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Posts Tagged ‘church’

A Beautiful People

Four years ago, I walked into a church building. It seemed almost accidental. They needed someone to preach that day and I was available. It was the second Sunday of Advent and I was greeted at the door by a gentleman who introduced himself as Charles (that is his name but no one calls him that). I had no idea what how the next four years would play out.

 
These days, I am in that same building quite often. I like that I can walk out the front door and onto the Appalachian Trail. I also like that when I walk out the back door, I can see the Susquehanna River. Earlier this week I walked outside and saw snowcapped mountains. These will never be confused with the Rockies, but they were wearing a snow cap. Looking south from the front sidewalk, standing on the trail, a white cap was visible on Cove Mountain. Looking east from the back door, across the river, a white cap was visible on Peters Mountain. I tried to take pictures but they did not do it justice.

 
Now, four years later, we are again walking through the season of Advent together. I love that we are surrounded by some fascinating geography. But the real beauty is not the landscape, it is these people. It is privilege to gather with them to read old texts, sing old songs, light candles and explore ways to best serve this community.

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Earlier this month I had opportunity to meet Tod Bolsinger, author of Canoeing the Mountains. He addressed a group of pastors throughout the day and then joined some of us around the table that evening. (Kudos to Bob and Heather for hosting and bringing the brisket). The conversation was stimulating, Bolsinger is the kind of guy that is fun to hang out with. We discussed church and education and conflict and future projects and brisket among other things.

Something we did not talk about at length is systemic thought. However, in his book he demonstrates an obvious interest in systems. He quotes people like Donella H. Meadows and Edwin H. Friedman who write about such thinking. He warns us that to fail to see the systemic relationship between all living things is to miss out on most of what happens around us. He wants us to know that every part of the system affects every other part.

He borrows from the field of physics (Systemic thought crosses disciplines). The emotional field in a system is like gravity. Once relationships are formed, the pull of the relationship becomes more powerful than the individual. A reminder that relationships are more important than any one person in the system. Wendell Berry goes so far to say this about community, “to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms.”

Bolsinger rightly brings this thinking to church. The church is a living system in relationship with God to accomplish God’s mission in the world so loved by God. Therefore, church is more than a simple collection of people. It is a network of interdependent relationships that share in the mission of God. This ought to be expected since even the Trinity is “best understood as a relationship of distinct persons who share one essence.”

I wish we would have had more time to talk. Canoeing with Bolsinger is surely a systemic adventure.

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Twenty-two of us gathered around a table in the basement last night to talk about Christmas. We also eat at these gatherings. We seem to take cues from those first century gatherings we read about in an old book we call Acts so when we get together we are often eating (I suspect some come for the eating). We weren’t quite talking about Christmas, but about Advent. One has to go through Advent in order to get to Christmas. We are preparing. We are waiting. We are getting ready. In a way, I suspect we are like shepherds tending sheep in the fields or like Magi traveling from the east.

 
Our conversation actually included a prophet for hire and a donkey who talked. These are great stories but it was the words of the hired prophet that stick out in a context for Advent. “I see him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near; A star shall come forth from Jacob, A scepter shall rise from Israel.”

 
I love these meetings. While I do not tend to like labels, we have had people who call themselves Congregationalists and Methodists and Lutherans and Pentecostals attend these meetings. What do you get when you put a group like this in the basement with a holiness preacher for the purpose of listening to old texts together? I think you get a great picture of church. Sometimes this text simply fascinates us. Sometimes it creates more questions than answers. Sometimes it challenges us in ways we did not expect. But we always benefit when we get together for the purpose to hear what it says.

 
It is our hope that our readings and discussions lead to things like belief and behavior and belonging. If they don’t, then why spend time in the basement on a cold, dark night anyway? We don’t want to be a people who just talk about things. We want these things to spill out onto the street and into the surrounding community. What happens at 212 N High Street, doesn’t stay at 212 N High Street.

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A Gathering

At first glance, 212 North High Street may not stand out. There, you will find a fine brick building with plenty of character. The imprint in the concrete near the front steps say it was built in 1912. Multiple things go on here. In just the next few weeks, among other things, the building will serve as the site for a dinner, study sessions, the local food distribution, a board meeting, and a party. Next Thursday evening, we will sit on the front steps and give treats to the neighbors.

 
But the primary thing that happens here is a gathering on Sunday mornings. We don’t take these gatherings casually; in fact, we believe heaven and earth meet here. We gather with allies to acknowledge who rules the world. We gather to remind ourselves of our role in such an important narrative. We gather to pray, sing, and bless one another for the ongoing journey. We enter sacred space and read words of hope out loud. We are reminded of what is real in contrast to the artificial news we hear so much of the time. On account of these things, I suspect most of our gatherings leave attenders somewhat ‘spirited.’

 
But recently we were reminded that what we do is not always ‘spirited’, at least not in a sense that feels good. In fact, we were reminded that our gatherings can be sobering. It is hard to feel good when one of your own is hurting. It is easy to talk about retaliating toward a perpetrator. It is difficult to talk about forgiving them. It doesn’t feel good when a friend is pouring out the emotional pain of her soul because of a literal catastrophe.

 
At first glance, 212 North High Street may not stand out. But there is something going on in those Sunday gatherings where we attempt to “bless those who persecute… rejoice with those who rejoice… mourn with those who mourn.”

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For some reason, it has become natural to hear the voices of culture and feel the need to choose one issue or another. It might be more accurate to say we feel the need to choose one side or another. Unfortunately, much of the cultural dialogue is not dialogue at all. I am not convinced the issue matters as much as who is stating it. There is little evidence that those in places of influence are even convinced of their own perspective. But they are quite certain about who they oppose.

 
The current subject of impeachment is a prime example. Impeachment has become just another strategy for some who desire power to make a statement about how unworthy of office their opponents are. Whether the president is impeached or not will likely not be determined by whether he committed an impeachable offense, but by whether he or his opponents can rally more people to their side. I fear we have entered a time where extreme measures will become commonplace. Once upon a time, something like impeachment would have been discussed with caution, now it appears it has become standard political strategy. The question is not whether Trump should be impeached or whether Clinton should have been. The question is “how were Bush and Obama able to avoid it?”

 
This should remind those in the church of the mission at hand. Here is opportunity for us to demonstrate that it is possible to get along with those who share a different opinion. Here is opportunity for us to demonstrate that it is possible to love even enemies. Here is opportunity for us to demonstrate that the Donalds and the Nancys are not the enemy. Here is opportunity for the church to be the church.

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A Global Conversation

In class we participated in case studies that challenge our witness in surrounding culture. During that time, I learned that yoga is far more controversial than I ever imagined. I do not remember what else we discussed, but I am well aware of what was not. Following class, a friend from Liberia challenged me by claiming the Western Church is much too silent about the LGBTQ issue. He went on to claim that what occurs here eventually makes its way into Africa and they would be looking to the Western Church for ways to talk about the issue. Not long after that conversation, I was challenged by a friend from Kenya. Again, he claimed the Western Church refuses to discuss LGBTQ issues in helpful ways for the Worldwide Church.

 

This has caused me to reflect a great deal on the way the church relies on one another. Even more, how I experience issues differently and similarly than my brothers. I told them both it was not a challenge I was presently experiencing in the local church and that it was a subject many in the Western Church may be getting tired of hearing about. I suspect I came across as defensive. While both of those things may be true, it is still a concern of the church. In fact, I find myself wishing the network of churches I belong to would begin conversations on this very topic. Although our churches are not currently experiencing it as an “issue” it would surely be helpful in the future if we were at least discussing ways to talk about it. It is almost a certainty that what occurs in our sister churches will eventually make its way into our congregations. As I reflect on the conversation, I realize I am actually thinking similarly to my African brothers.

 

This was a wonderful reminder of the ways we need one another. The ways we talk with one another will significantly influence our global witness.

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We have been exploring worship in recent weeks. We have talked about worship as something that happens in the presence of the Risen Lord. We have discussed worship as where the reign of God is announced. Worship as a place where our stories intersect with God’s story, as a gathering of people we did not choose, as a people God brings together for God’s mission, as something we do in response to the activity of God.

Yesterday, we talked about worship again. Worship as a place where a battle is waged. Worship as an acknowledgement we have an enemy. Ephesians was our catalyst for conversation. In chapter four, Ephesians gives us a list of gifts within the body. Unity is important and we read chapter four and realize we cannot be discipled alone. Following Jesus requires others. As hard as unity is, it is necessary.

As hard as that is, things get harder still because we have an enemy. We are not paranoid. There is actually a plot designed to destroy us. A plot that requires us to reckon with principalities and powers and authorities and forces of darkness.  We have an enemy and that makes it important to take seriously chapter six.

“Be strong… stand firm… put on the full armor…” This is no appendix, not some add on to the letter as it comes to a conclusion. This makes sense of the rest of the letter. Living in a pagan world is hard. Together, we war against an enemy. To sign up for what we do in worship is nothing less than war.

It is easy to think of this war as optional. It is easy to think we can stay on the sideline while others fight against darkness on our behalf. Just as Christ gave gifts to the church in chapter four “so that the body of Christ may be built up” is a corporate statement, so is “put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground.” We are in this together. 

I once heard Greg Boyd tell a story that highlighted this thought well. Since I can’t remember the details of Boyd’s story, I am taking some liberty with it here. 

This story starts on July 1, 1863. Imagine you are on vacation. You, the family, and some family friends are enjoying a cottage in a wooded area near Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, PA. You have been coming here for years now. It is peaceful and relaxing. A fine place to stay during a hot part of the summer. 

But on that morning, July 1, 1863, you are awakened by a knock on the door. You open it to find General Meade of the Union Army. He is requesting your cottage and asking you and your family to share resources and join the fight. The Confederate Army is on the way and fighting is inevitable.

However, you have vacation plans. You have chicken marinating in the refrigerator and have already planned a corn hole tournament. This has always been your time. You tell the General you will not be participating in his fight but wish him luck in the war.

Think about this scenario. You are on the battlefield. War is going on all around you. You are literally caught in the crossfire. To ignore this and cheer from the sideline is foolish. Ephesians states clearly, we have an enemy. Together, we are at war. To ignore this due to busyness or disinterest does not make it go away. We are caught in the crossfire. To cheer from the sideline is foolish.

 

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