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Posts Tagged ‘church’

I am in the forest and leaves are falling. At times they are falling so hard it sounds like rain. Looking up, it is like I am watching the hardwoods throwing leaves from their branches and into the arms of the conifers. Who knew the trees played games of catch?

In the book The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben teaches us a thing or two about trees. He wants to make sure we know that individual trees are important. At the same time he insists a tree is only as strong as the surrounding forest. When trees unite to create a forest, the whole becomes greater than its parts. The well-being of a tree is dependent on the community of trees. Wohlleben suggests that trees are far more social than we might imagine.

One tree standing alone is at risk. It cannot establish a consistent climate. It suffers alone in wind and weather. But a forest of trees creates an ecosystem that moderates temperature, stores water, and generates humidity. Wohlleben insists that in a forest, trees care for one another. Every tree becomes valuable to the community and is worth keeping around as long as possible. Sick trees even receive support and nourishment from others until they recover.

Wohlleben is convinced that trees are able to communicate with one another. And not only one another, but with other creatures as well.  Who knew? He makes a case that trees care for one another. They share food with one another. The forest is a tree community. They need one another. Maybe those lively trees we read about in stories are not as farfetched as we think. Maybe trees are not the passive plants they appear to be. Maybe that really is a game of catch they are playing above me. Maybe the forest really is an enchanted place.

I am struck by the way Wohlleben talks about the forest in ways the New Testament talks about church. We communicate with one another. We care for one another. Like trees in the forest, we are stronger and more productive when congregated. Alone we are at risk. Together we are the church. We need one another. Just as an individual tree does not make a forest, an isolated Christian does not make a church. It is interesting that both forest and church are the dream of the same imaginative Creator. Perhaps we should not be surprised by any similarities. Whatever future research tells us about trees, I will never walk through the forest the same way again.

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Most of us have probably heard by now about the fourteen articles known as the Nashville Statement. Endorsed by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, each article contains an affirmation and a denial regarding gender and sexuality.

This statement has been met with a lot of passion – both for and against it. Those who agree with it have opportunity to sign it online. To encourage more signatures, one can find a list of religious celebrities who have already signed it. Those who are opposed can also point to prominent names who share their opposition. The mayor of Nashville even chimed in by saying the statement “is poorly named and does not represent the inclusive values of the city & people of Nashville.”

The content of the document focuses on gender and sexuality. But the discussion has included things like eternal subordination of the Son and complementarianism. If these terms are unfamiliar to you, here are the short definitions; eternal subordination of the Son – Jesus is a subordinate to the Father. And complementarianism – females are subordinate to males. While we can debate whether these things are woven into the document, we do know that those behind the document are influenced by such ideas. Scot McKnight is one convinced these things influence the statement. His response, “Those we can’t trust for orthodoxy on the trinity can’t be trusted when it comes to morality.”

Gender and sexuality are addressed in the bible, sometimes in significant ways. Yet they have never been mentioned in one of the historical creeds. Even if it were appropriate for a creed-like statement like this, many will protest the timing of this document. At a time when many are looking to the church for unity, is this one more thing to divide us?

Creeds have historically addressed essentials of the faith, written to counter strong heresies. We remember them because they affirm things like Christology and Trinity and Incarnation and Resurrection. Yet I suspect that many who feel the Apostle’s Creed and Nicene Creed are unnecessary have already signed the Nashville Statement. I find it concerning that the Nashville Statement communicates a message that suggests agreement with it is necessary for Christian faith.

The Nashville Statement seems to rehearse what has already been said multiple times. To frame it this way comes across as cognitive and impersonal rather than pastoral or relational. Perhaps a helpful question to ask is “does this statement help the local church in its ministry to people spoken about in the statement?” I am not sure it does, in fact it may hinder.

The fact is, statements like these make me nervous. They suggest we have things figured out. They tend to position themselves in a place of authority where they do not belong. Instead of a statement drawn up in a back room I would prefer something more incarnational, something that looks people in the eye when we are talking to them.

The danger is that even when the Nashville Statement speaks the truth, it falls short at speaking the truth in love. Style cannot be separated from substance. Message cannot be separated from medium. Public statements like these are often written for those already in agreement with them and do not serve a pastoral purpose. That seems to be the case with the Nashville Statement. What we need is a church that is serious about loving those we meet along the way, not another statement.

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“I’ve got a tiger by the tail its plain to see…” Not the lyric you might expect to hear in Sunday School. But there I was in front of the class belting out the lyrics. The way the story was told to me, the teacher asked if anyone in the class had a special song they wished to sing. While older me can’t imagine myself agreeing to sing in public, apparently five year old me thought it was a good idea. Buck Owens would have been proud. My parents – not so much.

We began to attend another church soon afterward. Hopefully that decision was not related to my singing.  But from early on I was part of a community called church. I had no idea what that meant at the time. I had no idea how belonging to church would shape me or where it would take me.

It is time to begin thinking about church for what it is – an adventure. As with other adventures, this requires direction. Without direction it is a guarantee that we will be all over the place. Probably more of us singing Buck Owens songs in Sunday School. That is why we read the logs of those who have gone on before. They help us navigate territory by reminding us where we’ve been and they help us understand what to expect along the way.

This becomes our primary literature. It invites us into its story and takes us on a canonical adventure. Sometimes I explore this literature alone. This can be enjoyable and a reasonably helpful exercise. This allows me to move at my own pace. I can reread parts that I like best. I can turn the page if the reading becomes too uncomfortable.

But this literature is intended to be relational. It is written for a group. It is best explored in community. It is to be read in twos and threes and even larger gatherings. It prompts conversation about what this adventure should be like. It encourages hearers to continue some practices and to change others. It expects our gatherings to become enactments of a new reality that is to spill over into other parts of the journey.

The primary literature reminds us that this adventure is not one that is safe. One does not join this narrative in order to stay out of trouble. The journey will take you to slave camp, through deep water, into the wilderness, and into battle with giants. Those who have traveled this adventure have suffered stoning and imprisonment. The narrative explicitly calls us to follow one who was sentenced to execution. If safety is what you desire, then maybe this journey is not for you. It is safe to say that when five year old me stood in front of a Sunday School Class and sang, there is no way I could have known what I had gotten into.

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I am struck by the amount of time the church spends talking about world leaders. Even more, I am struck by the division of Christians as they talk as if their allegiance is with one leader or another or one party over another. Still, after reading the New Testament, I cannot find the parts where the church becomes preoccupied with such conversation. If the first century Christians were debating who would succeed Tiberius as emperor, the New Testament does not show much interest. If the church divided its loyalties for and against the incoming Caligula, there is no mention of it.

Four years later, after Caligula was murdered, where is the talk about Claudius replacing him? And when Claudius banned Jews from Rome and made other important policy decisions, were there some Christians defending him and others asking for his removal? When Claudius was poisoned, did anyone in the church become obsessed with what Nero’s economic or foreign policy would be? Perhaps such conversations occurred, I cannot claim to know. But, if they did, the New Testament does not consider them worth mentioning.

Instead, the New Testament uses a lot of space to repeatedly focus on things like the death and resurrection of Jesus. While Rome appeared to rule and Caesars came and went, the New Testament remained interested in other news. I suppose conversations about emperors are not in the New Testament for a reason. It is possible the New Testament writers are only interested in the political changes that came with Jesus of Nazareth. It is possible the Christians in the first century were already aware that Caesar did not rule the world. It is possible they already realized that neither Julio-Claudians nor Flavians nor democrats nor republicans held the answers. It is possible that early Christians were convinced that if Jesus was risen the rest of this conversation was a sub point at best.

The first Christians knew their identity as Roman was not their primary identity. They knew that Rome was not the primary kingdom. They knew Caesar was not the true king. And they knew that Roman politics were not their politics. Instead, they were convinced that God had become flesh and sent the Spirit to make a new politic possible. A politic that, in our more faithful moments, we call church.

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Every Wednesday during the months of June and July, the local Lutheran Church serves spaghetti to hikers who may be passing through the borough. It’s not only spaghetti. I am pretty sure they make their own sauce, and meatballs, and salad, and desserts, even homemade ice cream. They replenish supplies and listen to stories and make hikers feel important.

I join them for dinner because I love trail stories. (It was pointed out that I was the only one present who was neither a hiker nor a Lutheran). I listen as hikers talk about gear and fears and weather. I listen to stories about bears and barred owls. I look through pictures that hikers have taken along the way. I ask them what they hope to find during their journey. I ask the story behind their trail name. I meet people from literally around the world. I ask what it is like to have a homemade spaghetti dinner after weeks on the trail. Nearly every time they tell me this is the best meal they have had. One hiker said when he learned of this meal, he pushed extra hard to arrive in Duncannon on Wednesday. The blisters were miserable but he claims it was worth it.

I think of the tendencies and temptations churches can have. How we might choose not to minister to some who will not be able to give back or even join us on a Sunday morning. How we might not want to support the Lutherans because they are competition. How we might think about force feeding a watered-down message down hiker’s throats along with spaghetti.

I am so glad these Lutherans do not seem worried about such things. I am convinced they love to serve. I am convinced they recognize hikers not as transients but as neighbors. The fact is, I support this ministry because the kingdom wins when Lutherans host hikers, when Lutherans offer kindness, when Lutherans serve the hungry and thirsty.

I learn that Bill was at the laundry mat one Wednesday afternoon and overheard a hiker there announce she would be spending the night in Duncannon because the Lutherans were offering free spaghetti and she wanted a home cooked meal on her birthday. Of course, Bill made sure she had a birthday cake that night when she arrived. It was emotional. I’ll bet whenever she remembers the summer she hiked the Appalachian Trail that this will be one of her favorite memories. Thank God for Lutherans.

 

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One morning Alf and I went for a walk. On another day Roger and I walked through the woods with his dog Charlie. And yet another day, Mike and I walked a trail along Sherman’s Creek. Every Sunday, Joann walks a half mile to church.

None of this is by accident. Walking the areas around Duncannon is an enjoyable exercise. The streets and sidewalks, the waterways and forests all bring pleasure. But this is more than pleasure. It is also a good metaphor for what we are trying to do. We are walking together as a community called church. And we are walking this journey in and around this place called Duncannon.

Interestingly, Duncannon sits along the Appalachian Trail. In fact, it is one of the few communities the trail actually passes through. There is even an Appalachian Trail Festival held here. It is even more interesting to me that we gather to worship on the trail. Our building is located on High Street and to walk on High Street is to literally walk on the Appalachian Trail. You did read that right. The white blazes that carefully mark the trail from Georgia to Maine pass directly in front of the church building. Anyone who enters the front door must step onto the trail before entering.

I rather like this. A church on a trail. While we all may not be on our way to Maine or to Georgia, we are all on our way somewhere. My suspicions are that all hikers are interested in spirituality on some level, whether intentional or not. There is something about the trail that calls to the soul. To hike the Appalachian Trail is a pilgrimage

To gather as a people of God is also a pilgrimage. I cannot help but remember that God has always called people to go out on a journey. We are a people who belong to the Way. Walking together as a people called church. When we say we belong to the Way, we are being very intentional. This is not a generic spirituality. We are following One who claimed to be the Way. This is truly an adventure.

 

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I am serving in Christ Reformed Church in Duncannon, PA. We are trying to be intentional about things like becoming a community and belonging to a community. We are reading texts like Genesis and recognizing ourselves as descendants of a promise. The promise of a worldwide family. For centuries followers and disciples have taken this seriously. We are following the same steps and praying the same prayers as these early followers.

We are practicing the promise given to Abraham so long ago and so far away, but we are practicing this promise in this place. What Abraham practiced among the Canaanites, we attempt to practice among the Duncannonites. We break bread together and remember who called us. We walk through the church year with the understanding we are on a journey.

Early in my relationship with this body, I was called to a meeting held in the downstairs of the building. Some referred to this as the dungeon. I was ok with this description. Some of the church’s best stuff has come from out of dungeons. We discussed details during the meeting.  But what I remember most was the way the meeting concluded. John had us join hands and pray the Lord’s Prayer. I felt like part of something big. Like we belonged to a long history of people who have prayed these words in dungeons and church basements.

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