Friday, October 19, 2018

What I've Learned Sitting At Starbucks

After over 42 years of working for someone else, and having an office, I'm now working for 'myself,' without an office. 

Now, I do have a home study.  But often, I need a change of pace and head for either a library -- or -- Starbucks.

Recently, it occurred to me:  I've learned a lot sitting at Starbucks.  

Sure, I've learned a lot in libraries, especially from some of my 'best friends,' the zillions of books that surround me!  But I've also learned a different, unique angle on life, sitting in Starbucks, where I'm surrounded by live voices coming 'in and out' of the store, as I pound away on my computer.  

Lesson #1 - A Lot Of People Aren't Going To Church (At Least As We Know It). 

I visit Starbucks regularly on Sunday morning, before I head for church, after dropping-off Robin (my wife) at her organ position in Baltimore, MD.

Frankly, Starbucks bustles, but the vast majority of folks entering the store are not exiting for morning worship.  Rather, they're grabbing coffee, pastries and The New York Times -- heading out to their kid's sports game -- bee-lining with a friend for a neighborhood festival -- or not exiting at all, but choosing to linger and visit with other folks, in the store.

In sum:  persons are finding community, but they're not finding it, necessarily, at church. Instead, they're finding community in social/sports activities -- festivals/event -- or at Starbucks itself.

This is inferred in a recent Pew Research Study which revealed:
"...The percentage of U.S. adults who say they regularly attend religious services has been declining...[and]...the share of Americans who attend only a few times a year, seldom or never has been growing..."
Now it used to be that people actively sought out houses of worship as a place to fellowship and congregate.  As Robert Ellwood points out in his book, The Fifties Spiritual Marketplace: American Religion in a Decade of Conflict -- between 1950 and 1960...
"...Churches and schools were being greatly expanded to accommodate the growing population, and organized religion was in its heyday. On a typical Sunday morning in the period from 1955-58, almost half of all Americans were attending church – the highest percentage in U.S. history. During the 1950s, nationwide church membership grew at a faster rate than the population, from 57 percent of the U.S. population in 1950 to 63.3 percent in 1960..."
Such growth occurred for a variety of reasons, Ellwood goes on to point out...
“...partly because of the ever-expanding spiritual marketplace...There were a lot of different options available that would appeal to different kinds of people. Before [World War II] organized religion was much more restricted...”
I would contend that we need to do the same, today:  multiply a lot of different options.  Just as Starbucks works to expand its inventory beyond just coffee -- we as the church need to expand our offerings beyond pews, organs, and stained glass.

At the church I served for 20 years, the Frederick Church of the Brethren, we attempted to do just that through a 'coffee' house' type church, named 'The Basement.'  As the Frederick New Post reported right after the new service opened:
"...The Basement is designed to be casual, inviting and have a relaxed atmosphere...a safe place for people to worship in just a comfortable, casual way.  The service [takes] place in the recently renovated multipurpose room, which has something of a theater or club atmosphere with its black curtains and couches and pillars with purple accent lighting...The church hopes that offering a less formal setting for its services will encourage more people to visit and join the congregation, particularly those who may have once been church regulars but stopped going..." 
I am not suggesting 'The Basement' is 'the answer.' But I am convinced some different, 'out of the ordinary,' 'out of the box' type of gathering is needed in most houses of worship.

Pray and dream what it might be for your congregation.

Lesson #2 - People Will 'Show Up" Where People Know Their Name 

A striking part of the Starbuck's culture is the barista's (the folk serving customers, behind the counter) regular habit of calling customers by name.

The spiel goes like this:  "Laureen.  Laureen!!  I was hoping you'd come in Laureen!!"   "Why it's Miss Dottie!! How are you, Miss Dottie?!!"  "Good Morning Tony!!  Do you want your regular, double latte, Tony?"

And people love it!

No, surprise.  Most love it when someone knows their name, as the vintage theme song of the TV show Cheers trumpets.

Sadly, however, many don't experience that depth of community in many churches.  And so, persons show up in the coffee house, not the church house -- finding there -- a needed place of connection -- what sociologists call, 'a third place.'  The Brookings Institute points out:
"...Third places is a term coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg and refers to places where people spend time between home (‘first’ place) and work (‘second’ place). They are locations where we exchange ideas, have a good time, and build relationships. For young Americans, many third places are now virtual – from Facebook and chat rooms to group texts. But as Oldenburg notes, the most effective ones for building real community seem to be physical places where people can easily and routinely connect with each other..." 
And so, how connecting is your congregation?  Is there a sense of intimacy?  Do people know each-others names?  Does it provide a 'third place'? 

The best recent research on church vitality is "The Growing Young" study from the Fuller Youth Institute. The study identified eight commitments of congregations effective in reaching young people, but the commitments really relate to all generations.  Of the eight, the most influential was "relational warmth."  As Kara Young, one of the prime architects of the study, notes:  
"...The top phrase young people used to describe these churches was “like family.” They talked about “being real” and “being myself here.” What they didn’t talk about was how cool or hip their church may (or may not) have been. Sure, some of these churches were pretty cool, but what we learned from young people is that warm is the new cool. Experiencing a welcoming community that’s like a family turns out to matter more..."
Starbucks does that. Congregations can, as well!

Lesson #3 -- People Frequent Places That Impact Their Community and World 

Starbucks, no doubt, makes a profit; after all, it's a business.  But Starbucks also offers a purpose, as customers become aware of its efforts for social service and justice, developed around three pillars:  Community Outreach, Ethical Sourcing, and the Environment.  
"...[Community Outreach]...Starbucks...[partners] with local nonprofits...Starbucks...donates $0.05 to $0.15 per transaction to [a store's] nonprofit partner...The company also provides training opportunities for youth in their communities and has even developed the Starbucks Foundation, a 501c3 whose goal is to strengthen those communities further...Ethical Sourcing dictates the way that Starbucks purchases its products. The company is committed to ensuring that their coffee, tea, cocoa...are responsibly and ethically produced and purchased...[Enviroment]. Starbucks refers to the planet as their “most important business partner,” and takes a comprehensive approach to reducing their environmental impact. To do this, they build LEED certified stores, are committed to recycling and conserving water and energy, and pursue strategies that address climate change..."
Though Starbucks' customers have a varied awareness of these initiatives, overall, most sense they're not just drinking coffee, but are a part of a larger social enterprise that's making a difference in their world.

Churches, that are vital, are doing the same.  People in such congregations are doing more than singing hymns, and eating at potlucks -- they're well aware they're a part of a social movement that's having an impact.

Again, returning to 'The Growing Young' study, churches that are attracting youth/young adults, and frankly, any age, strive to be the very best neighbors, mindful of the needs around them:
"....[they] reflect [a] selfless mercy toward those the people outside their congregations--whether those neighbors are friends, strangers or enemies. They demonstrate compassion and forgiveness, even when it is within their power to turn away or inflict harm.  Churches that grow young, practice this mercy in a myriad of forms--in their service and social justice efforts, in their political engagement, in discussion about race and ethnic identify...Doing so earns these churches a hearing ina culture that often otherwise dismisses tem as judgmental or close-minded..."  [from Growing Young].
Again, if Starbucks can carry-out such commitments, surely churches can.  For it's only as we move from an insular mindset to an outreaching, missional mindset, that we have any hope of continued identity and witness.

It's interesting: on May 29, 2018, Starbucks closed its 8,000+ stores for racial awareness training, after a tragic incident in which two African-Americans were asked to exit the restaurant, in Philadelphia

But in reality, the store closing and training were actually a revisiting of Starbuck's overall core mission/vision.  Specifically, as National Public Radio reported:
"...The training [was] meant to help Starbucks navigate the challenges of being the "third place" that its leaders have often spoken about — the place where people spend time outside of work and their home..."
Perhaps we should 'close' our churches for a day (or more) to revisit our overall mission/vision; to help us navigate the challenge/s of being a third place.

For continuing 'business as usual' will result in continuing blindness to our tendency to exclude the outsider, prioritizing our needs, over welcome to the stranger.

May we welcome the stranger!  Not only inspired by Starbucks -- but the Savior -- who also affirmed:
“… I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…” (Matthew 25:35, emphasis added) 

Friday, October 12, 2018

What About Beverage Alcohol?

The Brent Kavanaugh hearings stirred up a whole plethora of issues.

Frankly, much of what surfaced, or not surfaced, is too fresh, and frankly, raw, to develop helpfully at this juncture; the story is still unfolding.   

But I will risk one issue:  the common practice of socializing through beverage alcohol.  Though far from a lone practitioner, Kavanaugh did confess his fondness of beer, which proved to contribute to the controversy, that swirled like a typhoon around his hearings.
“…He drank beer. Still drinks beer. Likes beer…Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh mentioned beer some 30 times in his Senate testimony…[In fact] much of last week’s Senate committee hearing focused on the judge’s drinking habits as a teenager and young man. An implication in the questioning — one rejected by Kavanaugh — was that he may have assaulted Ford but was too drunk to remember…[For] memory loss and blackouts are a dark side of drinking too much alcohol…”
Now, I'm not wagering a judgment on the amount of beer Kavanaugh consumed, or the results of the beer (e.g., whether a black-out occurred; whether a sexual assault occurred, etc.).  Please hear me.

I'm just noting that alcohol dominated, and frankly, complicated, Kavanaugh's story.  

And frankly, the story of many.

Call it coincidental, but just before the Kavanaugh hearings, a new study on alcohol consumption was released by The Lancet, one of the world's oldest and most prestigious, general medical journals.  Frankly, I was surprised by the conclusiveness of its findings:   
"...Alcohol use is a leading risk factor for global disease burden and causes substantial health loss. We found that the risk of all-cause mortality, and of cancers specifically, rises with increasing levels of consumption, and the level of consumption that minimises health loss is zero. These results suggest that alcohol control policies might need to be revised worldwide, refocusing on efforts to lower overall population-level consumption...    
Translated, as The Lancet reported: "...Our results show that the safest level of drinking [beverage alcohol] is none..."    

As you might guess, The Lancet's research has sparked shock, push-back and frankly, skepticism.  But, overall, persons have been sobered (no pun intended!).  Quoting Dr. Robyn Burton (of Kings College, London), CBS News notes:
"...The conclusions of the study are clear and unambiguous: alcohol is a colossal global health issue and small reductions in health-related harms at low levels of alcohol intake are outweighed by the increased risk of other health-related harms..."
But alcohol consumption is not the only detrimental food/drink intake. The American diet -- overall -- is a colossal health issue. As the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion has reported:
"...The typical eating patterns [of] many in the United States do not align with the Dietary Guidelines [for healthy eating]...About three-fourths of the population has an eating pattern that is low in vegetables, fruits, dairy, and oils...Most Americans exceed the recommendations for added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium. In addition, the eating patterns of many are too high in calories...[resulting in] more than two-thirds of all adults and nearly one-third of all children and youth in the United States are either overweight or obese...""
The result, as Renata Micha notes in the Journal of the American Medical Association, is an increase in heart disease, strokes, and diabetes. 
“...[As] 'Good' foods [are] under-eaten...nuts and seeds, seafood rich in omega-3 fats including salmon and sardines; fruits and vegetables; and whole grains. [And] 'bad' foods or nutrients...[are] over-eaten [including] salt and salty foods; processed meats including bacon, bologna and hot dogs; red meat including steaks and hamburgers; and sugary drinks..."
Bottom line:  overall, we need to 'dial-back' our intake of 'bad' food/drink, becoming newly "...temperate in all things..."  (1 Corinthians 9:25)

But the controversial lean of this blog-post is that I'm also convinced, that there is some food/drink that we need to totally abstain from. 

Now, let me quickly add:  what you abstain from should be determined in consultation with a trusted medical professional.  Frankly, everyone's physiology, genetic presumption, and metabolic chemistry vary; translated:  what's 'bad' for one, is not always 'bad' for all.  Please let this register.

But on the basis of the latest research on beverage alcohol (see above), and the reoccurring headlines documenting its ease of abuse, -- I would advocate abstinence from alcoholic drink.

For unlike other beverages -- milk, coffee, soda, cider, Gatorade, juice, etc., beverage alcohol is potentially addictive, not just to the point of disease, but life impairment/immobilization, and even death.

The research that documents this reality is hard to accept, but it's hard to refute. Returning to the most recent findings revealed in The Lancet, poor health, attributable to alcohol, is connected to no less than 23 adverse health outcomes, including:
"...Cardiovascular diseases: atrial fibrillation and flutter, hemorrhagic stroke, ischemic stroke, hypertensive heart disease, ischemic heart disease, and alcoholic cardiomyopathy;Cancers: breast, colorectal, liver, esophageal, larynx, lip and oral cavity, and nasal; Other non-communicable diseases: cirrhosis of the liver due to alcohol use, diabetes, epilepsy, pancreatitis, and alcohol use disorders; Communicable diseases: lower respiratory infections and tuberculosis; Intentional injuries: interpersonal violence and self-harm; Unintentional injuries: exposure to mechanical forces; poisonings; fire, heat, and hot substances; drowning; and other unintentional injuries; and Transportation-related injuries...""
Whew!  Bottom line:  we now know, in the words of The Lancet editor, Richard Horton, "...that alcohol is one of the major causes of death in the world today." 

Now beverage alcohol is hardly the only cause of death; as referenced earlier; intaking other food/drink can also prove fatal.  In addition, some researchers flatly refute the findings of The Lancet and similar dire studies on beverage alcohol.           

But if we err, I would advise erring on the side of intaking, only, what has been identified as good, healthy and wholesome.

In addition, I advise erring on the side of intaking only that will not cause anyone to stumble, avoiding food/drink known to be addictive (to the point of injury/disease/death), especially around those with a genetic presumption toward addiction (Romans 14:13-23).

Overall, we're to steward our bodies, for as we steward our bodies, we honor God. And so, Paul advises, wake up and realize:
"...That your body is a sacred place, the place of the Holy Spirit? Don’t you see that you can’t live however you please, squandering what God paid such a high price for? The physical part of you is not some piece of property [in isolation from] the spiritual part of you. God owns the whole works. So let people see God in and through your body..." I  Corthinians 6:1-20. The Message.
I've offered my conviction related to alcohol, for your prayerful consideration, and discernment.

But whatever your conviction/s, be mindful, in Christ -- that our food/drink intake is not isolated from our spiritual life and witness.

Thus, adopt some new lifestyle choice/s that demonstrates both temperance and abstinence, in your consumption -- as we all seek to honor God with our entire self -- including our bodies.  

Thursday, October 4, 2018

How To Avoid A 'Food-Fight'

Wednesday morning, I heard Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona -- and -- Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, dialogue on the Today Show.

Notice, I said dialogue.  I mean of late, opposing politicians, e.g., Republican and Democrats, have only been screaming at each other.  But Flake and Coons are determined to counter such behavior.

As Jeff Flake noted:  the Judiciary Committee hearing last Thursday, in particular, was essentially a "...a food-fight between the [two] parties..."  But I'm convinced, Flake went on to say:  "...we can do better than this..." 

I concur.  Not only in our political debate -- but also -- in our family debate, friendship debate -- and yes -- church debate.  For some reason, there seems to be a rise in a 'food-fight' mentality and style, that is, frankly, ripping families, friendships, nations, and yes, churches apart.

This, in part, is because the level of anger and distrust between 'opposing' ideologies/theologies is at record levels, at least, in recent memory.  Reflecting on the moral outrage in rural America, for example, sociologist Robert Wuthnow believes it's rooted in a sense that their "...moral communities are under siege...[and]...when a moral order begins to crumble, the implications run wider and deeper.  Its slide diminishes trust while bolstering protective energies.  Asking "How can the problems be solved?" leads to questions about who is to blame..."  (Robert Wuthnow.  The Left Behind.  Decline and Rage In Rural America.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2018, p. 7)   

And the blaming, I contend, leads to a 'food-fight' way of relating, that flings whatever might "stick" and injury, in the direction of their opponent.  

A prime motivator for our blame, shame and maim is our perception -- on both the 'left and right' -- that the moral order is crumbling because morality itself is crumbling.  For example, for those in rural America, who tend to be conservative, there is a general sense that 
"...sexual promiscuity portrayed by Hollywood, the availability of pornography on the Internet, and the growing prevalence of crude language on television...[are all part of the] moral decline [threatening]...their communities..."  Robert Wuthnow.  The Left Behind.  Decline and Rage In Rural America.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2018, p. 116)   
And that's just for starters.  As Robert Wuthnow goes onto recount, there are a plethora of other issues, provoking many conservative folks to believe morality is ebbing, most prominent, the perceived sanctioning of abortion and homosexual praxis/marriage.   Robert Wuthnow.  The Left Behind.  Decline and Rage In Rural America.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2018, p. 122-136).   

On 'the left,' more progressive, liberal folk also sense a crumbling of morality.  But not because we are failing to 'conserve' the established/traditional/orthodox, but because we are failing to risk the prophetic and counter-cultural.  As Rachel Held Evans has observed: 
“...We religious types are really good at building walls and retreating to temples. We’re good at making mountains out of our ideologies, obstructions out of our theologies, and hills out of our screwed-up notions of who’s in and who’s out, who’s worthy and who’s unworthy. We’re good at getting in the way. Perhaps we’re afraid that if we move, God might use people and methods we don’t approve of, that rules will be broken and theologies questioned. Perhaps we’re afraid that if we get out of the way, this grace thing might get out of hand. Well, guess what? It already has. Grace got out of hand the moment the God of the universe hung on a Roman cross and with outstretched hands looked out upon those who had hung him there and declared, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do...”  Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church.  Nashville:  Thomas Nelson, p. 39-40)
Well, you get the point:  there is plenty of anger and rage on 'all sides.'  But is there a way forward?  Let me suggest starting points, that are far from exhaustive, but suggestive of what might encourage the 'food fight' to wane.  

Starting-Point #1 - Stay True To Your Convictions, But Never Assume You Are 'God.'   

I tend to be strongly opinionated.  Thus, I have strong convictions and present them forcefully, to be convincing.  However, at times, I can present my convictions as if I'm Omniscient, as if, I am God.

No, don't misunderstand: we can know the Word of God (Psalm 19:7-8).  But we must never convey our word/s about God's Word -- as if our words -- are the last, conclusive, final, never-to-debated -- Word.  

Only God, as the Author of The Word, can -- or should -- have the last Word.  

Translated: we need to leave room and space -- always -- for the Author of the Word, God, to speak for God's-Self.  

I believe God speaks best, in community.  For God speaks best not just to one of us, but to all of us as God's gathered people.

For each of us are embedded in a cultural locale that can eschew our awareness of God's Word, without the larger perspective and context, of God's People.  As D.A. Carson helpfully observes: 

"...Does our Western culture place so much stress on individualism that we find it hard to perceive, not only the biblical emphasis on the family and on the body of the church, but also the ways in which God judges entire cultures and nations for the accumulating corruptions of her people...Do we overlook some of the ―hard sayings about poverty simply because most of us live in relative wealth?..."  
So yes, state persuasively your convictions about God's Word. Resolve is required.  Please hear this!   But express your convictions, soaked in humility, conveying, ultimately, "God Only Knows."

Translated:  convey "'s my strong sentiment.  But here's, also, my strong surrender to God as the Last Word, the only One who ultimately knows, the only One, Omniscient."

Starting-Point #2 -- Resist The Temptation To Label Persons, And Call Them Names

You know you're in an ideological/theological food-fight when the "labels and names" start to fly.  

For example, progressives label conservatives "neanderthals" (or worst) -- and conservatives label progressives "morons" (or worst).  And those are just the names I can print in a public blog!  

But on our saner days, most know, that labels and name-calling are woefully counter-productive.  Why, in reality, they're deeply insulting and far from accurate in truly describing who we really are. In that regard, I've always been touched by the anonymous poem, discovered by a nurse in a geriatric ward, after a resident died.
“…What do you see, nurses, what do you see? [What] are you thinking, when you look at me? A crabby old woman…who dribbles her food and makes no reply…I’m a small child of ten with a father and mother…a young girl of sixteen with wings on her feet...A bride soon at twenty, my heart gives a leap…[Now] the body is crumbled, grace and vigor depart…But inside this old carcass a young girl still dwells, And now and again my battered heart swells…Not a crabby old woman -- look closer, nurses — see ME!...” 
Translated:  behind every label (e.g., old/young; Democrat/Republican; rich/poor) is a person who's true and full identity is far more than the cultural/ideological/theological label we've affixed to that individual.

For behind any label, is the only label that we should affix to any person who has bonded with Christ/ Christ's Body/Christ's Kingdom: child of God, part of the people of God.

For, if we choose Christ, and Christ's Reign -- whether Hispanic or White, Russian or American, Urban or Rural, Orthodox or Progressive -- we are ultimately...
“…God’s “chosen generation”, his “royal priesthood”, his “holy nation”, his “peculiar people”—all the old titles of God’s people now belong to you. It is for you now to demonstrate the goodness of him who has called you out of darkness into his amazing light. In the past you were not “a people” at all: now you are the people of God. In the past you had no experience of his mercy, but now it is intimately yours…”  (1 Peter 2:8-10, The Message).
Again, this is not a call to surrender conviction/s.  Please hear me; we need to speak truth as best we discern and perceive it.

But it is also a call to show mercy -- as we've been shown mercy -- to surrender a mean-spirited, demeaning vocabulary -- that jabs folks with self-righteous, judgmental, arrogant, holier than thou assumptions.

Starting Place #3 -- Seek First To Understand, Than To Be Understood

I wish this 'starting-point' was original with me.  It's not.  It was first coined by Stephen Covey, in his classic, The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People.  In essence, the principle, in Covey's words assumes:
"...a very deep shift in paradigms.  We typically seek first to be understood.  Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent ot reply.  They're either speaking or preparing to speak.  They're...reading their autobiography into other people's lives...They prescribe their own glasses for everyone with whom they interact..."  Stephen Covey.  The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  New York:  Firestone, 1989, p. 239).   
The result of not requiring everyone to wear our eyeglasses -- of seeking first to understand, than to be understood -- is the surprising discovery, that the other person's prescription actually has more validity than I first realized.  

Thus, I have more in common with that 'opposing person' than I initially assumed -- or -- admitted.  

For that reason -- even without changing our core, differing convictions -- we discover there's a lot we can build on even in adversarial relationships -- nevertheless -- in regards to an adventurous future, for whatever group or cause we seek to advance.    

In January 2013, Pastor Adam Hamilton encouraged the U.S. political system to do just that; he did so, through a sermon at a prayer service, prior to the second inaugural of Barak Obama. 
"...With our two party system, we’re regularly offered two competing visions for America...To many Americans, we feel like “a house divided that cannot stand.”  The Book of Proverbs notes that, “without a vision the people perish.” Modern translates say, “they cast off restraint.”  They don’t literally perish, they just bicker and fight and find themselves polarized and directionless... 
...What most Americans long for is to find common ground...In this room, are the people who can change this...I offer one small example. At the church I serve we have a vision of addressing the root causes of poverty in Kansas City so that our city looks more like the Kingdom of God that Jesus so passionately preached...We came as servants – not as saviors. We looked for ways to partner and to help the schools do what they could not do otherwise. 
We repainted the schools, built playgrounds where there had only been empty blacktop.  We provided school supplies and winter coats to each child. Our members volunteered as tutors to read to children...[In sum, our] congregation [helped] children have a future with hope.  [And so, this past] Christmas Eve...they gave $1,235,000 towards this vision...That's the power of [finding common ground].  And though the church I serve is made up of Democrats and Republicans, of conservatives and liberals, we’re united by [this vision, this common ground]..." (emphasis added). 
And so, instead of "flinging food," we are called to take-up paint brushes -- round-up winter coats -- and purchase school supplies -- working together -- on what we do (surprise, surprise!) agree on -- on convictions we do hold in common

Sure, we'll still be different and yes, disagree.  Returning to our opening news-story:  Jeff Flake will stay a conservative Republican, and Chris Coons will stay a liberal Democrat.

But that doesn't mean they need to be mortal enemies.

And neither do we need to stay enemies with our adversary and foe.  For like, Flake and Coon, we too can find common ground -- and move forward, nevertheless.

This is not to minimize the critical issues of our faith and day, Please hear me.

But it is a call for us to stay humble, even as we pursue clarity and Truth -- reframing our life together with the civility of God...

...A God who does long to have -- the last Word.  

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Running Toward The Gospel Of "Hard" Things

This past week I taught at a local church on Luke 14:13ff, better known as the Parable of The Great Banquet.

J.B. Phillips brings alive this wonder-full story of Jesus:
“...Once  upon a time, a man planned a big dinner party and invited a great many people. At dinner-time, he sent his servant out to tell those who were invited, ‘Please come, everything is ready now.’ But they all...began to make their excuses. The first one said…‘I have bought some land. I must go and look at it. Please excuse me.’ Another one said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen and am on my way to try them out. Please convey my apologies.’ Another one said, ‘I have just got married and I am sure you will understand I cannot come.’ 
So the servant returned and reported all this to his master. The master of the house was extremely annoyed and said to his servant, ‘Hurry out now into the streets and alleys of the town, and bring here the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ 
Then the servant said, ‘I have done what you told me, sir, and there are still empty places.’ Then the master replied, ‘Now go out to the roads and hedgerows and make them [all] come inside, so that my house may be full....” (Luke 14:13-23) 
There are multiple meanings to this text, but the dominant meaning is that the Kingdom of God is portrayed accurately, vividly, as a great feast -- attended not by those expected to come -- but the very people expected not to come -- the least, the lost and the lonely.

Contemporary church renewal literature connects this conviction to the missional requirement to reach our neighbors and neighborhoods.

For example, "The Growing Young" emphasis of the Fuller Youth Institute stresses that it is essential for churches, that indeed want to grow young, and not old -- to reset the 'church table' -- to not serve not primarily, the expected and status quo -- but indeed -- the marginalized and those that don't normally 'show up' in the sanctuary.
“…churches that grow young recognize the careful dance that values both fidelity to Scripture’s commands for holiness and knowing and graciously loving their neighbors. This dance affects how they serve, pursue social justice, help...[their people]...find their calling, interact with popular culture, and respond to heated cultural issues. Much more than developing detailed policies or releasing theological position papers, these churches train and infuse their...[people]...with an integrated discipleship that enables them to thrive in our complex world.”
Translated: we need to stop complaining about Alcoholic Anonymous messing up the fellowship hall -- and embrace Alcoholic Anonymous -- and countless other 'outcast' groups.

For years I attended the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC.  As might be expected, the prayer breakfast was attended by the elite:  powerful politicians -- well-connected businessmen -- charismatic entertainers -- international ambassadors.  But also -- the homeless and the poor of Washington, DC.   In fact, Doug Coe the organizer of the prayer breakfast for many years, intentionally seated at every table in the grand ballroom of the Connecticut Avenue Hilton Hotel, a least, lost or lonely person, who had been touched by one of the over 200 ministries of the International Foundation, the sponsoring agency of the prayer breakfast.   

Not surprisingly, at first, it was an awkward experience.  Imagine, an ambassador sitting beside a street-person!  But over time it was amazing, as Christ, become more real, as we were required to relate to each other, not through our position, status or resume -- but -- our common humanity as children of God.

Such a viewpoint means that we need to take God more seriously than the dominant culture around us. For the dominant culture around us, does not prioritize the marginalized -- but those who indeed do have lots of margin and wealth and status and 'goods.'

Thus, we need to 'up our game' with Jesus realizing that it's costly to share a church's 'banquet table' with unseemly people.  But as Jesus says later in Luke 14:
"...Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of [the safe and familiar, e.g.] father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters—yes, even one’s own self!—can’t be my disciple. [Translated] Anyone who won’t shoulder his own cross [e.g. stomach some sacrfice] and follow behind me can’t be my disciple…“Is there anyone here who, planning to build a new house, doesn’t first sit down and figure the cost so you’ll know if you can complete it? If you only get the foundation laid and then run out of money, you’re going to look pretty foolish…“Simply put, if you’re not willing to take what is dearest to you, whether plans or people, and kiss it good-bye, you can’t be my disciple. (Luke 14:25-33, The Message) 
Frankly, any number of us, both as individual and churches are looking pretty foolish these days.  Rather than hosting great banquets, we're presiding over skimmy meals, with declining attendance.

The solution, for starters, is taking Jesus seriously, and embracing the gospel of costly discipleship -- and -- costly, missional invitation, to the outsider.

Again, "The Growing Young" emphasis of The Fuller Youth Institute says it well:
“...Following Jesus is costly, requires sacrifice, and invites us to actively participate in God’s kingdom. In fact, the church by its very nature is participatory, which means everyone shares the work. It’s a body (Rom. 12:5–8; 1 Cor. 12:1–31; Eph. 4:1–16), and every part needs to play its role in order to build up the whole. 
As indicated by Jesus’ command to both “follow me” and “take up your cross daily” (Luke 9:23), pursuing Jesus requires no less than everything, every day (Rom. 12:1). There’s nothing therapeutic about that call… 
...In short, [persons] in churches growing young aren’t running from a gospel that requires hard things of them. They are running toward it...(emphasis added)
Run toward the gospel that requires hard things!!!

Don't make excuses like the folks in the Parable of the Great Banquet.  Rather make plans to change your priorities, prioritizing what Jesus prioritizes:  the least, the lost, the lonely.

Some years ago, Joni Erikson Tada, of Joni and Friends, was preparing for her organization's Global Access Conference, an event gathering over 1,000 leaders in disability ministry from 54 countries. 

As Joni was planning this conference her team saw value in a contemporary rendering of Luke 14:13ff -- since that parable speaks so powerfully of inclusion for those not typically included. 

And so Joni's ministry approached renowned artist Hyatt Moore, asking if he would depict Luke 14:13 in a large, graphic way. As Joni tells the story...
"...Hyatt loved the idea. But he told us he would need to work from real life models. So we set about locating people with disabilities of different nationalities...[we found] a Filipino polio survivor on crutches, and a Korean quadriplegic in her wheelchair. We also found a paraplegic from Nigeria, and a Jamaican woman who was blind and used a white cane. We located a child with Down syndrome from China, and so many more. 
And what was really neat was they all came dressed in their actual national costumes. We gathered everyone together in front of a big long table spilling over with platters of meat and fruit, nuts and vegetables – it was, indeed, looking like a real banquet.
When everyone was posed in front of the banquet table, Hyatt snapped all kinds of photographs...[and then]...over the three and a half days of the Global Access Conference, Hyatt painted fast and furiously... 
...[Overall] it was...exciting to...look over the shoulder of this amazing artist to watch him [indeed] bring alive [Jesus' great banquet]..."
[click on the video below to actually see this amazing depiction of the Great Banquet, unfold]

 We too are to bring alive Jesus' great banquet...

    • as we run toward the Gospel of 'hard' things... 
    • adopting a costly discipleship... 
    • leaving the safe and familiar...
    • filling our churches, not with the expected and best -- but the least, the lost and the lonely... 

    Going out to the "...roads and hedgerows and [inviting all to] come inside -- so that [God's] house may be full (Luke 14:23)!!! 

    Wednesday, September 19, 2018

    When You Need A Little T.LC.

    A great thing happened to our family a while back!  The gravestone of my mother’s great, great, great grandfather Overton C. Harne was rededicated in Rose Hill Cemetery, in Hagerstown.  

    Now in the course of the rededication, new information about the Harne family was disclosed, some of it surprising.  For example, did you know the Harnes -- members of my family -- helped establish the first English settlement in Jamestown -- along with saving the city of Baltimore during the War of 1812!  

    But most interesting was the listing shared -- of occupations -- carried out by Harnes -- over the years.  First the good news: there are no horse thieves or ax murderers.  But I did learn, in our family: is a competitive roller skater, an illustrious actress, a zoologist, a microbiologist -- and get this, not only a cowboy -- but a rodeo cowboy!  

    But most fascinating is the Minnesota Harne who is a surgeon.  Why recently this family member made history by reattaching the arm of a young boy, who thought he’d lost his arm, forever. Now that made me proud!  Why its one thing to have a cowboy in the family, but it’s another thing to have a model of compassion -- as well.  

    In the 23rd Psalm we find a model of compassion.  You remember the words:
    "...The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in        green pastures He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies, you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever..." (Psalm 23, ESV)
    Yes, there are cowboys in scripture.  But here we find a picture of caring – centered in a caring god.  For the God of the 23rd Psalm isn’t just any God. The God of the 23rd Psalm is a caring God, a compassionate God who reattaches life when all seems lost. 

    Where do you feel lost; where do you feel wounded…weary?  Come along now -- and encounter with me -- this God who reattaches and reunites life.

    For “the Lord is my shepherd…”  (Psalm 23:1) The Psalmist sings.   Yes sings! You see originally the 23rd Psalm was not spoken, but sung as a part of Hebrew worship.  It still is in many Jewish synagogues as a part of the third Shabbat meal on Saturday afternoon.  

    But beyond Hebrew worship, the 23rd Psalm occupies other musical expressions.  For example, the 23rd Psalm is a part of the repertoire of Franz Schubert, Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington, Ralph Vaughan Williams and even the Eagles in their album  Long Road Out of Eden 2007.    

    But why; why is the 23rd Psalm so popular?  Because each of us secretly longs to be led by someone who is both strong and compassionate; who is both Lord and Shepherd.   

    It’s interesting:  the Hebrews had a long history of leaders who were both strong and compassionate.  King David is a prime example.  Why in 2 Samuel 5:2 “All the tribes of Israel came to David...‘We are your own flesh and blood.’” – they declare.  “‘In the past, Saul was king over us… [But now]…the Lord said to you, ‘You will shepherd my people Israel -- and you will become their ruler…” (2 Samuel 5:1-2). 

    As shepherd-ruler, God, in Christ is decisive but full of mercy.  But that's hard to comprehend since so many authority figures don't extend mercy; they extend judgment, even revenge!  There’s a great story about a woman who went to court to fight a traffic violation. Well in the course of appearing before the judge, the woman was required to declare her occupation.  “Why I’m a school teacher,” the woman proudly said.  And with that, the judge rose from his bench, and flashed the biggest grin you’ve ever seen!  “Madam,” the judge declared.  “I have waited 40 years for a school teacher to appear before my court; 40 long years! “Now I want you to grab a chair -- sit at that table -- and write:  ‘I will never pass through a red light, again’ – five hundred times!!!”  

    Yes, some authority figures minimize mercy.  But the ultimate authority figure – the Good Shepherd -- majors in mercy!   In fact, as Jesus appears to His disciples in Luke 24, Jesus clarifies that the primary reason for His entire ministry, is so that “….repentance and forgiveness of sins [could be] preached in His name…”  (Luke 24:46-47).  

    It’s amazing to see the impact of that kind of divine, strong, compassionate, shepherd-ruler. Why, the 23rd Psalm goes on to tell us, that with such a leader, such a God -- “I shall not…want.  [Why? Because] He makes me lie down in green pastures.  He leads me beside quiet waters.”  (Psalm 23:1-2).  The Amplified Bible is even more graphic.  Why with such a leader, such a God, I lack nothing.  Why?  Because 
    “…he makes me lie down in fresh, tender…pastures.  He leads me beside the…restful waters…”  (Psalm 23:1-2, The Amplified Bible).   
    Anybody need tender pastures… restful waters?

    The desert fathers were spiritual leaders in the early church.  Among other things they believed everyone carries a bag through life and at the bottom of the bag, is one of three things:

    • Anxiety -- a rolling worry I’m not good or competent enough.  
    • Fear -- a sense that everything’s destined to fall apart.  
    • Anger -- a simmering resentment things just aren’t what they ought to be.   

    But the desert fathers also believed, the things at the bottom of our bag aren’t the only things.  

    There are also things from God, that can replace the anxiety, fear and anger of life.

    The 23rd Psalm echoes this belief.  Why, the psalmist goes on to sing: our confident leader, our compassionate leader, our God – “…restores my soul.  He guides me in paths of righteousness.”  (Psalm 23:3).    

    The image of restoration is an especially powerful, suggesting that God is eager to replace the fatigue…the decay…the sin…the erosion of life – with new options for vigor and holiness.

    The Zeigarnik Effect is the tendency of the brain to remember regret and loss longer than gain.   But praise God, because of Jesus we need not be captive to the Zeigarnik Effect – we can be captive to the Jesus Revolution, which rocks with a living hope, ongoing and fresh, rolling away the weight of our lives.

    Life in Christ is all about rolling away the weight of our lives, multiplying new options for vigor and holiness. 

    It’s a chance to replace the old stuff at the bottom of the bag, with the new stuff of God.  For in Christ, we hold the very option of God.  

    And so, even though we walk through the very valley of the shadow of death -- we don't fear -- for God's very rod and staff -- they comfort.  Oil is available to anoint (Psalm 23:4-5). 

    Leonard Sweet refers to such a God as the doom-slayer.  

    • To those who feel doomed by low endurance, the doom-slayer says: “[You] can do everything through [Christ] who gives [you] strength” Philippians 4:13.  
    • To those who feel doomed by piercing sin, the doom-slayer says: “In repentance and rest is your salvation.” Isaiah 30:15. 
    • To those who feel doomed by never-ending pain, the doom-slayer says: “And [lo] I am with you, always, to the very end of the age” -- Matthew 28:20.

    Do you sense the God who is with you always, even in our most vulnerable moments of life?  

    You should for the 23rd Psalm concludes, we rediscover a God who...
    ...[serves] me a six-course dinner right in front of my enemies...[Who revives] my           drooping head; [thus] my cup brims with blessing. [And] your beauty and love chase after every day of my life.  [For] I'm back home...[with] God for the rest of my life.(Psalm 23:5+6, The Message, adapted)                    
    Mel Watts tells of a couple who rushed to the hospital with an urgent need. Not surprisingly they were absolutely/positively scared -- looking ‘every which way’ for strength and comfort.  

    Finally, they got desperate.  “Ma’am” – they said to a passing nurse.  “Do you ever pray for your patients?”  “Why yes, all the time.”   “Well please pray!”  “Why sure,” the nurse said.  Now for starters, remember:  “The Lord is in your hands.”  

    “Didn’t you mean:  we are in the Lord’s hands?”  “Oh, there’s a time to believe that” the nurse clarified.  “But right now, you’ve got to believe the Lord is in your hands.”

    Believe the Lord is in your hands!  That He is your shepherd – right within reach. 

    An available God.  

    A God who leads us – confidently -- toward fresh, tender pasture.  Who leads us compassionately toward restful, pure water.  Who hosts us, even the presence of enemies.  Who anoints us with holy oil.  Who fills our cup.  Who chases us with beauty and love.

    All with one goal: to replace the old stuff at the bottom of our bag with new stuff.  

    For we don’t have a cowboy God.  We have a caring God – who wants to reattach wounded life.

    Who wants to offer a little T.L.C. -- restoring weary souls!