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Archive for October, 2015

Change is inevitable! It’s the one thing I have learned in ministry. Change is the only true constant I have ever discovered. When I first took my vows of ordination 30 years ago, the bishop asked me a question: “Are you going on to perfection?” The only acceptable answer to that question is, “Yes.” But I didn’t realize then that going on to perfection meant that I was in for a life full of changes. I don’t like change. I want things to get to a good place and then stay the same. I’ve come to realize that the reason we so often hearken back to “the good old days” is that we want a time when things were somewhat predictable and patterned, but it is difficult to hold onto those “good old days.”

Some of the change I have experienced in my life is small … gradually growing older or slowly learning new skills. But many of the changes I have experienced are paradigm shifting. One of the biggest paradigm shifts is the reality that we no longer worship in our grandparent’s church. Church was once the locus of the community … it was the place where we focused our lives … around worship, fellowship and fun. It was where we went for our inspiration and our entertainment. But the church is no longer that for very many communities. As a matter of fact, the church is considered largely irrelevant for many people in our culture.

Historically, the church made a dramatic paradigm shift when, in 380 CE, Christianity was fully transformed from being a countercultural (outlawed) faith to being the official religion of the Roman Empire. From that moment through our modern era, the church has enjoyed not only protection by the government, but a place of prominence in most western nations for over 1,600 years. This form of Christianity has often been called Christendom (a combination of the words Christianity and Kingdom).

That is now changing, and we are in a post-Christendom era. As much as many of our politicians may appeal to their own understanding of the claims of Christianity, our world is simply no longer dependent upon Christianity as a central reality in our lives. For many, Christianity is simply irrelevant.

For the church, this has caused a shaking of our foundations. Our new house is in southern Georgetown, and we are not terribly far from a rock quarry. During the week sometime around midday, we will feel the house shudder as they blast in the quarry. The walls shake and the foundation reverberates with the blast that is happening. That’s what I feel like when paradigms start to shift and when change begins to occur. My foundation is shaking!

BUT SUCH CHANGE IS NOT ALWAYS BAD!

Yes, you read this correctly. Change is inevitable. More importantly, God is inevitably working through change to lead us on to perfection.

Vital Congregations abound, and we have many people who are addressing vitality within the church. Bishop Robert Schnase wrote a book several years ago called Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, and in that book, he taught us about churches that practice radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith development, risk-taking mission and service and extravagant generosity. There are many others who are helping lead the church to a new reality … a new paradigm that is very different from the church in which I grew up.

My own thought here is that Christ is calling us back and beckoning us forward.

Christ is calling us back! Christ is calling us back to understand the radical nature of his teaching. He is calling us back to his radical nature of reaching out to those who are in the margins. He is calling us back to God’s providence where we can trust that God will provide for us if we will just “let go and let God” be God. He is calling us back with a warning that people who misinterpret “religion” as that which gives them power over others are threatened with the fires of hell. I often like to point out that the only people whom Jesus routinely condemned to hell were the religious leaders, so I usually start my day with the admonition to myself this is dangerous stuff … handle with care! Ultimately, Jesus is calling us back to the simple faith of following and trusting only in God.

And Christ is beckoning us forward! We are being called to be a church that reaches out in new ways. We are called to be a church that sees where the world needs a savior and offers that savior to the world. We are being called forward to be the leaven in the loaf as we give rise to the kingdom of God in the world. We are being called to welcome those who have been rejected … yes, even by the church.

Above all, we are being called to look for Christ in those whom we serve. One of the greatest paradigm shifts for me happened in the more recent past as I suddenly realized that Jesus wasn’t telling me to be Christ to the least of these … Jesus was telling me to serve the least of these and discover the Christ in them!

Change is so hard for me! Yet I know the bishop was right … it is the path on which I journey toward perfection. Change is inevitable, but so is the grace of God that passes all understanding! Let the foundations shake … the foundation upon which I stand is the foundation of God alone!

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What is My Witness?

We all witness to something. In our series at church, we have been discovering how to take the next step on our Disciple’s Path as we move more deeply into our vows to uphold our church by “our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service and our witness.” For those who are United Methodist, this should sound familiar to you.

Many years ago, we only had to commit to the first four of those vows: prayers, presence, gifts and service. As a matter of fact, my hymnal still has only those vows and I have to remember always to add “witness.” Almost like an afterthought … it was added when we realized that perhaps it wasn’t enough just to do those first four things … we needed to pledge to be witnesses, as well. So it goes at the end, as though we almost forgot it and had to get it in there in order to make our commitment complete.

What I have discovered over many years of ministry, however, is that WITNESS is primary. It is the culmination of all that we do. It isn’t just an afterthought. It is what happens when we fulfill all the other vows. We witness through our prayers, our presence, our gifts and our service. It becomes the overarching umbrella of all that we pledge to do when we commit our lives to Christ.

The truth is that we all witness to something. Whether we like it or not, we are witnesses to whatever it is that we believe in. Unless we live a cloistered existence, when we interact with others, we share our witness. There are times when we witness to greed as we seek to get all that we can for ourselves. We witness to political strife and all the cultural angst of living in our modern world. We witness to the hatred and bitterness caused when we cease being good neighbors and make efforts to extort from our neighbors what we can’t get with any integrity for ourselves.

But we also witness to the good in our world. We witness to the power of love when we care for one another in sometimes surprising ways. We witness to the power of a kind word when we speak lovingly to those who are marginalized or hurting. We witness to the power of forgiveness when we demonstrate love instead of retribution for our enemies. We witness to good stewardship when we seek to care for our earth and its resources.

Ultimately, we witness to the power of Christ when we dare to be Christlike in our world. This past week, I was truly moved when I saw the picture that had gone viral. It was a picture of young Jenny Faber, who is an Iowa State football fan suffering from diplegia cerebral palsy, sitting in her wheelchair with (opposing team captain) TCU quarterback, Trevone Boykin, kneeling in front of it asking her, “What’s your name?”

Taken by Fort Worth Star-Telegram photographer, Paul Moseley

Taken by Fort Worth Star-Telegram photographer, Paul Moseley

Trevone said that God placed it on his heart to reach out to her, and it became a witness of what can happen when someone like Trevone reaches out to one of the “little ones” whom Jesus calls us to touch. That simple picture and those three simple words witnessed to what can happen when we sense that God is speaking something into our lives. Because of Trevone’s witness, a crowd funding campaign has begun to help Jenny’s family raise funds needed for her care and treatment. That was a witness that has really produced fruit.

So Church, what is your witness? Will you witness to the power of God to transform lives? What fruit will your witness bear? Will you witness to hospitality and love that reaches outside of our comfort zone? Will you witness to the power of Christ to reach back to us from the throng of “the least of these” our brothers and sisters? Remember, when we reach out to the least of these, they are reaching back with the arms of Christ to embrace us, so our witness is more than what we can do … it is what Christ offers to us as a gift of grace.

May our witness be to the power of Christ to save our world! By God’s grace, that will be my witness today, as well.

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Vows

We all make vows. We make commitments to one another … to God … to ourselves, and inevitably, those vows get laid aside from time to time. Vows are intended to be ways in which we bind ourselves to those whom we love, yet so often in our world, we find those bonds constantly breaking. Sometimes they are broken by circumstances beyond our control … the spouse who leaves the relationship or irreparably harms the relationship … the church that harms us or that closes or that simply ceases to be the church we thought we had joined. Sometimes it is as simple as the vow to lose weight that becomes less important that the many other stresses in our lives, so our vow to diet and care for ourselves better becomes less important. But so often we are the ones who break the vows and fail to live up to the promises we have made.

Someone remarked to me recently that we just don’t take vows as seriously as we used to … that our culture doesn’t honor vows like we did one upon a time. As I have reflected upon that, I am not sure I agree.

A quick look at scripture reveals that the fundamental relationship between God and the people of God is covenant. Covenant contains vows made by two parties … in this case, they are not equal parties … to devote themselves to one another.  God has promised to be there for the people of God in all things, and the people of God have vowed to have no other gods before the one true God … to create a community where God’s love can be made known … to do good and to do no harm to God’s creation. Yet throughout the story of the Bible, the people of God find it nearly impossible to keep those vows because their immediate benefit is not obvious.

I am reminded of a great scene from a movie called The End starring Burt Reynolds, where Reynolds, the main character, has decided to end it all by swimming into the ocean away from shore. Suddenly, he has a change of heart and realizes he doesn’t want to die. He then begins desperately trying to get back to shore and realizes that he might not make it. So he begins to bargain with God promising at first to give everything he has to God if he can just make it to shore. As he nears the shore, that percentage begins to decrease from 100% to 75% to 50% until as he crawls upon the shore, he basically takes it back and offers only a simple thank you instead of honoring any commitment he made while in the midst of drowning.

Too often our vows are that way. We make pledges to God at various times in our lives when we are either moved by a great religious experience or when we are feeling desperately alone and cut off from God. Then as things begin to return to normal, those vows, like our New Years resolutions, become little more than distant memories.

In our worship, we are right in the middle of considering the vows we make as United Methodist Christians to uphold the ministry of our church by “our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service and our witness,” and we are taking a deeper look at what those vows mean. During this time, I am avoiding the “should” statements because we all know what we “should” do. Instead, I am focusing us upon what it means at a deeper level for us to engage God through prayer, practice presence with one another, discover the joys of taking risks in the ways we give and the ways we serve, and experiencing God anew as we discover how we might witness to the love of Christ in our world.

The primary focus of this series, however, is to remind us that, even when we fail to live up to our vows, God will never fail to live up to the vows God has made to us. God will always engage us and attempt to reach us. God will always be present with us. God will continue to remind us of the gift of life we have been given in Christ Jesus, and God will offer us the richest blessings when we discover this Christ who served us much as he washed the feet of his disciples.

Finally, as God engages us in our daily lives, we are given the opportunity to witness what God is doing and then share that witness with others. Even when we fail to share that witness, God will continue to perform mighty acts right in front of our faces in hopes that perhaps we will remember that the best gift we can give others is simply to share.

Years ago, I had an ant farm, and one of the things I learned about ants is that, when one of the ants who is out hunting finds food, that ant then returns to the ant mound and through a unique style of communication shares with all the other ants where that food is. Then together they all go and begin to bring food back to the colony. By that simple act of witnessing where the sustenance can be found, the one ant enriches and provides sustenance for the entire colony.

So maybe that is what it is about. Providing for community. I wonder what happen if we were to uphold our vows within the church. It is my guess that the world will be a better place because we practiced our faith through our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness and thereby provided for a stronger community firmly grounded in the love of Christ.

So how about it? God is still keeping God’s vows to always provide for us. What would happen if we made a conscious effort to keep our vows to God?

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