Faith

Who Are You, Really?

One of the neat things about my life is that I am relatively free to attend worship whenever and wherever I want. I am constantly curious about how other groups of people worship.  I am always on the lookout for something new, different, deep, beautiful, exciting, liberating, inclusive, expansive, and transformative.  Specifically, I want to know how Christianity lives in different places, so that I can bring those experiences back to my own worship home.

So, here’s the thing.  In order to decide what church to attend, I do what many people do.  I searched the internet for churches in my town.  I scanned their sites for worship times and locations.  I also looked at faith statements, staff configurations, activities and events in an effort to get a feel for their identities.  This is what I learned:

There wasn’t anything new, different, deep, beautiful, exciting, liberating, expansive or transformative going on.  Instead, I saw a rather universal and monolithic Christian presence expressed through many websites.

Though each church promised,“We are Different,”  they didn’t express difference.*  Each church wanted me to know I was welcome.  They all wanted me to know I can wear whatever I want to church.  They also wanted to make sure I knew what kind of music to expect-because God-forbid  I enter a worship service expecting guitars and find myself surrounded by hymn-singers led by a belching organ at the front of the church.

Some churches had columns.  Some churches had carpet.  All of them were going to share something “relevant” from the Bible, and each church had a charter mission to love everyone and to have special consideration for the poor with an emphasis on service.  In some ways, it is comforting to know that Christianity has a skeleton; that its bones are shared by all denominations: welcoming, loving, serving, Bible-educated, family-friendly and engaged in the material betterment of “the poor.”  Let me say, however, that the United Way, minus the Bible-educating part, has a pretty similar skeleton.

After surfing those sites, I chose not to go anywhere else for worship that morning; not because of anything offensive, difficult, or challenging that they had shown me, but instead by a conviction that I wasn’t likely to experience anything different at all; by a conviction that my faith in Jesus Christ, my belief in the Gospel and my experience of the Holy would not be uniquely enriched by worshipping in any of these communities.

I don’t go to worship to predict the message.  I tend to expect a challenge to my understanding.  Honestly, I have worn shorts and jeans into very proper churches, and no one has ever given me the evil eye strong enough to make me decide to go home and change because of shame.  I don’t care about those things.  I want to know whether I am likely to experience a filling of my soul.  I want to know whether God is likely to show up.  I want to know whether this is a congregation of people so committed to Christ, they cannot hold themselves in.  I want to know whether this is the kind of place where not everyone will feel comfortable or welcome.

Are you Dutch Protestants still worshipping in gender-segregated pews?  Are you Quakers, sitting in silence, waiting for God to speak?  Are you United Methodists, known for picketing outside the local casino in moral opposition to gambling?

And let me get to the point-if our Christian identities across the spectrum are so similar as to be indistinguishable, we are participating in the worst kind of segregation there is: the blind separation of human being from human being by cultural markers of race, social status, gender, education, age, material wealth, and location. If the message from our Lutheran pulpits,  the worship from our Vineyard stages, the mission of our Ladies’ Aid Societies, and the prayers from the lips of our congregants are not central statements of our identity, our difference within the wider Christian community, we are only in different buildings, with different hymn books, divided along lines of personal preference and our level of tolerance for differences of opinion in doctrine, politics and lifestyle.

God is bigger than that.  Religion is more important than that.  Salvation is more evident than that.

*It would be dishonest not to mention Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church, whose website expressed a Christian identity that is clearly different from the rest.

Discipleship, Faith, Mission, Police, Psalms, Reconciliation, Response to Violence, Social Action, Social Justice, Suicide, Transforming the World, Whole Community

Drop the Script

ServiceShirtMason City, IA hosted this year’s Pyrotechnics Guild International convention. Our house is about 2 miles from the North Iowa Events Center and this week has been one long percussive symphony of pops, cracks, and sizzles as the various fireworks demonstrations have lit up the night sky.

This has also been one long week of bad news and violence. War, suicide, and another few names on the litany of those who have died via inflamed passions mixed with the trigger of a gun, those bigger deaths, publicized and amplified, seeming to drown out the more intimate personal violence which claimed the life of someone close here to home.

Media responses to these situations have been exactly as one would predict; reinforcing stereotypes, pointing fingers, and insisting that there is some sort of alignment we can choose to cover all situations: as though your geo-political, social, and familial relationships are simply blanks to be filled out on your voter registration card.

As the fireworks shows started to sound more and more like anti-aircraft fire, I wondered when my imagination stopped seeing strobe lights and loud noises as entertainment and started feeling them as the specter of violence which seems to be hanging over the world.

Friends, we are not swimming in safe water. It is pretty poisoned and polluted, and it may even be toxic to the skin. The way we don’t talk with one another, but instead allow facebook, twitter, CNN, Fox News and AM Radio to carry our messages back and forth for us is bad.  They don’t have the capacity to carry complications, and it is to believe in a lie if you believe that these situations and experiences we face are easily conquered, or can be simply realigned into the appropriate categories of Black, Purple, Brown or White.

Our lack of trust in one another is bad. I am not saying that trust will necessarily be rewarded, but mistrust breeds only evil and spawns hells in our neighborhoods.

Its other name is fear, and we are called to cast out all fear. It is bad to build walls around ourselves and create or uphold laws and ordinances which oppress the widows, aliens and strangers living amongst us. Instead, Jesus’ Disciples practice generosity and openness of heart, hearth, body and soul. Even naïve Peter says to us, “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?  But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. ‘Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.'”

While “common sense” may be telling us that we must take up arms against a sea of troubles, over and over again, our Great Book tells us to “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

To be a witness to faith in this time means to drop the script that has been handed to you. You have an opportunity to turn down the part, to improvise yourself out of the bad lines, even to walk off the stage in the middle of the performance and refuse to refund the ticket.

God asks better of us, believes better in us. The Lifegiver has endowed us with such gifts with which to encounter one another and this good creation in which we are blessed to live, I cannot comprehend why we are so happy to go along with the story we are being fed.

Life is not you against me or us against them. Life is all the parts knowing themselves to be irreplaceably precious members of the Whole.

Survival is not being the last living contender standing on this planet. Survival is letting go of your power so that others might live.

Joy is not in finding the originator of the wrong. Let’s face it,that blame goes all the way back to the beginning of time. It is in regaining that which was lost.

We will not become righteous by choosing the right opinion to have. We will not win a war. Ever. We will not be able to vote back the bullet which killed Michael Brown or reform Robin Williams back to life. You and I know that. It is time we started to speak and act like we do.

Abundant Life, Conversations, Discipleship, Domestic Violence, Education, Faith, Gender, Global United Methodist Church, Health, Mission, Sexuality, Social Action, Social Justice, Solidarity, Transforming the World, Under 18, Wellness, Whole Community, Women

The Sacred Worth of Women and Girls

Katey ZehGuest Post from Katey Zeh, Director of Healthy Families, Healthy Planet Initiative of the United Methodist Church:

When I began writing this piece, I was stopped abruptly by the amazingly weird sensation of the right side of my belly leaping upward.  I’m currently thirty weeks pregnant with our first child, a daughter. For years I’ve dedicated my ministry to advocating for women and girls, but now as a soon-to-be mom of a daughter, my passion has deepened in ways I never imagined.

Very early in my pregnancy I was reflecting on the story of Hagar (Genesis 16).  The slave of Sarai and Abram, Hagar has no agency over her own body. When her owners struggle with infertility, she is used as a surrogate, and Hagar becomes pregnant with Abram’s child. Sarai becomes so abusive toward Hagar that she runs away, risking everything in search of sanctuary back at home in Egypt. In the midst of my own pregnancy-related nausea and fatigue, I thought about the enormous amount of inner strength Hagar must have had to venture out alone into the wilderness.

But Hagar is never really alone. Along her journey an angel of God appears to her, calling her by name and assuring her that she and her child will survive. Strangely he also tells her to return to her masters’ house, but he does not do so without first delivering a message of hope and survival.

Hagar is the first person in the Bible to give God a name, “El-Roi” meaning the God who sees. Perhaps for the first time in her life, Hagar knows that her masters do not define her identity.  Ultimately she is not a slave; she is a precious child of God.

In our world today there are so many women and girls like Hagar who are objectified, reduced to meeting the needs of others and at the expense of their physical, sexual, emotional, and spiritual health.  How many of them are waiting for a voice of hope, an assurance that God is with them in the wilderness? How many have dreams of escaping but have no way out? How many simply wish to be seen, to be heard, and to be called by name?

The question that I ask of each of us is: what would the church look like if women and girls were seen as children of God with sacred worth? This question is not meant to be rhetorical or theoretical. It is a call to transformation! Our calling as the body of Chris is to follow the example of the one who reached out with hands of healing and compassion; who saw women as full human beings worthy of his time and attention; who came that all might experience abundant life here and now.

In my work as director of the Healthy Families, Healthy Planet project of the General Board of Church & Society, I work to ensure that women’s sacred worth is honored through the experience of pregnancy and childbirth. Tragically every two minutes somewhere in the world a woman loses her life while bringing new life into the world, Most of these deaths could be prevented with basic medical care and access to safe, voluntary family planning methods.

The Church is called to respond to this needless loss of life by ensuring every woman and girls has the tools and information she needs to experience the life of abundance that Christ promised all. One place to begin is ensuring every girl and boy, every woman and man has information about their bodies, sexuality, and how to care for one another with respect and dignity. I invite you to join Healthy Families, Healthy Planet and the General Board of Church & Society on August 27th for a webinar focused on the intersections of faith, sexuality education, and your congregation. Please visit the registration page to sign up and for more information.

Through the power of Christ’s spirit, all things are possible. We can become places where all are affirmed as children of God with sacred worth. As I prepare to birth a baby girl into this difficult, beautiful world, I could not hope for anything more.

Katey Zeh, M.Div is an advocate, organizer, and writer for global maternal health and family planning. A graduate of Yale Divinity School, she currently serves as the Director of the Healthy Families, Healthy Planet initiative of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society. Katey has written about maternal health for the Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches, Feminist Studies in Religion, and Mothering Matters. She was named one of “14 Religious Leader to Watch in 2014” by the Center for American Progress. For more information about Healthy Families, Healthy Planet, please visit umchealthyfamilies.org

Conversations, Discipleship, Faith, Mission, Northwest Iowa, Social Justice, The Great Commission, Transforming the World, Whole Community

To Be Disciples

ServiceShirtOn a recent trip across the Northwest portion of Iowa, Pastor David Hobbs, Nathaniel Mason and I visited a number of United Methodist Churches. We simply stopped in for a quick word (or two hour conversation, here and there), and to get a sense for the churches and the communities they serve. I was impressed by the variety of buildings, sanctuaries, and ministries we encountered. One church was having its sanctuary ceiling painted so we talked with the painters and offered them a prayer for safety, which they found rather amusing as clambering like monkeys across sky high scaffolding is a “simple” job for them; no gold leaf, murals, or ceiling art for them in this United Methodist Church-just a few brush strokes and wooden beams to refinish.

Now, I have been reading a lot of books about church health; books about evangelism, worship, and programming; books about the trends of worship attendance and the difference between churches which grow and churches which seem to fizzle out and die. I have been reading about leadership styles and ways of organizing work so that . . . yadah, yadah, yadah. Yet, this trip offered me an interesting puzzle.

Because, there were churches that were getting everything right, and yet they were empty.

Passionate leaders with a vision and lion’s heart for ministry: Check

Visible and cohesive messages of welcome for visitors: Check

Open and inviting gathering spaces which are accessible: Check

Brightly colored and updated Sunday School rooms: Check

Modern sanctuaries with flexible A/V and chancel spaces: Check

Quality musical instruments and musicians capable of playing them: Check

Connections to the school district: Check

Obvious opportunities to serve both within the church building and outside in the wider community: Check

Stories of radical hospitality and generous giving: Check

Evidence of ministry with people who are not current members or active participants in the church: Check

So, why were these particular churches echoing, while others were bustling with life and activity? What does it mean to get everything right and to still be disappearing week by week and pastor by pastor?

In one particular church, I felt such sadness because there was so much potential there. There was so much love, care and faithfulness on display, it made my heart hurt to think it was for nothing-that the people whose lives could be so enriched simply by stepping inside this church’s doors will never know what they are missing.

So I stopped, right there in the gathering space just inside the main entrance and I asked God, “Why? What’s going on here that this church is sputtering out?” And, like a whisper across the top of my brain I heard, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14: 26)

I have been puzzling on these words and that particular church, ever since. I wonder how to share what I heard. I wonder what it means. Is there some relevance for the other churches I have visited that just can’t seem to do more than simply hang on, even though they are applying all the best ideas? I wonder what to do with the sadness and futility that plagues the staff and volunteers whose hearts are giving out because they have been trying so hard for so long, but have not seen their efforts rewarded by flourishing Christian witness and community.

Why, at times, must the Gospel be so hard to hear, and what are we, as disciples of Christ,to do when the words it whispers tell us it is time to give up all we hold dear-our mothers and fathers, our sanctuaries and our memorial gardens, our programs and our histories-and come, and follow him?

Faith, Health, Poverty, Reconciliation, Social Justice, Transforming the World, Whole Community

Hard Peace

Grace Des Moines PeaceI keep coming back to this idea of a “hard peace.” Maybe it is because I am a hard-headed person that I am dissatisfied with the ways people talk (write) about peace and conflict within the United Methodist Church. There are all these “family” metaphors. We are told to rely on our “unity of spirit” and also there is a kind of playground dialogue which ends, “I am taking my toys and heading home. So there!”

While I often wish I was the kind of person who can say “Look! We are going to end malaria. We are feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. Isn’t that good enough? Isn’t that all the proof we need of the Holy Spirit fire igniting this church?” I simply am not.

I don’t think the most important question is how much service work are we doing as a church  but rather, how are we doing that work? Who is being ground down, beaten up, cast aside and left to die in the ditch while we are so focused on ending “poverty;” a concept with which we start to divide people into opposing groups of rich and poor, have and have not, hungry and fed, check-writers and service receivers, fit and broken, able and disabled. We are definitely doing our best to alleviate hunger and disease, but still, there is no peace.

I think we have to work for the harder peace-the peace of justice. It is not a peace that says “Can’t we simply get along?” It is not a peace that says, “Oh, never mind him, that is simply Crazy Uncle Zee.” It is not a peace that says that families are safe, open, affirming, caring, loving, capable, and simply organized places in which to grow, but recognizes that first families are often the places where we learn how to hit, hate, deny, degrade, and destroy.

When Paul tells us we are brothers and sisters in Christ, he is not suggesting that we Christians get along with people the way we relate to our own siblings. In my family that looks like an awful lot of wrestling, name-calling, door-slamming, practical jokes and hand-me-downs. Instead, Paul is telling us we participate in a different kind of family, one where we have to get along with one another the way Christ gets along with us.

And that means we have to work at kindness, gentleness, peacefulness, faithfulness, joyfulness, loveliness, patience, goodness, and self-control. But those fruit are hard to nurture. They are hard to water and they are hard to grow. They don’t come naturally, simply, or easily, and evidence of their existence can be in short supply.

So, I don’t buy it. I don’t think there is a really a way for us to simply ignore our very real disagreements with others while we go about the service work of the church. Because, Christ didn’t really plant us here to provide services for those poor unfortunate souls. Instead, he tried to cultivate the soil of our souls, and he planted the seeds of God’s Mercy and Rightness, and he watered those seeds with Faithfulness, his own belief in us, that out of those souls might grow the Garden of God in the midst of a ground left salted and sere by the warring passions of people estranged from Love.

 

Abundant Life, Compassion, Creation, Discipleship, Economy, Faith, Gifts, Mission, New People, New Places, Schools, Social Action, Social Justice, Solidarity, Transforming the World, Wellness, Whole Community

Talk Is Cheap

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” 
― Frederick BuechnerWishful Thinking: A Theological ABC

There are a lot of opinions out there. There are a lot of different ways to use our reason and our intellect to convince ourselves that we are OK, or that we are doing the right thing. There are myriad ways to read Scripture and interpret faith so that our own prejudices, biases, inclinations, and desires can be found comfortable, faithful and otherwise pleasing to our own sensibilities; to the sensibilities of our family, friends and neighbors, and can still conform to the tenets of our “doctrine” and  our “discipline.”

I can’t help but wonder, though, how our world might look if we each spent as much energy actually doing something about those things we argue about as we spend consulting our favorite gurus and posting our favorite memes to facebook.

For instance, in Iowa, there is a shortage of residential treatment facilities. There is evidence of human trafficking in both labor and sexual slavery. School food programs are all struggling, while students whose families are under physical, economic, and psychological distress continue to fall behind in the skills necessary to navigate an increasingly complicated world of credit lending and temporary employment. Youth mentorship programs do not have enough mentors to supply their need. People suffering from ongoing mental illness cannot receive the treatment they require. Air, land and water quality are degraded and deteriorating. Women in Iowa earn only 77% of what men make. Our churches, schools and neighborhoods are built more along the lines of separate and unequal, than along lines of an intentionally cross-cultural integration. Laborers work 16 and 20 hour days, while part-time employees without benefits are fired for refusing to work overtime.

And yet . . . there is a United Methodist Church in practically every community in Iowa. I find it impossible to believe that we, as a church, do not have the resources at our fingertips to actually provide a powerful and faithful response to the evil, injustice and oppression whose forms we meet on a daily basis. What if we decided to measure our faithfulness in lives transformed?  What if we looked to measure our righteousness such that every community in which we live is notably more compassionate than communities in which we do not live? What if we loved our neighbors so deeply and so radically we had no room left in our hearts for judgment?

There is a song by Casting Crowns with these lyrics,

But if we are the body
Why aren’t his arms reaching?
Why aren’t his hands healing?
Why aren’t his words teaching?
And if we are the body
Why aren’t his feet going?
Why is his love not showing them there is a way?”

Maybe we would get some things wrong. Maybe we would break some church rules and raise some eyebrows. Maybe our neighbors would look at us strangely and whisper about us behind our backs. But maybe, just maybe, our world would start to look a little bit more like the place God promises us it can be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Abundant Life, Baptism, Discipleship, Faith, Social Justice, Transforming the World

Lord Don’t Move the Mountain.

Doris Akers wrote a song titled Lord Don’t Move the Mountain, sung most famously by Mahalia Jackson, in which the singer asks God not to remove stumbling blocks, “for when our tribulations get too light we tend to stray from thee.”

Sometimes, as we look out over the world, there are so many really big problems, it can get overwhelming. Every newscast and self-proclaimed prophet tells us the end is near and that there is no hope. So many of  our political and social experiences leave us stymied and disappointed in our lofty goals, that it  can seem easier to simply roll over, pull the covers up over our heads and go to sleep until the storm passes over.

In this Easter season, however, we are reminded that there is no defeat-no death-that God has not overcome. If we are in practice, we remember that faith-not strength, infallibility, perfection nor even goodness-is the power by which we climb those mountains or face those crucifixions.

In our baptism we accept the freedom and power to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves” so that we can become closer to Christ. And that should give us courage to poke our heads out from under the covers. The whole weight of the world is not on our shoulders alone. The evils, injustices, and oppression that can seem so overwhelming are not ours to face all by ourselves. In fact, they may actually be the obstacle courses and climbing walls on which to build the soul muscles we need to stay in love with God.