What is church?

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Yesterday I was a presentation on Re-Formation in the church that is occurring during the Spring Academy at Gettysburg Seminary.  It was a great presentation that a friend gave.

In it she asked the question – what is church?

In other words, how do we define it?

Is it just the bricks and mortar?  Is it the people? Is it a way of life?  A mission?

I had to think about this a bit.  I wonder if the answer will depend partly on the context.  In some cases the church is the building.  In others, it certainly is not.

In some cases it is the people, a way of life, and a mission.

But really, what is the essential essence of church?

I think it is based on relationship.  I think it is our relationship with God, with one another, with ourselves, and with the rest of creation.  But I think it starts with relationship with God and spreads out to the other three relationships.  This is what makes it unique and different.

Maybe this is too broad though.  Maybe we need more boundaries on the definition.

But I think church is also a living organism as well.  It is living in the sense that to be church means to be dynamic and open to change.  To be church means to honor traditions, but not be held hostage to past generations either.  To be church is to recognize that the core doesn’t change – just how we go about living out that core depending on the context.  Also, how we communicate that core will change with the context as well.

If I had to summarize church, I go back to what I learned from my research on the church in Finland (that I argue also applies to the church in the US) – the church is approachable, enjoyable, and relevant.

The church is approachable in that questions and doubt are welcome, where grace abounds and judgement is left at the door. So is shame.  Church lives out the idea that the curtain in the temple was torn – the separation between God and creation was ripped.  God is approachable.  That’s what being in relationship means.

The church is enjoyable.  I’m not talking about entertaining here.  In the presentation the presenter talked about worship being like a party.  It is something that people are enjoying and people want to come to.  We shouldn’t be bored out of our mind with church or worship.  Why go, why be a part of something that is boring?  Healthy relationships are enjoyable – you want to be around the person you are in a relationship with.

The church is relevant.  I’m not talking about being hip, changing things to fit the current trends, or adopting whatever slang is popular.  No, I’m talking about this – are we talking about what is going on in people’s lives?  Or are we too afraid to do that?  The church has the opportunity to talk about the struggles and challenges that people face and offer something that no one else can offer – grace, forgiveness, belonging, mercy, love.  There are plenty of people who struggle with addictions (drugs, sexual, porn, workaholism, alcohol, medical addictions, exercise, food, etc.) and yes, even people in the pews of churches around the world.  If we can’t talk about these struggles with the people who are living with them, and do it with grace and mercy (and no shame), then where are we going to talk about them?  The answer is no where.

So, what is church?  I say church is an approachable, enjoyable, and relevant relationship between people, creation, and God.

8 things every parent should do before 8 AM

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I bet you are a parent who is looking at the title of this article and either thinking that you might pick up some great ideas, or more likely, that you are parent who is going to read some list of absolutely ridiculous ideas that there is no way any of them are going to happen.

Recently I read a list like this – it wasn’t designed for parents.  It was targeted to people who are either single or have no children.  No offense to the author, but seriously, the title should have been more specific than addressed to “every person.”  What parent has 30 minutes to meditate in the morning?!?

So in honor of dumb lists that have ridiculous to-do’s on them, I’m coming up with my own list of eight things every parent should do before 8 AM.  These are not some nice theoretical ideas.  This comes from having four children who get ready for the school day in two shifts (middle school and then elementary school).

  1. Hit snooze once.  You deserve to take a breath before getting into full parent mode.  The craziness will start soon enough, enjoy the last 5-10 minutes of calm while you can.  This may be the only thing that gets you through the morning.
  2. Stretch.  No, I’m not talking about some kind of exercise routine.  I’m talking about when your feet hit the floor stretch your arms out and over your head and give a big yawn.  You’ll feel better.  Trust me on this.
  3. Go pee.  The chances of getting another opportunity to use the bathroom when your kids are getting ready for school are pretty much non-existent, so get in the bathroom when you can.
  4. When you go get your kids up or make sure they are up, sing to them.  I’m not talking about a nice wake up song.  I’m talking about some really annoying song – it’s the only way to get them moving quickly in the morning.  It’s either that or you’re going to repeat yourself a million times telling them to get up.  The song sounds better already doesn’t it?
  5. Remind your children that the bus is coming soon (about 10,934,248 times)  They have a really short memory in the morning and have a tendency to forget why they are up so early.  If you don’t, they will wander aimlessly, or play with the dog, or get on a screen.  Just remember, each time you remind them they will think this is the first time they are hearing it.  Think of this like the movie “50 First Dates” where the actress forgets everything that happened the day before and has to relearn everything.  If you think of your children this way, you won’t be as frustrated and you might even come up with innovative ways to remind them.  (Songs work great here too.)
  6. Try different sales pitches on why your kids should buy lunch that day instead of having to pack their lunch.  Believe me, if you can convince a kid to buy the school lunch, you can take on anything that day.
  7. Quote a movie.  You’re bound to get some crazy questions like “Where are my pants?” What better way to deal with this than to quote The Lego Movie – “Honey where are my pants?  Ha,Ha,Ha.”  Believe me, you’ll laugh and so will your kids.  The other option is to lose it by telling them they are either in their drawers where they belong or in the laundry or lying on the floor of their room.  Laughter is so much better.
  8. Tell your kids you love them to pieces.  Seriously, there is no substitute for this.

There you have it, the eight essential things every parent should do before 8 AM.  No, these things won’t get you a promotion, give you some great million dollar idea, put you on the pathway to success and happiness, or any other BS that these dumb lists promise or promote.  But they will give you the opportunity to sanely get through the morning before you go to work and have to work with adults (some who haven’t really grown up yet).  Maybe you can find some list showing the 12 things every worker should do before 12 noon at work.  I’m sure the ideas will be just dandy.

Philadelphia

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In January, 2017, my wife and I took a short trip to Philadelphia for a couple of days.  It was a wonder time to get away – a break from being parents, from classwork, and the regular routine of life.  And even driving.  We took the train into the city and walked.  A lot.  The first day we walked about 20,000 steps and the next day we walked over 30,000 steps.  In case you are wondering how far that was – on our second day we essentially covered a half-marathon distance (13.1 miles).  Our feet were tired, but we loved every moment of it.

To start off our trip, we arrived in the city, walked to our AirBnB apartment and then headed off to dinner.  We did the touristy thing and decided that we wanted Philly cheese steak.

Our first big decision – which establishment to eat at?

Would it be Geno’s? Or Pat’s?

Considering that the line at Pat’s was a little smaller, we chose Pat’s.

Yum!

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It was cold out, but the cheese steak warmed our bellies.  And yes, I ordered it the proper way – with cheese whiz.

Next time we go to the city, we’ll try Geno’s.  But for this time:

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What are we ready for, church?

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It’s a simple question – what are we, as a church body, prepared for?  What are we perfectly positions for?  The past, present, the future?

Is the church, is your church, all set and ready to go for some past decade – as if the height of Christendom is going to return any time now?

Is the church, your church, ready for right now and all the challenges that it will face?  You really can’t answer yes honestly unless you had some foresight in the past.  Otherwise, you’re kidding yourself.

That leaves the future.  Is the church, your church, ready for 5, 10, 20, 50 years from now?  Pick a time frame.  Is the church, your church, prepared for the future?

You may be wondering, where is God in all of this?  I would say that God is standing at the end of time and pulling us toward where God is into a loving embrace.  How are we responding?

God calls our congregations to be different things at different times – we aren’t static as a community.  Just the mere fact that there are funerals and baptisms means the community will change over time – let alone people who come and go.

How is God calling your congregation to move into the future?  Are you looking at trends – who’s moving into the neighborhood? What developments are coming? What’s the demographics of the area? What kind of employment is there in the area?

When you start to look at the trends, your eyes open to new possibilities.  You start to see how God is calling the congregation to be Christ’s presence in the community.

We aren’t called to live in the past.  We are called to honor traditions though.  And then make new ones for the current generation.  Just as future generations will do.

We are called to live in the present, with an eye towards the future. And a rear view mirror to see the past.  The past shows us where we have been and how we got to where we are today.  The future gives us a direction we are heading.  And the present is where we always reside.

 

God in the movies

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So recently I’ve watch a couple of movies that involve angels – you know messengers of God.  The first movie was called “Gabriel.”  Take a wild guess about which angel this is about.  The movie is described as a mix between Western and the Matrix.  Which is pretty accurate.  The other movie was called “Legion.” it’s like the end times meet zombie movie.

I’ll spare you the details of both of these movies and tell you that both movies had really bad theology.  Let’s just put it this way – when you movie makes Michael the archangel into a fallen angel or disobeying God’s command, where you get the theology around Purgatory wrong, and where God is so ticked off at humanity that God decides to use angels to destroy humanity, you’ve got some bad theology going on.

Regardless, the benefit of watching these movies is to see how God is popularly displayed for entertainment purposes.

The message that is put out is that God is angry and ready to kick butt and take names.

The message is that the forces of good will use evil means, as if those means were the only option available.

The message is that might makes right.

These of course are the messages that our culture and world live by and have for most of human history.

Last week was Holy Week, which is a big contrast with these messages.  Holy Week shows us Jesus who carries a different message.  A message of Good News, even if the message is often misunderstood or ignored.  That doesn’t matter, Jesus kept on spreading the message anyway.

It’s a message that Jesus didn’t conquer through force, but rather love – self-emptying love.  To the point of death.

Evil uses force in order to get its way.  It has to.  But here’s the thing, in the end, it is that very same use of force that destroys evil.  It is self-destructive.

Love on the other hand is different.  It’s expansive.  Which is exactly what God is.

But I don’t expect there to be a movie that focuses on God’s love.  It wouldn’t fit into a popular movie theme.  There wouldn’t be a good guy and bad guy.  There wouldn’t be fallen angels.  There wouldn’t be the use of force to win.

But that’s ok because God’s love isn’t made for a movie.  It’s made for life.  For us to experience it and for us to live it out and share it with others.

Jesus is calling…

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Ring, ring…

Ring, ring…

(Humanity answers the phone…)  “Hello…”

“Yeah, it’s me…Jesus.  I have a few things to tell you.  I just have to get these off my chest.”

“So, I’ve been thinking.  I’m thinking that you all have a slight problem. Ok, a big problem.  Many of you claim to be my followers.  Yet, when I look around, I’m not seeing much following going on.  I’m seeing a lot using my name and pretending to be followers going on.  You know, the whole consumerism thing going on in the West.  Yeah, that’s not something I’m really about.  Remember how I taught to give away all the stuff that got in the way of following me?  No…I’m not surprised.”

“Yeah, and about enemies.  You don’t seem to understand what I was saying.  I said to love your enemies.  Yet you seem intent on killing them.  But not with kindness…or love.  No just killing them.  I think we have a failure to communicate here.”

“Yeah and the poor, the marginalized, the persecuted, the defenseless.  Yeah, do I really need to go into detail here.”

“Oh, and you’re not going to like this one – putting country or political party above me is not my cup of tea.  We had this same problem in the past.  Just in case you haven’t learned this, no worries, you will.  The end result is always the same.  Country and party end up as something else.”

“Hello…are you still there?  Figures.  I’ll try again later.  Maybe you’ll listen.  Regardless, please hear this.  I still love you.  Even when you ignore me.  Even when you stop listening.  Even when you use my name but go on your own path.  Oh, and I’ve got you covered.  Just in ways you may not understand.”

“And for the few of you who are listening and doing your best to follow…thank you.  Keep it up.  Trust me, it’s worth it.”

“By the way, the dinner invitation every week stands. You can come to my place and you’ll be fed the best food and drink ever.  And we’ll talk about things that make you feel so very alive and ready to face the week. And of course the company will be interesting and sometimes challenging.  But like them, you’ll be my guest.”

“Talk with you again soon. Peace.”

(The call ends…)

We are so removed from violence

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So for Holy Thursday, last week, I made a last minute decision to add in a specific prayer of intercession for the victims of violence, terror, and war.  I came across a website (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_terrorist_incidents_in_April_2017) which lists terrorist incidents in the world.  It lists them by day, with the number of victims, and the location.  If you want, you can go to the bottom of the page and see incidents for a specific year or month.

During the prayers, I only read off the locations for incidents that happened between Palm Sunday and Holy Thursday.  There were 25 incidents in those 5 days.  25.  Let that sink in for a moment.

In the US we are so far removed from violence and terrorism.  Yes, there are incidents here and there, but they are pretty rare compared to places like Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan which seems to dominate the list.

25 incidents across the world.  And that’s just related to terrorism.  That’s not counting war or war-acts, like when we bombed “militants” in Syria and killed 36 militants.  Or other wars – either declared or happening anyway.

And that’s not counting other acts of violence that happen in the world each day.  Violence against women and children, violence in the form of crime, violence because of gangs.  Those are traditionally thought of as violence.  Some would throw in violence against nature in that mix along with violence against animals.  There’s plenty of that to go around as well.

Death and destruction seem to have a hold on the planet and humanity in particular.

Yet here we are post-Easter.  We are told that Jesus has conquered death.  But sometimes it’s hard to believe it when we see violent acts continuing.  Sometimes even in God’s name.

But Jesus never said there would be no more death or violence.  Just that death has been conquered.  That means that death does not have the final say.  Death is not the end of the story.  Ultimately, God has the final say.  And while we may not like the fact that violence continues to stubbornly exist along with death, we have been promised that these things will come to an end.  It’s just not on our time.  It’s a reminder that time didn’t start when we were born and it doesn’t end when we die.  God looks at time far different than we do.

For the month of April, 2017, there have been 78 incidents as of this writing.  There were too many dead and injured to count up.  Death keeps rearing it’s head – in the name of God, in the name of country, in the name of ideology, in the name of theology, in the name of whatever.  Yet, regardless of whose name it happens, or rather it is claimed in, we should remember this – just because something is claimed in the name of God or country, doesn’t mean God or the country agrees with it.  I imagine God is looking upon humanity and saying – “here we go again…When will they ever learn…I don’t desire conformity of belief, but rather love.”  And God will continue to live out that love in creation.

Good Friday

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All week-long we’ve been looking at Holy Week.  And today is the day that so many people just don’t know what to do with.

Good Friday.  The day that Jesus was crucified.  Yet it’s good.  It’s a mix of a day.  A day of sadness and ultimate joy for Christians.  It’s a day that has been used in anti-Semitic ways too.  It’s a day that some Christians would rather skip.  Easter is so much happier – there’s an Easter bunny don’t you know.  He hands out chocolate – he’s like Spring’s version of Santa.

But you can’t get to Easter without going through Good Friday.  You don’t get to new life until there is death.  Something has to die in order for there to be new life.  What about Babies, you say.  Well, sitting inside the mother’s womb has to end in order to the baby to be born into the world.  Imagine how frightening that must be – your whole world, everything you’ve ever known – all of a sudden it’s ending.  You don’t know what is on the other side.

Death leads to life in nature.  When a tree dies and falls, fungus starts to grow on it eventually.  Bugs make it their home.  Animals seek protection in the hollow of the trunk.

Death leads to life – and it is good.  In the creation story we hear about how God creates out of nothing – the nothingness ends and creation comes into being.  In other versions of the story, God creates out of the chaos.  The chaos ends and order and life begin.

Death and life go hand-in-hand.  Yet, we don’t like to think about death.  Too often we think that death is the end, a permanent end.  Yet, we Christians know this is not the case.  Death doesn’t have the final say, it is not the final end.  We have been promised new life.  Death leads to life.  In the end that life will not look the same, but it will be life.  Death is not the end, it the end of the old, and the beginning of the new.

Good Friday is good because death no longer has the final say – that way died.  New life begins.

 

Maundy Thursday

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Today is the day that Christians celebrate the Last Supper.  It also the day that many Christians will participate in a foot washing during the service.

I have to say, I was always uncomfortable with this.  I don’t like feet.  I don’t think I’m alone in this.  I don’t like to have my feet uncovered in public.  I’m not ashamed of my feet, I’m just not interested in showing them off though.  I’m sure there is some deep seated reason for this – I don’t know what it is, nor do I really care to find out.  It just don’t affect my day-to-day life that much to worry about.  And the only time I really think about it is on Maundy Thursday or when we go to the beach.

At any rate.  The washing of feet is difficult for many people.  Maybe it’s because of the association of dirt with feet.  We’re being asking to do something dirty – wash feet.  Not only that, we’re being asked to accept the fact that Jesus – God – washed people’s feet.  How crazy is that?  Talk about bringing yourself low.

Yet, that’s exactly what Jesus did and calls on us to do – to bring ourselves low.  To self-empty.  To wash another person’s feet.  And in the act of washing, to have our pride washed away.  Jesus calls on us to be servants, not saviors.  He’s got that role covered as we’ll hear about tomorrow.

We’d much rather participate in the supper part of the service.  Who doesn’t like food anyway?  Food can be dirty too, but it’s a different kind of dirty – it’s just messy.  But it tastes good and is pleasing to our bodies.  But touching feet?  That’s a whole different story.

And yet here we are on Maundy Thursday.  Jesus washes his disciples’ feet and then does dinner.  I can hear all the moms out there saying – “I sure hope he washed his hands after touching their feet.”

It reminds me of another saying of Jesus. Matthew 6:21 has Jesus saying “Where your treasure is, there your heart will follow.” It means that we do the act so that our heart will follow.  If we waited for ourselves to get comfortable with washing feet, then we’d never do it.  We’d never be comfortable with serving others in “dirty” ways.  We’d never get comfortable with praying for our enemies.  We’d never get comfortable for breaking down barriers and walls with “those” people.  We’d never get comfortable with eating with outcasts.  Instead, the Spirit empowers us to do these things before we are comfortable doing that.  God is the one who is the primary cause, the primary actor, in our lives.  And we can respond – even when it is uncomfortable.

This is my lesson for Maundy Thursday.  It’s why I’ll be participating in the foot washing tonight.  I’m not comfortable with it.  But Jesus doesn’t call us to comfort.  He calls us to serve.