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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

One Protestant Pastor’s Response to the Pope’s Interview

If you were to ask me, a Protestant, how best to describe the Pope, and I answered, “He is a sinner,” you might take offense. But, when the interviewer asked him who he is, Pope Francis humbly responded, “I am a sinner.” Then, in Latin, he whispered, “I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in a spirit of penance.”

Pope Francis is a humble man.

This glimpse into the Pope’s heart sheds light on some of his recent comments during an interview conducted in person by Antonio Spadaro, S.J., editor in chief of La Civiltà Cattolica. He has drawn some high praise and some strong criticism, but one thing that is plain from reading the interview: he desired neither. He spoke from his heart.

And, except in his traditional Catholic views which differ from my own, his words are hardly controversial. If anything he is seeking to reignite a commitment to the foundational truths of the church found in Scripture.

Church must remain open to all

As a church, whether Catholic or Protestant, he reminds us that the church is not a social club for a select few: “This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.”

Harsh but true. Churches can easily cling to their mediocrity, to their legalistic, rigorist interpretation of Scripture or to their lax, nonchalance toward sin.

Walk with our neighbor

Pope Francis reminds us to walk alongside our neighbor, whether he is homosexual, whether she has had an abortion, or whether he denies God’s existence entirely. He claims that the pastor’s role, and arguably all Christians share this responsibility, is not to judge or condemn them but to walk beside them, offer them all kinds of “healing”, “warm the hearts of the people,” and “walk through the dark night with them.”

Pursue the un-churched

He challenges the church to be audacious in their pursuit of finding new roads into the lives of those who do not attend church, “who have quit or are indifferent”. 

Focus on the essentials

One of his most controversial statements came in this context: He said, “I also consider the situation of a woman with a failed marriage in her past and who also had an abortion. Then this woman remarries, and she is now happy and has five children. That abortion in her past weighs heavily on her conscience and she sincerely regrets it. She would like to move forward in her Christian life.”

This leads to his oddly controversial statement, “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

He states his point clearly that not all of the teachings of the church are of equal importance. And, it is not the job of pastors to teach lists “of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.”
He goes on to say that we have to proclaim the essentials, on the necessary things, the Gospel. If the church tries to maintain a moral stronghold but ignores the Gospel, it is likely to fall like a “house of cards.” Our morality must flow out of the “simple, profound, radiant” Gospel.

Look to the past for courage not methods

“Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God. Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists­—they have a static and inward-directed view of things.”

God is in every person’s life

“God is in every person’s life. God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else—God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.”

How can we call these controversial statements? They simply remind us all who God is and what he desires for His church. We must focus on the Gospel. Jesus Christ died on the cross to the penalty of sin for all humankind. Faith in Him is our only hope. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Mission, the Men, and Me

Peter Blaber wrote a book by that title. He wrote about his time as a Delta Force commander, his training and his pursuit of Osama Bin Laden. It is a fun read if you like to read about military strategy and maneuvers. It is also a condemnation of the military's over-dependence on hierarchies, unwavering commitment to its plans and of course, to transport helicopters and their systemic mistrust of ingenuity and improvisation. Mostly, it is a thinly veiled book on management and working with teams.

Blaber's lessons are easily applied to the church.

Like the military, church systems put up many of the same obstacles to accomplishing the Mission that God has set for the church and which most churches have signed onto.

I described that Mission like this yesterday:

The Mission is to live in community, grounded in the love of Christ, demonstrating that love to the world of people within their reach and influence. "Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" (MSG).

This is sometimes called the Great Commission. It was some of Christ's last words before leaving the earth and returning to heaven.

It's important.

It's clear.

And, it's clear that it is not that important to many of us.

The main principle that Blaber used to make decisions, even split-second decisions, was the inspiration for the title of the book. Early in his career, a battalion commander and Vietnam veteran taught them to him when he reported for duty in Korea.

"The first M stands for mission; it's the purpose for which you're doing what you're doing. Whether in your personal of professional life, make sure you understand it, and that it makes legal, moral and ethical sense, then use it to guide all your decisions. The second M stands for the men. Joshua Chamberlain, a Medal of Honor-receiving schoolteacher in the Civil War, once said that 'there are two things an officer must do to lead men: he must care for his men's welfare, and he must show courage.' Welfare of the troops and courage are inextricably linked. When it comes to your men you can't be good at one without being good at the other. Take care of your men's welfare by listening and leading them with sound tactics and techniques that accomplish your mission, and by always having the courage of your convictions to do the right thing by them. The final M stands for me. Me comes last for a reason. You have to take care of yourself, but you should only do so after you have taken care of the mission, and the men. never put your own personal well-being, or advancement, ahead of the accomplishment of your mission and taking care of your men."

Though we may disagree on how best to accomplish it, it's obvious what our first M, our Mission is.

The second M, Men, is our church. The Church all over the world, but specifically those around us, those we know personally and intimately and love deeply and sacrifice for and mourn with and celebrate with and have coffee with and pray with. They are the ones that we call when need someone to watch our kids while we fly to be at a family funeral. They are the ones who call you when their child is running a fever, and they can't decide whether to bring him to the ER or wait until morning. Those are your Men and women and children, friends, mentors, and more. "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."

The third M is Me and mine, my family, my career, my hopes, my dreams, my self-interest, my health, my wealth, and all that is mine. "Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment."

"Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves."

We need to consider all three M's and we need to keep them in a proper balance, not neglecting any one of them, not even ourselves.

One of the fatal mistakes that the military has made over the years, according to Blaber is that it has not been adaptable enough. It has not trusted the "man on the ground" to evaluate the situation and adapt the plan to meet the mission. Instead, they process the plan through all of the levels of hierarchy and get it signed off on by superior after superior, each one covering his own butt, making sure that they are not ultimately responsible for anything.

Then, the plan is etched in stone, no variations can be made or else whoever gave the orders to allow adaptation is on the hook if anything goes wrong.

Within Delta Force, which often depends upon small groups of soldiers, open communication lines despite rank or experience, and creative adaptation as a situation unfolds, Blaber found success when he wasn't bogged down by the military system.

He stressed the importance of preparing instead of planning. In all of life this makes complete sense. We prepare as best we can by being physically, spiritually, mentally and emotionally ready. Then, we head out on the mission. The plan is basic and leaves room for imagination. Success is defined as accomplishing the mission as opposed to following the plan.

In churches, the mission can easily get confused with the plan. Whether we are planning a potluck dinner or a missions trip across the world, we can spend countless hours developing a plan. We need this many people to arrive at this time and do these things. And, we need to make sure that we are all on time and that everyone knows what they are in charge of and who they report to. Got it! And, if we follow the plan, no one gets angry and lots of people are helped, then the plan is a success!

But, often, though we start with the Mission in mind, we end with only the plan in mind. Afterwards, we talk about whether or not we raised as much money as last year or whether we had enough people to help. And, we decide that in order to follow the plan better, we need to do things different next year.

It can be a rare moment when someone decides to forget the plan, "We are seeing God at work and we are going to follow the Holy Spirit's leading right now in this moment."

It might look like this...

Tom arrives on time to the church dinner, a little tired from work, but he has been praying about this opportunity to serve Christ for weeks. He reports to Sue, the head of the servers, and she gives him some simple directions. He prays one more time, "God use me to honor you."

While he is serving, he notices someone sitting alone and feels the compelling voice of the Holy Spirit, urging him to get some food and sit down next to him. Such a simple request from God that he would gladly obey.

But, he struggles in his heart with the pressures of the system. He signed up to serve, not to eat. If he doesn't serve, who will? What will Sue think of him if he abandons his post? What will the other servers think?

Then, he thinks, is it really God speaking to me? Maybe it is but maybe it's not.

I believe that this happens a thousand times in a thousand different ways because the system of the church is as broken as the system of our military. (In fact, I think the same could be said about our educational system, our governmental system and every system ever set up by people to control other people and protect them from themselves.)

One obvious example is church fundraising. Why is the church raising money? What does the church need money for?

To pay the pastor? It is the responsibility of the church, the people who are the church, to take care of the needs of the pastor (and not just his or her financial needs).

To pay the bills, for electricity and heat and to buy hymnals or a new video projector? Isn't that all just maintaining the system? What does that have to do with the Mission? Unless we think we need things in order to accomplish the Mission. In that case, it is the church's responsibility to pay for accomplishing the Mission. (And, it is God's responsibility to provide it to them.)

Maybe, they need the money to do something great and meaningful and totally focused on the Mission. Maybe they need food to give out to the hungry, want to rebuild a home lost in a fire, or want to purchase Bibles to give to those who cannot afford them for themselves.

A fundraiser, really? Is that the best idea we can come up with? The Girl Scouts do fundraisers. The soccer team does fundraisers. Should the church who serves the Almighty God, be doing fundraisers?

Trust in God seems to preclude fundraising. Anything beyond making the need known is coercion and not faith. (There is one exception I would make for this. If the fundraiser is designed not to make money but to raise awareness that would further the Mission. But enough about that.)

But, fundraising is not alone. So much that is done in churches is based on a different mission. It is a base and self-serving mission. It might sound like this if a church was honest.

The Mission of ABC Church is to keep ABC Church open for as long as humanly possible.

Churches can become so enamored with themselves that they cannot imagine life without them. Those who have power in the church want to keep it. Those who have built and served in the church for many years want to relive the days of their prosperity and youth. Closing the church would feel like a personal attack. Those who enjoy church and feel at home there want to keep enjoying church and keep feeling at home there.

Christian love is a devotion to people not to an institution, a way of life, a philosophy or a religion. Love for one another is the heart of what it is to be the church.

The Church can survive without buildings, without budget meetings, without children's programs, without paid staff, without great preachers on TV and radio, and definitely without pressure to keep the system going.

The Church cannot exist without you and me expressing Christ's love to those that we meet. It cannot exist apart from relationships.

What then? Leave church?

This morning, someone asked me, "I realize that working with kids and talking to them about having a relationship with Christ, you prepare them for something much deeper (hopefully) than what traditional churches usually provide. What do you do then about church leadership? Would you leave the idea of paid pastor positions and lean more toward taking turns at leadership like the Quakers? Could you do community outreach without some planning or should Christians be prepared to do it individually rather than waiting for church organization?"

Great questions that I am wrestling with every day. Here's what I am thinking at this moment, though it is constantly changing.

Paid Pastors

The decision about whether or not to pay a pastor is based on the church. Remember, the church is a group of people who know and love each other intimately. It is impossible to have a church of a thousand people. You cannot know and love that many people. If a church building has that many people come through it each week, then in order to help them be the church, it must help them find an intimate number of people that they can share life with. And, that is then, their church.

In our spiritual journeys, we may decide to go to a church building and participate in any number of church programs, worship services, etc. Or, we may not. Either way, we are designed to be in a church, connected.

Together as a church, we need to decide whether or not to help support a pastor financially and to what extent. The Bible teaches us to raise up pastors and elders and leaders and to support them. But, it doesn't give clear guidelines about how we should do that.

Though this may sound like it may put some of us pastors out of business, the current system in many churches too often treats their pastors more as employees bound to their low mission rather than servants of God bound to His Mission. I think many pastors would gladly make that exchange.

So, whether we pay our pastors or not, we should find pastors and elders to lead us, and we should provide for their needs in all aspects of their lives.

From my brief look at an informational site by and about Quakers, I think that this is similar to their thoughts, but maybe not a typical understanding of them. Some Quakers have pastor-led gatherings. Some do not. Some have more form in their services and others are happy to sit in silence until receiving guidance from the Holy Spirit.

The key for me is that the church itself decides what is the best method to accomplish the Mission.

Community Outreach

Community outreach would be done with the Mission in mind. There may be a plan, but it would not be an intricate plan with unchangeable details. The Mission would take precedence over the plan. The plan would be to pass out water during the community day or to go where the homeless are sleeping and help meet their needs.

The plan would set the ball rolling, but the Mission, the Men and Me would be the guiding principle for all the decisions made once the community outreach began. If we run out of water, should we go get more or not?

The low mission would ask, "Do we have time in the schedule? Do we have money in the budget? Have we passed out enough water to consider this plan successful?"

The Mission would ask, "What is the Holy Spirit leading us to do? Based on what we've seen and heard and experienced here, would it be better to not have water to hand out and continue talking with people and developing relationships? Would we be more effective at accomplishing the Mission if we had Gatorade or Hot Chocolate to pass out, or hamburgers and hot dogs?" Together we can ask, "What are we sensing from the Holy Spirit, from the people we are trying to reach out to and from our own hearts?" And, then we adapt the plan to fit the situation.

Communication is crucial for this. Communication with Christ and with one another in the church. Together, we need to discover the next step.

Any plan has to incorporate room for adaptation or else it is only as good as our ability to predict the future.

When we label something a "Community Outreach", it may betray an underlying problem in our thinking. We might think that we are setting apart time from our regular lives to reach out to people in our community for some purpose, (either to fulfill our mission or His Mission, usually).

The problem with this way of thinking is that we are asked to reach out to everyone we meet. So, yes, we should not wait for the church to organize an event in order to reach out. But, we can organize events that will create opportunities to connect with people that we might not ever meet otherwise.

But, the plan must remain submissive to the principle of the Mission, the Men and Me.

We must stay focused on the Mission, look out for the welfare of the Men, and not lose track of caring for Me.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Going to Church is a Good Idea, But Don't Go

We need to be the Church, not go to church. Part of being the Church is joining with other believers for relationship and worship and teaching and mission. I agree with the premise of an article in Relevant magazine that tells Millennials to go to church. They need to be grounded in a local community for relationship building over time to those who need to see the love of Christ lived out. They also need mentors and a secure place to return to after taking risks in their faith.

The systemic problem of the church is what limits the church's connection to this generation. What God-fearing Christian wants to spend their life energy, passion and resources maintaining a broken system.

Millennials, like other sane people, don't want to spend time filling positions on planning boards, redecorating the church foyer or making photocopies for Children's Church. They want to connect with people who are in need (spiritually, physically, emotionally, socially...) and pour out the love of Christ into their lives.

The Mission of the Church is as clear as the mission of most churches is muddled. The Mission is to live in community, grounded in the love of Christ, demonstrating that love to the world of people within their reach and influence. "Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" (MSG)

The typical church structure hinders this. It is much more direct to walk the streets, strike up a conversation with a homeless person and invite him to lunch than to sit in a planning meeting about the next church barbecue.

Church-owned property, church-centric programs, and finance-driven decisions betray the anemic mission of most churches.

When I mention that our family has started a home church, we sometimes get asked questions that reveal a tragic misunderstanding of the nature and mission of the church.

The first question is usually: "How many people come?" I want to say, "Really? Is that your first question? How about, 'How have you seen God working in your midst?' or if we are close friends, 'Are you fulfilling your mission as a church?'" What I usually say is something like, "Not many. It's been the most rewarding and life-giving experience of our lives."

We are called to be light and salt, to bring life to those who are dying, to rescue those who stumble, to feed the hungry and preach the Gospel to everyone we meet.

Millennials should not join a church just because there are some good reasons to. They should continue to think outside of the church systems and find new ways to be the Church. They can help the rest of us figure out how to be rooted in communities, facilitate much needed mentoring relationships and maintain a strong faith community without wasting our resources on finding creative ways of inviting people into our well-maintained buildings.

I was a pastor at a traditional church for 18 years and was unable to break through the systemic problems to get back to the important role of the church to be light and salt. In a traditional church, buildings must be maintained, bills must be paid, organization and hierarchy are necessary evils.

Every moment spent on these hinders the church from fulfilling its true mission. When we ask questions like, "How do we keep people from leaving?" or "How do we attract more people?" or "Who can we get to fill this position?" we demonstrate a commitment to the structures that is stronger than our commitment to Christ and to His mission. The traditional church model is not the answer and more and more it seems to be a hindrance.

Let's find a way forward together.

My next post is in response to questions that arose from this one: The Mission, the Men, and Me