On the Journey: Sabbatical Report Part 3 – Leadership and Living the Mission Together

Over the past few months, we’ve been sharing insights about ministry challenges and opportunities relating to how we connect with people who are not part of a faith community.  The things we’ve learned, heard, and read have implications for how we do ministry together and what leadership looks like in the midst of change.

Some of the things we read and heard were encouraging because they reflect practices and values we are already trying to lean into: creating places for conversation, giving permission to try new things, and breaking down as much red tape as possible to stay focused on the mission.

Other pieces were important reminders of what I and the rest of our leadership team can work to improve, and what we as a congregation together can be a part of.

Being clear about our mission.  We talked a bit last month about how essential it is to communicate what we’re here for, and what that calls from us together.  Sometimes we lose track of the ultimate purpose for which God calls us together: growing to become more like Jesus together, bearing witness to God’s love and grace in our actions and words, and inviting others into this journey of discipleship.  We’re working on how to communicate that in fewer words, but more importantly, our Diaconate and I are working on how to encourage us to look at everything we do through this lens.

Being clear about what won’t change.  We’ve talked a lot about how things have to change, if we are going to be faithful to the mission God gives us.  It goes a lot deeper than what kind of worship music we sing together.  But some things don’t change: God’s character and faithfulness, the heart of the mission we’ve been given.  We aren’t going to forget our values or our heritage, not just as Baptists, but as Christians in a stream of the history of the work of the Holy Spirit that goes back to the first disciples.  We can draw strength, encouragement and wisdom from those who have gone before us, even as God calls us into new ways of living out what it means to be church in this day and age.

The importance of grief.  But that doesn’t mean change is easy, or that it comes without loss.  Sometimes the new things that God calls us into means letting go, like Abraham and Sarah who left their  homeland and family to move into something totally new.  Sometimes it redefines what success looks like, as Paul endured hardship and opposition wherever he went, yet God used him and those with him to help foster communities of disciples across the Mediterranean.  It’s okay to grieve that the ways of church are changing, and that change can be hard.  But it also calls us to come back to seek God’s purposes and ways, to actively trust in God’s leading as we follow into this new time.

Leadership as empowering the community for ministry, not doing ministry for the community.  This is critical, because it calls on the pastor, leadership teams, and ministry leaders to be focused on how we can encourage, create space for, and give responsibility to others in living out their mission and sense of calling.  The flip side is that it is us together as a community who also hear that discipleship is a call from God to carry our faith into the world, into all of our relationships.  In a context where we can no longer rely on people coming to us (our location), we have to ask how we will use our time and gifts to connect with others in the community, as God opens up opportunities.  This is the time we are in, with its opportunities and challenges.  But God is faithful, and as we remember and celebrate the stories where we experience God at work, we can be encouraged to continue on the journey together.

Blessings on the Way,

Pastor Brian

On the Journey: Sabbatical Report Part 2: “Community That Matters”

Last month, we started to take a look at the insights the sabbatical learning team and I gleaned from our reading and interviews about people who grew up in a faith community but who would no longer consider themselves part of any organized religious group.  The books we read were across the theological spectrum, and the research and anecdotes they shared largely told the same story.

In the last “Lamplighter” article, we focused on a generalized snapshot of the people who are not connected to a faith community: what’s important to them, the changing cultural trends, and what that means for us as we seek to be both faithful and effective in our ministry together.

Today, we’re picking up another set of threads in from our study, looking at what the disconnected tell us about where the church has gotten in the way of its mission.  Some who leave a faith community do so for unhealthy reasons.  But others leave because the community itself isn’t healthy, and by listening to their stories, we can see things we may not notice – or things we’ve gotten used to – that need to be addressed in order to grow and help others grow in our relationship with God in Christ.  The full list of our findings is in my sabbatical report, but here are some of the most important things we heard about where “church” gets in the way:

  • An increasing number of people don’t see church as relevant to their lives; what we focus on, what we talk about, what we do doesn’t connect.
  • The inability to effect change or influence the system creates frustration and causes leaders and people of passion to “check out”.
  • People who want authentic community (not just friendly) aren’t finding it at church.
  • When the church is more interested in dispensing answers than helping people wrestle with questions, doubts and grief, people will check out or remain with a stunted faith.
  • When people see the church focused on safety and survival, it loses the ability to take risks and act boldly for the sake of its mission, and they get a sense of “why bother?”
  • When young people aren’t connected with people of various ages in the church and aren’t part of the broader life of the church, they are far more likely to check out.

That can be hard to hear, and we might be tempted to think “well, that’s not our church…” – and yet, these comments can give us a lens to examine how healthy we are in our community, where we can grow and improve, where we may be creating obstacles to deeper faith.  It also has implications for how we understand and live out our mission together:

  • The mission and purpose of the church has to be clear – and owned by those who are leading and active in it.  It needs to be demonstrated and visibly lived out, not just talked about.  That vision needs to be clear and compelling as to why it’s worth our time and involvement.
  • The mission of the church has to be about more than the survival of the institution.
  • The mission has to be rooted in who God is, and the structure has to serve the mission.  If the structure or programs are getting in the way, or if we are focusing our money, time and energy on things that don’t advance the mission, we need to make changes.
  • The mission is about participation, not the passive consuming of religious content.
  • Declaring our mission is more about what we are for, not just what we are against – to tell a better story and cast a vision of life that is rooted in God’s story in scripture.

It’s important to remember that the core mission doesn’t change.   Together with the earliest Christians, our call remains to proclaim and together embody the gospel message of God’s love for the world in Jesus.

Likewise, there are some questions we need to never stop asking of ourselves:  Are we keeping God at the center?  Are we staying rooted in scripture as we go?  Are we healthy in our relationships as part of the church community?

The good news is that if we can prayerfully, thoughtfully listen, we can see where God is calling us into deeper life together.  I’d love to hear from you as you process these insights from our sabbatical team, and as we work out what it looks like to live these things out.

Blessings on the Journey,

Pastor Brian

On the Journey: Sabbatical Report Part I

For starters – an apology.  I’d hoped to make more of a formal presentation about the sabbatical experience back on the 10th of September when we had a kickoff potluck at church.  Unfortunately, what I’m finding is that it’s difficult to carve out the extra time to pull that together while back in the midst of regular ministry.

But as a way to begin sharing some of the insights of our group study, interviews and reading, the next three “Lamplighter” articles from me will highlight one facet of what we’ve learned along the way.  Out of necessity, these will be some simplified observations, intended to serve as landmarks that can guide us as we consider the journey of our ministry together and the mission God sends us on.

Spiritual, but not religious

Throughout our learning process, one theme kept coming up.  Just because people aren’t connected to a church doesn’t mean that they don’t care about God or have some kind of faith that is important to them.

This sense of faith and spirituality may vary widely in how important it is to the person and what resemblance it may bear to what we could call historical Christian orthodoxy (that is, what the majority of Christians could come together around across history).  This reminds us not to assume where anyone may be spiritually just because they’re not a part of a church, and to look for points of connection where God is at work in the beliefs they hold and the questions they are asking.

What’s important?

The reading and interviews we conducted highlight several recurring points of connection among those who are not connected to a faith community:

  • They care about people in need, and are willing to get involved to do something about it.
  • They want to be valued as a person and able to contribute and participate.
  • They aren’t necessarily against tradition or ritual, but it has to be meaningful.
  • They are accepting of people and of questions, and need an environment that reflects this.
  • They are largely fed up with faith that is reduced to moralism or compartmentalized to a Sunday morning.

Changing dynamics and implications

We also noticed changing cultural trends that impact the assumptions we make about communicating the Gospel and how we do ministry.

  • We can no longer assume that most people (outside OR inside the church) are familiar with the basic stories, history or theological basis of our faith.  The de-churched do not default to trusting authority figures and groups, which means that we need to carefully consider the kind of language we use and the methods of teaching and discipleship we employ.  One of the core elements of that includes dialogue over lecture.
  • According to the Barna research, many who are disconnected from church also report feeling alone, not having significant connections with other generations.  They report high levels of loneliness, stress, and concern for the future.  (Although not unique to this group, these indicate ways the church can seek to minister to needs they are experiencing.)
  • People have enormous choice with how to spend their time – both for entertainment and for volunteering.  Most unchurched people do not view the church negatively, they just don’t think it’s relevant.

That’s a sobering thought – but it also lets us know things we need to pay attention to, and where we can direct our energy to be more effective living out our call to share our faith and help one another walk as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Things we can encourage and grow in:

  • Communicating and demonstrating faith as a way of life that touches all parts of life.
  • Encouraging intergenerational connections and relationships in church life.  Talk with Jen Koenigs to learn more about opportunities relating to this.
  • Remembering that people are not projects.  Let God work and open opportunities over time.
  • Listening to the questions people are asking before we try to offer answers.
  • Examining what we’re doing in our programs, small groups and church activities: ask how it is relevant to people outside the church.
  • Creating opportunities for dialogue and conversation around the core of our faith; seeing discipleship as a relationship-based process rather than a program we graduate from.

There’s a lot to absorb – yet we’re already leaning into what it looks like to live this out.   God is at work in the world around us, and there are many opportunities to connect with and encourage what God is doing in someone else’s life.  The wild thing is that as we join in this mission of God, God not only uses us to help others, but that we are changed, and we grow in the process.

Blessings on the Journey,

Pastor Brian

On the Journey: “Making Room for Awe”

The heavens are telling the glory of God,

and all creation is shouting for joy.

Come, dance in the forest,

come, play in the field,

and sing, sing to the glory of the Lord.

(Marty Haugen “Canticle of the Sun”)

As I write this, I’ve been back from Sabbatical for just over a week, and it is a blessing to be able to re-engage in the ministry and mission we share as the community of Memorial Baptist Church.

I’m a bit tired, though, because Gabrielle and I just got back from a literal “down and back” road trip with friends to witness the total solar eclipse in Kentucky.  I’d seen at least two partial eclipses of the sun before, but in the direct path of the shadow of the moon, it really was awe-inspiring.

Even up to the point where just a sliver of sun could be seen through the eclipse glasses, it was still very bright outside, maybe like looking at the world through a light pair of sunglasses.  But the moment the moon directly obscured the sun, the skies faded to deep twilight.  Sunset colors painted the horizon in every direction, while overhead, instead of the overpowering intensity of the bright sun, there was a dark “hole” in the sky, surrounded by the radiant white streamers of the sun’s photosphere.  All of us who were part of the crowd that had gathered to witness the eclipse were hushed, then moved to expressions of awe and applause at the sight.

Speaking personally, what an amazing blessing to finish the summer on this note.

The study portion of my sabbatical has been to listen and learn from the spiritual journeys of those who are not currently connected to a faith community, in order to seek points of connection and conversation.  It’s been about finding how to create space to listen for God to speak into our lives together, following in the footsteps of the Son of God, who came to meet us where we are so that we might come to know who God is, in a way that transforms our everyday lives here and now and into eternity.

Yet another facet of my sabbatical experience has been the blessing of connecting with the awe of God and of God’s creation.   I’ve been able to kayak the chain of lakes from Camp Tamarack near Waupaca, watching the fish swim underneath me and the herons and waterfowl standing watch over the water’s edge.  Gabrielle and I enjoyed the spectacular views across southern Utah and northern Arizona, watching the sun play across red sandstone canyons, and the Milky Way splash across the desert skies far from city lights.  I’ve been able to witness and photograph supercell thunderstorms across the central plains of the United States, and slow down to notice blue jays chattering from the trees along the DeNevue creek.

There’s something deeply important in all of this – much more than just listing things I’ve been so incredibly privileged to be a part of.  Because we know how fast-paced life can be, how easy it is to get caught up in the demands and chaos of the present.  Or to have our imagination brought down to the horizon of our electronic screens.  We have access to so much information, so much knowledge, as Ferris Bueller puts it: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Whether we always realize it or not, we have a need for awe, for transcendence (if we want to use a fancy word) – to remember just how big and amazing a world we live in, and critically, that there is more to life even than this big and amazing world, to let creation be a sign that points beyond itself to its Creator.

The Psalmist knew this well, insisting that all of creation is offering its praise to God.  From the patterns of the stars to the mind-boggling intricacy of the forming of a human child in the womb; if we will but slow down to consider, to contemplate, to notice, then we can discover the awe and blessing of appreciating what God has created and is sustaining moment to moment.

To do this is both simple and difficult; it simply requires us to slow down enough to notice what is right around us, to be attentive to what we see, to what God is drawing our attention to.  It’s also difficult because we are often so driven to be busy, to be productive, to give in to the myriad of needs and demands on our time, that we find ourselves rushed through our day without having really experienced it.

To move against that pressure requires a sense of intentionality – both in deliberately carving out time to slow down, and developing the skill of looking for signs of God’s presence wherever we are.

But it’s worth it.  Jesus told the disciples that he’s come to give us life, and life abundantly – a kind of life that we can begin to enjoy right now, as we trust God and begin to live with our eyes open along the way.

Blessings for the journey,

Pastor Brian

From the Pastor: Sabbatical Update

Hello, Memorial Baptist family and friends!  As the month of July draws to a close, it feels like I finally have a bit of time to catch my breath.

Last month I wrote a bit about the hectic pace of the start of my sabbatical, and feeling a bit torn between being excited at all the great things we’ve been able to do, and a bit anxious about the amount of things I’d taken on.

I’m grateful to say that through the process, God has been good, and I feel like I’m in a good place as we get into the last phase of the sabbatical.

In my last article, I wrote about the start of the sabbatical learning group, the books I have been reading, and the epic tour Gabrielle and I were able to make of national parks in Utah and Arizona.

After being home for just under two days (47 hours, as Gabrielle noted), I flew out to Denver with my friend and colleague, Ron Riemersma, to spend a week driving for a storm chasing tour company.  Each of us drove a vanload of guests under the leadership of our tour director.  We witnessed spectacular supercell thunderstorms almost every day, and were able to take many pictures of cloud structure, lightning, and even a few tornadoes.  One of the things I enjoy about driving for the tour is getting to meet people from across the country and indeed across the world.  As we got to know each other better, I had the opportunity to talk about my sabbatical project about learning from the journeys of those who are no longer part of a faith community that they grew up in, and it was interesting how a number of the guests resonated with that and shared of their own experiences.

The first week of July was filled with reading and welcoming my parents who came up for the 4th of July.  It was great to spend some time with them as well as reconnecting with Memorial folks who came to Lakeside park for “Beans and Booms”.

Then it was off to Camp Tamarack for a week as the camp pastor for the 5th and 6th grade campers.  Although it initially seemed like one more good thing too many in the summer, it was literally a Godsend, as I was able to talk with kids about the summer theme of God’s creation as well as move ahead on my reading, completing the rest of the reading list for our Sabbatical learning group.  I read Diana Butler Bass’ book Grounded, on the importance of living out our faith in a way that emphasizes God’s presence and the importance of our neighbors and of creation.  David Kinnaman’s book You Lost Me focuses on Pew research studies around young adults who have disconnected from church and/or their faith.  Tony and Bart Campolo’s book Why I Left, Why I Stayed, is a loving, respectful and open conversation between father and son about why Bart no longer believes in the Christian faith, and why Tony still does.  I also completed Tod Bolsinger’s book Canoeing the Mountains, which I’d started last month.

In the last two weeks of July, I’m doing interviews with people in connection with the sabbatical project and working on some additional reading, including pastor Carey Nieuwhof’s book Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversations That Will Help Your Church Grow.  Nieuwhof writes from a “church growth/megachurch” perspective, but the observations and questions he raises are important ones to consider, and I’m looking forward to the conversations this book will spark.

I know some folks have wondered where I go on Sunday morning – and the answer is that when I’ve been in town, I’m visiting other area churches, including Salem UMC, Thrive, Church of Our Saviour, and Covenant UMC.  The interesting thing is that this must be the year for Sabbaticals, as I know of at least four other local clergy who are on sabbatical this summer!

The last few weeks of sabbatical in August will be focused on integrating what we’ve learned and working to identify how we can use this to grow our church in health and impact as well as what opportunities may exist beyond the walls of the church to help people connect with each other and with God.

Part of being on Sabbatical is intentionally being “out of the loop” to a degree, but I’ve been encouraged to hear of the ministries and activities that have continued on through the summer.  I’m grateful for the hard and faithful work of our leaders: in the Diaconate and in the Administrative team, of the Property team as the remodeling work continues, the worship team and worship leaders, and the congregation as a whole as they care for one another in the ups and downs of life – embodying what it means to be a community in the image of Jesus.

This July marked 18 years of ministry together at Memorial Baptist Church, and I am blessed to be a part of this community, in all of our gifts and in the midst of our struggles and challenges – because that’s why God calls us together so that we can make His presence tangible.

As much as this sabbatical is a blessing, and as much as there’s left to do – I am looking forward to rejoining you all fully in ministry soon.  Until then, God’s peace and God’s blessing be with you all.

Blessings on the journey!

Pastor Brian

On the Journey: Sabbatical Update

Hello, Memorial family and friends! It’s hard for me to believe we’re coming up on the end of the first month of my sabbatical.  Part of the reason is that it’s honestly been kind of hectic, trying to get focused in on the sabbatical and fulfilling some other things I’d committed to in regional ministry.  That was stressing me out, but things are falling into place and it’s all been a rich experience so far.

To start my sabbatical, I took an overnight retreat at Camp Tamarack where I did a lot of reading, resting, and kayaking out on the lakes.  This was a great opportunity for prayer and reflection.

Our Sabbatical Learning Group also met together for the first time, and I’m really excited about the people participating and the things we’re reading and will be discussing.  The question of what it means to listen and find community with those who either claim no faith or who are unconnected with others in their journey is one that is of great importance to all of us who are seeking to live into God’s mission in the world.  I believe that not only is God at work in Fond du Lac, but that God has positioned us to be a part of that work, alongside others across this community.

Members of our learning group selected books from a bibliography I pulled together, and I am working to read through and take notes on all of the books they have chosen.  So far, I’ve finished Unchurched by the Barna Group, and The Nones Are Alright” by Kaya Oakes.  Right now I’m reading Canoeing the Mountains, which draws lessons and images from the Lewis and Clark expedition to talk about leadership models for the missional church in these times of challenge and transformation. This one in particular is humbling and encouraging me – pointing out areas for personal and corporate growth.

At the same time, part of the purpose of a Sabbatical is for recharging, resting and reconnecting with Gabrielle and with my own sense of joy and wonder.  I’ve spent some afternoons at the Idea Studio at the Library, working on a laser-etching project.  We also just returned from a ten day vacation touring national parks in southern Utah and northern Arizona.  Every day we saw something new and spectacular, truly awe-inspiring sights of God’s magnificent and diverse creation, millions upon millions of years in the making.   We got to hike up a river, ride horses down into Bryce Canyon, kayak on the Colorado river – which was a bit more adventurous than we’d anticipated – and take pictures that we can’t wait to share with you all.  This coming week, I’ll (once more) be joining my friend and colleague Ron Riemersma from YFC in driving for Tempest Tours, observing and photographing storms out on the plains of the Midwest.

We had a lot of time on the road (just a hair under 41 hours in total), and listened to a number of podcasts from the Awakenings Conference this past spring, featuring Alan Hirsch, Greg Boyd and N.T. Wright, talking about engaging in the mission of God together through the presence of the Spirit, as we are walking in the footsteps of Jesus.  I hope the theme sounds familiar, and it’s given me plenty to ponder as I look forward to sharing bits and pieces later on!

July will also be a busy time: continuing to read, meet with the learning group, and listening to people whose stories outside of a faith community are important for us to hear.  I’ll also be camp pastor for 5th and 6th graders at Camp Tamarack on the week of the 10th  (which will allow me to focus in on reading and note-taking during most of the day).

But before I go, I want to express my deep gratitude for the support of the church family in not just allowing, but encouraging me in this time for renewal and focus.  It is my goal and my prayer that this time will result in blessing for all of us together.

And I want to say thank you as well to all of the church leaders and volunteers who not only continue to lead and work as they have before, but who have stepped up to go the extra mile to ensure the ministry of the church continues in a healthy way while I am away.

Please continue to pray for our learning group and for me during this time, for Gabrielle as she also takes on extra responsibilities, and for one another, that our church family may not only stay strong and connected over the summer, but that all of us may continue to use our gifts and grow together in the image of God.

I’ll look forward to seeing you all around here and there as we go, and especially to hearing the stories of life as we reconnect!

Blessings on the journey!
Pastor Brian

On the Journey

It’s hard for me to believe that the start of this pastoral sabbatical is just around the corner.  To the community of Memorial Baptist Church: thank you for the opportunity to step back from the regular work of ministry in order to have time for focused study and renewal.  It’s an opportunity I take seriously, and which I pray will be a channel of blessing for my family, our church and our wider community.

The Sabbatical Focus:

As many of you will have heard, I will be seeking to learn about the journeys of people who would describe themselves as having no particular faith or religious identity, as well as those who grew up in a faith background and are no longer connected to that community or to seeing themselves as holding that faith.  This of course, covers an amazingly broad spectrum of stories.  My hope is to find ways we as followers of Jesus can encourage meaningful spiritual connections and community that addresses their concerns, questions and, indeed, often a sense of calling.  I’ve assembled a list of books and an ever-growing list of people to interview along the way.

What I’m really excited about is that I’m not doing this alone.  Seven others have agreed to participate in a learning group that will read some of the books on my list, then meet in July and August to share what we are learning, our reactions, and where we see God calling us to engage the people around us in new ways.

What it Means for the Church:

While I’m on Sabbatical – from May 30 through August 11 – the regular ministry and mission of the church continues as it always does during the summer.

The Diaconate will have rotating “on call” contact list in case of emergencies, questions, or to pass on information.  If that person is unavailable, there will be another Deacon you can contact.  Look on the bulletin board and in the worship bulletin for whom to contact during the week.

The Church office will be open Monday through Thursday, 9:00 AM to noon, with Gabrielle in the office.

Sunday Morning Worship is covered with worship leaders from the church, and guest speakers from the church and the wider ABC family.

A Sabbatical means that I will not be taking on any ordinary pastoral responsibilities during this time; I won’t be in the office during the week, leading worship, attending meetings, making pastoral visits and so on.  In the event of a crisis or emergency, the Diaconate will decide if and when to “bring me in” to a situation, as long as I am in town.  That said, for much of the summer I will be in town, and you may see me here and there.  If you’re doing something fun and want to invite us along, please feel free to do so – as long as I’m available and on track with my studies, we’re up for that kind of thing as we are throughout the year!

What I Ask from the Church Community:

First, simply your prayers.  Please pray that God will use this time for the strengthening of His people and the ministry God wants to see unfold and grow in Fond du Lac.  Pray that the Holy Spirit will be at work in our learning and listening, so that we can understand and respond in ways that are helpful and that stay centered in what God has done and is doing in Jesus.  I will have a prayer sheet on the bulletin board for those who would like to pray more specifically for different parts of this sabbatical.

Second, your engagement.  I am humbled and encouraged by how many folks are stepping up to lead and serve during my sabbatical, from Deacons to worship leaders and speakers, to the people who continue to do all the behind the scenes ministry, it is what really makes this possible and healthy for our church.  But it really is a community effort – in the midst of all the normal summer activities, please continue to make being an active part of the life of Memorial a priority.  Through worship support, participating in events and ministries, and financial stewardship, you all are the ones who will make this time a blessing in the life of the church.

I’ll be sharing updates on how things are going through the lamplighter, but for now, I’m signing off.  God’s blessing be with you all as we share this journey of faith!

Pastor Brian

On the Journey: “Come and See”

Throughout the Gospel of John, “seeing” is a word that carries a lot of meaning.  Many people “saw” Jesus, but not everyone understood the meaning of what they were seeing.

Yet seeing is more than observing – to truly “see” Jesus is to become involved in what Jesus is doing, to participate and engage with who He really is and what that means, as we find in the very beginning of John’s Gospel.   Two of John the Baptist’s disciples heard John point to Jesus and declare: “Look, here is the Lamb of God.”  So they followed Jesus to ask Him where he was staying – and Jesus’ response is an invitation: “come and see.”

An invitation is a powerful thing.

An invitation is more than just information about an opportunity.  It tells us that we are desired, needed, truly welcomed to be a part of something.

I don’t know about you, but I’m saturated with information about events and groups and things going on.  I get things by mail, and email and Facebook.  I get more than my share of robo-calls trying to tell me that “no, really, this is my last chance to save on car insurance…”  (If only!)

In ministry, we are blessed to have so many tools to communicate with people: phone, texts, email, a multitude of social media websites and apps (accessed by personal computers, tablets or phones), and even good old-fashioned mail delivered by post.  We create websites, Twitter accounts, newsletters, bulletins, slideshows, Facebook pages, bulletin board signs and sign-up sheets and Sunday morning announcements.

And yet, for all the different ways we can share, just because we’ve announced something doesn’t mean the invitation is communicated and received.

Our Diaconate has been talking about this challenge, and how important it is to do more than just share information – about Jesus, about church events, about community services.  We too, can extend a personal invitation: come and see.

I remember a conversation I’d had years ago about how our church tends to be open to people as they are and welcoming them to find ways to engage and connect.  At the same time, the comment came back: an open door is not the same thing as a personal invitation to come through that door.

This is something we can all learn from, whether we’re talking about sharing our faith in Jesus, to participating in opportunities to worship, serve, grow or gather.  Let’s not assume that just because we’ve shared information about an event, that our job is done.  Let’s also find ways to extend an invitation and invite others as they choose – to “come and see.”

Pastor Brian

On the Journey: Discerning the Body of Christ: Communion and Community in a Polarized Culture

In his letter to the Corinthian Church, Paul has quite a bit to say about Communion.  Unfortunately he says, “… it sounds as if more harm than good is done when you meet together” (I Corinthians 11:17b).  Ouch.

What had been happening is that instead of eating together and sharing the same meal (the early church celebrated the Lord’s Supper as a true meal), people brought their own food and wine.  The wealthy members of the church gorged themselves while others went hungry.

That’s just how things go: those that have, enjoy.  Those that don’t, don’t.  All they were doing was bringing the way things are in the world into the church.  But that’s precisely why Paul is upset, warning them, “For all who eat and drink without discerning the body eat and drink judgment against themselves” (I Corinthians 11:29).  The body Paul is referring to is Jesus ‑ not the bread and the cup, but the body of Jesus which is the church (I Corinthians 12). 

In other words, to be a Christian that lives and acts in such a way that treats others with contempt is denying the reality that Christ saves us into a new community that tears down the dividing walls our world and culture build up.  Economic walls.  Racial and cultural walls.  Gender walls.  Walls of status.   The Corinthian Christians were simply echoing their culture.  But the patterns of the world are not to be the patterns of the life of the church.  Instead, we are to be a living witness to the character, love and purposes of God in Jesus Christ.

One of the present challenges of the church is how we respond to the deep and often painful divides in our nation around our political views.  Just recently, I read of a woman who had grown up in a particular kind of church being amazed at hearing a pastor say that Democrats can be genuinely Christian.  And I know of others who express wonder at the idea Republicans might actually try to follow Jesus.

The church is sorely tempted, and far too often has given in to the temptation, to simply choose a political side, embrace it, and condemn whoever else happens to be on the other end.  We can do this because whatever “side” we most identify with, we can find plenty of people who see things our way and plenty of ammunition to use against whomever we disagree with.

Yet when the church allows the political divisions in the world to invade and shape the character of the community that is called to embody the presence of Jesus, several incredibly harmful things happen.

First, we diminish and tarnish our witness.  When the church merely reflects the polarization of the culture, it doesn’t matter how loudly we say “Jesus!”  Either the world doesn’t hear – or worse, they believe us, and reject the partisan Jesus who looks just like any other politician.

Second, we allow the church to be defined by the political stances of our time instead of seeking out what it means to faithfully follow Jesus in ways that will lead us to stand both with and against facets of our culture and politics.  Whenever the church sides too closely with any earthly political party or system, we lose our prophetic voice.  We also find ourselves tempted to use worldly methods and power to try to force into being what God brings about through transformation of the heart and mind.

Third, we diminish the community Jesus died to create.  We create an artificial “us” and “them” – often blithely assuming that Jesus is on our side, while cutting ourselves off from others who may disagree with us.  Instead of pursuing the deeper truth together, we reinforce the echo chamber of our own perspectives, safely insulated from dissent.

Instead, what we are called to is the hard work of continually encouraging and strengthening the kind of community Jesus called into being – a community that brought Roman collaborators (tax collectors) and revolutionaries (zealots) into a new identity which directed their focus to seeking and embodying God’s kingdom together.

It’s the reason I try really hard (and sometimes fail!) not to be politically partisan in my words as a pastor.  Living out the Gospel definitely has political implications – but my goal is to help us grow in understanding how the love of God shown in Christ shapes our engagement in the world.  And that’s something that isn’t contained in any political party – or system, for that matter.  It means that our church has to own a different way of being and living in the world.  It means that when I mess up, you all can call me on it.  And it means things like knocking off the use of labels in a derogatory way: “you liberals, you conservatives,” and so on.  And we’ll call this out too if we hear it.  It means taking the time (and sometimes it’s hard!) to listen in order to try to understand where someone else is coming from, so that together we can seek out Jesus’ way revealed by the Spirit through scripture applied today.

That’s a tall order, and a task that will never be completed on this side of things… but we’re not alone on the journey.

Blessings on the road,

Pastor Brian

On the Journey: “What Shapes Us”

There’s an old joke about a tourist in New York who asks a street musician how to get to Carneige Hall.  The answer of course, is: “Practice, man.  Practice.”

It’s a bit of a cliché to harp on our culture of the expectation of instant gratification.  It’s not new.   We’ve always been looking for shortcuts to get what we want.  I’m reminded of the contraptions from the 1920’s that promised all the benefits of exercise while a person just stood and let the machine do all the work.

We know that some of us are naturally better at some tasks than others.  But aptitude only takes us so far; then comes the hard work of developing those gifts.  From athletes and musicians to soldiers and firefighters, they practice and drill so that much of what they need to do becomes simply ingrained in them; they are able to respond immediately to the situation at hand.

Our faith life works the same way.  When we open our lives to Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we are a new creation.  At the same time, this new creation is a beginning point.  God’s intention is to transform and shape our hearts and minds and lives into the image of Jesus.  If we’re honest, we recognize that we all still have a ways to go in that process – something scripture calls “sanctification”.

What then, shapes our everyday faith?  What “practice” is forming us into people, and into a community that increasingly reflects the character of Jesus?  Have we at times just assumed that we can step up to the plate and hit a home run without time in the batter’s cage?  Do we assume at times that we will make godly choices, live in God’s strength, and see one another in love without the daily work of connecting, serving and surrendering to God?  In other words, how will we be found faithful in the big things without paying attention to the little things each day?  We are shaped by the habits of:

Connecting – We are shaped by the people around us.  How do we intentionally and regularly connect with other Christians in ways that strengthen and shape our faith?    It happens as we gather for worship.  As we gather with other Christians to share our lives, our struggles, our questions and what we are learning.  We’re not meant to walk this life alone.

Listening – We are shaped by what we take into our lives.  Reading the Bible ‑ not as a list of do’s and don’ts, but to learn God’s story, to connect it to today, to listen for how the Spirit leads us to live out our story in light of what God is doing and leading.  Prayer, as a living act of trust in God, and a habit that helps us to look at the people and circumstances around us through the eyes of God.

Responding – We are shaped by what we do ‑ our habits.  Gathering to worship, or to enjoy one another’s company is good, but if we live a different life the rest of the week, something has gone awry.  If we have all kinds of knowledge of scripture, but aren’t applying it, it’s worthless.  If we pray and have wonderful spiritual experiences, but it doesn’t lead us deeper into loving the people around us, it is not actually shaping us into the image of Christ.  Faith is meant to be lived out.

As we move into the season remembering Jesus’ death and resurrection, and reflecting on what that means to us and to the world, may we ponder on this question: where do I need to be more intentional about the practices that God uses to shape my life?

And may we remember that no matter where we are on the journey, we don’t walk alone.

Blessings on the Way,

Pastor Brian