, showing up for a fellowship group—is considered a part of the community. As individuals get more involved, they are invited to make a specific, holistic commitment to the congregations. Some churches call them “covenant partners” or “discipleship leaders.” These people make promises that include things like continuing to grow in their faith, supporting the church financially and with their time, participating in mission and service, and sharing their faith with others.

These churches, however, have already abandoned a care-taking model of ministry, and replaced it with a missional spirit where the pastor is a visionary and inspiring spiritual leader. They usually fall outside mainline denominations, where membership numbers hold the key to representation in regional bodies and polity power. They are newer and younger, so older generations who have held membership status in the church for decades are not displaced. I think it would be difficult to make the transition in our established churches, because people would perceive it as the creation of separate social strata in the church. (Of course, there are already social strata in the church, but we don’t like to talk about that.)

I am increasingly convinced, however, that church membership is a concept that has outlived its usefulness. We must begin to create richer, more nuanced and more open ways of understanding our church communities. We must rebuild our congregations on the model of mission outposts, rather than the model of social clubs and mutual aid societies. We must imagine new ways of making decisions and governing ourselves at the local and denominational level that are based on participation rather than record-keeping. We must measure our ministries by the fruits of the spirit taking hold and transforming lives, rather than the number of people who exit or enter our registry. Changing the meaning of membership is part of the wider cultural change taking place in the church, and it will require a generation or more to unfold.

But we have to start somewhere. Sitting on that back porch, having tried my best to make traditional membership the answer to her spiritual quest and to explain membership in some meaningful way, I finally gave up. “You asked a really good question–and a tough one,” I said. “The church that you grew up in has changed, and the world has changed. We don’t place as much value as we used to on having our name counted on a list as a member of the church or the Elks or the Masons or anything else. But we still have those old systems in place, until we figure out a new and better way. There is a lot of conversation right now about what role membership plays in the church. So maybe you can think about joining as a member of the church, and together we can figure out what that will mean.” In the end, she did. Together, I hope we keep the conversation going and figure out what it might mean.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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