Tuesday, October 6, 2015

On Leaving

I want to talk a bit about church membership, and what it means to be part of a congregation.  I’ve heard lots of stories lately – some from my own life, some from friends and colleagues – about members leaving churches. 

As a pastor, this always stings.  It doesn’t really matter why you are leaving – whether you’re moving to a new town, or slowly drift away over time, whether you storm out to a slammed door after a contentious meeting or clearly and politely announce that you’re leaving for Reason X – we take it personally. 

We pastors have been called by God and the congregation to serve this particular flock of sinner/saints, and we love you – even if we haven’t always gotten along, even if we disagree with each other, even if you don’t come to worship all that often.  In the wake of your departure, we reevaluate every aspect of our ministry, and of the church.  If we had visited more, preached shorter (or longer?) sermons, sung your favorite hymn, taught more or different Bible studies, had more youth programming, the list goes on and on – would you have stayed?  But after we’ve done that for a few days…

After we’ve wondered and cried and prayed and paced the floor and not slept and prayed some more…after that, the news starts to spread.  We have to tell the secretary to take you off the email list, and cross your name out of the directory.  Your request to cancel your electronic giving filters its way to the congregation’s treasurer.  And pretty soon there are more people wondering what they might have done…the nursery volunteer, the quilting ladies, the person who said hi to you the first time you visited here, the Council President, your child’s Sunday School classmates.  And when they ask us, we pastors really never quite know what to tell them.  How honest should we be? 

See, here’s the thing.  While I really dislike the term “community of faith”, the reality is that we – all of us, the congregation – are a community.  We get together once a week to hear about the most important thing in the universe.  We pray for one another, we cry with one another, we celebrate with one another.  We play together, we eat together, we come up with basic policies to manage our life together.  We trust one another with our kids, our money, and our hearts. 

So obviously, if you’re going to go to church, it’s important to choose one where you feel relatively comfortable and safe.  Undoubtedly, with all the church options out there, some will just “fit” you and your family better than others.  You’re looking for one where the content of worship and teaching is more about Scripture than pop culture, where you find the people to be generally friendly, and that strikes you as a place you want to come.  Because when you join, when you decide to stay, you become part of the family.  And just like everyone sitting at your Thanksgiving dinner table, or around the tree on Christmas morning, each of you is different, each of you brings something special to the group. 

When you join a church because of what it has to offer, you become what it has to offer for the next new people to join. 

Which is why leaving – for apathy, or for another congregation – is a bigger deal than perhaps you think.  To be sure, there are legitimate reasons for leaving a congregation.  And I know that almost no one leaves without a great deal of thought and prayer.  But before you go, consider whether you yourself could contribute to fixing the problems you believe your congregation has.  For example:

  • If there aren’t enough kids at this church – have I invited any of my friends or neighbors with children to worship here?  Have I considered that my children provide hope to the older people of the congregation?
  • If the youth programming isn’t up to par – have I volunteered my time or suggested ideas to make it better?
  • If I don’t like the music or other things about worship – have I spoken to the pastor or worship coordinators about singing, playing, helping plan, or contributing in some other way?
  • If I’m concerned about the pastor leaving and the time until we have a new one, have I offered to be on the search committee?
  • If I think there should be more Bible studies – have I suggested any to the pastor, and offered to help lead, or host one at my home?
  • If I disagree with the pastor’s teaching – have I asked him or her to explain it and show me from Scripture?
  • If I’m frustrated with my denominational leadership, have I spoken to the pastor about my concerns? 
  • If I disagree with how the church spends money, have I volunteered to serve on a finance or stewardship committee?
  • If I feel the pastor should visit me more often, have I called the church to request that she do so? 
  • If someone at the church said or did something hurtful, have I approached that person and sought reconciliation? 
  • If I believe the church is full of hypocrites, have I considered that I, too, am a sinner who doesn’t keep God’s word perfectly?
  • If I feel our church should be more involved in the community, have I initiated any projects and invited others to be part of them?
  • If I’m offended that someone asked me to help with something, have I politely said no and considered another area for which I have interest or time?

As I said – there are legitimate reasons to leave a particular congregation.  One of them may be, “Yes, I have done the above, and to no avail.”  But no matter how understandable your reasoning, your congregation will be poorer without you.  For the sake of the community to which you belong now, consider how you might make the situation better, look around at your family, ask what it would take to “make it work”. 

We need you. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

I Am Angry

I am angry.  Fuming.  Irate.  

I am incensed at the videos released by the Center for Medical Progress, showcasing the dissection of children like frogs in biology class.  I am infuriated that evil profits off the death of babies. 

I am outraged that this is happening – all over the country, right under our noses.  I am angry that my tax dollars pay for it.  I am angry that we who are invested in this battle have known this, and now so many workers are coming late to the vineyard bandwagon. 

I am angry that politicians from every party are more concerned about their own careers and invitations to fancy parties than they are about the slaughter of innocents and the disgusting treatment of their remains. 

I am livid – LIVID – at so-called Christians, especially “pastors” who will argue til the cows come home or Christ returns that this is just fine and dandy. 

I am illogically angry that these women consented to chopping up their babies instead of bringing them to me to hold and love and care for. 

I am furious that this is being done in the name of “women’s rights” and “protecting women”.  I am a woman, and I never asked for this, and I don’t want it.  It makes me nauseated that this is being advocated for in my name. 

I am angry at myself for not being bolder and braver in addressing this with my congregation.  I am angry at those who trained me for not teaching me how to deal with difficult topics. 

I am angry at “doctors” who deal in death, who condemn women with low pain tolerances as “uncooperative”.  I am angry at everyone connected to abortion facilities – from the guy who paints the stripes in the parking lot to the trash service that picks up the garbage each day to the receptionist to the janitor to the volunteer who makes coffee in the waiting room.  I want to grab each of them by the shoulders and scream, “WHY AREN’T YOU STOPPING THIS???????”

I am angry at myself for not bridling my tongue, and being too harsh with those who lack the benefit of an formed moral conscience.  I am angry at myself for not knowing how to balance gentle instruction with a refusal to tolerate evil. 

I am angry that that in this most advanced civilization the world has known, we have reverted to the pagan worship practices of our earliest ancestors. 

I am angry at every single person who hears a child scream as its head is being severed, and TELLS NO ONE.  I am angry that teachers and counselors and pastors and a zillion other people must report the slightest hint of possible child abuse to the same authorities who would willingly inject saline into the hearts of these children.

I am angry that there are no repercussions for those who are neck deep in the worst sort of evil imaginable.  I am angry at myself for wishing harm to come to them.  I am angry that I am the worst of sinners.  I am angry that I have a job where no one ever tells me I am forgiven.  Ever.  For any sin. 

I am angry that the Word of God continually tells me not to be angry, and yet, here I am.  Sinfully, wretchedly angry. 

This whole entire thing makes me sad.  But mostly it makes me angry.  I don’t know what to do with that.  I don’t know how to handle it.  And I am angry that so many are offended by my anger more than they are offended by the first degree murder of infants. 

Psalm 10
Why, Lord, do you stand far off?
    Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak,
    who are caught in the schemes he devises.
He boasts about the cravings of his heart;
    he blesses the greedy and reviles the Lord.
In his pride the wicked man does not seek him;
    in all his thoughts there is no room for God.
His ways are always prosperous;
    your laws are rejected by him;
    he sneers at all his enemies.
He says to himself, “Nothing will ever shake me.”
    He swears, “No one will ever do me harm.”
His mouth is full of lies and threats;
    trouble and evil are under his tongue.
He lies in wait near the villages;
    from ambush he murders the innocent.
His eyes watch in secret for his victims;
    like a lion in cover he lies in wait.
He lies in wait to catch the helpless;
    he catches the helpless and drags them off in his net.
His victims are crushed, they collapse;
    they fall under his strength.
He says to himself, “God will never notice;
    he covers his face and never sees.”
Arise, Lord! Lift up your hand, O God.
    Do not forget the helpless.
Why does the wicked man revile God?
    Why does he say to himself,
    “He won’t call me to account”?
But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted;
    you consider their grief and take it in hand.
The victims commit themselves to you;
    you are the helper of the fatherless.
Break the arm of the wicked man;
    call the evildoer to account for his wickedness
    that would not otherwise be found out.
The Lord is King for ever and ever;
    the nations will perish from his land.
You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted;
    you encourage them, and you listen to their cry,
defending the fatherless and the oppressed,
    so that mere earthly mortals
    will never again strike terror.


Friday, June 26, 2015

Penultimate Miracles

So, welcome to church.  The gospel story for today is one that is a staple of Sunday School teachers everywhere – as well it should be.  Here in this section of Mark, Jesus is going around the towns healing people, and we get a more detailed view into two of those miraculous healings. 

Jesus is now back on the other side of the lake, back from where we were last week, back among the Jewish people, who practiced religion and observed social custom as Jesus and his disciples were accustomed to.  Now in this culture, the synagogue leaders were pretty top notch in both the religious system and the culture at large.  They had power and prestige and in many ways ran the show in some of these smaller hinterland Jewish towns.  So for one of them to come up and thrown himself at Jesus’ feet and beg Jesus to heal his daughter…it’s a huge act of humility.  It’s those fervent prayers you all know of, because you have prayed them yourselves – “Jesus, I don’t know where else to turn, I need you – now!”

And as Jesus sets off to do as the man asked, to visit and heal this little girl, He is surrounded by hordes of followers, people pressing in on all sides.  Everyone wants a piece of this miracle man, the man who says such strange, intriguing, hopeful things, the man who casts out demons and heals people of their diseases.  So naturally, everyone wants in on the action…they want they and their loved ones to be healed, or at the very least, they want to see these miracles happen.  They want to front row seats to the biggest shows of the season! 
And in this crowd is a woman who has had a sickness for 12 years now.  She’s had some sort of bleeding problem – perhaps what we might diagnose as endometriosis today – that has kept her physically ill, to be sure, but which has also relegated her to the margins of society, unable to enter the religious holy places, cast out from interacting with friends and family, eeew, the kind of person you tell your small children to hold your hand and walk way on the other side of the street from.
She’s breaking all the rules by being here, but there’s something about this man, something that tells her if she can get close enough to touch Him, maybe even just touch the hem of his cloak, she might finally be healed…

But Jesus is no dummy.  This is no ordinary man who you might bump up against in a crowd and he doesn’t really notice because, as the disciples point out, there’s like a thousand people here, everyone’s bumping up against you.  No, this man is God…and when the power of God meets the humble faith of a hurting person, He can’t help but notice, and He can’t help but respond.  As she falls at his feet, confessing the whole thing – how she just wanted to get close to him, and then, when she finally did, well she’s sorry, she knows she’s made Him unclean now, but…she just felt something, and now…all of a sudden... “Yes, I know, go in peace,” Jesus says.  “Your faith has healed you, go and be free of your suffering.”

And he continues on toward Jairus’ house, the synagogue leader, to see about his daughter.  But before he can get his cloak restraightened and his entourage of disciples moving in the right direction, some of Jairus’ associates come up to say, “Don’t bother, it’s too late, she’s already died.”  But Jesus still wants to go.  “Don’t be afraid, Jairus.  Just believe.”  So they set out for the house, and when they get there, Jesus says, “It’s okay, she’s only sleeping.”  He takes the disciples and the girl’s parents, goes into her bedroom, takes her by the hand, and says, “C’mon little girl, get up!”  Immediately, miraculously, she wakes up, climbs out of bed, and begins to walk around the room.  Not like someone who has been gravely ill, but like someone who’s been taking a quick power nap and could really use a snack now.  And Jesus sends her on her way, giving strict orders to the adults there Not. To. Tell. Anyone. 

Now I think, for us, this is the part of the story where it got confusing in Sunday School, and it stays confusing today.  Why wouldn’t you tell people?  Why wouldn’t Jesus want this story to be told?  This “don’t tell anyone” is all over Mark, in fact, Bible scholars have even given it a “name” – it’s called “the Messianic secret.”

But…we look at stories like these, and at similar stories in our own lives, and think, we’d be telling anyone and everyone!  I mean, how often have you heard that as Christians, we’re supposed to be “telling people what God is doing in our life”?  This is Evangelism 101, right?  Open your mouth, and talk about God’s work!  Often we’re not very good at it, but at least we know we’re supposed to be doing it, right?  And it’s not like we don’t have stories to tell.  I mean, these are some very dramatic miracles that Jesus is performing here in the story today and we should tell about them, but you also all have your own stories from your own life of that time when you thought all hope was lost…when you really did need a miracle…and you got one.  The illness was healed, the relationship somehow managed to get put together, there was enough money in the bank account when basic arithmetic tried to tell you otherwise.  Whatever.  You know what it is in your life, for you and your family.  Yeah, we should tell those stories.

But what about when we don’t get the miracles?  What about when what’s broken can’t be fixed?  When your hopes for healing or reconciliation or resolution or just basic human decency are crushed over and over again?  What about when the story ends with the little girl, or the old woman, or the middle aged man, actually dying?  What about when the flow of blood doesn’t stop?  When throwing yourself at Jesus’ feet doesn’t seem like it’s having any impact?  What about when you feel like society is coming apart at the seams or the fog of depression never ever seems to lift or you just. can’t. catch. a. break.? 

Well even then, we still have a story to tell.  See, this episode of miracles that we read today comes, chronologically, well before the events of Good Friday and Easter.  Long before the cross and the death and the resurrection. 

And I think that part of the reason that Jesus didn’t want the recipients of those miracles to tell the story just yet is because they’re not the main point.  Miracles and healings and stopping the flow of blood and blind men receiving sight and that little girl getting up out of bed and all the others are good and wonderful things.  Praise God for them!  But they still stop short of the ultimate, underlying, full, complete work that Jesus does.  

What is yet to come, for each one of us who trusts in Christ to heal us – just as Jairus, and the woman with flow of blood did – what is yet to come is eternal salvation and the healing of your soul.  What is yet to come, is the place Jesus has prepared for you – so that where He is, you will be also.  What is yet to come, is being with the Lord forever. 

What is yet to come, is “the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And…a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” 

What is yet to come is, “I will make you the everlasting pride and the joy of all generations.  You will drink the milk of nations and be nursed at royal breasts.  Then you will know that I, the Lord, am your Savior, your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.  Instead of bronze I will bring you gold, and silver in place of iron.  Instead of wood I will bring you bronze, and iron in place of stones.  I will make peace your governor and well-being your ruler.  No longer will violence be heard in your land, nor ruin or destruction within your borders, but you will call your walls Salvation and your gates Praise.  The sun will no more be your light by day, nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you, for the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory.  Your sun will never set again, and your moon will wane no more; the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end. Then all your people will be righteous and they will possess the land forever.  They are the shoot I have planted, the work of my hands, for the display of my splendor.  The least of you will become a thousand, the smallest a mighty nation.  I am the Lord.” 

Jairus’ daughter, even having been raised out of that bed by Jesus, and Jairus himself, and the woman with the blood – what they all have in common is that still, despite Jesus answering their prayers, and the powerful miracles He worked that day – they all still died, eventually.

But now, what is yet to come is that when you die, you will be raised to everlasting life, just like Christ, because you are connected to Christ in through the power of His own death and resurrection.  

When Jesus tells the people He healed not to tell anyone, the point is not to not spread the Good News.  It's to make sure that we first know what the Good News really, actually is.  It’s been a heck of a week here, hasn’t it?  But whether you are battling your own personal demons, celebrating a miracle, or losing hope in the system – however you feel about the Confederate flag, socialized medicine, or gay marriage – whether you are rich or poor, whether life is looking up or you think everything is falling apart, take this to heart: 

Jesus, in the setting of the gospel story, and in our culture and lives today, has work to do that goes far beyond the passing facts and fads and trends of this world.  So don’t be worried about them, but don’t be enticed by them, either.  Because God is the God of those, to be sure, but even more than that, He is the God of final, eternal, spiritual healing, and the restoration of our souls, and indeed, the whole entire world.  He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega, the Bright Morning Star, God incarnate, God-with-us.  Praise God for miracles, when they come your way.  But know that the only miracle that truly matters, in the final calculation, is the miracle of Easter morning.  So praise Him even more that even though in time all the grass withers and all the flowers fade, the Word of the Lord – Christ Jesus Himself – endures forever.