Friday, April 18, 2014

A Week of Violence

Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. So the soldiers took charge of Jesus.  Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha).  There they crucified him, and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle.”—John 19:16-18, NIV

The week began with violence.  On Sunday afternoon, I was on the north side of Kansas City when a gunman shot and killed three people on the south side.  Once again, violence has been visited on the innocent, something that seems all too common in our nation.  And once again the hate was directed against the faithful.  The fact that the gunman intended to kill Jews and ended killing Christians only reminds us that an attack based on hatred against any person—no matter that person’s race, faith, or social status—is an attack on all of us. 

This is a week that ends in violence.  Jesus is flogged, ridiculed, forced to carry a cross through Jerusalem, and crucified.  His death is bloody, brutal, and very public.

There are many theological interpretations of the crucifixion.  Whatever you believe, two things seem central.  First, humanity put Jesus on that cross.  Not just political or religious leaders, but people like you and me.  No matter their motivation, they justified their actions as being good of the people.  Second, Jesus accepted this violence against his person.  In so doing, he stood in the place of all who suffer—past, present, future.  He identified with our humanity.  What a paradox!  Humanity put Jesus on the cross and he, in turn, accepted it on behalf of humanity.

When people are killed, mutilated, and abused, we grieve but are we willing to take the step that Jesus took and willingly stand in their place?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tax Day

Students working on neighborhood project
How do you explain taxes to a three-year-old?  I was leaving the house one day last week to pick up the completed tax return from our preparer.  Cooper, our grandson, asked where I was going.  When I told him, I could tell that the idea ‘taxes” was not on his radar.  I started to tell him that taxes help pay for the fire fighters and police officers (but they are only indirectly funded by Federal tax money).  I did tell him that the money we paid to the government helps build our roads.  I suppose I could have told him that the money helped to pay for our military but really did not want to go down that road too far.  As I thought about this later, I could have explained that our taxes (at least for now) help people who are sick and do not have food. 

This whole train of thought led me to think about the things that our tax money pays for that were provided in other ways in the past.  When people were less mobile, more connected to their neighbors, and involved in the local churches, many of the needs for food, clothing and even medical assistance were provided by churches and church members.  There was a community awareness and a commitment to those we knew that motivated us to reach out and help.

We no longer live in such times.  Class and economic divisions isolate us from one another.  Those of us who live in “good” neighborhoods don’t know our neighbors much less those who live in “less desirable” areas.  Churches do help people in need but it is often one step removed from the congregants and provided through professionals or social service organizations.  There are exceptions, of course, but there is a real divide between the “haves” and the “have nots” not only on the national but the local level.

Churches and not-for-profits can help to bridge some of this gap, but the situation has become so complex that state and national governments must play a role.  There are some politicians who seem to think that we still live in a “Main Street USA” world where churches do all the heavy lifting to help the needy, therefore they believe that programs that address hunger, homelessness, and medical needs are none of the government’s business.  Welcome to the real world, folks!  I am not overjoyed about paying taxes, but I do it because there are some things that I cannot address with my resources and that can only be addressed on the macro level. 

I pay my taxes, attempt to alleviate need on the local level, and support organizations that do the same.  Now I expect my political leaders to be good stewards of the funds I send to them.  Is that asking too much?

The moral of the story is this:  When you try to explain something to a three-year-old, be prepared to engage in some real serious thinking.

(This was first posted on April 13, 2012 and  has been one of the most popular posts on this blog.  Two years late, my sentiment on the subject is unchanged.)

Sunday, April 06, 2014

A Symbol of Community

The Mall in Washington, DC, is one of my favorite open spaces.  Anchored at one end by the Lincoln Memorial and at the other by the U. S. Capitol building, the Mall is impressive not because of what surrounds it but for what it represents.  The Mall is an area that symbolizes the openness of the United States of America to fresh ideas and new people.

Certainly, one does not have to look too closely to observe the security precautions even in this area, but I am always impressed by this great open space in the middle of a busy major city.  On most days, the Mall is occupied by people walking, jogging, playing games, taking pictures, or just “hanging out.”  These are U. S. citizens from many different ethnic backgrounds and many of the states, representing the diversity of our nation.  Visitors from other countries are evident as well, coming to see the national capital of our country and its many sights.

For me, the Mall is an expression of community.  Community does not come easily; it takes work.  From the beginning, citizens of our country have been trying to determine what community really means.  Who is in and who is out?  Despite the noble words of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, many were excluded from full citizenship in that community at the beginning.  Women were second class citizens.  African-Americans were property.  Native Americans were an inferior people to be used and abused.  People of various ethnic minorities were feared and marginalized.  Our understanding of what it means to part of the community in the United States has continued to evolve to match the high ideals of those founding documents.

We are not where we need to be, but when I stand on the Capitol Mall on a beautiful, sunny day, I see signs that we are moving in the right direction.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

What is a Missional Ecclesiology?

Hardly a week goes by without another poll dealing with the decline and marginalization of the church.  One might become easily discouraged by such reports, but I believe that one antidote is to develop a new way of looking at the life and work of the church.  This comes through the understanding and implementation of a missional ecclesiology.

In theological circles, ecclesiology is the study of the doctrine of the church.  There have been a number of ways of interpreting the nature of the church informed by the Bible, history, context and practice.  Ecclesiology is an evolving doctrine.

The term “missional” refers to the essential nature and vocation of the church as God’s called and sent people.  Missional is a way of being and doing life as individuals, groups, and congregations.

Living missionally means that we ask the question, “What does God want us to be, do, and become to continue the ministry of Christ within our own community and global context?” rather than, “What do we want to be, do, and become to respond to our denominational programs or unexamined beliefs and traditions?”

Rowan Williams has expressed what it means to embrace a missional ecclesiology in this way:  “It is not the Church of God that has a mission, but the God of mission who has a church.”  A missional church is the sent church of a sending God.

What’s the difference between “missions” and “missional”?  In the Christendom era of the church (which some of us believe still exists), missions was understood to be a program of the congregation supported by financial offerings, prayer, organizations, and projects.  In the age of the missional congregation, missions refers to those initiatives taken by individuals, impromptu groups and organized entities to respond to identified needs in the world, as a continuation of the mission of God.

Developing a theology of the church (ecclesiology) that is informed by a missional vision gives one a new perspective on what it means to be the church today.  As a result, we are no longer concerned about survival but faithfulness, no longer invested in growing our influence but in serving others, and no longer inward focused but outward focused. 

Your vision will determine your ecclesiology.  What is your vision for the church?

[Additional resources about a missional ecclesiology:   A Missional Journey Guide (Atlanta:  CBF; 2002), and Darrel Guder, et al., MissionalChurch:  A Vision for the Sending of theChurch in North America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).]

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Learning from Experience

According to the story, a young person asked an older, wiser person, “How do I avoid mistakes?”  The mentor said, “Get experience.”  The young person rejoined, “Then how do I get experience?” The reply:  “Make mistakes.” 

Of course, this assumes that one learns from his or her mistakes.  Unfortunately, many of us make mistakes again and again but never learn from them.  How do we learn from mistakes?  Let me suggest several steps.

First, pray that God will give you a teachable spirit.  If we are unwilling to learn from our mistakes and adapt our behavior, we won’t improve.  We will continue to do the same thing again and again and expect different results. Albert Einstein called that insanity.

Second, give yourself the space to reflect on exactly what happened.  Don’t obsess about it, but make sure that you have a well-rounded picture of events.  You might even ask a trusted friend who observed the event or action to give you some honest feedback.  The perspective may well be very different from your own.

Third, consider some alternative ideas, approaches, or ways of acting.  This is another place where a trusted mentor or friend may help by offering suggestions.  Try to find out what others have done in the same situation.  Their experiences may not be replicable in your case but may stimulate your thinking.

Fourth, practice a new way of doing what you did before.  This is more than “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”  This is “If at first you don’t succeed, try a different, more informed approach.”

I once confessed to a supervisor that about half of the things that I was trying in my ministry situation were not working.  His advice was, “Don’t stop trying.”  Even failures can fuel successful if we use them wisely.

This post originally appeared as an ABP blog in January 2014

Monday, March 17, 2014

Calling and Vocation

Despite the vast changes in work and society, we continue to ask children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  We plant in children at an early age that their work, their job, will be an important part of their identity.  Perhaps we would serve them better if we asked the question, “What will you become?”

There seems to be renewed interest among Baptist Christians in the concepts of vocation and calling.  The words are used in different ways in various contexts.  Although we tend to think about only those who work with the sacred as having a “calling” and those who work in the secular world as having a “vocation,” this is not true in all Christian traditions and is probably poor theology.

Whether we see what we do as a vocation or a calling, they are intertwined.  The message is the same:  We serve God by responding to the prompting of God to do that for which we are best equipped. Our vocation or calling should be an expression of what God has designed each of us to be and become.

My own experience of calling to a ministry vocation slowly emerged as an inner sense of “rightness” and an outer affirmation of other voices came into alignment.  I did not hear that “still small voice,” but I became gradually aware of my own gifts and competencies and, almost hungrily, grasped any word of encouragement or affirmation I received from mentors or peers about my gifts for ministry.  The truth here (in my experience anyway) is that the call to vocational ministry does not happen in a vacuum.  It results from the intersection between one’s growing understanding of his or her God-given gifts and one’s involvement in a community of a faith.

In subsequent years, I have learned that this calling to a vocation is not a static experience.  As we go trough life and encounter new experiences, learning, and opportunities, our sense of calling continues to evolve.  Ernesto Carnedal wrote,

"God’s call, vocation, is twofold. God calls us saying, ‘Come, follow me.’ We arrive and then we must follow. We find but must go on seeking. God’s call is a never-ending call, to the unknown, to adventure, to follow him in the night, in solitude. It is a call incessantly to go further, and further. For it is not static but dynamic (as creation also is dynamic) and reaching him means going on and on. God’s call is like the call to become an explorer; it is an invitation to adventure.”

No matter what age we may be, we can continue to ask the question, “What will you become?”

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Saint Patrick: Legend and Inspiration

This week many will celebrate the life of Saint Patrick of Ireland with green shamrocks, green clothing, green beer, and even green rivers.  The day has become a time to celebrate the mythos of Eire, the Emerald Isle, and to party, but we can also take advantage of the day to take a second look at Patrick the churchman and his legacy.

As one might expect, much of the story of Patrick is shrouded in myth. The accepted story is that he was kidnapped from Britain by Irish raiders when he was 16 and taken to Ireland where he was a slave for six years.  He eventually escaped and returned to his family, but he took vows with the Church and returned to his place of enslavement as a missionary.  He is credited with converting the island to the Christian faith.  By the seventh century, he had come to be revered as the patron saint of Ireland.

The genius of Patrick seems to have been his ability to contextualize the faith in order to win converts.  He took advantage of the well-developed stories, customs, and institutions of Ireland to present the Gospel in a powerful way.  So significant was this approach that it gave birth to what we call Celtic Christianity, a movement that differentiated itself from the Roman form of the faith for centuries.

 In his book The Celtic Way of Evangelism, George Hunter identifies several aspects of this approach:

·         A team strategy.  The followers of Patrick usually worked in cohorts for mutual support and encouragement.
·         Spiritual empowerment from a community of believers.  Celtic Christian created a number of “foundations” (also called houses or monasteries) that became centers of civilization and learning as well as evangelism.
·         Imaginative prayer.  They took seriously the world around them as a gift from God and immersed themselves in its beauty and power as a means of becoming closer to God.
·         Hospitality.  They readily accepted seekers, guests, and refugees into their midst.
·         A conversion model based on fellowship.  Whereas the Roman model could be summarized as believe, belong, and practice, the Celtic model was belong, practice, and then believe.

How much of this can be credited to Patrick is by no means clear, but accounts testify to him as a man of both commitment and creativity.  Patrick and his followers seemed to show a love and respect for their fellows which built a bridge over which unbelievers could cross without fear.  Mythic or not, the example is inspiring to believers in the 21st century.

(A version of this was originally posted in March 2011.)