Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Would you like fries with your theology?

A couple of weeks ago I was in a Lowe’s Home Improvement store.  I was looking for a specific item, which I thought they had.  Alas, they did not.  However, while sitting in the store looking on my phone, I discovered that another Lowe’s location did in fact have the item I needed.  So I called to verify this information.  They put me on hold while they went to check the shelves.  The hold music was “1000 Miles” by Vanessa Carlton.  I started tapping my foot.  And then I realized it.  The hold music.  It was...exactly the same as the music playing in the store I was sitting in.  Synchronized to exactly the same moment in the song.  No delay whatsoever.  I’m not even sure how they did that.
You know me.  I started thinking.  This song must be playing at this exact moment in every Lowe’s in the United States.  Every caller on hold.  Everyone standing in front of the toilet display trying to decide if they need a round bowl or an elongated bowl.  Everyone agonizing over cabinet hinges and window treatments and grill accessories.  Everyone who’s trying to figure out what kelvin temperature they want for their LED lighting and everyone who’s trying to figure out the difference between eggshell and satin finish...and which would look the best in the sunroom they’re trying to spruce up before they have guests in for the weekend.  They were all listening to the same song at the same time.  That’s heavy.
Why do you suppose that is?  It probably saves costs somehow.  But also, and this is even more important than that, it’s an attempt to ensure that the customer experience at any given Lowe’s is consistent.
It’s like McDonald’s.  Those guys don’t think for a minute they have the best cheeseburger in the world.  But they’re pretty sure that no matter what McDonald’s you walk into you’re going to get that exact mediocre “cheeseburger” you’re expecting.  They spend a lot of time training folks to make sure that’s the case.  And heck, if you’re me, sometimes that’s exactly what you want.  “I don’t want a cheeseburger.  I want a McDonald’s cheeseburger.  They aren’t the same thing.”
To one degree or another church denominations seem to work the same way.  Some person or some council says what we’re supposed to believe, and everyone in the denomination is supposed to believe whatever they say.  The Catholic church has ecumenical councils and the Pope.  The Episcopalians have the General Convention.  The Methodists have the...the...the (it almost pains me to say it) General Conference.  Cue ominous music and thunderclap sound effect.
The General Conference produces the Book of Discipline.  This is a book that tells us how Methodists are supposed to be in the world.  What do we believe?  How do we practice our faith?  It’s all written right there.  Like a Zaxby’s manual that tells you how to toss the chicken fingerz correctly or a Wendy’s manual that tells you the proper way to mess up someone’s order (It has to be on purpose, folks.  It’s always messed up so you can’t figure it out without emptying the whole bag.  They’ve elevated it to an art.)  It’s all there in black and white.
Except the world doesn’t work in black and white.  The Discipline exists in a dynamic world.  That’s why it changes.  Slowly, yes, but surely.  It is affected by social and cultural norms.  To borrow from Paul, it is not only in the world, but to some degree it is of the world.  And because it is of the world, it will never quite measure up to what we experience when we earnestly seek to live the life of Christ.
The difference between what the highest level of our Methodist polity dictates and what I experience every day in the local church creates cognitive dissonance for me.  What do I believe?  Is it all some kind of a sham, what with me peddling one product in Decatur while a very different product is packaged in Portland?  What would happen if the big boss came down to my particular corner and didn’t like how I was tossing my chicken fingerz?!
I don’t know.  But I do know this: the gospel call on my life is to love everyone, and I serve a local church in which I can answer that call fully.  I can answer that call right alongside someone who disagrees with me...who can also answer the gospel call on his life or her life.  Fully.  After all, the work of Jesus isn’t done at a conference center in some random city every four years.  It’s done by our hands in our own community every day.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Should We Love the Church?

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.  I’ve been thinking about that lately.  Specifically I’ve noticed it doesn’t say anything about loving the church.  But isn’t loving the church a good thing?  Well, maybe it can be.  But then again sometimes it may not be the best idea.
Years ago I was working in a Baptist church that was struggling with its identity.  There was a decision to be made: would the church change or wouldn’t it (man, if I had a dollar for every church where it boiled down to that…).  Because it was a Baptist church, it was to be discussed at a business meeting, and of course there were a lot of “parking lot conversations” that happened ahead of the meeting.
One guy came into the office to talk with the pastor and me.  He said, “Pastor, I love this church.  I can’t bear the thought of having to close the doors.  I can’t bear it.  And right now the only way we can keep them open is the giving one person.  Now he’s told me he’s going to quit giving if we go through with this.  I think it’s the right thing to do.  I think we should do it.  But we can’t go on without his giving.  We can’t keep the doors open.”  When the votes were counted, the initiative was narrowly defeated.
The members loved that church. Maybe too much.  Because when it came right down to it, they had to choose between being the beloved church as they knew it and considering what else God might have in mind.  But they sure did love their church.  It was Scott Boulevard Baptist Church, and a lot of folks were heartbroken when the steeple was pulled down to make room for a mixed-use development.
That fate is inevitable if we love our churches more than we love people.  All in this world is transient except for undying love.  It’s the love Christ had for us.  It’s the love we can have for each other.  And God.  And strangers.  Shoot, y’all.  It’s the love Jesus told us to have for everyone (who is my neighbor?).
I’ve painted for you the picture of a narcissistic church that drove itself into the ground because the people didn’t care about anything except their building.  If the story stopped there, it would indeed be a tragedy, and an unflattering one at that.  But that’s not the end of the story.
The people of Scott Boulevard Baptist did love their neighbors.  And as the inevitabilities of age and shrinking number began to press in around them, they began wondering.  What is it that God would have them do?  The remaining members of the church realized that acting out of love for neighbor was the best way forward.  So they sold the land.  They gave away just about everything in the church.  They relocated their services to the chapel of First Baptist Church in Decatur, and they focused their ministry on the elderly and aging.  They set aside a portion of the proceeds from the sale to offer grants for agencies with emphasis on the elderly, many of which were local missions.  In short, Scott Boulevard Baptist Church found new life when the majority of its members came to understand the difference between loving the church and loving people (in fairness, I should add that many of the members understood that from the very beginning!).  Knowing the full story, watching the steeple come down wasn’t heartbreaking for me.  It was oddly life-giving, a hopeful opportunity for the phoenix to rise from the ashes to new life.
This has rung true in my ministry as well.  In my first years, I worried incessantly about the choir and its number.  How can we grow?  How can we sound better?  What do I need to do if I want to encourage stronger attendance?  The answer was simple: stop worrying about the choir.  Stop worrying about attendance.  Start worrying about people.  Actually care about them.
Which is, of course, exactly what Jesus said we should do in the first place.  Love God.  Love neighbor.  All those things we worry about in the church.  Money.  Attendance.  Buildings.  Even theology!  Jesus didn’t ask us to worry about those.  Jesus asked us to worry about each other.  Guess what.   If we do that, then all the rest will be fine.  Why?  Because an atmosphere of Godly Love connects people with the Divine.  It fills that void inside that can’t be filled by anything else, a void that unfortunately a whole bunch of people have accepted as normal.  That is heartbreaking.  Much more so than a falling steeple.
So maybe love the church a little less.  Worry about it a little less.  And love each other more.  God can handle everything else.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

This Isn't an Article About Politics

This isn’t an article about politics.  You don’t need me to tell you it’s a turbulent time out there.  It’s so turbulent that as a country we’ve taken to voting based on what we are against rather than what we are for.  Never Trump.  Never Clinton.  Those are the obvious ones.  But this has been building for a long time, and really it’s part of our human nature.
It all starts with fear.  Political candidates are rarely content to tell you the benefits of the policies and plans they support.  But it’s not enough to explain in clear terms why a certain policy is a good idea and then let the voters decide if they agree.  So they chase that quickly with a litany of the devastation to be brought about by enactment of the policies of their opposition.  As time has gone on, politicians have spent more and more time presenting the negative litanies and less and less time talking about the policies they support.  The buildup of fear was inevitable.  Remember, this isn’t an article about politics.
Why the rise of Never Trump and Never Clinton?  Because we as a people are afraid.  At some point we the people started making decisions based on the litany of devastation rather than what we believe are the relative benefits of the policies presented.  We started making choices out of fear, and that was the beginning of the end.
The only way to reverse course is to vote for rather than against.  That’s awfully hard in the current political climate where many don’t agree with either candidate (leading them to wonder justifiably if the choices on the ballot really do reflect the best choices available for the job!).  Still,  Brother Dave Gardner once said, “Don’t tell me about your doubts.  I have enough doubts of my own.  Tell me something you believe in!”  There’s wisdom in that.
And it’s true of far more than just the political world.  After all, this isn’t an article about politics.  Making decisions based on fear of the negative leads to reactionary, defensive decision making.  Fear-based choices paralyze us.  They keep us from walking boldly forward as we are crushed under the weight of uncertainty.  On the other hand, decisions based on the positive position us to take advantage of opportunity and growth (assuming those positions are grounded in some modicum of reality, of course!).
You see this in the church so often it’s cliché.  Sacred cows, they call them.  Things that can’t be touched for one reason or another.  Some of them are physical items, most of which have a shiny plaque.  Many of them are practices—things we’ve always done this way or that.  And woe is the one who attempts to change the sacred cow!
But this isn’t an article about politics, and it isn’t an article about sacred cows either.  The thing is both of those exist.  There will always be politicians trying to convince us of a narrative that leads to one eventuality: they will get elected.  And there will always be things in churches that mean a lot to a few people that frankly get in the way of the forward progress of the church.  Because reality, people.  But that doesn’t mean we have to be driven by it.
So how do we step out of this nightmare?  Realistic positivity.  Think realistically and thoughtfully about what you want to happen and how you can make it happen.  Then do that.  Yeah, I know.  You don’t like either candidate.  But think about what the candidates stand for based on what they have said and done, and then make your choice.  In the church, we have to resist the temptation to judge the plaque-adorned credenza as an eyesore and a liability.  Cast a vision for the positive things you’d like to do with the space and present that.  Nobody wants to hear, “I hate the credenza that you’ve been walking past every week since you were 4 years old because it’s awful.”  Everybody wants to hear, “Imagine what we can do when we paint this, clean that, put some curtains over the other, and do this super awesome thing with that space there.”
That’s the good news.  This isn’t an article about politics.  It’s an article about hope.  Even if we’re easily led astray by fear, deep inside, in places we don’t talk about at parties (1000 points for citing the reference in the comments), we want to be inspired.  We want to believe the best is yet to be.  We want to live in a world where decisions are not made by doubts, but rather are made by what we believe in.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Walk Together, Children

Today I’m going to copy in here the insert notes from the 2016 Youth Music Mission to Chattanooga, Knoxville, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Richmond.  It gives you an idea of the kind of story we try to tell when we go meet people.   I can’t believe we have only a month and a week or so before we leave!
Lives are like snowflakes: no two are exactly alike.  The history of our experiences shapes who we are just as certainly as our DNA shapes how we react in those experiences.  It is this unique combination of stories that forms our identity, which consists both of how the world views us and also how we view the world.  There has never been another like you, and there will never be another.  You are one-of-a-kind in the truest sense of the words.
Still, we as humans have much in common with each other.  We may have as much in common as we have in difference!  We require air, water, food, and shelter.  When those most basic needs are met, we naturally seek for more: we seek to be comfortable.  We are curious not just about our world but about our role in the world.  We seek purpose and understanding.  And almost as certainly as we require air, water, food, and shelter, we require love.
Sometimes those needs are hard to come by.  When they are, when we are starved for the most basic necessities of life, when we are starved for love, our stories turn dark and grim.  That’s something else we have in common: we know what it means to suffer.  If we’ve lived long enough, we know what it means to come to the frayed end of our rope with nothing but a deep, deep river below.  We know what it means to wonder how we can go on.
Someone once said that as long as there are tests there will be prayer in public schools.  That hints at something else we all have in common: in our darkest moments, “when sorrows like sea billows roll,” we turn to a higher power for help.  Some people call that God.  Some people call it other names for God.  Some people don’t call it God at all.  Still, “when the storms of life are raging,” we reach beyond ourselves for help, breathing a plea for mercy with what we fear may be our last breath.
Out of the river, a hand emerges.  Could it be the hand of God?  Or is it the hand of a family member or a friend or even a total stranger?  What is the difference?  Are not ours the hands of God?  When in our darker moments we seek to walk closer with God, do we not seek to walk closer to each other?
The truth is that sometimes we need to be held, and sometimes we are in a place where we can hold someone else.  As long as we walk together, not just friends and family but as the people of the world, you will have a very present help in time of trouble.  You will be a very present help in time of trouble.  And you will never walk alone.