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.

What if…?

The first time I saw this commercial online, I had immediate thoughts of how it applied to community and relationships. Then, of course, being a pastor, I translate that understanding to how it could tell us something about how the church is, and how it should be. If you haven’t seen the Guinness commercial, take a look.

I’ll admit it, a beer commercial made me a bit misty eyed the first time I saw it. I had no idea what to expect as I was watching it, and didn’t really anticipate how it would end. I think I was surprised by how simple the imagery was, and a bit ashamed that it surprised me. The idea that friends would just “be” with another and make a profound action seem so natural is what I think true community is about.

So much of what we are called to be as a follower of Jesus is relatively simple in instruction, but extremely complex in living it out. I think of the the two greatest commandments, loving God and loving neighbor, and realize how hard it is to do. It’s a very basic concept, but we fail to do it so much of the time.

The commercial reminds me of the importance of how our acts of welcome to those around us can make the complex seem simple. If we do what we can to create an environment where we enjoy being with community, then welcoming becomes a natural way of being.

Transformation

It’s September, which for all practical purposes means the Fall season is here. School is back in session, football is going on, and my life becomes more hectic, yet more structured with programing of work and organizations I work with. It also tends to be the time I reflect back the most. I usually will start something new during this time of year as opposed to the beginning of the calendar year. I suppose that has something to do with 21 years of school. My mind still runs on an academic year clock!

I started to remember today that it was a year ago this week I made a huge, life-changing decision. I enrolled in a program to improve my health. I didn’t know if I could do it or if it would work. All I knew was that I had to do something. In hindsight, I made a lot of good decisions for support. I told my plans to people at church, my friends, and used social media as a form of accountability. I’d like to say I did all that intentionally, but it just kind of happened to work out.

In the first 7 months I did achieve my goal of getting healthier. I lost about 85 pounds and no longer have to be treated for Type-2 Diabetes. This summer was rough, and I’ve gained 15 pounds back, but am working towards another weight-loss push starting again in September.

Most of all, I learned what transformation was all about. To be truly transformed, you have to be willing to lay it all out there. A word I use a lot in ministry is “vulnerability.” You have to be vulnerable to be transformed. In the process of transformation, you are admitting you need change, and there is nothing you can do about with making difficult decisions and commitments. In the process of becoming healthier, I also went through the final steps of becoming ordained. Working on physical transformation caused me to realize the transformative processes that are missing from our spiritual and institutional church lives.

Too often we hold on to what is “comfortable” or “familiar” to us, and leave out any possibility of transformation. We aren’t willing to tell people around us that we don’t have it all figured out, and could use support to make the changes we need. The church should be that place that we can be open about things like that. The church should be a place we can be our most vulnerable and not fear what the repercussions might be.

Unfortunately, the community of the church is often worried about survival and preservation. That’s not to say that there aren’t churches doing transformative things, but clearly not enough are doing what is needed with the decline of church attendance across the board. There’s a need for community where we can be vulnerable and struggle together. If there wasn’t, websites like Postsecret wouldn’t be so popular. Social Media wouldn’t be so full of people sharing what can be considered “too much” if we had better mechanisms in our community.

We need to be a community of support within the church, and offer an environment that births transformation in people and institutions. How can we do it? I think it takes a few people taking the risk of laying themselves out there. The risk is it may not work, but Jesus did it time and time again. Sure he ended up losing his life, but I think we are losing a lot more by not trying.

Grace & Peace,
Zach

Lent Day Ten & Eleven

Day 10: Spirit


Spirit. This painting hangs in my office. It was painted by a good friend and given to me as a gift as I moved to Kansas City to start seminary. To me, it shows the light of the spirit coming to us when we seek it out. 
Day 11: Live


Live. Water gives us life and keeps us in balance. As I’ve found a new lifestyle the last 6 months, water has been essential to the progress. 

Lent Days Seven, Eight, and Nine

Day 7: Wonder


Early in the week left much wonder in what the weather would bring. How many snow days would we get? How would I spend this extra time off?
Day 8: Evil

One of my favorite movies and an extreme guilty pleasure. Wasn’t too creative today on this, but I did take notice of my movie shelf that I too often ignore as a decoration.
Day 9: Love





Love the ability to have a day of rest with movies and popcorn. With the craziness of the weekend and other activities, it was a blessing to have a day for rest with the snow falling.