A City Set on a Hill Cannot be Hidden

A little more than a week ago I returned from my first trip to the Holy Land on a pilgrimage with Bishop and Mrs. Trimble and thirty-four other participants from the Iowa Annual Conference UMC.   This past week I’ve been trying to absorb spiritual impact of this experience on my life and ministry.

When I agreed to go to Israel and Palestine I knew I would see locations which we read about, preach about, and talk about in church every day.  We sat in a boat on the sea of Galilee, many of us stood in the Jordan river as Bishop Trimble helped us remember our baptisms.  We walked the streets of Capernaum and gathered at the Garden of Gethsemane.  I knew that I would see those places.

But the spiritual impact of being in places where Jesus walked, taught, preached, and yes gave his life for us, was powerful!  I have been preaching the gospel of this Jesus whose steps we followed for more than 25 years.  That gospel felt as real, immanent and powerful as it ever has at any point in my life and ministry.

There were so many good things about being on the trip.  It was wonderful to be with colleague for a week and a half and get to know them better.  It was good to travel with Bishop and Mrs. Trimble and hear their insights and experiences about the Holy Land and about ministry.  It was great to travel with eight other friends from Grace United Methodist Church who I see weekly but got to have a wonderful shared experience with on this pilgrimage.

Along with the trip being powerful, moving, and spiritual it was also sobering and even in places a little painful.  It was tough to see the divisions that exist between Christians, Jews, and Muslims in a land that all three faiths call holy.  It was tough to see the wall around Bethlehem and know that people suffer because of the security measures involved all over the Holy Land no matter what you believe about the need for security in this very divided land.  It was tough to hear a faith leader tell us that religion has as often led to division as it has led to unity in a land filled with holy places and places of worship.

As we traveled I also learned a lot about the geography of the place Jesus called home.  I learned why you “go up to Jerusalem.”  I learned that so many of the cities Jesus saw as he preached and taught were set on the hills an valleys of the land around him.  So the words, “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden” gives new meaning as I saw much of Jerusalem and also Nazareth built on the hillsides.

I am going to be integrating and processing this experience for a long time and I know also that I’d like to return again some time in the future as the Lord wills.

While we were in the Holy Land our Bishop encourages us to pray for peace.  And so now on my continued prayer list are prayers of peace for the peace of Jerusalem, the peace of Israel, peace for the Palestinian people, peace among people of good will of all faiths in that land, and that all of us would be instruments of God’s peace wherever we are.

God in The Flesh – The Incarnation and the Birth of Christ

Today around the globe millions of Christians will celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ and the beginning of the Christmas Season.  We will do so with services of worship, singing of carols, the sharing of word and table, in dozens of language, in numerous liturgies, all proclaiming the birth of Jesus.

So why is the birth of Jesus a big deal?  I mean, isn’t his death and resurrection the cornerstone of our faith?  Isn’t it Christ’s gift to us through the cross that is the very center of Christianity? Yes, but Christmas reminds us why Jesus’ gift of giving his life for us matters so very much.  It is Christmas that reminds us that Jesus’ birth is about God being with us, God being in the flesh, God being present here and now.

The incarnation is one of those bits of theology than confuses people.  We contend as Christians that Jesus is both human and divine.  It sounds like an esoteric truth, something that does not matter to our every day faith.  But in truth it really does matter a great deal to our understanding of how God is present with us how God does God’s work among us, and how God through Christ redeems us.

Because Jesus is human and life the life of a human being here on this earth he has walked and lived among us.  He is “Emmanuel, God with us.”  It means that God is not far off and inaccessible but instead is near to us.  It means that God understand loss, sickness, death, pain, sorry, joy, hunger, poverty, and plenty.  Jesus has, so to speak, walked in our shoes.

But also because Jesus is the very son of God, as Jesus said, “one with the Father” Jesus also can offer us the gift of God’s grace which is always there for us, always reaching out to us, always pursuing us, always seeking us always wanting to redeem us.

Christmas is so wonderful because it reminds us that God isn’t just up there in heaven, God is here among us walking with us, traveling with us, supporting us, sustaining us.   God wants to be there not just at the beginning of our faith journey and not just at the end of life’s journey, but with us every day and every step.

Too often we focus on the Jesus of the afterlife or the Jesus of the “end times” all in the future.  Andre Crouch, gospel singer and composer, wrote, “If heaven was never promised to me, even God’s promise to live eternally, it has been worth just having the Lord in my life.  Because living in a world of darkness he brought me the light.”

What we celebrate on this holy evening is that we who live in the darkness have seen the light of God through Jesus Christ.  It is a light that guides us, it is a light that lives with us and in us, it is a light that warms us on a cold bleak night, and it is the light we hope against hope to share with love and grace with others.

May you have a blessed and holy experience of the presence of Christ as we celebrate Christ’s birth in this holy season!

Mea Culpa!?

Confíteor Deo omnipoténti et vobis, fratres, quia peccávi nimis cogitatióne, verbo, ópere et omissióne: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea máxima culpa.  Ideo precor beátam Maríam semper Vírginem, omnes Angelos et Sanctos, et vos, fratres,oráre pro me ad Dóminum Deum nostrum.

Translation in English

I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters,that I have greatly sinned,in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do, through my fault, through my fault,through my most grievous fault;

Thus we find a prayer of confession used in the Roman Rite of the church and the originas of “Mea Culpa.”

Lately I feel like the Church is being asked to say “Mea Culpa” about a lot of things in our society, some of which can be honestly placed at the feet of the Church but also many of which the Church has no control over.

Right now the Church and the culture are in a time of huge social changes which may have the greatest changes on the ministry of the church since the Reformation.  Phyllis Tickle, author of “Great Emergence” sees the Church as being in a cycle of change which happens about every 500 years.

The culture is changing around us at an astounding pace and the culture of the Church is having a very hard time keeping up with it.  So it has become fashionable in some circles to blame the Church for these changes.  You hear phrases like “the church isn’t relevant,” “the church is behind the times”, “if they 1950s ever come back my church is ready!”

Yes, I do believe we are in a time when the Church has to look hard at its ministries and make changes to continue to be able to share the loving gospel and grace of Jesus Christ with an every morphing and changing world.  Yes, sometimes the church is resistant to that change and Christians are distressed by the need for change in a social structure that they have come to depend on and are comfortable with.

But, it is not fair to blame the the good people of the Church for the changes that are happening in our society, nor is it fair to make hard working, God loving, people serving, ministry active, self-giving, self-sacrificing Christian people feel guilty or bad about themselves because they are having as much trouble as anyone else in this world figuring out why the world is so very different than they knew growing up in the church.

In Iowa Conference’s most recent Orders meeting the speaker, Peter L. Steinke the author of “Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What” talked about the importance of non-anxious leadership.  He talked about how tough it is for people to deal with the fact that they rules of the game have changed for them mid-ministry.  He talked about what he calls “leadership in anxious times.”

Well it appears to me that one of the first steps in being a leader in anxious times is to quit trying to place blame for what has changed in world and instead look to how we can work to be the best witnesses of our faith for Jesus Christ that we can be in a world that is confusing not just for Christians but for everyone.

Gil Rendle, another Alban Institute author, taught in a course on Appreciative Inquiry that I attended a few years ago that the way to plan for the future of the Church is to work from our strength, to work from our positives in ministry, to find out what we do well and seek to emphasize, grow, and expand on our strength until those strengths fill in the weak gaps.

Appreciative Inquiry is based on the idea that we can do more when we look at our growing edges rather than obsess about our failures or about our inadequacies.   While there are some places where the Church can honestly say “mea culpa” there are many places where the Church has helped the poor, fed the hungry, ministered to the needy, visited the sick, helped the dying, administered the sacraments, taught our children, worshiped the living God and met the needs of its members and the community.  For these things we have nothing to apologize for!

Let’s stop expecting the Church to say “Mea Culpa” and start asking where we can best grow to share the gospel to a world that still needs it.

Tech Detox or Generation Gap?

The August 8, 2011 of the Christian Century had an article about young people, church camp, and technology called “Tech Detox.”  The article largely bemoaned teenager hyperconnectivity and expounded on the importance of praying cell phones and gadgets out of the hands of young people while at camp so that they can meet God.

I’ve read several articles in recent months which seem to complain or give advice about the need to disconnect in order to experience God, reconnect spiritually, etc.  The more of these articles I read the less I believe that this is really about toxic technology and the more I am convinced that this is actually about a generation gap.

We all know what a generation gap is.  As each new generation is born, grows up, and comes into adulthood there are generational differences that due to changing culture, technology, life experience, and circumstances that cause misunderstanding and mischaracterization of younger generations by older generations and older generations by the younger.   One of the areas it seems to me that is misunderstood is in the area of technology.

Because people are living longer we find that we have not just one or two generations living together in our society but as many as five generation.  My Grandfather was a rural mail carrier who began his work with a horse and buggy and retired delivering mail in a jeep.  Baby Boomers and Tweeners like myself and many Millenials remember times with much less technology before email, before the internet, and yes before VCRs, and DVDs.

Changing technology is a facet of the larger subject of “change.”  Different people adapt to change at different rates, some are slow to change, and some out right oppose any change to the lifestyle they are comfortable with.  So when it comes to the use of technology by our teens there are some things we have to recognize and adapt to:

1. Change is inevitable.  The way people live today is a far different than it was in my Grandfather’s day and also different than the society my parents grew up in.  So why should we expect that our children would live and interact the way we do?

2. The purpose of church is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  It isn’t to make young people experience church, camp, or life they way we do or did.

3. If we insist that young people experience God the way we did following our own culturally bound ways of doing things we are just as likely not to reach them at all, and not to make disciples of them.

So what does this mean?  Does it mean we never tell young people not to use their cell phone in a church venue.  No I don’t believe it does.  But I do believe at all costs we must stop treating and talking about changing technology and change in general as if change is “toxic.”

When it comes to camp I don’t care if young people are making wood carvings and shooting arrows or sitting in a room playing video games.  What I do care about is that we give them a contextually relevant message about the love and grace of Jesus  Christ and God’s love for each of us.  When we go onto the mission field we seek to meet people where they are with their own culture, their own language, and in their own context.  We don’t expect them to dress like we do, talk like we do, or have a culture like ours.  We better be doing the same thing with those around us here in the US as well if we ever hope to share the gospel message with them.

How can we speak about the transforming power of Jesus Christ if we are sharing the not so subtle message that change is bad?  My reading of the gospels gives me the impression that Jesus was never about us staying the same.  In fact Jesus was about radical change, radical hospitality, radical commitment, and transformative life changing world shaking grace and love.  If anything is toxic it is stagnation.

So lets stop singing that old song “What’s the Matter with Kids Today” and instead let younger people share with us the changing technology they love and we can share with them the transforming and changing gospel that we can all love together!

9/11 Painful Memories Reignited

Everyone has commented about the death of Osama Bin Laden.  So I seriously considered not writing anything about it.  I’ve seen posts on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and the news that have ranged from jubilation at his death to posts which seemed pretty close to scolding people for being relieved that the man is gone.

So how do we has Christians deal with the death of a man who clearly has done great evil in the world while at the same time not making it appear that we are celebrating the need to take another persons life to protect our own?

I remember, as many  Americans do, exactly where I was and what I was doing on 9/11 when the first plane hit the tower.  I was having breakfast with two other pastor friends in Rushville, Indiana.  On hearing something about a plane crashing into a tower we all figured that someone in a small plane had gotten lost and had a tragic accident.  Then upon hearing of the second crash we all immediately knew something much bigger and much worse was happening.

We all left as fast as we could pay our checks and each went back to our churches and listened or watched with horror.  My daughter who was then just about ten was at school.  The school had decided to not tell the children what had happened.  So my wife and I both picked her up from school and tried to explain what was going on in our world and that, though we didn’t yet know who had attacked the twin towers, that our nation might be at war.  My daughter wanted to know if we were safe.  I said we where.  But frankly I didn’t feel safe.

That is part of what our nation lost on that day, a feeling of safety.  We had naively as Americans felt safe in the world.  Even though the world has never been a safe place.  We felt safe on our own shores and in our own houses.

As we entered the war first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq it became clear that we were not going to immediately catch the perpetrators of the crime commitment on 9/11.  After ten years many of us figured that Bin Laden would never be captured or found.

When word hit the news media that Bin Laden had been killed I felt a whole mix of emotions.  But probably the greatest emotion I felt was relief.  I’ve been concerned that some have scolded others for what they have felt about Bin Laden’s death.   But the emotions we feel are not something we create or control.  We can’t help what we feel.  What we do with our emotions and how we act on them is what is important.

During the days since May 1st I’ve also felt sadness as I am reminded of the events of 9/11 and the years of war and the lives of the young people in our nation that have been sacrificed in service to their country.  I don’t think there is a single American who doesn’t know someone who has a child, a grandchild, a niece or a nephew who is serving in the military in Iraq or Afghanistan.

It seems to me that as Christians what we ought to do is acknowledge how this event has made us feel but then allow ourselves to step back from our feelings, whatever they are, and pray.  Pray for our nation, for those who are serving our country, pray for our leaders and the leaders of the nations of the world, and most of all pray for peace to come.  Then when we get up off our knees we go back out into the world and tell the world about a man named Jesus who came to understand and experience our feelings, our pain, our loss, and our sorrows and bring us his grace and peace.

We are in a hurting world in need of the love of God.  May we find ways to share that in these difficult and confusing times.

Ministry and Trust

This week I am attending the annual conference of the Academy of Parish Clergy.

“The Academy of Parish Clergy is an international organization of clergy serving in faith communities of all sizes and in a variety of locales. Members value honest and affirming dialogue, collegiality and continued enhancement of pastoral skills and competency, all directed towards identifying and addressing the spiritual needs and welfare of their communities, both nearby and globally. Our members seek to give and receive support from their colleagues, both in personal gatherings and through meaningful connections made possible by today’s technological world.”

I became involved with the APC three years ago when I attended my first annual conference. In the academy I have found a wonderful group of colleagues from many different faith backgrounds who have a hart and passion for parish ministry and the support of the clergy.

This year we are fortunate to have Dr. Martin Marty as our speaker. Dr. Marty has been sharing with us insights from his latest book dealing with issues of trust in our culture. This includes trust issues on all levels of life and leadership but specifically he is dealing with trust as it relates to the culture, the church, and the trusst of the clergy and the church.

 

Finding a Passion for Holy Living!

Right now I’m in the process of taking a course on United Methodist History.  I’m currently reading about the early years of John and Charles Wesley’s ministries.  And, though I’ve read about them before, I am again struck with John Wesley’s passion and drive to seek to live a holy Christian life.  His careful journaling of his daily activities including his triumphs and his failures show us a man who to the very fiber of his being wants to be what God wants and created him to be.

I am not yet to the part of Wesley’s experience where his “heart is strangely warmed.”  And this is before Wesley has developed his understanding of grace, particularly Prevenient Grace.   So I know that he is in the early stages of his spiritual development.  But I am reminded also that another reformer, Martin Luther, was also very concerned with pleasing God and holy living.

And it makes me ask the question, where has our passion gone for seeking to be a holy and set apart people as Christians?  Some Christians seem to focus on the moment of justification and once they feel like they’ve had a justifying experience with God they feel like they are “saved” and no longer have to worry about God stuff.

In other words we’ve turned being a Christian into a transaction or a commodity.  Much of our Christian culture tends to think of salvation as something in the past.  And this thinking of our faith as a past thing kills any desire for holy living.

Others become discouraged and believe deep down that God really can’t change them.  They have missed the gospel message that what God is about isn’t a transaction or a done deal in the past but about making us into followers/disciples of Jesus Christ.  We are to be a community growing and learning in God’s grace.

But we can grow in God’s grace because God provides us, as Wesley called them, omeans of grace.

By means of grace Wesley meant “By means of grace I understand outward signs words or actions ordained of God and appointed for this end to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men preventing justifying or sanctifying grace.”  (Sermon XVI Means of Grace.)

He listed as ordinary means of grace prayer, searching the scriptures, and receiving the Lord’s Supper, and healthy living.  He also lists baptism, Christian conferencing, and works of mercy.

As Christians we should be attending daily to our prayer lives, reading, study, and hearing sermons from the Bible, participating in the sacramental life of the church, ministry together, and doing good to and for others in the name of Jesus.

The Christian life isn’t a spectator sport.  It isn’t a club we join to then sit on the sidelines.  As one of the recent UMC emphasis called “Rethink Church” says we should think of church not as a noun but as a verb.

We need to recapture and re-emphasize John Wesley’s focus on holy living, through both personal and social holiness.  It isn’t enough to just become a Christian any more than it is just enough to be born.  We must have a passion for growth, maturity, and change.  It are to seek after the goal of being made perfect in love.

Would that we would all recapture the passion of the reformers for not just knowing Christianity in our heads but living faith of Jesus Christ in our hearts and with our hands!