Thursday, April 16, 2009

The fall of "Christian" America??

The idea that we are in a post-Christian America or that the religious landscape has changed dramatically in America is not a new notion. It has been bantered about for quite some time. A recent article in Newsweek (cover story) by Jon Meacham, "The Decline and Fall of Christian America," has prompted reaction from various circles.

I want to say more about this in a future post(s), but I'll add this note for now:

I'm not alarmed. In fact, it could be a good thing to acknowledge: America is not a Christian nation.

It's important to distinguish "civil religion" (of any country- those values, stories, mores, etc. that link people together from a variety of faith traditions) and the "kingdom of God" (for followers of Jesus, this is our priority).

The church (followers of Jesus) was on the margins of society following Jesus and continued in that form for the first 300 years...and it had a powerful impact on society and grew tremendously.

A lot of fear will get tossed around in Christian circles with this idea ("what is happening to our nation??!!"). I do not live with fear regarding this. My goals, or the purpose for the church of which I help to lead (The Bridge), do not change.

Carry on.

(More later)

Spring, Cincinnati Reds and hope

The itch comes each spring. The baseball itch.

I've long given up the dream of setting foot on a major league field and playing in a major league game. My body aches thinking about it. The last time I played baseball (not softball, but baseball) was when I was 42 in an Over-30 yr old baseball league in Toledo. Holy cow, Harry Carey, those reflexes change drastically!

But, I still love spring and the opening of the season. Box scores when I open the Sports' section in the morning. Baseball Tonight on ESPN, catching some Reds' games with my son, going to Coors' Field and cheering on the Rockies (they still don't have the same status as the Reds yet), and living with hope.

My Reds are 4-4 as of today. Some say they are the "dark horse" this year. Optimism- they might do it this year! They might end up in last the middle of the pack...or in 1st. Right now, it doesn't matter. This is the beginning of the season and anything can happen!

Easter, mimosas, community and a feast

Easter was different this year. I have memories of many wonderful Easters in my past, and there are numerous ways and forms in which the Resurrection of Jesus can be named and celebrated. This year was different from previous Easter celebrations...and it was good.

It was a celebration with our new church, The Bridge. The one glaring absence was not being able to be with our two children, but that is now part of our life when you live in three different cities.

This was also something we had in common with most of the 25, from The Bridge, who showed up at our place for a day of celebration: their immediate family didn't live in Denver. Part of what made this a special celebration is that there was an obvious warmth and genuine sense of community as we were together. And, we were together, most of us, for about 6 hours.

Here's what kicked off the idea: a study group of 8 from the church went through N.T. Wright's book, Surprised by Hope, this past winter. It's about the Resurrection of Jesus (yep, just that: Jesus was dead and buried, and he was resurrected back to life...a body- not a disembodied spirit), and about hope, and about rejecting an escapist view found in some circles of Christianity (in that view- we live, "accept Jesus," die, go to heaven and don't give a hoot about this world/earth because "we're outta here!"). It was a wonderful study and had impact on us- thinking about how we live and function in the world. In Denver. In our neighborhoods.

So...Wright says Easter needs to be a time when we "take things up" in the same way Lent is a time to "give things up." Easter should be our highest celebration! "Champagne for breakfast!" One night, a member of the study group said we ought to think about our Easter celebration: "why not have mimosas!" We did.

We had coffee, rolls, casseroles and other breakfast foods starting at 10:00 a.m. We talked and laughed. We had mimosas and a tasteful, meaningful toast (not a cheesy affair) acknowledging the Risen Christ, that our lives our changed, that we want to follow him as Lord, and celebrating our community being built on Jesus....We had four "testimonies" about the meaning of the Resurrection for personal lives and for The Bridge. (I had tears as I listened to these representative voices.) I shared a proclamation of why Easter matters. We prayed and read Scripture....And, we had a feast- everyone contributing to this great meal.

We talked, laughed and enjoyed each other.

While I don't want to make this more than what it is, I also don't want to minimize it. This was a significant day for us as a church. It was both a culmination of the past 7 months (when we started the church); it was also a launch into the future with zeal, joy, hope and energy. Empowered by the Risen Jesus.

This was also important: 2 attended as guests for the first time. They were welcomed and it was also symbolic: there is always an open space for new people in this community. As new people have joined these past 7 months, more will join in the months and years ahead: joining this Resurrection band seeking to follow Jesus, live this out in Denver, and endeavor to be the hands and feet of Jesus to others who seek, are lost, poor, suffering or cast aside by society.

And, I mean this in any way but cheesy: Easter- it's all about Jesus and I'm full of joy!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Hanging out and inviting (Week 6:4)

Topic: Week 6- The new community: the body of Christ
Theme for 6 Weeks- Who is Jesus and what difference does it make?

Read Matthew 9:9-13

Yesterday, our church, The Bridge, hung out in the west side of Denver for four hours. It was a significant event and time for us, another step for our church. (That’s another story, which might work its way here at some point.) Related to the thought today, it was time for this body of Christ, this new community, to be with “outsiders.”

Whether it was helping Delen, the cook, prepare and serve the meal for the seniors at lunch, or chatting with the seniors who come to the Denver Inner City Parish for meals and community, or listening to Allyson tell about the programs and outreach of the center, or going on a neighborhood walk with Jason, Hector and Hector, Jr., or staring at the graffiti art or gang signs, or making a decision to take steps to partner in both an urban garden and with the food bank, it was about “outsiders,” in many ways.

Not outsiders from the viewpoint of God toward humanity (some of you are insiders and some outsiders), but from my/our standpoint. Not “outsiders” as in us and them, and we’re here to help you. But, outsiders with respect to our community, our current make-up of The Bridge.

It’s easy to get comfortable with insiders and those who are in our group. And, Jesus wants us to break the mold and comfort of just being with our group. In that sense, the outsider can be the one who is without a relationship with God or following Jesus. In this story, Jesus calls or invites (v. 13) the “sinner.”

Or, the way of relating to outsiders may be to hang out with them (v. 10)- hang out is my translation of “sat at dinner in the house,” which is the meaning of sharing a meal in the home in that 1st century setting. Jesus hangs out with the “tax collectors and sinners,” clearly outsiders.

Invite and hang out. That’s part of being the body of Christ. Whether that might be rubbing shoulders or relationships at The Irish Rover on Thursdays, or coffee with a friend, or serving a meal to lonely seniors, or handing out food at the food bank to those struggling to make it through the month without being hungry, or planting an urban garden with others in the neighborhood in honor of our Creator God, building relationships, and providing some healthy food for those who need it. Or, you name the ways you might invite or hang out with those on the outside, broken, lost or in need.

These two words stand out to me today in one aspect of being the body of Jesus in the world: invite…hang out. With joy!

Question: Where is a situation(s) where you might hang out or invite (outsiders)?

Prayer: Gracious God, you sit down with me. The most profound way you have done this is by your Incarnation: coming to be with us in Jesus. You also continue to do that today; you continue to “hang out” and “invite” me. My Lord, show me the ways you want me to do that very thing with others as the body of Christ. In your name I pray, Amen.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Characterized by love (Week 6:3)

Topic: Week 6- The new community: the body of Christ
Theme for 6 Weeks- Who is Jesus and what difference does it make?

Read John 13:34-35; Matthew 5:43-48

The idea we are thinking about this week is the “body of Christ,” which is, the church…or, new community (if “church” has a bad ring to it). We- this new community- are the body of Christ.

What are the characteristics of being the body of Christ? I’m noting only several; yesterday it was serving “the least of these.” Today, love. During these six weeks, I’ve mentioned love twice. Today, I’d like to see it from the framework of how this, love, let’s people in on knowing we are followers of Jesus.

How might people know that we are followers of Jesus (or have their curiosity heightened about faith and life in Jesus)? In this passage in John, Jesus says it is “when they see the love that you have for each other” (v. 35, The Message). This love for each other is something people can see, as Jesus notes.

I don’t know how you see it, but that appears quite true from my experience. People can tell if love is present.

Distinguishing mark #1: love for each other in the body of Christ- the new community you are part of.

Mark #2: love for enemies. Ouch. Here’s how Jesus calls his followers to also indicate they are his followers, i.e. the body of Christ: “You're familiar with the old written law, 'Love your friend,' and its unwritten companion, 'Hate your enemy.' I'm challenging that. I'm telling you to love your enemies. …If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.” (v.43-44, 46-47 The Message).

It’s easy (most of the time, at least!) to love those who love you. The distinguishing piece, in this area of love, is loving our enemies. That’s the work (a spiritually, disciplined life) of a lifetime and being connected close to Jesus (he “in us”).

So, another characteristic: love. And, two aspects, when lived out, point to Jesus and let others know that we are followers of Jesus: love for each other, and love for enemies.

This is part of our call. In a call to be this kind of community (body of Christ), Greg Boyd says, “This is what we are called to be: a community characterized by radical, revolutionary, Calvary-quality love; a community that manifests the love of the triune God; a community that strives for justice not be conquering but by being willing to suffer; a community that God uses to transform the world by providing it with an alternative to its own self-centered, violent way of existing.” (p. 122, The Myth of a Christian Nation).

So we might experience a more robust life and that others may see Jesus.

Question: How do you see yourself, today, in your “love life?”

Prayer: Lord, may your love in me continue to grow daily so that I display this more completely to my community of Jesus-followers. And, may it grow even more deeply that I display it to my enemies in whatever form they take. In the name of Jesus, Amen.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Tom- a “weekly sacrament of grace” (Week 6:2)

Topic: Week 6- The new community: the body of Christ
Theme for 6 Weeks- Who is Jesus and what difference does it make?

Read Matthew 25:31-46

The guy on the other end of the phone line appeared to either have a speech impediment or some type of mental disability. He called and asked for the pastor, and when I picked up the phone, he proceeded to tell me that he lived three blocks away and wanted to know what time church was on Sunday and if he was welcome. He and his friend, Norm.

He also wanted to know if we had potluck meals at church. In the years that followed, it was evident why he asked that question: he was usually first in line at our monthly potlucks, went back for heaping servings of seconds, thirds and more, and he left potlucks with his bag full of plastic tubs of church-potluck food that the hospitality committee members always prepared for him.

Tom was 52 yrs old when I first met him that Sunday after his first phone call to me. He was overweight, wore clothes that didn’t match (as in, striped shirts with double-knit plaid pants), he smelled of stale sweat, it always seemed he had a 3-day beard, and he had poor social etiquette (he would walk up and interrupt a conversation you were having with someone else). He was in church almost every Sunday and he never missed potluck Sundays!

He carried a paper bag with handles to church each week which contained his Bible, a picture of Jesus, a picture of his friend Kevin, and odds and ends. He was often annoying. It wasn’t the prettiest sight to eat across the table from him at potluck meals.

He had a mental disability and was in a group home, with Norm, three blocks from our church. More importantly, in my view, he had an emotional and spiritual vacuum that was with him, perhaps, since he was a small child. And, he loved Jesus. Yes, I believe he loved Jesus in the way he could best understand it. And, he hugged people. He hugged members of the church. I got a hug every Sunday from Tom and I hugged Tom each week.

Here’s the thing: in the years before he died, he was a member of our church, and I’m grateful to say, that church community loved Tom. They picked him up and drove him to church when our church location was moved. They packed food for him after potlucks. They hugged Tom- smell and all. They listened to him when they were bored to tears. They listened to him tell the same stories about Kevin over and over again.

He was annoying and it was frustrating more than once. But, he became a “weekly sacrament of grace” (as one member called Tom- profoundly, in my eyes). He was accepted here. This was the church being the body of Christ.

Shane Claiborne reminds us of being the body of Christ in this, “We are literally to be the body of Jesus in the world. Christians are to be little Christs- people who put flesh on Jesus in the world today. You are the only Jesus some people will ever see.” (p. 228, Jesus for President). We, the new community, are the body of Christ.

Included in that is the posture of serving others, especially the poor and broken. Jesus comes as and is a servant; he has called us to be servants. This is being the body of Jesus in the world: serving.

And here is one of those apparent puzzles: this new community (“church”) is the body of Christ in the world today; serving is one essential characteristic of this body. And, when we serve others (the hungry, poor, homeless, suffering, broken, etc.—see the Matthew 25 passage today), Jesus says we are doing this to him- Jesus himself!!

We, the body of Christ, when serving the poor, hungry, stranger, etc. are doing it to Jesus. For, Jesus, the one who has suffered for us in his love for us, is in the broken and poor (as we see in this passage). I don’t have a clean way of resolving this tension of these two aspects; I merely live with the truth Jesus shares with us in this mystery.

We are called to serve each other, and especially, the Tom’s of the world. And in doing so, we meet Jesus in new ways even as we do this as the body of Christ. My life has been changed as a result of Tom who came into my life- messy, smelly, annoying, and broken to the core. A “sacrament of grace.”

Question: Where might God be calling you/us to serve the poor and broken?

Prayer: Oh Lord God, you have called me to be part of the body of Christ and to be the body of Jesus in the world. Make me more like your Son Jesus so that I reflect him to the suffering and poor, abused and wounded. In your name, Amen.