Can’t We Just Go Back?!?

I sit in a lot of meetings, and I mean a lot. Rarely does a week go by where I’m not at least on a conference call or web meeting. Usually they all end up in the same place, how do we turn around a declining institution. Well, it’s not always that blunt, but usually whatever the difficulty we are facing can be attributed to the changing role of the church and religion in society. Lack of money? We need more people! Small programs? We need more people! Empty sanctuary on Sunday? We need more people!

More than once in the last few months I’ve found myself reflecting on a specific narrative in Scripture from Exodus. I keep thinking about Moses and Aaron leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and what that meant for everyone. Specifically, I keep reading Exodus 16:1-3:

The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. 2The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

In the midst of discovering a new way to live, the Israelites really just wished they could go back to the way things were. Even if those times were awful, and would result in death, at least it was familiar. At least they would get food, and now how to function. The problem is, you can’t go back! You are on a path to something greater, Israel, and it ain’t back there in Egypt.

I feel that this narrative speaks to not only the church today, but change in our own lives. Right now, I’m going to talk about the church. It seems obvious when you hear that the church is not the same as it was in the 1950’s, but too often we act like it is. We know we need to try new things to reach out to people, to build relationships, to show the need for a spiritual community, but we still expect people to just show up at our doors because of a fancy flyer or flashy website. I hear bemoaning that “kids these days just don’t believe like we did.” (I’ll admit, I join in the bemoaning at times.) But, its time to step it up.

How, you say? Well, we have to look at the big picture. We need to be collaborative as churches where we can. Buying into a “Free market Capitalist View of Church Growth” isn’t going to help the world. Churches can’t see each other as “competitors” vying for the same precious resources. Guess what, there’s a lot of people out there that don’t go to church, and if even a fraction of them started, we wouldn’t all have room for them anyway. So, I think we are better off asking these questions: Where can we share resources? Where can we assist in relationship building? Where can we defer to another because they have a specialized gift for that? I think long gone are the days where every church met every need. I’m not just talking about within a United Methodist context, how do we collaborate with like-minded Christian communities no matter what the denominational background?

We are in the wilderness, unfamiliar with the dynamics, unsure of where we will end up, but holding on to a hope and praying it will come true. As much as we want to turn back and be familiar, moving forward is our only option. Tomorrow is a new day, new possibilities for our lives, will we move forward in order to see the Manna from heaven?

Remember who and whose we are, we are God’s people. Created in God’s image, fashioned in God’s love, to be co-creators of a new and transformed world through the life and example of Jesus Christ. Go in hope. Go in peace.

Christianity: Masculine is the way?

Recently a lot has been going around the Internet circles about comments from John Piper regarding God’s intention for Christianity to have a “masculine feel.” As is a new practice of mine, I took some time to think about my response before I put it together. I’ve learned this to a be a good way to completely engage my comments with the source of controversy, but more importantly that I don’t say something I’m going to really regret later. So, here is my attempt to address this topic.
In an article from www.christianpost.com, evangelist John Piper is quoted as saying,

“God revealed Himself in the Bible pervasively as king not queen; father not mother,” Piper said at this year’s annual pastors conference hosted by the Desiring God ministry. “Second person of the Trinity is revealed as the eternal Son not daughter; the Father and the Son create man and woman in His image and give them the name man, the name of the male.”
He continued, “God appoints all the priests in the Old Testament to be men; the Son of God came into the world to be a man; He chose 12 men to be His apostles; the apostles appointed that the overseers of the Church be men; and when it came to marriage they taught that the husband should be the head.”
“Now, from all of that I conclude that God has given Christianity a masculine feel. And being God, a God of love, He has done that for our maximum flourishing both male and female.”

First, having read the article numerous times and seeing other responses from colleagues, my initial reaction stayed the same, sickness. I say this as a pastor, a theological school graduate, and a Christian. Piper does acknowledge the potential for controversy in his statements, but doesn’t find a way to explain how the controversy is misplaced. That leads me to believe that this is indeed a moment of learning for all of us on how words do hurt, and can cause damage. I see this as sexism institutionalized.
My journey in faith has been eclectic at best, and at worst it’s been a struggle to continue any relationship within the organized church. I’ve been in communities with all types of theologies and practices, and feel that I’ve landed where I am based on a calling from God and a willingness to accept uncertainty. However, none of this would have been possible without the guidance, support, and leadership of women. I’ve have served in churches under the direct supervision of three female clergy at this point in my life, so I think I’m able to look at the issue of church sexism pretty well. More importantly, more women than I can count have made me who I am today. So either, a statement about the masculine favor of God is off base, or the God that I’ve discovered is a heck of a lot different than the one in the church.
Piper frames his comments in this way,

“It’s the feel of a great, majestic God who is by His redeeming work in Christ inclining men to humble Christ-exalting initiatives and inclining women to come alongside those men with joyful support, intelligent helpfulness, and fruitful partnership in the work.”

The words “inclining women to come alongside those men with joyful support…” hits me the hardest. In a world of spin, I’m sure one can try to convince us that this is a positive statement, but I see nothing positive about it. It clearly sets up a hierarchical relationship in which males are the leaders and the women assist them. This strikes me strange on a personal and professional level. Having been raised by a single mother, I realize the fallacy in stating that a man’s leadership is needed in a family for things to be “right.” I, and many others, can attest to the inaccuracy of that assumption. As I already stated, it has been the leadership of women that has lead me to understanding my calling within the church. Through that calling, I’m reminded of a Bible study I lead in my first year of ministry where I asked a simple question, “Why do we view God as male?” I expected a slow response from the group, but to my surprise one woman spoke up right away and said, “Because a bunch of men put the stories together.” In that moment, I realized it wasn’t the expensive seminary education that lead me to my views, but basic common sense about context of history. This woman realized the relationship between authors and editors to their context, and that women had not been treated the best throughout history.
Biblically, the story of the Syrophoenician woman speaks the loudest to the role of women in faith. It’s a great text of liberation from a classist and sexist system, one that I believe opened the eyes of Jesus to a broader context, a context that brought a ministry to more than the people of Israel. We should be thankful for that woman’s speaking of truth to power. Secondly, I think of the great Easter story and to whom the risen Christ was first revealed. In Luke 24, we read about the women being the first to know of the risen Jesus, able to be the first to realize the words had been fulfilled. Women had the inside track to defining moment of Christianity. If we believe Jesus to be equally divine and equally human, than I think God wasn’t so worried about the “masculinity” of Christianity, as much as God is worried about the love and grace we spread from Jesus.
I’m sure I rambled a lot in this blog entry, but this is my return to blogging. I felt this issue was what I needed to get back into it. In closing, as pastor, teacher, student, and follower of Jesus I want it to be known that I find these statements troubling and damaging. If it were not for the influence of women in leadership I would not be in the church today. To quote Ani DiFranco, “Why can’t all decent men and women call themselves feminists?”
Grace and Peace,
Z

A New Day

It has been way too long since I’ve done anything with this blog. I’ve had lots to say, but life was just moving so fast I didn’t see a good time to pause and write. However, I think this is about to change. I am sitting in the airport in Washington, D.C. right now, returning home from Ecumenical Advocacy Days 2011. It was a great event that really changed my motivation for ministry, but energized me to move forward.

The conference was opened and closed by amazing plenary sessions. I’ll go into more detail about each of them in later posts, but this quote was shared during the first session. It is from Sally McFague’s book, A New Climate Theology. In it, McFague says:

“If God is always incarnate– if God is always in us and we are in God– then Christians should attend to the model of the word as God’s body. The model of the world as God’s body helps us understand the doctrine of creation is not about God’s power, but about God’s love.”

A new understanding of creation leads us to a new understanding of our life and our purpose within creation. Everything around us is part of God’s body, created by God’s love. It was from this perspective I began my time at Ecumenical Advocacy Days. We were there to seek peace and justice through God’s love, for God’s creation.

In the closing session, Jack Jezreel of JustFaith Ministries shared great insight into why we do the work of justice and peace. Jezreel left little room for us to stay silent in our collective witness for God. His goal for the night was to make us uncomfortable with our current place in our mission. He was very successful, but it made me uncomfortable in a way to motivates. I feel bad that I’ve been complacent in what I’ve done and haven’t done. Jezreel shared this insight with us later in the evening:

“Churches are not losing members because they are wrong…it’s because they aren’t courageous.”

We in the church like to blame each other for the failings of the church. In the United Methodist Church, in which I serve, it usually comes down to a conservative/liberal type argument. After thinking about it, both sides are correct. We are all to blame. I don’t think we do enough when it comes to justice. We don’t work for the rights of each and every person in the global community. This causes people to avoid the church, to find alternative ways of expressing their spirituality, and to work for justice wherever the opportunity arrises. It’s time for the church to be courageous, to take major risks, to be heroic in the struggle for God’s love to be realized by all.

I’ll share more in the coming days, as well as some pictures. I just wanted to get the first post up so that I started the process again. Who knows, if my plane gets delayed any more, maybe the next post will come sooner than I think!

Grace and Peace,

Here We Go Again…

Well, this is going to be what seems like my 100th attempt at blogging regularly. I always get going well in the beginning, and then let it slip away. I figured it was time to get going moving on it again. So many things have changed over the last year that I’m not going to even attempt to catch up on everything on this blog. I’ll highlight a few things, and set the tone for future blogs.

I am in the third month of my third year as a pastor. I began my third year in the Conestoga Parish on July 1, 2010. It’s both exciting and scary knowing that I’ve been in the same place for that long. Most of my employment up to this point has been seasonal or temporary at best. The other thing about starting my third year is that I know it will be my last with these three churches. Starting July 1, 2011, I will be a full time pastor and will move to a new church, and most likely a new town. I’ll share more about that in the future, because I don’t know anything about that yet and won’t until I get the phone call next spring.

Along with starting my final year at the churches, I begin my final year of seminary. I won’t mince words here, I’m extremely excited to be finishing up school. I started school at 5 1/2 years old, and now I’m 25 1/2 years old. That’s been a lot of time in school thus far in my life, and I’m ready for a break. People tell me that I’ll miss it, but I just want the opportunity to miss it. Right now I miss being home for more than 3 days a week. I miss being able to spend time with my family and friends on a regular basis. Many of my friends are getting married, having kids, and I want to be more free to experience those things with them. I fell rushed all the time, like I can’t give my all to any thing, only part of me to a million different things. Anyway, I’m ready for May to come around and to have completed my Master’s degree. It’s been a long few years here, and I’ll be glad to have that degree in my hand.

This last summer I had some exciting times. At Annual Conference (if you don’t know what that is, think of it as a large corporate meeting with all of its stockholders) I was commissioned as a Provisional Elder in the Nebraska Conference of the United Methodist Church. Now, what does that mean? Well, in short, I’m a step away from full ordination. The Board of Ordained Ministry felt that I was prepared enough to take on the work of an Elder, with some accountability and supervision, and after a couple years, I will be eligible for ordination. If all goes well, I’m looking at summer of 2013 for ordination. Here’s a picture from that event.

Well, I think I’ve spent enough time tonight tinkering with the design and layout of the blog and writing this post, I better get back to the homework. I’ve already started the list of things to blog about, so look forward to more posts coming soon. It feels good to be back.

Grace and Peace,

Check This Out!

Throughout the summer, 5 young adults from the different parts of Nebraska came together to look into what doing justice within our church was all about. The interns were part of a program called Micah Corps, and have done amazing work. Many of the things they’ve done can be seen on their blog by clicking here.

You’ll see interviews with different agencies they worked with, as well as some interviews with pastors from the Nebraska Conference. (You may even find me on there! 😉 )

Hope that you can venture over to their blog.

Grace & Peace,
Z

A Community

For the final presentation in my Christian Education class this last semester, I lead the class in a session that looked at sacrament in our lives. One of the recommendations during the session was to take a look at the liturgy from either baptism or communion within your own tradition and look at what the words mean. I decided that I should probably do that, as I was leading the class. I decided to look at the baptismal covenant services in the Book of Worship. I use the communion liturgy at least on a monthly basis, but rarely have the opportunity to look at the words we speak around baptism. A few responses by the congregation caught my attention, and made me think. In one of the services, the congregation pledges to do the following:

With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness , that they may grow in their service to others. We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.

I wonder how often we sit back and actually reflect on the words we speak during a worship service, better yet on the promises we make. In a lifetime, how many times does one make the promise to “surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness”? For some, I’m sure the number is staggering. We make this promise to help guide people in Christ’s way, but more importantly to be a community that loves and forgives. I know that I have failed many times to be a contributing member of that type of community, and I’m sure many of church members have done the same over time.

If we make this promise early on in a person’s faith journey (either as an infant, or when baptized later in life) we are setting the bar very high, but not impossible. I think that the church should focus on love and forgiveness before all of the other things we talk about. If we can be a community that truly loves each and every member of the community, and forgives instead of resents, it truly can be an awesome experience to be a member of a church. Unfortunately it seems that our community is too much about power and prestige, about who deserves better, about personal ambitions, and not about love and forgiveness. Yes, we have to set ourselves aside a lot in order to fulfill this promise, but isn’t that what Christ is all about? Aren’t we called to set aside self in order to share Christ with the world? It’s not an easy task, but love and forgiveness can go a long way.

Next time you are involved in a service of baptism, confirmation, or communion, take a moment to think about the words and see if the community is meeting its promises and guidelines. If we are not, let’s work to change that, for the sake of being people who follow Christ fully and live up to what we promise.

Grace and Peace,
Z

My Holy Weekend

Note: I must warn anyone who is preparing to read this. I will most likely ramble and go on tangents during this blog. These are my raw feelings following a great weekend of worship. I hope you find something of worth in these writings and that your Easter was as equally meaningful.

The churches in which I am honored to be called the Pastor had some amazing worship experiences this weekend. I am moved and humbled by God’s spirit that was present during these times of community. It was a great thing, both personally and professionally to be a part of these 4 worship services (Good Friday and 3 Easter).

Good Friday was a tenebrae service where we reflected through readings and song. It was something new for both me and the church to experience. This was also the first holiday season worship that I was given complete control over as a pastor. The former associate had always taken care of Good Friday, so we didn’t change that, but I did include the senior pastor in the service this year. As dark and sad as this service can become, it really opened me up spiritually as a person and leader to prepare for the Easter celebration. I was moved by the response of those in worship, as they felt somber following the service. This night reminded of why I responded to my calling, and why I continue with all the stress that is involved at this point.

Easter Sunday was amazing. I must admit, I wasn’t too crazy about the 7:00am service, but felt renewed once it was over. The choir (which we only have twice a year) sang wonderfully, with new voices joining them this Easter. A choir can always get you in the Easter spirit. It seemed like everyone who came to worship today was prepared to be joyous, and it helped me lead worship. I lead everything but the children’s sermon and the sermon. I was blessed with being able to preside over Holy Communion on this Sunday. I used the liturgy for the most part, but from memory, and gave the story of how that night came to be when Jesus shared with the twelve. I hate to say this, but my best sermon may have not been a sermon at all. I hadn’t pre-planned very much of what I was going to say, but truly felt moved this morning to the point where I knew everything would be just fine and people would experience God’s grace through the Bread and the Cup. Being able to serve the congregation in this way is one of the most meaninful things that I experience. Using the rememberance of Christ in this way to welcome all to commune together is the theological high that cannot end for me. Easter was real for me this year, very real. I don’t know that I’ve experienced such a thing before, but hope to experience it much more.

Grace and Peace,
Z