Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The 1st question when they find out I'm a pastor...

My favorite time was after a round of 18 holes of golf with a friend, and his co-worker that I just met. The times, that is, when people find out that I'm a pastor. And, it tends to be people who barely connected to church (the Easter and Christmas thing), or who may have no religious background. This has been changing in the past 10 years, but with my generation and older, many people were uncomfortable around pastors and would act differently once they knew this.

I didn't want people to know I was a pastor because I didn't want them to act or try to be different around me. So, this beautiful summer day in Ohio I am with Larry, who is a member of our church, and his co-worker who never asked me about my vocation. This guy was funny. He was telling jokes the entire round- some pretty funny ones, then he would drop in a crude joke, and he was dropping the F-bomb and some other colorful language the entire round. I enjoyed being with him.

After the round of golf, we had a drink and something to eat. As we were eating, the co-worker dude asks me, "So, what do you do?" When I told him I was the pastor at Larry's church, he about choked on his burrito, gulped, and then said, "Thanks, Larry; why didn't you tell me earlier! Holy cow; I'm sorry for all the jokes...." Which is why I often don't tell people what I do so they don't try and be something they are not.

Which leads to another "pastor" conversation. Whether it is the person sitting next to me on a plane, or a neighbor I meet for the first time, or any stranger I meet- do you want to guess what the first question I am asked after I tell them I'm a pastor of a church? Almost always it is: "So, how big is your church?" Based on some of the comments and body language, I can often sense the question, and my answer, is the grid that is used to measure success. Big= successful. Small= unsuccessful.

You should see the looks now when my answer, over the past year, has been 15, 20 or 25!

Which then leads me to a comment Brad Cecil of Axxess church made about how they are measuring success. It was in the context of this newer, emerging church that has a deep commitment to community and relationships. "...we want to be a community of people committed to sharing life together...We don't measure our success by numeric growth. We have decided to measure by other means, such as, How long do relationships last? Are members of the community at peace with one another? Are relationships reconciled?" (p. 99, Emerging Churches by E. Gibbs and R. Bolger).

I track with that focus on community as it is part of our core values at The Bridge. I would also add other means by which we might measure our success related to our core values: What are we doing to serve the poor? How are we seeking social justice in our city/world? What is the nature of the conversations like in our community? etc.

It's a different way of defining success, which, ultimately, is the wrong question. Not to be cliche: but, it is about faithfulness in our lives personally, and in our communities of faith. I admit the ways in which I have succumbed to the voices and judgments of others about who we are. As Henri Nouwen has written succinctly and prophetically: the way we often answer this is, "We are our success, we are our popularity, we are our power." (p. 134, Here and Now) The deeper voice, however, keeps prodding me.

Being a community, in a network of relationships, is a central component of what we aspire to be at The Bridge. How and what this will look like specifically, as we journey forward, is unknown; but it will be community. Even as we have it anchored in the very nature of God in community/relationship as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

"So, how big is your church?" My neighbor down the street might now get it. I do.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Beliefs: more like a Scrabble game than jigsaw puzzle

There's a pretty strong resistance to beliefs in our time. What one believes, what beliefs seem to be essential, and what beliefs are critical in terms of faith.

If you consider the trilogy of beliefs, belonging and behavior, beliefs would be at the bottom of the list- at least, in the circles I tend to hang around. I understand why many have this resistance to beliefs for far too many have been immersed in church cultures where one must have the precise set of beliefs- propositional truths. Christianity was set up, in those settings, with the abstract truths that one must hold or one is out. As in, "I'm in and you're out!"

One of the wonderful things taking place among those who follow Jesus is a deep understanding of narrative. The Big narrative. The Story of God unfolding in history, with God at the center, with God Incarnate- Jesus, at the center, and finding where we fit in this Story. I love the line in "Emerging Churches" (Gibbs and Bolger), "Who wants to listen to abstract, contextless propositions when one can hear or watch a story unfold?" (p. 68)

Belonging and community take on much more meaning than beliefs, in our setting. Behavior is much more engaging than abstract truth statements- "How are we going to live?"

But, beliefs are not discarded, on the other hand. I've been pondering this recently: what beliefs are essential in this way of Jesus? I don't see this divorced from the larger framework of narrative and the story of God. I came across a nugget in a short book by James Reimer, "The Dogmatic Imagination," in which he takes on tough questions in seeking the "dynamics" of Christian belief.

In thinking about beliefs, and endeavoring to paint what beliefs might be crucial, he uses the metaphor of a Scrabble game vs. a jigsaw puzzle. The dynamic of beliefs is not like a jigsaw puzzle which is totally predetermined and there is no freedom. Each piece of the puzzle fits exactly in one spot. When I shared this notion with one friend, he said that for many Christians the metaphor is more like "paint-by-numbers." Good one! Robotic. No room to think. Just paint inside the lines.

In contrast, the Scrabble game gives freedom to the players, the outcome is not known until the end of the game, and reason and intelligence is involved. But, Reimer points out that there is a fixed component; "The cosmos is not entirely open."

This metaphor is compelling, for me. As we think of what beliefs are crucial (I want to include all three: belonging, behavior, and beliefs), there is freedom, we use reason, and it is not a rigid jigsaw puzzle or paint-by-numbers game. And yet, there is a fixed component- not all beliefs are the same and there is a broad parameter within which we are working.

So, there is room for diversity and differences of belief as we attempt to put words to the narrative- the Big Story of God. We can see things from different angles. We will differ with one another on some of these beliefs. And, yet "the cosmos is not entirely open." As we attempt to identify core beliefs, there is great freedom and yet there is a fixed game board that we are working with.

This metaphor helps me to see the folly of both extremes: on the one hand- a rigid view of abstract, propositional truths that allows no room for diversity; and on the other hand-a view that has no parameters for beliefs or places all beliefs on the same level.