New Beginnings and Laughter

October 9, 2011

Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. 11 Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?” – Genesis 18:10-12

Like Sarah, many of our people, congregations, denominations and church bodies have been around for many years. Over that time we have all experienced beginnings and new beginnings and yet, the older we get, the more impossible another birthing event seems to us.

In fact, we do much to protect ourselves from the probability. Yes, we may welcome and congratulate others in their new births, but good order, stability and security are what we work for.

A friend of ours became pregnant in her late 40’s and although I was happy for the couple, I could never see my wife and I welcoming another child at our age. I would most likely not be laughing at such an announcement, but crying.

In the midst of such attitudes God comes to us to proclaim that he has started a new thing in our day and time. The church is indeed pregnant, birthing and being reborn.

Now some of us will laugh at this possibility from inside the well constructed church institutions we have made. “Over my dead body” may be the declaration of a few. Some of us may agree with our need to be reborn, but limit it to controlled test tube events that really do not change the substance of life as we know it.

However, whether we laugh, cry or grieve, God is still in the process of birthing a new thing in the midst of the old.

Sarah laughed, but that didn’t prevent her from conceiving and giving birth to a child that would become part of God’s continually unfolding story of salvation. I wonder how much more she laughed at herself as she looked at what God had blessed her with.

May God bless us with the pleasure of participating in new beginnings.

Death, the best invention of life

October 7, 2011

I was reading through CNN’s news page and the caption (the title of this post) under this picture of Steve Jobs intrigued me so much I had to follow it.

The link led to a page with three videos highlighting Steve Jobs’ life. I decided t0 watch the middle one entitled “No one wants to die.”

This video (see below) was taken at a university graduation ceremony in 2005 after Steve Jobs was first diagnosed with cancer and had apparently beaten it. In this video he reflects on the critical role of death in defining what was important to his life.

None of us wants to die and neither do our congregations or the church we are part of. And yet it is only in recognizing the closeness of death and the need to die that we as followers of Christ and as people of Christ’s ecclesia can hope to participate in God’s mission of life.

Think Differently

October 6, 2011

I’ve discovered “Busted Halo,” an online magazine for spiritual seekers sponsored by the Paulist Fathers. Today, like many other sites, they featured an article entitled  Think Different by Tom Gibbons and inspired by the death of Steve Jobs, founder of Apple.

The article highlights for me the alternate story the church is called to be as part of God’s mission.

I leave you with a piece of this article and a video which emphasizes this point.

I have to confess, the part of me that has loved Mac computers for as long as I can remember sometimes strafed at the idea of becoming an official member for another worldwide organization for whom the slogan “Think Different” is not usually associated. But that’s when I remember that while “thinking outside of the box” is not typically a value that my church holds, it does often force me to think different in other areas of life — something that I might not have done before. And I am also reminded that the church, like Apple Inc., was started by somebody who would easily fit the commercial montage that begins with, “Here’s to the rebels.”

A discussion on the value and importance of our larger communities is something that is often lacking in American culture. The way our communities — ecclesial and otherwise — shape us. The way our communities remind us that it is not only about your individual life…my individual life…that discussion can be, and should be, had often.

But that conversation can be held another day because today is a day to honor those individuals who have reminded us about the limitations those communities can sometimes impose, the individuals on whose achievements we stand because they chose to “think different.”

A Journey from Church to Neighbourhood

September 23, 2011

In July of 2010 I resigned from the congregation I was serving. It felt good to be out from under the pressures that characterized my ministry in that place. It was good to breathe again without someone breathing down my neck. But after a few weeks of relaxation the question of “What Now?” popped up.

My wife suggested trying something new and I took here advice like an good husband should. I took a course totally unrelated to being a pastor and discovered another world. I sought out other jobs, but soon discovered that ageism was indeed the number one form of discrimination today. By December I had discerned that my calling to follow Jesus was in and through the church in some form.

So for the last nine months I’ve waited (not always patiently) and prayed (not always fervently) for an invitation to serve somewhere. For nine months the institutional church doors have been shut to me.

I’ve wrestled with the silence and at times been depressed that no one would want me. However, through this time I’ve practiced living missionally where I am.To live missionally is not only about being “Christ-like” where I am, but also listening and watching for God’s presence where I am.

Over these months I’ve visited with my neighbours and gotten involved with my neighbourhood. I’ve brought my neighbours together for fellowship. I even set up my barbecue one evening and offered free hot dogs and hamburgers. I’ve tried to practice a ministry of presence to the people around me. In a way, I’ve tried to live out my calling as a follower of Jesus where I am and with the people around me.

All of this neighbourhood ministry has made me wonder what would happen if upon graduating from seminary new pastors were sent to some neighbourhood and said, “Go therefore and make disciples…Be Christ’s presence and his voice calling people there.” I wonder how well we would do and how many of us would be able to survive.

I’m still looking forward in hope to a “community” call, but I realize now that the most important calling we all have is right where we live and move and have our being. In our neighborhoods and wherever we journey God is there inviting us to participate in the good news God is unfolding.

Perhaps that’s the lesson I needed to learn.

What if…we came alongside

November 26, 2009

We talk a lot about the homeless in our cities, but its often from the safety of our homes and church buildings. “Come to us,” we say to them. “Come, where WE feel safe.”

My wife is quick to point out that the problem of homelessness can be quickly solved if we as Christians came alongside them and took them into our homes, adopting them. What a risk, but no one changes anything by playing it safe (a quote from another great movie: The Soloist).

The movie Blindside, the true story of just one such case, witnesses to us the possibility of what a people walking in God’s mission can do.

…we were United Methodists?

October 21, 2009

The United Methodists are rethinking their church. Some people believe it’s a great idea. Others are calling it next to useless. What do you think?


…we stopped doing church?

October 21, 2009

For years now we have been trying to do church better? We get more creative about worship or adopt the latest technology. We hire a youth director or sing a few “youth” songs. We jump onto the latest program craze. Some of us have even uprooted our churches and replanted them in a different location. So why does “new and improved” often feel and even look like the same old thing?

We have tried for years to make our church better with all sorts of great ideas and activities and yet, they have been a poor substitute for the genuine spiritual vitality that people are hungering after today. So what will turn the tide for us?

Maybe instead of “going to church” and “doing church” we ought to find a room at the local hotel or maybe a table at Tim Horton’s and take a “Pentecost  Sabbath” to pray, waiting for the Holy Spirit to bring about something new. I know, I know…what about our buildings and paying the bills and pastors being out of work? Well perhaps these are the very things that are holding us back from becoming that new kingdom creation Christ is calling us into.

So let’s try it. The worst that could happen is that some of our churches would close down, we’d have some debt and we’d lose some pastors to other jobs. Heh, isn’t that what’s happening already?

…we started fresh…well, maybe?

September 22, 2009

vdonovanWe sometimes look around the world for ways of being church that are somehow better than what we have. An interesting article entitled Fresh Expressions of Church among the Massai? by John Bowen reveals that sometime when people are given an opportunity to start fresh they still choose to do it the old, sometimes less than helpful ways.

Vincent Donavon, a Catholic missionary to the Massai in Tanzania in the 60’s and 70’s was determined to allow them to define their own sense of being the church. This approach led to three “problems” from Donavon’s perspective:

  1. The people simply adopted the European way of doing church
  2. Very few Massai desired to be ordained or even trained as lay workers
  3. The national church hierarchy had little interest in including the culture of the people in their church

Bowen asks whether Donovan’s work was a failure and then answers his question this way:

“Failure” is a tricky word to use in the Christian life or in ministry. Just because things do not work out the way we expect does not mean that, in the economy of God, they have failed.In the case of Donovan, the way his ideas are being picked up in North America and Britain are encouraging. In particular, the three obstacles he encountered are likely to be less in this part of the world.

  • In the Fresh Expressions movement in Britain, there are certainly many non-traditional ways of being church which are attracting people with no Christian background. New people are not complaining that “this is not the way church ought to be.”
  • In terms of theological education, Wycliffe College is following the lead of seminaries in Britain and moving towards training ordinands for specifically pioneering types of ordained ministry.
  • And, as for bishops, my experience is that there is great openness among Canadian bishops to new forms of church and ministry. I spoke to one bishop after the Vital Church Planting conference in Februarys and asked him what he had learned. “That bishops have to be permission-givers,” he replied.

Starting fresh doesn’t always result in “fresh” ideas, especially when we carry the luggage of our past. so how can we carry forward the best of the past without also carrying the so-called “dirty laundry” that always trips us up and drags us back into those unhelpful patterns? Or does even our “dirty laundry” have a role to play in our journey of faith?

Still, it would be an interesting exercise to start from scratch and see what kind of church God might lead us to.

…if we started here?

September 15, 2009

Transformation of people is at the heart of transforming the church as a whole. Two examples I recently encountered may offer a pathway to renewal.

Renovaré subtitles their site “Becoming Like Jesus.” They describe themselves this way:

Renovaré is a nonprofit Christian organization headquartered in Englewood, Colorado, and active worldwide. We seek to resource, fuel, model, and advocate more intentional living and spiritual formation among Christians and those wanting a deeper connection with God. A foundational presence in the spiritual formation movement for over 20 years, Renovaré is Christian in commitment, ecumenical in breadth, and international in scope.

They then go on to describe their vision and mission this way:

Renovaré’s promotes a Balanced Vision and Practical Strategy of spiritual renewal to encourage individuals and churches to develop renewed, sustainable, and enriched spiritual lives.

Check them out. Personal transformation does begin with a personal encounter with the living Christ.

Another example of renewal came to me at an ecumenical social ministry meeting I recently attended in Edmonton. At this gathering a young woman from Fusion Canada shared the story of their ministry. What intrigued me was the journey of transformation she outlined:

  • Begin with prayer
  • Research the needs of people
  • Address one of these basic human needs as a way of building a relational bridge into the lives of people
  • Invite them into a weekend retreat setting that prepares them to encounter the transforming gospel
  • One-on-one discipleship mentoring
  • Integrate into the Christian community

What if we started here on this journey to turn the church inside out?

…we expanded ordination?

September 8, 2009

Ord-Augustin-2-wIn our Lutheran church we currently have two tracks for ordination: ordination to Word and Sacrament (pastor) and ordination to Word and service (diaconal). For centuries though, the Orthodox church has ordained people to all kinds of specialized ministries. For example, they ordain people as “readers.”

What if our church engaged people in a spiritual process of discipleship that began with baptism, continued with experiential-based training in discipleship, offered a process of self-discovery leading to a calling within the life of the church that was finally recognized through ordination?

{note from Preston: I’ve found a similar balance in this Ordination schematic from the Evangelical Covenant Church (Norwegian Lutheran Cousins).  Any thoughts? File: Credentials-schematic ECCC}

…we affirmed the best in worship?

August 28, 2009

tissot-david-dancing321x223As the ark of the LORD was entering the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD, she despised him in her heart. – 2 Samuel 6:16

Lutheran worship can be a rather laid back, solemn, sometimes tired affair. There are moments, however, when we seem to let loose, not quite like David, and clap our hands or hop around pretending we were a South African congregation. Generally though, we’re formal and very orderly about worship. There are times when I enjoy this aspect of the way we worship and at other times I need something else.

How we worship is not so much the issue for me. We certainly must remain authentic and have some order to our worship, but the issue is not how we worship. Rather, it’s how we look at the worship of others and even how we respond to the expressed worship needs of our own people.

Sometimes like Michal, the daughter of Saul, there ‘s a certain arrogance within our church about the way we worship. It implies that there is somehow a “right” way to worship and of course, we have it. At the same time, comments are occasionally made about the worship of other churches as if it were “entertainment” rather than “true” worship.

Now I’m not saying that all worship is the best or even that it’s all okay just the way it is. Sometimes even our worship slips into self-centered entertainment and performance whether in music or preaching. Whether as Lutheran or Baptist churches we’re all prone to making worship more about us than about God.

So what if we made less fuss about the how of our worship or someone elses and began to affirm whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable (Philippians 4:8)? I wonder whether in the process we would learn some new ways to worship and live together in God’s kin-dom.

..we were perseverant?

August 27, 2009

I love that moment in the movie Luther, when Martin Luther ” is forced to respond to his position with a “Yes or No.” Luther’s response is “Unless I am shown through Scripture or reason, I cannot and will not recant, here I stand.” A clip of this can be seen below…

Some have said that the church is on the cusp of another Reformation. Others have suggested that this is a time of renewal for the church. I believe we are closer to a Pentecost-like transformation.

Whether reformation, renewal or transformation, we will always be tempted as individual parts of the body and as Christian communities to slip back into the worn rut of the status quo if we are not somehow perseverant in the faith and calling we are being led to through the Holy Spirit.

What does it mean to be “perseverant” though?

Perseverance is not the same as stubborness. To be stubborn is to be unwilling to move even though reason would suggest otherwise. Luther was not stubborn when he said, “Here I stand.” Luther had moved significantly from the position he had grown up under and been oppressed by. The Holy Spirit is not calling us to be stubborn or “stiff-necked” as the people of Israel were often referred to by our Lord, the prophets and Stephen in Acts. Perseverance is not being intransigent.

Instead, perseverance is adhering to a course of action or toward a specific purpose or mission. The Holy Spirit is moving us to a perseverance focused on a missional journey. This journey will be marked by prayer, God’s Word, worship, being and serving together, as well as sharing our faith with one another. This journey will take us as individuals and communities through many times and places of transformation. This journey will call us to bear crosses and realign values, practices and maybe even beliefs. Perseverance is focused on the goal of our high calling as the people of God and yet it is also a dynamic journey, one that reflects the very image of our life-giving, life-transforming Creator.

So what if we as individuals and communities  within the body of Christ were perseverant? What would that look like?

In one of the congregation’s I served I began to unfold God’s vision for them. In the process some people rebelled and I gave up on that vision. Two years later I discovered that pieces of that vision were blooming, not because of me, but because some of the people persevered and lived out that vision. A perseverant church is one that begins to see the unfolding of God’s kin-dom.

God is calling us as a church into a challenging and exciting “present-future” kin-dom. However, it will require our perseverance as we run the race towards the goal of that high calling as God’s kin-dom people.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. – Hebrews 12:1 (NIV)

…we walked the streets?

August 26, 2009

homelessEvery day hundreds and perhaps thousands of people come to churches across Canada looking for some kind of assistance and every day these churches hand out food, bus tickets, clothing and sometimes even cash to ease the hardship of these people. We do this with a mixture of emotions ranging from contempt and pity to compassion and love.

Sometimes in the process of engaging these people we sit down and talk with them. Often it’s simply to allow them to weave a request perfected by many visits to many churches. At other times, their conversation goes beyond their physical need and ventures into their emotional and spiritual needs.

Jesus spent most of his ministry on the streets, walking among the very people who occasionally come to our doors. By walking among them Jesus was able to reach through their physical need and into their spiritual need to offer them the gift of life.

A number of years ago there was a seminary which made available a spring session that involved living on the streets for three days. Students were given $5 and sent out. The lives of these students were not the same when they came back.

What if our churches began to offer opportunities for people to live on the streets of our neighbourhoods and cities? What if we sent them out in pairs to walk with those who struggle with physical needs and addictions, but who also have spiritual and emotional needs? What if these people went out, not to fix problems, but to walk with Jesus among the same people he walked with and to discover that in the midst of these people Christ can transform both us and the people we meet.

I wonder if by doing this our church communities would become places where people in need would not only come for physical help, but also come to worship and learn and fellowship with us. I wonder…

…we sold our buildings?

August 25, 2009

conta_1At the 25th anniversary of the congregation I was serving I posed the question “What if we sold our building and started over?”

For some this question came as a real shock. “How could anyone suggest getting rid of the very thing we have worked so hard to get?”

My question though, came out of an observation about congregations and their development. I noticed that when a congregation first starts their is a tremendous energy and zeal for mission. However, as the congregation grows someone eventually says, “Let’s build” and in those two words mission becomes eventually supplanted by the word “institution.”

Now I’m not anti-building, but I believe we need to recognize the curse that these structures bring alongside the blessing. If we are to keep our buildings and work for the renewal and transformation of our communities how can we lessen the curse of institutionalization and increase the blessing of mission through them? If we cannot then let’s sell our buildings and start all over.

But it was Solomon who built a house for him. Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands; as the prophet says,
“Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord,
or what is the place of my rest?
Did not my hand make all these things?”

– Acts 7:47-50

…We Prepared People for Transformation?

August 18, 2009

TransformationHave you ever met someone who was significantly changed by a spiritual experience? Perhaps that person is you or someone you know or maybe you’re one of the many who attend a church, but who have never had that life transforming encounter with God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Is such a life altering transformation necessary to be a Christian or a Christian community and if so, can we prepare ourselves or others for that life transformation?

In my part of the Christian church spiritual transformation is something we have talked about. Generally though, we  connect it to such events like baptism or hear about it in sermons. Rarely though do we expect anything to actually happen to anyone and if by chance it does, we seem surprised and a bit afraid. We certainly wouldn’t want to become like those Pentecostals or Baptists.

As we look to the Bible for guidance on this matter we discover that the New Testament in particular speaks often about this internal transformation/external change in the life of believers. The New Testament has so many stories of people’s lives being transformed that I cannot but conclude that transformation is what God wills for all creation.

Jesus’ own baptism and wilderness experience transformed him from being a simple carpenter into a person with a mission. The book of Acts records transformation after transformation as the Holy Spirit touches the lives of people and changes the focus of their lives. St. Paul, who himself was a product of such a transformation recognized that transformation was not just a one time experience, but also an ongoing process (see Romans 12:2). Transformation may not be necessary for default living in this world, but it is necessary and expected for living in God’s kingdom.

So then, can people be prepared for transformation? I believe the Holy Spirit is constantly working towards this goal in our personal lives and in the life of our Christian communities and our world. However, the real question for us is, “Can we participate in that preparation?” I would say that this is our calling and that the scriptures witness to this.

As people who belong to the body of Christ we follow our Lord’s lead. Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.” This fullness of life can only come as the result of the Holy Spirit’s work through what we as Lutherans have come to know as the means of grace: Scripture, preaching, baptism, the Lord’s Supper and the mutual conversation of the people of God.

However, for these vessels of God’s grace to be transformational we must approach them in a much more serious and intentional manner than we do today. Scripture must move from just being that Bible some place in our homes to the daily reading and studying of it. Preaching must move from being one of many things pastors do to the primary focus of a pastor’s ministry. Baptism must move from that nice one time event for babies and their parents to an ongoing growth in Christian discipleship. The Lord’s Supper must move from bread and wine on Sunday to engagement in the sacramental mission of word and service in the world. The mutual conversation of Christians must move from chit chat on Sunday morning to weekly small groups gathering to pray, study, reach out, serve and support one another in our personal callings and our mission together.

Certainly the Spirit will blow where it blows and transform lives in spite of us, but I believe God has invited us into a living partnership where we can prepare the way for the transformation of our own lives, the lives of others and the whole creation.

So what if we became more intentionally focused on preparing our own lives, the life of our Christian communities and our world for transformation? Perhaps we might see more butterfly Christians and fewer cocooning ones.

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