faith practices

Confessions of a Violent Person

   I regret to inform the reader that I am a violent person. Let me be clear on this; I don’t hit anyone. I don’t own (and have rarely used) a gun or any other physical weapon. I haven’t been in a fist fight since 7th grade (which I lost most grievously). I am pretty much a pacifist in theory, though I’m the first to admit I’ve never been strongly tested on that. If it were up to me, I’d repeal the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the right to bear arms. And I am sickened by the ongoing shootings, stabbings, bombings and more that are so prevalent in our local and national news.
   And yet I am violent. Even deadly.
   As a participant in U.S. culture and society, I am also a participant in a culture of violence. My own non-violent actions and intentions cannot overcome the reality of my passive support of rampant violence in this country. Because I am part of a culture of violence, I am guilty of it by default.
   My cousin Mary, who is a vehement defender of gun ownership, reminds me that guns aren’t the problem, people who misuse them are. And she is right. Therefore the problem goes well beyond gun rights or gun legislation. It is deeper, and more deadly than that. You see, the problem is that we have normalized violence to the point that we simply accept it as part of our culture, even as part of our humanity.
   When two twelve-year-olds can stab a classmate 19 times and leave her for dead, when yet another college campus can be devastated by a troubled person with an assault rifle, when the seemingly endless war in Afghanistan can continue to claim victims, and we are no longer made physically ill, something very deep is broken. When the highest grossing video games include very realistic gunplay and slaughter, when among the highest acclaimed movies celebrate the violent vengeance of the righteous, and we shrug our shoulders and watch ourselves become more deeply immersed in them, our very souls are endangered. Our most popular professional sport, football, is based to some degree on violence–to the point that professional players often suffer long-term physical and mental health issues. And still many of us rearrange our Sunday lives to watch our glamorized, violent heroes on TV. Something is very, very wrong among us.
   Turning the TV to the Hallmark channel on Sunday mornings isn’t a solution. Nor is boycotting video games and violent movies. Putting metal detectors on college and high school campuses will not change our violent hearts. And gun control measures cannot curb our cultural acceptance of violence. Teen suicide rates continue to climb, weapons present in schools continue to be an issue, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and bullying continue to keep too many perpetually unsafe. We reap what we sow. In a violent culture, violence is considered to be a normal response to anxiety, anger, depression, and frustration.
The few who are outraged are quickly painted as being outside the mainstream–radicals, socialists, or extremists to be discounted and ignored. Yet we are all guilty. Just as surely as our tax money provides for capital punishment, we are all perpetrators of violence.
   I feel helpless even to expose the evil, much less combat it (see? Even talking about an alternative to violence takes on violent terminology). I cannot change this, partly because I cannot live apart from it. Though reigning in expressions of violence (by various means–including legislation), won’t change our hearts and souls, they are necessary. Just as reigning in expressions of racism call to the fore our deep-seated cultural racism, so calling out violence reveals our normalization of violence. These alone don’t solve the problem, merely expose it. Scratching surface, the tip of the iceberg.
   So, powerless as we are, do we simply sit back and watch our children descend further into this brokenness and evil? Hell no. We face it. We acknowledge it. We admit our guilt. And we live differently.
   My own model for this, my inspiration, starts with Jesus. I’m not talking about a belief system or a set of doctrines, but a life. This is one who caught a vision of a new way of being human, a different view of how we live and relate together. Many others have been inspired over the centuries to see the same vision and live differently in the face of broken cultures. Ghandi, MLK, Mandela, and Malala Yousafzai to name a very few.
   I cannot change a culture that normalizes, even glamorizes violence. But I can live differently in the face of that culture. Some will be angry when I show up at a Gay Pride Festival, some will shout loudly when I advocate for the helpless poor among us, and others will roll their eyes and dismiss me when I stand with adherents of other religions and philosophies. I cannot alter my culture. I cannot control those around me who may respond to me violently. But I can strive to live differently. I can attempt to reveal something other than a normative attitude toward violence. Moving toward a non-violent culture won’t happen by making changes around me; only through changes within me.

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Categories: american christianity, Church in Transition, faith practices, kingdom of God, racism | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Is Liturgy Relevant Anymore?

“Because it’s always been the bedrock of worship.” “Because it’s scriptural.” “Because it’s trustworthy.” “Because we’ve been using it for centuries.” “Because if we don’t use it, we’ll descend into chaos.”

These are some of the answers I found when asking the question, “Why do we use a liturgy for our Sunday corporate worship?” Some answers were really helpful, such as, “Liturgy passes on the faith,” and, “Liturgy connects us to something larger than ourselves.” Others were less so, like, “We’ve always done it that way,” or, “It’s what makes us Lutheran.” But underneath all the answers–helpful or not–it seems to me that liturgy, as rich and full as it is, doesn’t do anything that can’t be done by other means equally well. Many things pass on the faith–some much better than liturgy. Actually mentoring a young person in the faith comes to mind. And there are lots of things that tie us to the church catholic–scripture kind of being an obvious one.

So, “Why liturgy?”

I have a nasty habit of questioning things that sometimes seem to be taken for granted. “In the Lutheran tradition, we talk a lot about trusting the priesthood of all believers. So why should I wear a clerical collar when it’s origins are all about separating clergy from laity?” (Scotland, 17th century). “Why is some level of understanding a pre-requisite to receiving Holy Communion? I don’t understand gravity, but it still works.” “Since the efficacy of the Eucharist rests in God alone (again, Lutheran tradition), why does an ordained clergy-person need to preside?” It gets me into trouble sometimes, but launches some great conversations. I keep asking and studying and listening until I am satisfied with an answer that seems to work scripturally, missionally and contextually–at least for now. If I can’t discern a legitimate answer, I tend to do what makes sense scripturally, missionally, and contextually. Just so, “Why liturgy?”

Here’s where I am today: the great ordo around which liturgy is framed (gathering, word, meal, sending) makes sense because it is real life. We gather at the breakfast table, talk about our plans for the day, eat our pancakes, and send each other off to work/school. Then we do it again at work/school, then we do it again when we get home at night. There are innumerable “mini-ordos” that happen throughout the day as well, e.g., water-cooler conversations, meetings, homework study groups, and so on.

If liturgy is to be part of our daily discipleship, it should reflect daily life. The ordo does that. But it needs to go both ways. Our daily life needs to inform our liturgy as well. Together, our Sunday gathering and our daily living need to form a continuum that relates one  to the other at a deep and significant level. When there is a disconnect between liturgy and life, Sunday corporate worship becomes irrelevant (anyone every hear that criticism before?). When the order or form of liturgy takes on a life of its own apart from Monday-Saturday, that liturgy has failed. It serves only to separate God from our lives instead of reveal God in the real rhythm of daily living. Unfortunately, too many of us have come to revere (or even idolize) the comfort of classic liturgy for its own sake.

So what would liturgy look like if informed by daily life? How about using the language of daily life as our liturgy. Try this on for size.

In my tradition, the “Gathering” of the ordo includes an invocation, kyrie, gloria patri, and prayer. What if the invocation served to simply ask God to be with us? Like a prayer we could say when we first get out of bed Monday morning, “Bless our day, Holy God. Help us serve you and follow you today.”

“Kyrie,” Greek for “Lord” (and short for Kyrie Eleison, or “Lord, have mercy”), could allow for individuals to bring into the assembly those things causing them anxiety, stress, or concern. Those who wish could say out loud, “Today I’m really worried about [the health of my Aunt Sylvia]. Lord, have mercy.” And the assembly responds, “Christ, have mercy.” A real-life Kyrie.

In the same way, a “Gloria” could follow a similar pattern, “Today, I’m grateful for [my homeless friend Henry moving into his first apartment]. Glory to God!” And the assembly responds, “Glory to God in the highest!” Get the picture?

In the “Word” portion of the ordo, centered around scripture, there is a gospel acclamation, a fanfare revealing the importance of the gospel being read among us. How about everyone shouting (or singing), “Get ready, everyone! Jesus is entering our conversation! Let’s listen!” Be sure to invite households to do something similar at home when they are planning their day ahead.

During the “Meal” part of worship, we often utilize a Great Thanksgiving, including the words of institution over the bread and wine. What if, as the Great Thanksgiving, we together prayed, “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blessed. Amen!” What would happen at home the next time children prayed that table prayer?

The “Sending” at the end of liturgy includes a benediction and a dismissal. Can we consider as our sending making a bunch of peanutbutter and jelly sandwiches to distribute to the homeless?

If we step back a bit, acknowledge the false idol many of us have regarding a particular form of liturgy, we can use this ancient corporate worship framework to actually help us live as disciples, joining God in the world during the week. Liturgy informed by daily life according to the rhythm of the ordo: gathering, word, meal, sending.

But, again, this has to go both ways. If life informs liturgy, liturgy must also inform life. What would daily life look like when informed by, rather than separated from, liturgy?

We could wake up and ask for God to be with us today (invocation). We could automatically plead for Jesus to have mercy when we are anxious (kyrie). We could thank God for working in the world without even thinking about it (gloria patri). We could recognize the presence of Jesus in our everyday conversations (gospel acclamation). We could be aware of God’s grace and presence in the school cafeteria (great thanksgiving). We could plan, as a household, a day to volunteer at a local homeless shelter (sending), or together collect a portion of our allowance/salary to help eradicate malaria (offering).

When our Sunday corporate worship gatherings become part of the purpose of the church rather than a separate, sacred silo that cannot be touched, liturgy is doing what it was intended to do. When the lines between our secular, daily lives and our sacred, Sunday morning time become blurred, liturgy is serving the church well. Alleluia, Lord to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. Alleluia, Alleluia!

Categories: american christianity, Church in Context, Church in Transition, faith practices, kingdom of God, liturgy, missional church | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Boston: Don’t Talk of Forgiveness

Like everyone else in the country, I’m angry, confused, sad, frustrated, and grieving. The evil revealed in Boston this week cuts deeply. I was born in Boston and have family there. I’ve been in contact with several of them and they are overwhelmed in the throes of this tragedy.

How many other parts of the U.S. have undergone similar experiences? I live in the Denver metropolitan area, and know this terror and anger firsthand. April 20, 1999 is forever etched in our hearts as we went through the shock of a massacre at Columbine High School—the same school district where my children were enrolled then. Then less than a year ago—July 20, 2012—a deranged young man enters a movie theater in another nearby suburb of Denver and opens fire, killing 12 people and injuring 58 others. Oh, yes, the emotions are powerful.

Inevitably, religious zealots appear on this Boston scene of horror and chaos. Some come with further hatred, but they are more readily dismissed. More difficult are the naïve religious zealots who talk of forgiveness. Really? Forgiveness for brutally killing 8-year-old Martin Richard who was guilty only of eating an ice-cream cone and watching the marathon with his family. Forgiveness for murdering Lingzi Lu, a 23-year-old mathematics and statistics graduate student from China? Forgiveness for cruelly slaying Krystle Campbell, who was planning to celebrate her 30th birthday with her family in a couple of weeks? Forgiveness for the countless injuries—both physical and emotional? Forgiveness for callously hurling so many into the depths of fear, grief, and turmoil? Forgiveness for changing the lives of those who lost limbs, who were first to respond and help, who lived in abject terror as their city was locked down in martial law until a semblance of order could be restored?

Forgiveness? You’ve gotta be kidding. How can anyone realistically talk about forgiving that which is unforgiveable?

Which poses a bit of a dilemma for those of us in the church. Forgiveness is, in fact, the very cornerstone of our faith. It is our foundation, our identity; the core characteristic of the God that Jesus came to reveal in our broken world. We talk about the cross of Christ as the height of God’s commitment to forgiving the world. Granted, some talk about God’s forgiveness being conditional, based on one’s act of repentance and/or making a declaration of Jesus as savior. My “brand” of Christianity isn’t among those, however. I have preached with enthusiasm and vehemence that God’s forgiveness—like God’s love—is unconditional. It is simply who God is.

Now I, and others like me, have to again reconcile what we’ve been proclaiming with the reality of Boston. I find it less-than-compassionate to impose in Boston the extra burden of attempting forgiveness when the rawness of this tragedy still pains wounded hearts and limbs. So what can I say to those who take Christian faith seriously and—on top of everything else—now experience some sense of guilt for an inability to forgive the evil perpetrators of this horror?

Right now I say, “Don’t worry about it. God understands. God is as angry and as pained as you are. God is walking in the midst of the agony and the devastation with you. God holds you as you get through today.” I believe that is the Godliest thing to say and to do. Hold and comfort and walk with those who are hurting and trying to make any sense of what their lives now are. As long as it takes. With whatever it takes. Boston, we walk with you in your pain and in your grief.

And someday we’ll also walk with you in the difficult journey of forgiveness. Before you quit reading, it’s relevant to say that we’ve been misinformed about forgiveness. It doesn’t mean we pretend all’s well. It doesn’t mean we forget what has happened. It doesn’t mean we ignore the hurt and the grief and the loss we’ve experienced. The surviving perpetrator will never be our friend. We can feel angry, and in fact ought to. We can seek justice, and in fact ought to. Forgiveness doesn’t negate that, nor should it cause us to feel guilty for experiencing anger and justice. But it does mean that there is more than those feelings.

Forgiveness begins by recognizing that what has happened cannot be changed. There are those who’ve died, who’ve lost limbs, who have suffered loss. That is real. That is permanent. It is now part of our future from this day forward. Yes, anger is a necessary part of coming to terms with all that. Working to ensure those responsible are kept apart from society while attempting to keep such atrocities from happening again is what responsible people do. But nothing we do will ever change what happened this week in Boston.

I believe the hardest part of forgiveness (and the part that makes it divine—and therefore foreign to us) is the acceptance that God still loves those we hate. It is recognizing that the image of God is still in the other who has shown everything contrary to God in our midst. Those responsible for all this pain and terror in Boston were created by a God of love and life. That is hard to swallow. Accepting that is also not immediate. It is also not within our ability to choose. It is God’s work within us; and like so many things God does, it can take a long time.

I don’t think it’s helpful to be in a hurry to get there. God will work in us according to our own journey. That’s up to God. Where we fail isn’t in being angry or seeking justice and safety, it’s in clinging to our anger once God begins that work of moving us past it. Though the loss is permanent, the anger is not. Forgiveness means that we allow God to do what God does. It is God’s work in us; we do a disservice to those in Boston by suggesting they try to drum it up from within themselves.

Categories: Church in Context, faith practices, missional church, religious | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Inviting (Not Welcoming) in Bite-Sized Chunks. Pt. 3

A few weeks ago, I posted on this site that my congregation is no longer going to emphasize “welcoming.” Instead, we are going to emphasize “inviting.” This is a move from passivity to activity, and must be done in keeping with God’s missional activity in our neighborhoods. I encourage you to get the vision, theology, and definitions that are foundational in the initial, Part 1 post at: We-Will-No-Longer-be-a-Welcoming-Church. There, I wrote that we are making this change with three emphases. The first of those, “Motivation for Inviting,” is available here. This, now, is the second emphasis, “Inviting (Not Welcoming) in Bite-Size Chunks.”

Let’s face it, change is hard. Most of us resist it, grudgingly accepting its reality only when it is forced upon us. Partly this is true because change is scary, and partly because it forces us to acknowledge we can’t always control it (well, actually, that’s scary too). So I guess when you come down to it, change is frightening. Is it any wonder, then, that we generally resist stepping way outside our comfort zone and established pattern of behavior to invite a friend to come to worship? This is terrifying! We are all afraid a) that our friend will laugh us out of the room, b) that they will tell all their friends that we’re narrow-minded, judgmental, hypocritical Bible-thumpers, or c) that they might actually come. Then what?

Because the change we are asking congregational members to make is too much, too big, too audacious, to frightening, we simply don’t ask, and they simply wouldn’t do it anyway. Let’s accept that reality and quit fighting it. Then, perhaps, we can make some progress.

You know the old joke, “Q: How do you eat an elephant? A: One bite at a time.” OK, it’s not funny, but it is true. The same strategy holds true for inviting. It’s just too much for most people to risk or try. So how about breaking it down into bite-size chunks that people actually can do? Here’s the way we’re doing it in my congregation. See if something along these lines might work for you.

Month 1: We ask people to use the phrase “my church” in a conversation with one person each week. Really simple. “Just go two blocks past my church and you’ll see the grocery store.” “No, I can’t go camping this weekend; I’ve already made plans to be at my church.” “Yes, I saw the sunset last night. The view from my church  was amazing!” Just one person, one time each week during the month. Have them make up scenarios and practice with each other before worship on Sundays.

We purchased some promotional items with our church logo on them to aid in these conversations. Cloth grocery totes, string packs, water bottles, etc. Things that people will have with them in public. They aren’t all that expensive and you can pretty easily recoup the expense by selling them to your members at a reasonable price. So when you go to the bank, the bank teller may well ask, “What a handy back pack. Where’d you get that?” And we would answer, “I got this at (all together, now) my church.

Month 2: We ask people to consider one word or phrase that describes our church well. Then use that word to finish the phrase, “my church is _____.” Again, do this in conversation with one person per week during the month. “My church is struggling with that very issue.” “School violence? My church is hosting a forum about that next month.” “That’s a hard situation. I’ve found my church is very supportive in difficult times.”

When people are watching for opportunities to do these quick, relatively small steps toward invitation, it’s amazing how many opportunities there suddenly are to take them. Ask them to share their stories with each other of their experiences. You can even award prizes for the funniest, the most awkward, the most creative, etc. Make this fun, but keep it in front of them.

Month 3: We ask people to think about one thing our congregation does very well. Perhaps it’s children’s ministry, education, music, social activism, or making the parking lot available for ride-sharing. Then use that to finish the phrase, “My church is really good at _____.” Again, one time per week to one person in a conversation. By now, some of them are getting the hang of this. A few might even be eager! Let them roll with it. That enthusiasm can become contagious. Encourage them to practice on each other and share their impressions of what their church is good at. This can feed into the motivational part covered in the previous post.

Month 4: We ask people to invite one person to check out something in which our church is involved. “Check out our volunteer day at the food pantry.” “Check out my church’s Alcoholics Anonymous Group.” “Check out the hiking trip my church is sponsoring.” This is all done in appropriate conversations when an opening presents itself. People are understanding the organic nature of these statements, and that they shouldn’t be forced or manipulated. By this time, people are actually seeing appropriate openings and are better able to bring up their church in a way that is natural and not off-putting.

Month 5: We ask people to invite someone to come to worship with them. This seems to be the most frightening invitation for many to make. But when broken into bite-size pieces, it can be attained.

Worship attendance isn’t necessarily the most important invitation, but it seems to be the hardest—leaving people feeling the most vulnerable. So we include it. If folks can invite to worship, they can make appropriate invitations to pretty much anything.

Now the question becomes, “what happens when our folks start inviting others to worship? How will these people be received? Will it be worth their time?” That, my friends, is the next installment of this invitational series. I invite your comments and partnership along the journey.

Categories: Church in Context, Church in Transition, faith practices | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Insights into the Election of a Bishop: Part 1, “Fear Doesn’t Make Your Decisions for You.”

This blog was always intended to be a “Missional Church” blog with helpful insights and conversations about how congregations can deepen their understanding of participation in God’s mission. However, the next few posts will be more personal. I believe them to be beneficial for the broader church, but for different reasons. You decide for yourselves.

Here’s the situation: I was recently a nominee for the office of bishop in the Rocky Mountain Synod of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). Granted, I was a “middle of the pack” kind of nominee, but a nominee nonetheless. I’m sharing the journey of that process with you from the inside. I hope you find it beneficial on whatever level you at which you are open. So here we go. Part One: Fear Doesn’t Make Your Decisions for You–

The Rocky Mountain Synod, ELCA, elected a new bishop at its most recent assembly in April. I couldn’t be more pleased with the selection of the Rev. James Gonia as our new bishop. Jim is without a doubt qualified, competent, experienced, gracious, humble, and called by God to that position. I am elated that the RMS is in such very good hands indeed.

The process leading up to that election was new for us. It involved months of discernment, prayer, meetings, and reading. Last December, all people in the RMS were invited to consider submitting the name of any ELCA pastor they deemed likely to be nominated for the office of bishop. Bear in mind this wasn’t a nomination, it was a “pre-nomination” of those considered likely to be nominated once the assembly opened in April. Confused yet?

As it turned out, I was among the group of “pre-nominees.” No one was more surprised than me to find that I was on that list with 63 other pastors. Someone thought I was at that level of leadership, clarity, maturity, and responsibility to have submitted my name for consideration on this list. I had, apparently, fooled at least one person.

In order to remain on the list of potential nominees, the 64 “pre-nominees” were asked to submit biographical information by filling out a three-page online form. This information would then be publicized throughout the entire Rocky Mountain Synod. Since I had never seriously considered myself “bishop material,” and had never really aspired to that office, declining this offer to fill out detailed information on my views of the office of bishop, my gifts, my challenges, and more seemed an easy call to make. I intended to save myself the embarrassment and headache of this process by simply removing myself now. I didn’t necessarily feel called by God to be a bishop, knew all too well the gaps in my own leadership, and understood that I had a slim-to-none chance of being elected anyway. Withdrawing seemed an easy decision.

But in conversations with God, my family, and trusted colleagues about all this, here’s what I realized during the intervening weeks. This process for me was less about “winning” an election and more about what God may be up to. Maybe I wasn’t called to be bishop, but perhaps I was called into the process for other non-bishop reasons. If God was doing something, and I was being invited to be part of it, then maybe I should consider going along and seeing what that was about. As a strong introvert and foundational nerd whose default setting is to shy away from any situation that might open me up to ridicule, this prospect was terrifying at a core level. I desperately wanted out.

Up until now all this had been someone else’s doing. I hadn’t sought this out; someone else had given my name to the synod office. But if I submitted the requested biographical information, I was saying in a very public way that I was open to being considered for the office of bishop. I could hear the taunts and jeers now, surprisingly similar to those that haunted me through Junior High and High School. “Hey, everybody, look at Moss! He actually thinks he’s got a chance at this! Ha! Who does he think he is? What a loser.” And I could already hear the sneers and the laughter echoing from all corners of the four states and part of a fifth that make up this synod. Junior High terror again, only now swelled to a multiple state level.

“I can’t do this,” I told my family after several sleepless nights. “This whole thing simply terrifies me. I can’t sleep, I can’t think, I have knots in my stomach. This is worse than when I tried out for the Junior Varsity basketball team in 7th grade. The whole school was laughing at the skinny near-sighted geek who thought he could play basketball. It’s just not worth it.” At that point I was glad I didn’t know who had submitted my name because I was thinking somewhat less than charitable thoughts about them.

Then my 25-year-old daughter had the audacity to remind me that as they were growing up, I had always told my kids that when facing new and difficult choices, “fear doesn’t make your decisions for you.” “Doesn’t that apply to you now, dad?” she asked. Dammit. Parental sayings of wisdom are deliberately abstract and are supposed to be for the benefit of the children. They were not meant to be used as weapons to be hurled back at you when you least want to hear them. Because they are freakishly effective.

I stewed on this for a couple more weeks. I spoke with colleagues, confided with my wife, and prayed some rather unpleasant prayers. I pretended I knew just how Jesus felt in the Garden of Gethsemane, and told God that since the salvation of the world was hardly at stake here, couldn’t I just be let off the hook?

But finally, if for no other reason than avoiding accusations of hypocrisy from my three adult children, I quickly filled out the biographical information form and, with trembling hand and churning stomach, submitted it the evening of the last day it could be accepted. Then I went and threw up.

My closest consolation at this point was that there were 63 other pre-nominees. I was certain most of them would also fill out the biographical information and that my name and photo would then be lost in the midst of them. To my horror, when the bios were published, there were only 17 of us. My name, picture, and hastily drafted biographical information were thrust out into uncontrolled internet space where I was certain the mocking and snickers would be unrestrained. My insecurities were flying brightly high atop the flag pole. Every molecule of self-doubt, nerdiness, and inadequacy had risen up and was standing at full attention. There was, from this point on, no place to hide. What was more, now that it was public, I had to tell my congregation.

Watch for Part Two: “The Presence of God is Revealed in Unlikely Ways”

Categories: faith practices, religious, rostered leaders, spirituality | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Listening in the Image of God, Part 4

This is series  on listening. Relationships are in the image of the triune God, and listening is an essential (first!) component to relationships. It can be said that listening is, in fact, in the image of God, and ought to be a higher priority for the body of Christ that perhaps it currently is. This quick series can help congregations listen to their neighborhoods–in the image of God.

The Survey (Be Careful!)

Often the first way we want to listen for information is the ever-present “conduct a survey” route. The concept is great: go door-to-door (see a problem emerging already?), asking residents some questions that will provide key information about the neighborhood. Although the idea is fine, the reality can prove more difficult if you really want it to be helpful. Anything that entails “door-to-door” smells of an imposed agenda—an attempt to sell something. Unsolicited phone calls fall into this category also. Unless the homeowner knows the person who’s knocking, they may not even answer the door. Or if they do, they might be suspicious as to your motives. Perhaps not, but it warrants some awareness in trying to get an accurate picture of the neighborhood.

Another difficulty with surveys lies with the questions themselves. Some surveys are done with a particular outcome in mind, and the questions weighted toward that outcome, e.g., do you support butterflies and rainbows that will result from “our” agenda or do you support torturing puppies that will result from “their” agenda?

Even though that wouldn’t be your tactic, sometimes we unwittingly lean one particular direction without intending to. And sometimes the questions we ask are interpreted differently by different people and therefore the feedback isn’t as helpful as it could be.

The point being that although a survey can be a helpful tool, it needs to be done with more care and planning than most people think. If you think a survey would help, and I’m not convinced it’s the best way to listen, then go ahead. It can be helpful, but make sure it isn’t the only tool in your listening toolbox. My recommendation would be to hire a professional survey group to work with you. They can help you clarify the information you’re seeking, help you compose questions that will actually elicit that information, help you decide whether a phone survey or a mailed survey would work better, and help you identify who to survey and when to survey them so you get an accurate sampling of your neighborhood. They can be expensive, but you’re much more likely to get information back that’s worth listening to. Some companies will conduct the surveys for you, but that costs more yet.

If you choose to do a survey of the residents/workers in your neighborhood on your own, here are some things to consider:

  • Utilize “SurveyMonkey.com” or a similar web-based survey guide. The basic plan is free, and they help you formulate questions that can get you the most helpful results.
  • Make sure you survey a large enough sample of the neighborhood. It’s not enough in a neighborhood of 5,000 people to make a couple dozen phone calls or drop off twenty fliers. Check out a survey statistics book at the library or check some survey guidelines online. An accurate sample size is necessary if you want to put any faith in your results. The larger the sample size, the more reliable your results.
  • If you are utilizing a phone or in-person survey, make sure you get a broad demographic of the neighborhood. In addition to sample size, a good cross sampling of the population will make a difference. For instance, if you make all your phone calls during the day, the majority of people in your sample will be those who don’t work outside the home during the day. You’d leave out the input of almost all working folk, which would skew your sample. Again, consult a survey book or web site for help.
  • Decide if you should conduct your survey by mail, by phone, or in person. Each has advantages, and each has disadvantages. In person or phone get faster results and require fewer “contacts,” but mail is less time intensive and more objective. Bear in mind that most mailed surveys never get returned, which means you have to mail a lot more of them to get a large enough sample for accuracy. Again, consult a book or website for helpful information on the number of mailings you need to prepare and send.

If nothing else, I hope you recognize that a survey is anything but an easy way to listen to the people of your neighborhood. It can be helpful, but must be done carefully. If you decide to use a survey, make sure that you combine it with some other listening approaches.

Categories: Church in Transition, faith practices | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Kingdom of God Breaks Into Our Lives In Ordinary Ways

3rd Sunday of Epiphany (B)

1 Cor 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

 And Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news. . . . Follow me.”

It was an ordinary day. I was in my office just finishing up a sermon, Bible study, Confirmation class plan, council report, or maybe something really important. Linda, our office manager, comes back and says someone wants to talk with me. Nothing unusual, this happens every day. So I go out in the hall and meet “Luke,” a man I’ve never met before. He’s African American, wearing clothes indicating he was probably used to working outdoors. I introduce myself, invite him in to the office, and he begins to tell me why he needs money to feed his two children. Again, this isn’t so unusual, it can happen several times a week.

Usually in this situation, I struggle to balance someone needing help vs. me being conned. There are almost always elements of both. As I generally do, I invited “Luke” to share his story. I ask questions in order to figure out what’s really going on and if we really can help. I’m asking questions and Luke is answering them. This goes on for several minutes until he stop me.

“I don’t mean any disrespect, Pastor Moss, but as hard as it is for me to come here and ask for help, it’s even harder for me as a black man to come to a white church, and to put the fate of my family into the hands of a white man.”

This isn’t my first rodeo, I’ve heard all kinds of approaches. I figured I’d push back a little and see where this went. “Luke, I’m wondering if you’re playing the race card on me here. Here’s my concern; if I don’t provide you with the help you want, you’ll chalk it up as one more white racist holding power over black people.”

He was quiet for a few moments, then said, “Well, to be honest pastor, yeah, that’s probably what I’ll think.”

We spent the next 45 minutes sharing our experiences as two human beings who happened to be different colors. We gained deeper understanding of one another. Now, I consider myself relatively aware racially, but I realized during this conversation that in ways I either forgotten or never knew, I am quite content to reap the benefits of being white in a white-power culture. I have continued doing that without questioning it or challenging it; in so doing I have been contributing to a racist society. Now it’s not all my fault, but I haven’t put any effort into reconciliation either. If the Bible is clear about anything, it’s that God is about the business of reconciliation, of peace, or repairing that which is torn.

Luke, sitting there in my office had brought an opportunity for a small piece of reconciliation. Here was an opportunity to take part in what God was doing right in front of me. The kingdom of God broke in without warning, in the middle of an otherwise ordinary day. I was being offered a chance to repent, to believe in good news of reconciliation. Jesus was here, and was inviting me to join him in this kingdom work.

And Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news. . . . Follow me.”

It was an ordinary day for James and John, in their boats on the shore of the Sea of Galilee fixing the tears in their fishing nets. A man walks by and shouts at them. Well, people do that all the time, giving advice on how to fish and where to fish—as if James and John hadn’t been doing this all their lives. Amazing how everyone believes they can do your job better than you.

The shouting man kept coming, and they saw fellow fishermen Simon and Andrew right behind him. The man came right up to them, looked first at James, then at John, and said, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

They looked at each other, this didn’t really make a lot of sense to them. But they realized, that in ways they weren’t even aware of, that their lives were going to go in a completely different direction. The kingdom of God had broken in without warning, in the middle of an otherwise ordinary day. They were being offered a chance to change direction, to believe the good news that God was making a difference in the world. Jesus was there, and was inviting them to join him in this kingdom work.

And Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news. . . . Follow me.”

It’s an ordinary day at Lutheran Church of the Master. The kingdom of God breaks in without warning, in the middle of an otherwise ordinary day. We are being offered a chance to change direction, to believe the good news that God is making a difference in the world. Jesus is here, and is inviting us to join him in this kingdom work.

And Jesus came to Lakewood, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news. . . Follow me.”

Categories: Church in Context, faith practices, hospitality, kingdom of God, racism, Sermon, suburban church | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

A Response to “Why I Hate Religion—But Love Jesus”

It’s more or less viral. The snazzy YouTube with the young Christian man professing his love for Jesus right alongside his hate for what he calls “false religion.” Because so many will watch this video without thinking it through, and follow a cultural assumption that seems pretty popular right now, it warrants a response.

Full confession: I’m a religious person—in fact, a professional religious person—therefore I have a bias. I also love Jesus, and therefore have a bias. Keep that in mind.

I think this devout Christian young man has some points to make that the Christian religious institution should heed. We aren’t perfect—we are at least as sinful and corrupt and broken as everyone else. And that includes those who have little use for religion. Many of this YouTube poet’s accusations are valid. We ain’t perfect, folks. We need to do a much better job of confessing that, recognizing we are forgiven for that, getting over ourselves, and getting on with Jesus’ work in the world.

But here’s the problem: it’s impossible to separate our views of Jesus from our religion. In fact, whatever it is that has shaped our views/relationship/love for Jesus IS in fact our religion. To believe one can come to some objective and clear perspective on the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus all by one’s self is naïve at best, foolish at worst. We are all products of our culture. We have been shaped by societal, historical movements and see the world through the lenses produced. Scientific method, empiricism, individualism, the industrial revolution are only recent influences that have formed our perspectives. Our religious eyes are part of who we are, and we are products of our culture.

So when an enthusiastic young Christian vows the worthlessness of religion, he’s expressing a shallow view and a misunderstanding of who he is. Disavowing “religion” as an institution is actually a religious perspective. It’s just one that is shaped by current cultural trends rather than the wisdom and struggle of wise followers throughout the centuries.

I have a bias, yes. But I will choose to make sure I listen to those ancient Godly people—most of whom are wiser and more spiritual than me—who’ve learned from God, wrestled with God, and gained some insight from God. The forms and practices of Christian religion have weathered the centuries and helped create some sacred space for people like our YouTube poet to come to know, and to love, Jesus.

Categories: american christianity, Church in Context, faith practices, religious, spirituality | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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