Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’ – 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 (emphasis added)
The past two-and-a-half years have been an interesting study in human interaction. Not long after the announcement that Lisa was being appointed Superintendent of the Rockford District, back in 2013, there was a special session of the Northern Illinois Conference to consider a particular plan through which the Conference would help churches laden with mortgage debt. As a member of the Conference Board of Pensions and Health Benefits, I not only attended but was given voting privileges (for the first time! It was very exciting). As I wandered through Elgin First UMC, my name badge on, people would glance my way then do a double-take. Not everyone, of course, but more than a few. When they saw my last name, they would approach me, introduce themselves, shake my hand and invariably say, “You must be Lisa’s husband.” On our way home that afternoon, Lisa and were talking and she said, “It was weird. All these people came up to me and were talking to me.” I chuckled and said, “It’s because of your appointment. Hell, people were sucking up to me because I’m your husband.”
I suppose it’s part of the process of socialization that we learn to approach persons with power or authority, introduce ourselves to them, perhaps only to be known by them, perhaps seeking some favor, perhaps both. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with this. Lord knows I’ve done it, although I do hope I’m better than I used to be. Who wouldn’t want to be known by those who might well have some kind of influence on our lives? How better to get them to be aware of the people their word and actions might touch?
Still, being on the receiving end of this behavior was distinctly odd, to say the least. It still is. That Lisa is the District Superintendent is true enough. It doesn’t change the person I am. It does, however, change how people perceive me and choose to interact with me (with the exception of the people of Christ The Carpenter UMC; thank God for them and their openness and love and insouciance toward names or titles). I have had to keep reminding myself of this often. I am just me, no big deal. All the same, to some just the fact that I’m married to a person holding a particular office of authority in our denomination makes me a big deal. I’m not sure I’ll ever wrap my head around that, at least not all the way.
You see, St. Paul reminds us that none of us are a big deal. As much as we might enjoy parading our advance degrees around – and you can’t be ordained clergy in the UMC without at least an advanced professional degree – and showing off how much Greek and Hebrew we know; as much as we might enjoy being looked upon as particularly special people (having been a clergy spouse in a couple small towns, I will tell you that everyone knows who you are, whether you are aware of it or not); as much as emphasize having been called out from among the rest of the Body (and being a clergy spouse is a calling); for all this, St. Paul reminds us we were called out precisely because we aren’t all that wise. We certainly aren’t all that powerful; besides United Methodists, and probably not a majority of those, who cares about our General Conference, what difference does it make to anyone? We have been called out not because we have special gifts, are oh-so-smart or powerful. I don’t care if you’re a Bishop, the Chair of the General Conference, the head of one of our global Boards, or just a local pastor or deacon in service: you’re where you are because you’re not that big a deal.
So you have a piece of paper that says you read some books and wrote some papers. Do you honestly believe that’s going to get you a free cup of coffee anywhere? Does seminary education really matter all that much? So you stand in front of a congregation every Sunday, lead Bible Studies and classes, and your sanctuary is filled with people and your mission and outreach continues to grow. Do you really think any of that has to do with you? So people in different conferences and in other parts of the denomination know your name, you get mentioned in the United Methodist Reporter or are interviewed on local or even national news. Does that mean you don’t fart after a really good meal? Do any of these things eliminate your need to confess your sins together with other Christians? Does an education or a piece of paper or a special title before your name mean you aren’t in need of the means of grace of the Sacrament to bring you together with the Body of Christ? Does the fact that you might have written a book that a whole lot of people read, perhaps study and share in their local congregations grant you wisdom or courage for the facing of this hour?
As difficult as it is, each of us and all of us need to remember that God has called us not because of who we are or because of some special gift we have; God has called us to serve God, to be builders of the Kingdom, tenders of God’s garden. No one is supposed to see us or hear us. Who we are is inconsequential. All we do, all we are, is for the glory of God. Period. Full stop.
We are just too wed to our special status, whether as baptized Christians in service or ordained as clergy or consecrated as Bishop, to recall that not a bit of it has anything to do with any of us, either individually or as the Church. We are called to be the Body of Christ, not the Body of the educated, the movers and shakers, the special people. St. Paul reminds the people of Corinth they just aren’t that big a deal, which is precisely why God called them. I think we, particularly in the United Methodist Church, not only have forgotten this; we celebrate our special status. People in positions of power and authority seek to remain in positions of power and authority, rather than remember our power comes from weakness, our authority from the Spirit of God, not from some book we read or some title in front of our name. We need to stop regarding ourselves as all that, because we’re not. We are those who were not, created by God to show forth the Glory of God to the world.
That is who and what we are. Nothing before God called us in to being to serve God, God’s Kingdom, and the living of the Gospel.
Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ – Exodus 3:3-5
This past spring, I had the opportunity to attend a particular interfaith gathering in the western suburbs of Chicago. A meeting of the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church and the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, we shared a meal, listened to talks both from Christian and Muslim clergy, and then had a chance to sit together and talk, both about what unites us and what separates us. It was a blessed time.
The event was held on a Friday, the Muslim holy day, and the time for evening prayers arrived. The men rose as one and left the room for the narthex to pray. Later in the evening, when one of the Imam’s spoke, he noted that this United Methodist Church, a Christian space dedicated to our particular worship of our Triune God, would, on the Day of Judgment, be remembered by Allah as holy ground, because it was a place where the people gathered to pray to Allah. I was so moved by that declaration. This rather bland, typical white suburban mainline Protestant church building had become, through the expedient of opening its space to use to persons of other faiths, something more than what it had been before. Certainly holy ground for us Christians, it had become a space Muslims would accept as Holy because Allah had welcomed the prayers of the people from within its walls. While recognizing the holiness of one another’s spaces, this was now a place declared holy by more than one faith. Not every such space has such an honor.
A pastor in our conference preaches in bare feet, out of reverence for the chancel being Holy Ground. When I heard this, my already enormous respect grew even greater. In a time when the notion of “holiness” has become a surd, an empty vessel rarely filled with much of anything, it is refreshing to know there are still some who recognize something portentous exists within the time and space of Christian worship .
Earlier this summer, a FB friend of mine went on vacation across Italy. Among the many beautiful photos posted were those of the grand cathedrals. I confessed that I could live in a cathedral, something I said two years ago while visiting the National Cathedral in Washington. My FB friend agreed with the sentiment. I suspect our reasons for taking up residence in such a structure might be different. For me, such a space removes us from the world around us. Not completely, of course, because we are always in the world while also active participants and residents of the Kingdom. The space enclosed by a cathedral, however, speaks to the body and Spirit of an existence that is available now, yet also to be more fully when the New Creation is fully consummated. The acoustics, the light filtered through stained glass, the images and many altars available for prayers, many of those spaces set aside for distinct petitions, the grand altar toward which we face, offering our prayers, and from which we receive the gift of the Eucharist is a physical representation of that space the prophet Isaiah saw as a throne room, and the prophet St. John the Divine saw as the point from which flow the rivers of life, with thrones both for God and the Lamb.
Even other spaces within a cathedral can speak, through their design and appearance, of that True Holy Ground toward which all others point.
In one of the towers of the National Cathedral is an observation space from which most of the city is visible (the Cathedral is built upon a hill that is, I believe, the highest point within the District). Walking around the escarpment, as seen in this photo, one has a sense of a passageway with a goal; this space is not just mundane walking areas. It is, in fact a way to move through particular spaces always remembering that we are in a ground hallowed by the presence of God. That at the end of these walkways is always a window, always light, emphasizes that we are moving through a place where the Light of the World has come to rest, has claimed, and from which we carry that light.
I think that sense of holiness about cathedrals is learned. I’m quite sure people no longer wedded to Christianity, or of other faiths recognize the beauty and grandeur of cathedrals without getting caught up in the spiritual message such spaces contain. There’s certainly nothing wrong with reveling in the aesthetic joy of something so powerful. That cathedrals have this other dimension, an acknowledgement of and dedication to the specific immanence and transcendence of Christian faith is a declaration of faith.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the magnificence of a cathedral we can forget our local churches, too, are as holy, as dedicated to that same immanent/transcendent declaration of the Kingdom of God. Whether some small country church an older central city church or perhaps something that looks more like a gymnasium or concert hall, our church buildings are no less grand than Notre Dame, Hagia Sophia, or the Dome of the Rock. We are on holy ground, a space and place where God is, and to which we are called to gather to worship. From here, we are sent forth to the world to take some of that holiness outside the walls, to make just a bit more of our world holy ground, places blessed by the Divine presence.
The Kingdom of God is so much more than justice, righteousness, peace, and holy hospitality. It is also spaces and places, ground and building, where our God is. Just as Allah will remember on the Day of Judgment that humble space in suburbia as holy, so, too, will our God never again leave a space blessed by the Divine Presence through the work and worship of Christians. The Kingdom comes not just within the lives of Christians dedicated to the service to the world; it also comes across land and water, in window and across threshold where the Spirit has moved and made holy.
We pray, the pastor leading. Together we say a general confession and then are given time for our own silent and personal confession. Suddenly I am aware that prayer is not media-friendly. Churches web-streaming their services dare not practice silence. Music, movement, words and enthusiasm must fill each millisecond. Yet how much the human soul needs those increasingly rare and healing moments of quietness and contemplation! – Rev. Christy Thomas, “Mystery Worship That Fed My Soul,” The Thoughtful Pastor, June 18, 2015
At Tuesday night’s Ordination Service, the congregation sang “Down To The River To Pray,” revived by Alison Kraus for the Coen brother’s movie O Brother Where Art Thou? Actually, the congregation didn’t sing much at all. The choir sang and some few in the congregation sang while the rest kind of sat there, not quite sure what to do. It made me sad, really, that this beautiful old spiritual didn’t have everyone singing, eyes closed, picturing ourselves gathering around the banks of a river to watch the rebirth of sisters and brothers in that cool flowing water.
According to the song’s Wikipedia page, the first printed version of the song is from an 1867 publication, Slave Songs of the United States, transcribed during Reconstruction under the title, “The Good Old Way”. In the Coen Brother’s film, the song is used to jar both characters and audience out of the narrative flow of three convicts escaped from a Mississippi chain gang. The moment is done so perfectly well in the film, it can still bring chills after repeated viewings.
And isn’t that how the best spirituals, hymns, and gospel songs should act? Shouldn’t they jar us – gently to be sure; insistently without doubt – out of our everyday, reminding us that we are singing together, our voices rising to heaven?
In something like Providence perhaps, the Rev. Christy Thomas’s entry in her “Mystery Worship” series, quoted in part and linked above (and I would invite everyone to read her simple, clear, beautiful piece) reminds readers that worship isn’t about how. It’s about who, or perhaps Who. To whom is the worship directed? How is the liturgy, the songs and the spoken word, the congregational and silent prayer structured so that the congregation becomes aware they are invited, yet again, to be called out to worship our Living God?
I continue to believe it is both possible and necessary to incorporate contemporary musics in to Christian worship with faithful integrity. In my advocacy, however, I believe I have neglected to emphasize that we need to retain what is best from our traditions of liturgy, worship, architecture, and overall feel of the worshiping experience. I despise those who dismiss contemporary musical instrumentation out of an ahistorical preference for traditional instrumentation such as the organ. When it is argued that the organ is made for Christian worship, there is little mention made of the centuries-long (and still on-going in some places) argument over what, precisely, makes for proper musical instrumentation in Christian worship. Some denominations, including the Church of Christ, continue to sing a capella, understanding any instrumentation as too worldly for Christian worship. We should honor the contingency and history of forms of Christian worship by never assuming one confession or denomination has it right. Even we United Methodists spent much of our history instrument-free, with pianos damned because of their place in bars and the sporting life, the organ to “Roman”.
We should never – ever! – discard tradition just because it is tradition. We should never – ever! – dismiss innovation because it is innovative. A favorite phrase from my seminary days explains the challenge we always face. We must keep these things in tension, a living witness to the difficulty of faithfulness in our world. Thus it is good and right there continue to be churches like the Presbyterian Church in Texas Christy attended this past Sunday. It is good and right there continues to be liturgy that offers silence and quiet, a respite from the onslaught of sounds with which we live most hours of every day. It is a blessing to enter a space built to separate those within in it, calling them together as a congregation, instead of building just another auditorium for an audience to watch a performance. We are Church, ekklesia, those called out of the world to be the Body of Christ in and for the world; our worship should, in how it looks and sounds, what is missing and in those silences, bring us together to direct our prayers, our praise, and our faith, hope, and love to the God to whom it is due.
These are just preliminary thoughts, mind you. Working it out in more detail requires time, reflection, repentance, and of course experience. Still, the challenge this simple spiritual and the history it holds; the worship experience of another reminding readers of the power of traditional liturgical forms; all this and more remind me that there is no final answer, no correct way to be about worship, and that we should work out how we do this as St Paul instructed – with fear and trembling.
If you find more community online than in your local parish, beware. The local church does not exist to confirm all of our biases, and to seek this out in fear or loathing of anyone who might challenge our pet theological fancies is unhealthy socially, psychologically, and spiritually. Maturity does not come to those who seek safe refuge from all possible challenges to our assumptions and deeply held biases. – Rev. Drew McIntyre, “Dark & Monstrous”: The Perils Of Online Christian Community, May 5, 2015
We in the churches are devoted as much to buzzwords as we are to Christ. Nothing makes us feel as good as when we all use words that, whether or not everyone agrees on a meaning, at least seem to define us. As the first in an occasional series on Church buzzwords that are, for all practical purposes, are meaningless yet used all the time in a kind of mindless mantra, a Zen incantation that clears the mind of thought to soothe our often frayed nerves, I want to offer the word “Community” for our consideration. While sparked by Drew McIntyre’s post about online community, it is long past time for me to vent my frustration about this over-used, undefined word that has become a substitute for real thought.
I want it understood up front that, as much as I have taken Drew to task in previous posts, this post is not at all directed at him. On the contrary, in many ways his description of the perils of “online community” apply just as much to face-to-face interactions in the Church. My objection is not at all about the content of his post. It is, rather, aimed at the overabundance of this particular word in Church dialogue, an overabundance that has rendered it meaningless.
For me, “community” has always meant those already existing networks of relationships among groups of people, however they are formed, into which we are either born or enter through education, shared interest, or perhaps through voluntary association. So our local neighborhoods, towns, even cities – these are communities, and sometimes interconnected, overlapping, and conflicting communities all at the same time. Communities offer us the chance for identity, for being more than just an isolated “I”. For example, I am a part of the community of folks who live in the Red Oak subdivision on the southeast side of Rockford, IL. Each layer of that description is more and more inclusive, identifying me to others who know about our income, social status, and relative place both in the smaller and larger scheme of things. That my wife is clergy means ours is a clergy-family, for all that might or might not imply about who we are, how our family is organized, what kind of a couple Lisa and I are, how are children are raised, etc.
I could go further. We are also a specifically United Methodist clergy family, which links us to other such families. It of course means we are connected to other such in our city, the Rockford District, and the Northern Illinois Conference, each layer giving particular meanings to who we are. Sometimes these meanings are challenged by particular individuals and families, sometimes accepted, but always that through which we are placed by others who understand the implications of these communal associations.
Churches, of course, are often referred to as communities. In a theological sense, of course, this is most certainly true enough to a point: Congregations are the places where we Christians are claimed, named, and sent by the God who creates us, saves us, and will offer true redemption to us. Congregations come in many sizes and shapes, colors and voices, yet they are “congregations” because they are this or that particular group who worship together, pray together, and fulfill a specific calling and mission offered by the Father in the Son through the Spirit. How much and how well these congregations incarnate these realities, well, that’s always a matter of work and prayer, the occasional argument, yet a dynamic, ongoing, and most of all organic process through which people who have come together, creating this living thing work together to be this particular part of the Body of Christ.
To me at any rate – perhaps under the influence of a Heideggerian understanding of existentialism – communities are things that already exist, into which we enter either through birth, through where we choose to live, and how we choose to fulfill both our avocation and our vocation. They are also living things, which means that as already existing things there are processes and unspoken rules for interactions, for determining who is and is not a leader, and for growth and change. These, too, of course, are subject to change. In order for real change to come about, however, there needs to be a general recognition that they exist, and that they exist in particular forms and not others.
Too often, however, I see and hear the word “community” tossed around as if it suddenly described just any group of people; worse, and sadly, I have seen it used in ways that indicate some people (particularly the hierarchy in the United Methodist Church) believe it is possible to create community out of whole cloth. You know what I mean: Church plantings that seem to believe “Build it and they will come” isn’t a stupid line from a stupid movie, but some kind of theological imperative. Here in the Northern Illinois Conference, for example, there was a huge push from the top down to start new congregations across the map. All the good intentions in the world, all the prayerful consideration any group of people can give, all the encouragement from Scripture doesn’t change the reality that only congregations that come together and offer themselves as members of the denomination and Conference will survive.
My wife has served what were, in essence, new church starts. Both, however, were the result of the merger of already-existing congregations that realized they would be stronger together. Thus, both Community UMC in Lamoille, IL and Cornerstone UMC in rural Elgin, IL are thriving, real communities with mission and ministries that work because there was an already existing base from which these churches could grow. Others, however, have not fared well because just plopping a building down on some land, letting people know its there, then waiting to see what happens isn’t how church works. Ever.
Worse, however, is the whole idea of “online communities”. For example, I am now or have been, a part of several Facebook groups, both public and private. I do not now and would never claim that my identity is tied up with these memberships. All I have joined or been allowed to join because I wished to do so; that does not, however, make them communities. Precisely because of the nature of the medium, there can be nothing organic about these groups. Rather than offer us identity, members give the group identity. Rather than be places where our life becomes richer, these (and other kinds of online groups) are limited precisely because of the medium as to the nature of our interactions. We are limited, due to the nature of these groups, as to what and how far we allow ourselves the comfort of exposing our thoughts. The medium, being electronic and technical, cannot by its very nature offer organic interactions that offer the opportunities for growth and change that really existing, face-to-face communities offer. Precisely because the medium offers people opportunities to interact with people with whom they do not have to live, there is the chance to speak in such a way one would never do in any community of which they are a part.
Some see a virtue in this kind of interaction. Yet, precisely because real communities have boundaries and rules that define how interactions take place, we know what is and is not acceptable. Online, it is perfectly acceptable to slander, defame, and otherwise belittle others, sometimes from the security and comfort of near-perfect anonymity. We often think it would be more honest if, in our face-to-face interactions, we could be as “honest” as we seem free to do online. Communities, however, have rules against “honesty” that is actually hostility masked as “truth-telling” in order to maintain the good order and on-going health of the whole group. All groups, of course, are plagued by clumsy, rude, poorly-socialized, over-bearing, and too-powerful individuals. The nice things is there are ways to address these matters that do not threaten the health of the whole; ways that do not expose some as bitter, hostile, grudge-carrying petty people. When I see any such things online, whether anonymous or not, I have to wonder how well such folks do in the world.
Community is a really-existing thing. It is not a word that can be used willy-nilly as a way either of defining anything we wish or describing just any group of people. We in the churches have stripped the word of any power or meaning precisely because we just toss it around as a cure-all, calling our churches “communities” whether that word actually describes them, because let’s face it: Some churches aren’t communities at all, their dysfunction so clear even to themselves they barely function at all. Nor does the church “create” community. At its best, churches are already-existing communities that, coming together through the Spirit’s call, offer themselves to God. Members of these communities go out and tell their stories, offering a place for others to come not only to praise and worship God, but through membership and attendance, through communal prayer and offerings, to enter in to a whole new identity that will change their lives as well as the lives of others in the congregation.
So rather than just tossing the word “community” around remember: Words mean things. Overuse, thoughtless and careless use rob words of their meaning as much as lack of use.
Rant over. For now.
When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, ‘This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation. The queen of the South will rise at the judgement with the people of this generation and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here! The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here! – Luke 11:29-32
I just love that Jesus isn’t all nicey-nicey all the time. Yes, we read about Jesus having compassion on Jerusalem; on the crowds that followed him; on the blind and lame and social castoffs who came to him for healing, comfort, or a chance to return to full community with others. At the same time, the so-called “Temple cleansing” isn’t the only time Jesus anger and frustration overflowed. If you believe Jesus can call a bunch of people standing around him “an evil generation” without anger, your faith and imagination are far better than mine.
Yet, for what is he condemning them? For some kind of sign, something that let’s them know, definitively, that he, this carpenter from Nazareth, is the One promised. Like the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, at the end of which the Rich Man begs The Lord to return to his family to warn them only to be told that this man’s family had the Law and Prophets, and if that’s too bad, well too bad so sad. In other words, Jesus is condemning an entire generation for basic faithlessness. As if the whole history of Israel, the Scriptures that attest to what God has done and will do, isn’t enough, now the people want some kind of sign. To which Jesus says, “Fine! You want a sign? How about Jonah? How about the Queen of Sheba who came to sit at the feet of Solomon? The Kingdom of the South condemns you for your faithlessness; Nineveh condemns you for your faithlessness. Consider that.”
In this way, the United Methodist Church is so much like this evil generation. We have our heroes – Adam Hamilton, Mike Slaughter, Rob Bell – who we look to for guidance through our generation-long malaise. We look for signs that our churches are alive, whether it’s through more people attending, higher giving, vibrant Sunday School and Youth ministries – including the required Summer Mission Trip, which has become de rigeur – and mistake all of it for the life of the Spirit. Not that I’m condemning more people in church, or mission trips; just that we think these are signs of the presence of the Spirit, signs of life, when all the sign we need has already been given to us. Consider part of the lyrics from the song above:
When will we learn, when will we change?
Just in time to see it all come down
Those left standing will make millions
Writing books on the way it should have been
We have all the tools, all the understanding, all the knowledge, all we need to be about the business of being the Church. What we lack is faith – faith in the God who calls us; faith in the Son who saves us; faith in the Spirit who brings us Life and New Life – to be about what we should be. We mistake being busy for being about making Disciples. We mistake larger attendance numbers for making Disciples. We mistake our Summer Mission Trips for transforming the world. In other words, we think all this stuff can silence the nagging fear that it just isn’t enough, that we need something, some sign, that we’re doing it right. We don’t have to have our theology right; we don’t have to have our doctrine set forth appropriately; we don’t have to pray the right prayer; we don’t have to see the face of Jesus above the altar; we don’t need signs.
I have a Facebook friend who’s a United Methodist pastor here in the Northern Illinois Conference. She constantly writes that she loves her job. She notes when she receives compliments from youth in her church, such as, “You make church fun!”. She holds office hours every Tuesday evening at a local Mexican Restaurant, and folks stop by. Oh, and did I tell you that she has a pink streak in her hair, in every picture she’s smiling a huge, warm smile, and that she preaches barefoot because she is treading on Holy Ground? I’m sure she and her church have the same worries all other churches have; there’s no reason to believe they are exempt. All the same, her message is more than perky happiness. Her message is far simpler: She is about the ministry of Jesus Christ in the world, and, man, isn’t it a blast? It’s holy, sure, and it’s serious, life-altering, world-altering business. There’s no reason not to celebrate the sheer joy of being about this work to which she’s been called, and at which she is so adept.
We need more like her. We need more men and women who love what they do, that to which they are called, and can share that love and joy with the world. There’s no magic formula, no sign, no miracle. Just understanding that one greater than Solomon and Jonah has come, and that’s worth celebrating, that should be enough to create excitement and enthusiasm for this whole church thing. Joy, love, and an enthusiasm for sharing that – there’s your sign. Otherwise, we might just find the good folks of Nineveh telling us, “What the world’s wrong with you?”