Monday, July 7, 2014

Uncovering the Mystical Church

There is a difference between the institutional church and the mystical church.

Both are gifts of God, but one serves the other. The institutional church serves to uphold the mystical church, to ensure its propagation and to invite and welcome people to encounter its mystery. But it is the nest where the real eggs are hatched.

Many of the frustrations and hurts of Christians are rooted in getting tied up in the institutional church, which is all about programs, property, and personalities. The institutional church is not bad, not at all. It's just imperfect to be human, and the church is not immune to being human. In fact, we should be the first to stand up and say we are all broken, for our entire purpose is to point to the One who brings healing and wholeness and transforms our hurts with grace. When the institutional church sins, it sins boldly and trusts God to redeem us, rather than pretending that what we are doing is perfectly in the will of God.

A healthy and vibrant institutional church knows deep in its bones that there is a deeper movement underneath the surface. It's not a matter of recovering the mystical church, it's already there. It's a matter of uncovering, not recovering. The Spirit is at work and we are the body of Christ, bound together with a love that is beyond our human ability to love.

The mystical church is the fine wheat in the midst of tare. But where would we be if both churches did not co-exist, graced by God to grow?

The institutional church seeks converts, members, and volunteers. The mystical church seeks Jesus. The first serves to make the second possible, adn we give God the glory.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Memorial Day is a Monday

Memorial Day is a Monday, not a Sunday.

I say that as a grateful American who loves my country, who celebrates the blessings of freedom that so many laid their lives down for. I say that as someone who has a number of ancestors that fought boldly in the Revolutionary War, in addition to those that fought with courage in a variety of conflicts. I say that as someone who has traced his ancestors from early American history in Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, some of whom were involved in the beginnings of Methodism and some of whom were directly involved in the establishment of our principles of religious freedom. I say that as someone who has been to see their graves and remembered their sacrifices.

One of the things I value most is religious freedom in our country. The downside, of course, is that there are more versions of Christianity than I can count on our continent. Most are faithful traditions seeking God. Others are distortions that I consider dangerous. But I believe that due to the religious freedom we value so dearly, time sifts through what is truth and what is not. Each movement thrives or dies according to the purity of its fruit. I leave that to God, and I appreciate the right to choose expression of faith.

All this is to say it’s important to acknowledge those who have gone before us, remembering their sacrifices. But I must admit, it bothers me that we seem to forget Memorial Day is a Monday. We tend to just take the day off to barbeque, or go to the lake, or get some housework done, or spend leisure time with family. And we assume the church is there to cover for us on the day before.

Memorial Day is a federal holiday celebrated every year on the final Monday of May. It originated after the Civil War to commemorate the deceased Union and Confederate soldiers. By the 20th century, it had been extended to honor all Americans who have died while in the military service. Many people visit cemeteries and memorials, particularly to honor those who have died in military service. I usually spend a little time maintaining or sharing the online memorials I have made of family who served in the military.

So I suppose I’m not reminding us Memorial Day is a Monday just because of my discomfort with too much of a sprinkling, into Sunday worship, of “civil religion,” that set of quasi-religious attitudes, beliefs, rituals, and symbols that tie members of a political community together. It is true that I am conservative about what is displayed on the communion table and religious symbolism in the sanctuary, which should point to Christ and to the grace of God, and not who we are and what we stand for. It is true that I do not consider the flag an essential piece of Christian worship furniture with the same prominence as the communion table, the pulpit, and the font.

Mainly, I’m reminding us the Memorial Day is a Monday because we must never forget national holidays, such as Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, and Labor Day were created to give us Mondays to commemorate, remember, and respect our heritage and national blessings. It’s not to be “covered” by worship the day before. Worship is to focus all of our lives on the redeeming grace of God through the love of Jesus Christ. Each national Monday is a time to do something intentional to remember, reflect, and respond.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Letters to Jesus

Each year, I invite confirmands to write a letter to Jesus, expressing their thoughts and feelings to Christ and their decision about whether to be confirmed. I promise them that only I will read them, and they were all incredibly beautiful.

I would like to share a few quotes, so you can have a sense of what God has been doing in the hearts of these young men and women:

“I think my heart is going to say yes I am ready to be confirmed.”
“Thank you for dying for me. I love you.”
“I am ready to be confirmed because I want to follow you the rest of my life.”
“I believe in you. Not just because people tell me to, but because you’re a friend. When times are bad you’re there. When times are very good you’re there.”
“I really feel loved in this amazing church.”
“My beliefs for you are strong but like everybody I have my ups and downs.”
“I am very grateful for you being my Savior, my one and only God.”
“Thank you for letting us know that when things may seem like they are over and gone, they never really are.”
“I feel very peaceful because I know that you are always there for me. I have always known this, but right now it seems very real, like you are right beside me and smiling while watching me compose this letter.”

What a joy it is to serve and share Christ with all of God’s children.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Pushing the "Pause Button" in the Middle of Easter Stories

Yesterday in morning worship, we shared about Jesus appearing to Thomas, who did not yet believe he had risen. We reflected on the way Thomas experienced his own “resurrection” of the mind, now able to see with different eyes. Jesus did not do funerals. Jesus did resurrections. And he continues to do them!

Sometimes there is more I wish we had time to share in a sermon. So last night, at our last “Evening Prayer at the Piano” for the spring season, I shared a few more thoughts about John 20, reading the remainder of the chapter. I would like to share these thoughts with you.

In John chapters 20 and 21, several amazing resurrection appearances are reported. It begins with disciples running to see the empty tomb and Mary Magdalene weeping outside, mistaking Jesus for the gardener. Then Jesus appears and breathes on them, inviting them to receive the Holy Spirit … and Thomas wasn’t there. Then there was the story of Thomas, who did not believe until he saw for himself, a story which ends with Jesus’s words “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Then John pushed the pause button. Woah!

He paused before he tells of Jesus appearing by the lakeside, telling the disciples where to find fish and inviting them to the fire to eat breakfast. He paused before he reports on Jesus telling Peter three times to “feed my sheep” after asking if he loved him, and before the book closed with John’s confession that he is the beloved disciple he had been referring to (and clearing up the rumor that he would not die).

He paused right between chapters 20 and 21, in the middle of these amazing stories, to say this: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

Why hit the pause button? Why insert commentary there?

Look at the setup. He hit the pause button right after John told us what Jesus said to Thomas, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.” He is speaking of you and me, and he is speaking to you and me. We are blessed because though we did not see the risen Christ for ourselves, we believe. And through believing, we find life in his name. This is the whole point of the resurrection!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Tide of Easter - Reflections on the "at-ONE-ment" of Christ

Easter is a day of great joy and celebration, not only because it is the culmination of the drama of Holy Week, and not only because it is the climax of the entire Lenten experience. It is the grandest celebration of the church because it is the ultimate expression of new life in Christ. Because of the resurrection, we have been set free from the bonds of sin and death. Thanks be to God!

Now that the holy day is over, and the season of “Eastertide” has begun, it is a good time to reflect on the deeper mystery of what I sometimes call the “great trilogy”, the three big events that changed faith history: the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection.

One of these standing alone would not be enough to save the world. These three pivotal events intertwine to form the sacred story of salvation by grace. It is by the work of God, who crossed over the chasm between the divine and human, that Jesus became what we are so that we can become like he is. It is by the self-emptying love of Christ that we find the ultimate expression of God’s very being and discover the essence of true love. And it is by the immense victory of life over death that we find meaning when we ourselves walk through death’s shadow. These three events shape our spirituality and restore the world to wholeness.

I have never been a fan of teachings related to the concept of “substitutionary atonement.” These teachings revolve around the idea that God had to vindicate himself against himself, because of the blood sacrifice he demanded for sin. So Jesus had to pay the price to purchase our forgiveness from God (when Jesus is, himself, God’s self). I do not mean to caricature a belief that is sacred to many, but for me, it simply doesn’t make any sense. The atonement is not a transaction, a slight of hand, or tricky payoff.

But seeing each of the “great trilogy” of events as an integral part of the salvation story puts the atonement in perspective. I appreciate what the Disciple Bible Study series teaches, that the essence of the atonement is the restorative “at-ONE-ment” action of God. This is what both the cross and the resurrection are about.

The cross is the ultimate expression of God’s self-giving love, and it is the emptiness of the cross that expresses our victory over the grave. The atonement is not some twisted transaction that an angry God required to satisfy himself. It is the most extreme, life-changing, earth-cleansing expression of the very nature of God’s stubborn love. God refused to give up on us, on a world that kept “going to pot” on its own. And the grace of God’s love is what transforms the cross into victory.

Easter is not about avoiding God’s judgment. It is about embracing God’s grace! We must never stop at thinking Easter is our ticket to heaven. It is about more than personal salvation. It is about the world’s redemption.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Churches Are So Full of Drama!

Usually when people talk about all the “drama” at their church, it’s not a good thing. But this week? It certainly is.

Holy Week is the most dramatic week imaginable for people of faith. We began yesterday with grand processionals and palms, acknowledging the kingship of Christ who reigns in glory. During the services themselves, we moved our thoughts toward the passion of Christ, who emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant. We began to fathom the wondrous love this is, that he would pour himself out for others.

During the week, our thoughts and liturgies will move toward the cleansing of the temple, when Jesus made his boundaries clear that cultural and commercial religiosity is not acceptable to the heart of God. When Jesus got angry, we need to pay attention to it.

Then there is the betrayal and denial. I can’t imagine the sorrow Jesus felt when he was betrayed and denied by such close friends (as we all know, people you don’t care about can’t hurt you as much as someone you love). I often reflect that out of 12 disciples, which Jesus had spent 3 years closely with, one of them betrayed him, one denied him, and two of them couldn’t see past their own desire for status and position. In the end, 1/3 of the disciples let him down.

Then there is Maundy Thursday, when Jesus shared Passover with his disciples, dramatically changed the symbols of the night to become about his body and blood and sacrifice, instituted our precious sacrament, washed the feet of his disciples, and gave them a new commandment that we love one another as he has loved us.

Then we arrive at Good Friday, when Jesus died on the cross and gave himself for you and me. How strange that we should call it “good” when it is a day so full of darkness. Yet we call it good because it is holy darkness; this is how God chose to save and redeem the world. Then we pause for the darkness of the tomb on Saturday.

Then we will gather for Sunrise service and breakfast on Easter. We are always (and have always been, and always will be) people of hope! All of our liturgies and activities lead us through this dramatic journey. I hope you will participate as much as you can.

But the drama of the story itself is greater than anything we can possibly dramatize. Let the week move your heart and deepen your soul. Let it bring you to tears and cause you to struggle. Let it be dark night of the soul, which brings us to the joy of Easter light.

It’s a good thing there’s a lot of drama at your church. That’s just what the world needs.

Pictured is Antonio Ciseri's "Behold the Man"

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Way of the Methodists

We are entering a time of transition at Saint Mark. On Sunday, our Staff-Parish Relations Committee chair announced that I am being appointed by Bishop Wallace-Padgett to serve as pastor of Arab First United Methodist Church in Arab, Alabama.

Saint Mark is truly an incredible church, well-known for doing great things in missions and hands-on ministry. Sandy and I love the people here, and the church has been very good to my family as we finished the journey of raising Jeremy and entered the transition into the empty nest. I will always cherish and value our time together, and I have learned so much about love and about life!

I couldn’t be more excited about the pastor coming to Saint Mark. Ron Gonia is a well-known, brilliant, and gifted pastor in our conference with 24 years of experience. He is presently serving as pastor of Fultondale United Methodist Church. His wife, Rachel, is also a member of the clergy and will continue serving as pastor of Hoover First UMC. They have a wonderful daughter, Jessie, who is 22 years old.

Rachel is well known in missions in our conference as former director of the Society of St. Andrew, and Ron plans to graduate in May with a Doctor of Ministry degree from Columbia seminary in Altanta where he did his DMin project related to his involvement in prison ministry.

Sandy and I love Saint Mark, but at the same time we are excited about the new opportunity and adventure with the people of Arab First UMC!

During Lent, I have been preaching on the theme of “The Way” and we have considered the “Way of the Pole,” the “Way of the Mud,” and the “Way of the Wind.” Smooth and healthy pastoral transitions are the “Way of the Methodists!” I look forward to the next steps of my life and ministry.