Thursday, May 26, 2022

We Can't Keep Doing Nothing

As a Pastor, I have to be careful (more careful than I used to be) when I address social issues. It's a source of a lot of inner-conflict for me actually, and I presume it's a major reason many pastors eventually burn-out. The inner turmoil of knowing that I need to respond to an issue but also knowing that my response might be received as "political" or alienating actually keeps me up at night. There are times where I have to risk being "political" in order to be moral... and it would be morally and vocationally wrong for me not to be clear on this:
We cannot, as a society (and especially as a church),continue to tolerate children being murdered at school. We CANNOT! There is one issue—the greatest common denominator in all the mass murders in American history—that our leaders have REFUSED to address in regards to gun violence, and it's guns. We keep blaming other things.... it's NOT about mental health. In fact, people with mental health challenges are far more at risk of being victims of violence than of being perpetrators of it. It's not unlocked doors at schools. It's not that there aren't enough guns in the world. It's that there are too many guns and they are too easy to acquire. It's currently easier to get a gun than it is to get health insurance. It's easier to get a gun than it is to get a driver's license. It's easier to get a gun than it is to find affordable housing. It's easier to get a gun than it is to apply for a credit card.

What kind of world is God creating among us? It's a world where swords are beat to plowshares (Isaiah 2:4). It's certainly a world where children don't have to have active shooter training and where they do not have to see the sight of a gun on a daily basis. It's got to be a world where human life is valued, where children's lives are defended over against the desire to own lethal weapons. God is calling the church to fight like hell for that world!

The church's mission should include ending gun violence. God is calling the church to put down its sword (Matthew 26:52) and to address the gun crisis in America.

God is with the parents with newly vacant bedrooms in their homes. God is with the children who witnessed their friends murdered before their eyes. God is with those whose lives have been cut short. I am truly sorry if you feel like I have alienated you or marginalized your perspective. As a Pastor, it is my desire not to merely pontificate or emote. I want to communicate, and I want to communicate in such a way that you feel heard and seen. But if you are supportive of the NRA; if you don't believe we should be regulating gun ownership, banning assault weapons, and legislating gun control, what I am begging you to do—not only as a Pastor but as a parent—is to change your mind. I am asking you to join the fight for the world God has promised us.

Action is the only moral and acceptable response. We can't keep doing nothing. We need to pray. We need to act.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

The Best You Can Do Might Be Nothing

was recently having coffee with a friend at the universal gathering space called Starbucks, and during our conversation they told about how busy their schedule is.

“When I am off work, there’s still work to be done. There’s never enough time in the day to get everything done.”

We compared calendars and joked about what we’d do if we didn’t have jobs. “We’d find another way to spend our time, I guess,” my friend said. “I mean, I wouldn’t even know how to do nothing with myself.”

I resonated with my friend’s remark. Indeed, it’s hard for me to imagine having nothing on my schedule. In fact, it seems then whenever I free up some time, I find another way to fill the slot. I don’t really know how to do nothing. And, to be honest, I’d probably feel ashamed of myself if I did nothing. I wonder if you can relate.

In his book Becoming Friends of Time, John Swinton talks about how we as a society have commodified time itself. We’ve turned time into a kind of currency we can spend or save or waste or invest. In fact, we use these economic terms to describe how we “use” our time… I mean, think for a second about the term, “our time”…. is it ours? Can we own it? We sure seem to live as if we should.

Swinton also talks about how we have come to see the use of time as a badge of honor. Busyness has become a virtue and to do “nothing” would be a “waste” of time. If my calendar isn’t full, I must not be using my time.

But when everything becomes “useful,” when our energy and our time is just an instrument, a utility, I think we can find ourselves feeling tired and “used.” We begin to see our own self worth in terms of expediency and usefulness, and so we spend our very selves.

What if the best thing you could actually do for the world is actually nothing at all?

In Genesis chapter 1, God created the world. This work of creation is poetically described as a seven day process, wherein each day God creates something from nothing (or at least from a kind of chaotic void, we can debate later). God creates light, and the sky, and plants, and animals…. and it’s not until the 6th day that God creates human beings. It seems that on the sixth day, God is finished. But it would be a mistake to think that this is the end of the story.

The true end (goal?) of creation is not the work of creation, but the rest that God takes in it. God actually stops and rests and delights in God’s creation.

“God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all the work of creating that God had done.” Genesis 2:3

When time is a commodity, work gets the last word. Every empty space is just a pause in the process that is otherwise all about getting stuff done and staying busy. We even start to think that the purpose of rest is to do more and better work. But Genesis teaches us that rest isn’t for work, work is for rest. The purpose of doing something is so that we can find peace in doing nothing. The best kind of time is useless time… time “wasted” with our friends and family… time “wasted” in prayer… time “wasted” by resting in God…. The best you can do might be nothing at all.

You are not a machine. Time is not money. “Work” does not have the last word. Consider wasting a little more of you time so that you can enjoy being human.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” -Jesus

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

The Church May Be Bigger Than You Think.

It is not permissible to designate as “unchurched” those who have become alienated from organized denominations and traditional creeds. In living among these groups for half a generation I learned how much of the latent Church there is within them. –Paul Tillich 

 Jesus doesn’t just live in the church.

...I hope we know that.  

I hope we know that when we call the church the “house of God” we really don’t mean that God is confined to the four walls of the church. For that matter, neither is God confined to the theology of the church–our rules, interpretations, and doctrines. God is bigger than us and no amount of knowledge about God can ever presume to possess God. So the church—the community that, by grace alone, can be called the “body of Christ”—cannot be possessed either. No church (small “c”) can make claim on the Church (big “C”). So none of us are an authority on who is “in” and who is “out.” 

I hope we know that.... but I am afraid we don’t.  

Too often I hear laments from “church people” about the institutional decline of the church as though the problem is with the people leaving it. It’s as though we think that God is with us and that when they leave our churches, they must be leaving God.  

Too often I hear of churches actually alienating people over theological disagreements as though they own the truth.... as though if someone doesn’t buy in to the trinity, or the virgin birth, or the authority of Scripture, or the existence of angels then they are not to be associated with... as though “heresy” is contagious.

Of course, as a religious person, I think it’s important to be part of a church—to have partners in ministry and learning. We need community and there’s no authentic expression of church without community. But as a religious person, it would be flat wrong for me to assume that God is closer to those who are inside the church than those who have been alienated from it.  

Of course, as a person of faith, I think theology and doctrine are extremely important. It matters that we continue to learn and be challenged. It matters that we hold ourselves up to the mirror of the bible and take an audit of our belief. Doctrines like the trinity and the divinity of Christ are of utmost importance and it matters that we continue to reflect on them, understand them, and encounter God in them. We might even be right to defend them. But as a person of faith, it would be flat wrong for me to assume that God is closer to those who think like me and share the holy texts I read than those who are not compelled or convinced by the traditional doctrines of Christianity.  

When we assume that God is with us and that they are far from God, we fool ourselves. And when we approach people as though we have what they need, we have succumbed to arrogance.  

God is alive and well outside the church and outside the borders of defined Christian dogma. So as Christians, we need to learn to expect to find God outside the church. We need to expect that when we come upon someone who has rejected our faith and is alienated from our religion, we will have something to learn from them.... indeed, even something to learn about God.  

Some people have left the church for the right reasons.  

As Christians, we need to engage the world not with judgmental arrogance but with humble curiosity. Whenever we encounter another person—whether they’re an atheist, a fundamentalist, a witch, or a heretic—we are encountering someone whom God loves, for whom God died on the cross, and with whom God is surely dwelling even now.

What if we saw people that way? What if we respected people enough to ask questions? What if we expected God to be outside the church? What if we rejected the idea that we’re in and they’re out.  

We might find that the church is actually much bigger than we think.  

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Name The Mystery

“In Jesus Christ God has given us a Revelation which is identical with himself. Jesus Christ is the Revelation of God.” -Thomas F. Torrance

I had a professor in Seminary who used to say that the work of theology (that is, the work of thinking about God) is “naming the mystery” of the divine and human encounter.

Over the years I have sorta latched on to that definition. Sometimes I will begin my morning just by sitting and meditating on that little phrase—“naming the mystery.”

As human beings, I think we shy away from mystery…..

Now, I do need to clarify that by mystery, I don’t mean something like a Sherlock Holmes story or an episode of CSI. In fact, we like that sort of “mystery,” don’t we? We like to be the detective, discover the evidence, and solve the riddle. But theology is really nothing like that. Theology isn’t a riddle or a puzzle that can be solved. We don’t discover God through detection or discovery, we can only encounter God through disclosure and relationship.

In a genuine relationship, it doesn’t really help to try to play detective…. ask my wife how well it goes over when my primary objective is just to “figure her out”… A relationship is not a Rubik's cube that you can solve and set aside. You can’t solve a relationship, you can only participate in it!

So when I say that I think we shy away from mystery, I am saying that we prefer to deal with things that can be measured, verified, replicated, and deciphered.

But a person cannot be contained in a riddle and neither can the God of the universe. A person is a mystery…. they can never be solved but they can be seen, heard, and named. To know a person is different from knowing a math problem. You can only know a person by being in relationship with them.

So because it is about knowing the God revealed in Jesus Christ, theology isn’t about “figuring it out.” It’s not about discovery. It’s about participating in the mystery of the person who loves, saves, and sustains us.

So the question is, how should we go about this relationship? How should we name the mystery? Well, if the biblical confession is true—that Jesus Christ is Lord, that “Jesus Christ is the Revelation of God”—then the way to name the mystery of God is through relationship with Jesus and participation in his ministry.

So when Jesus calls us to follow him and when God invites us to pray, it is not just some intellectual exercise or religious obligation. It is the way we draw closer to God.

Try this: spend a few minutes in prayer… like right now, if you can. And just speak to God as a person, as a friend you’re getting to know. Ask God, “what do you want to do today?” ….And be ready to join in.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Prayer and Unbelief


Prayer isn’t easy.  

I think some of us would be embarrassed to admit how seldom we actually stop and pray. Some of us are probably embarrassed to confess that we’re not sure we even know how to pray. The fact is, you’re not alone if you’re one of those people. Prayer is difficult.  

We have so many forces working against us. There’s not enough time, not enough energy. We don’t know the right words to say. We’re plagued by doubt, which, in a secular society, is just the water we swim in. And we’re plagued by the nagging suspicion that this prayer stuff might just be hocus pocus anyway.  In our modern way of thinking, it’s just not second nature to believe that reality is anything but what we can see and touch and measure and manipulate. The idea that we are subject to divine power is alien to our secular mindset and Christians are not immune to that.

But we wouldn’t want to admit that, right? What would our church friends think of us?  

It’s important to remember that faith and doubt are not opposites. In fact, sometimes the best place to start with faith is in doubt. There’s truly no better place to start than exactly where you are. Prayer is nothing if it’s not honesty. So maybe the best prayer is the one that begins with, “God, this is hard.” Or perhaps, “God, I want to pray, but I need your help. Help me pray.” Sometimes when we admit that belief is in contention, we can actually become more open and more receptive of God. If we leave our faith unchallenged, untested, and untethered, is it genuine faith at all?

In the gospel of Mark (chapter 9), there’s a story about a young boy who was having seizures of some kind. The boy’s father went to Jesus’ disciples for help, but they couldn’t fix the problem. So the father went straight to Jesus and explained. The seizures were becoming life threatening for the child and the father was scared. He came to Jesus and asked for help, “if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” Jesus said, “Everything is possible for one who believes.” And then the father responded with one of the most profound prayers in history....  

“I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” 

This somewhat paradoxical prayer is where a lot of us are right now. We believe, but we need help overcoming unbelief. We want to trust that God is here, that all the promises of scripture are true and that God loves us and hears us and wants to be in relationship with us. But we need God’s help.  Like the father in the story, we want to believe, we’re trying to believe but we need God to fill in where we’ve left off.

So start where you are. Start right where you are and just talk to God. If it’s hard to believe, then ask for help. If it’s hard to pray, then ask God to pray with you. Just be honest, because God already accepts you and loves you, even in your doubt.... even in your unbelief. Faith is not something you muster through your own strength, it’s something God gives us as a gift if we are honest enough to accept it just as we are.

Try simply praying this prayer....  

“God, I want pray, but I need your help. Show me how to be honest with you and with myself. Help me to love you and help me to believe that you are there and that you love me.”  

...Maybe try praying it again.... And remember that prayer was God’s idea in the first place. We didn’t come up with this! God invited us to pray before it ever a thought occurred to us. God wants to hear your prayers because God loves you. This is true, believe it or not.  

[This post was originally written for publication at www.fccramona.org/news]

Monday, February 07, 2022

Fishin' With Jesus

One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret (The Sea of Galilee), the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God. He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”  Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”  When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.  When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him. 

 

If you make the mistake of attending seminary, like I did (JK, I actually LOVED seminary), then you will inevitably learn about the so-called “crisis” of decline. In fact, I think you’ll probably get tired of hearing about it.  


The church is shrinking, it seems. There is a measurable and perceptible decline in church attendance and religious affiliation. According to Gallup, “47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999” (https://news.gallup.com/poll/341963/church-membership-falls-below-majority-first-time.aspx). From 1999-2020, our own denomination’s membership declined by almost 600,000 people (599,326 members, see the 2020 UCC statistical report: https://uccfiles.com/pdf/2020statisticalreport.vfw.pdf). And we can see it in our own communities. We can all think back to when there were “50 kids in the Sunday School” and 1,000 members in the church. 


 ….are you starting to feel some anxiety? Well, yeah. So is everyone else!  


Seminary classes and denominational gatherings and pastors’ conferences are being consumed by this topic. They have been for at least the last decade! Books and articles are being published with titles like Losing Church,The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America, Churches and The Crisis of Decline (that one’s actually a really good and really important work on this topic), The strange decline of US evangelicalism”, and The Rise of The Nones (That’s not nuns, as in cloistered Catholic women, but “nones” as in the religiously unaffiliated). 


The anxiety seems to be everywhere.... 


And so what are we doing about it?  


Well, it may give you some hope to know that some people, and some very smart people, are trying different things. Some are just digging their heels into all the “old” ways of doing things and complaining about how the world is turning against them.... I don’t find that approach to be all that compelling.  


Some people seem to be pushing the church to be more engaged with the big problems of society. This seems to be the UCC’s approach: “We need to show the world that faith is relevant to the concerns people actually have.” And that’s not a bad thing! I fully agree with it! 

Some are pushing the church to become “innovative... to do new things to take new forms to meet people where they are. The Lily Endowment has offered millions of dollars in grant funding to help churches and organizations move in this direction. I was personally involved in one such project at my former church (First United Methodist Church of Toms River) through Princeton Seminary—a project called “The Zoe Project.”  We were granted $20,000 to listen to the longings of young adults in our community and come up with an initiative that would reach those needs.  


Again, not a bad thing. The church certainly does need to think creatively about how we can serve the community and have a stronger, more positive presence in the world 

But my worry, sometimes, is that by trying to be relevant and by trying to do “new” things, we might be succumbing to a temptation (not unlike Jesus’ temptation to take power over all the nations in the wilderness in John 6) I worry that we will forget who we really are and what we’re actually called to do.  


Consider the wisdom of J├╝rgen Moltmann... “When religion, church, and faith are considered only from the standpoint of their expediency and usefulness for society, they are bound to vanish as soon as the purposes of society can be served by other means." 


The fact is, it’s great to be relevant. It’s great to try new things and be creative. But the church, indeed faith in Christ, is not defined by how useful it is in society. Being a Christian, being the church, is not about being important.  

"There are some men for whom a tree has no reality until they think of cutting it down..." -Thomas Merton
The church’s reality is deeper than usefulness. The fact is, we don’t need to look to something “new” to save the church from decline. What we need is here and has always been here.  

We need to be in relationship with Christ. That’s it. In essence, what we need as the church is to pray!  


There’s nothing especially relevant about prayer. And it certainly isn’t innovative. If I went to a seminary class and said, “have you tried praying,” I’d certainly come off as a pretentious jerk, and perhaps a little ignorant. But prayer is fundamentally what we do in the church. It’s who we are. So whatever we do to respond to decline, we can’t lose that. We can’t lose prayer. 

So I like to look at this passage from Luke, this simple story of Jesus fishing with his friends.  

The disciples have been fishing all night apparently, and they’re just coming up short. They’ve got nothing. Then Jesus comes along and borrows their boats. He’s teaching some folks about the Kingdom of God, as he tends to do, but then he stops and tells Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.” 


Simon probably wasn’t too keen on this request. I mean, Jesus knows about the Bible and stuff, but Simon knows fishing! What if I walked into your office and started telling you how to do your job?  


So Simon answers, I imagine somewhat reluctantly, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.” In other words, “Jesus, we tried that already!” 


Imagine going to some fishermen who are complaining about not being able to catch fish and saying, “have you tried casting your nets?”  


But that’s exactly what "worked"....  


Simon says, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”


When they go out and do what they’d been doing all night—but this time because Jesus told them to—they catch more fish than they can handle.  


"They caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink."


I wonder if in our anxiety to be relevant and to do “new” things, we are missing the simple call to keep doing what we’ve always done, even the stuff that doesn’t seem to be “working. I’m not saying that if we just pray about it, people will start filling the church. I don’t even think that’s the right motivation. But what I am saying, what I think this story is saying, is that if we are faithful to Christ, even the things that seem like they’re sure to fail, might turn out to be life-giving and fulfilling.  


Are you worried about the future of the church? Are you anxious about the world?  


Maybe you should consider prayer. Maybe you should just enjoy the basic simplicity of just fishin' with Jesus.