Monday, April 20, 2015

Be Together, Not the Same

I share in this blog my report to the Presbytery of Lake Michigan at our April 14th meeting.  It was given immediately following our consideration of Amendment 14-F on amending W-4.9000 which states the definition of marriage in the Directory of Worship and while ballots were being counted.  It was later reported that our vote was 88 for and 24 against this amendment.  My report began with our viewing this Android YouTube video commercial "Friends Furever"  click here to see.  Isn't that a great witness to Isaiah's vision of the Kingdom Heaven on earth?  "The wolf and the lamb shall feed together , the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent--its food shall be dust!  They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord." (Isaiah 65:25)
Be Together…Not the Same.  Thank you Android for advertising Diversity in Community.  It is a tough sell these days, even in the church.  Ina Hughs states it so well in a Presbyterian Outlook article covering an Institute for Church Leadership Conference in the fall of 2013. “In Christ there is no East or West—as the old hymn goes—but among his followers today there is definitely Left and Right.  Liberal and Conservative.  Traditional and Progressive.  Red and Blue.  Tensions within churches and across denominational lines continue to unravel the tie that binds.  Current tendencies to draw lines in the sand, so painfully headlined in the political arena, bring American Christians once again to a Babel-like crisis:  hot button issues are so emotionally charged that some fear the church as the body of Christ is dismembering itself in the heat of those battles.
“Is it too late for Christians to turn ideological swords into plowshares?  Are ‘church people’ so far gone in vilifying each other over social or theological disagreements that they can no longer unearth the holy ground that is the Church’s one foundation?  Have they lost the blueprint and buried the tools for building bridges instead of fighting over ‘the loin issues’ or what kind of music belongs in true worship or how the Bible should be read? Have conversations within the church and about the church become a hell-bent race to ‘win’ and grown so cantankerous and distracting that we have  spawned a new fast growing denomination to check when asked for church affiliations:  “none of the above.” ("Purple Church" by Ina Hughs, Presbyterian Outlook, November 25, 2013 pp. 13-15).  
Our stated purpose as a Presbytery is "to challenge, encourage and equip worshiping communities of faith to make disciples of Jesus."  And the fastest growing demographic in America today which the church is not engaging or effective is the “nones,” those stating no church or religious affiliation.  The younger the generation, the stronger the disaffection with organized religion.  The church is being judged not by prophets but by people in the streets.  They do not see Jesus in us.  There is so much uncivil disagreement today in the culture and the church swims in that culture.  Kalamazoo College, an historic leader in social justice and international studies, has had a very troubled couple of months, culminating in a death threat, ..  It has been a rough few months on campus!  In Sunday’s Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper, the President of Kalamazoo College addressing the tension, stated "There is so much uncivil disagreement in the culture, there are few examples in society today for students of civil engagement in difficult issues.  We want a model a more civil way."  (Kalamazoo Gazette, Sunday April 12, 2015)  
Ina Hughs reports in the fore mentioned article how the Institute for Christian Leadership Conference in the fall of 2013 modeled this for the church.  The theme of the conference was “The Church in Purple,” a metaphor intended to underscore the need for mutual understanding and respect among Christians who disagree on a variety of theological and social issues, worship styles, and how to be the church in today’s world.  A judgmental, win/lose approach in dealing with these differences leads to estrangement and brokenness.  "A 'purple church' would be less interested in red/blue labels and more committed to modeling a royal priesthood of believers who aren't all cut from the same cloth, but meld together in a community that intentionally chooses to live out Christ’s call in mutual respect, humility and compassion."
The conference took the form of dialogical conversations in which various pairs from different camps, theological and practically, showed not only how such civility and respect is possible among people from different “sides,” but also how these traits model God’s kingdom rather than a culture of ‘us’ against ‘them.’  Without compromising his or her own viewpoints, each presenter told how their personal life as well as their ministry has been enriched by listening to, learning from and caring about their counterparts.
Thomas Daniel, a self defined conservative pastor from Atlanta pointed to the growing number of denominations, 38,000, at his last count. In dialogue with a progressive counterpart, he asked, “What does that say  about us?  What is it that drives our need to further isolate ourselves from each other?...The biggest problem with church is not our differences, but how we view each other with suspicion because of those differences.”  I would strengthen suspicion to contempt.
Another pair:  Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary and Barbara Wheeler of Auburn Theological Seminary were paired in dialogue.  Mouw said, “Christians are firstly called to be part of a community.  A chose race, a royal nation.  It is not a matter of going off on one’s own.  Furthermore, Christians are to be known as people who honor everyone.  In an atmosphere where the arguments are over racial justice, gender equality, and care of the earth, evangelicals sometimes feel a deep loneliness.  They also feel very misunderstood.  And like their liberal brothers and sisters in this family of faith, evangelicals, too, have a tendency to divide Christians between ‘them’ and ‘us,’ and even to boast that the evangelical arguments are made under the authority of Scripture and therefore on a higher plane.  But Liberals do the same thing.  Which means both sides end up distrusting each other:  Here, I think is the solution to that kind of disconnect.  Only through dialogue can you put yourself within the perspective of the person on the other side of an issue.  You must be careful to put your understanding of who that person is and what they are thinking in their words—not your own words.  What you think or presume they believe is not the way to go.”
Responding, Barbara Wheeler, his liberal colleague, said, “Our friendship and our work together has dispelled and confounded any inclination for stereotyping or preconceived notions.”  She summed up her remarks with a hopeful picture of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth we have from Isaiah and given witness to in the Android commercial, of what will happen when we stop bickering, stop discounting each other and start listening to and learning from each other.  "This, friends, is freedom in Christ:  to be our best selves with each other, to tease each other gently across all kinds of divides, including theological ones, and to make fun of ourselves in one another’s presence.  This is what it will be like, someday, in the church he came to build and the world he came to save:  We will not hurt or destroy in all God’s holy mountain.  Instead we will heal and repair, in our pluralistic societies in the worldwide Christian communion…and in our churches.”
I love this Presbytery because we do a little better at this than many other Presbyteries.  Visitors often comment to me how we get along...Maybe its part of the Midwest/Michigan culture of being nice.  Sometimes its hard to know when someone is agree at you.  People are so nice here!  On Long Island, where I last served, it wasn't so hard to tell.  People got in your face.  We do have room for improvement, as well.  You should not assume when you sit down at a table with colleagues that everyone will be in agreement with you.  The Android YouTube commercial gives us a picture of what Barbara reminds us, Isaiah's vision of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth in Isaiah 65:25, and states it well, "Be together, not the same!"
This Presbytery is who it is because of the witness to diversity of those to whom we have just said good bye:  Phil Henderson was a social justice preacher who advocated in the 80's and 90's for those with HIV and AIDS.  Bill Collins was a small town evangelical minded pastor who one colleague remembered taking men to "Promise Keeper" gatherings.  Karen Haak was an outspoken feminist who loved the church which wasn't quite ready for strong women leaders.  She understood the church as a family system.  Larry Nelson and Willard Curtis were congenial presbyters who served the larger church with great love and wisdom. Willard was this presbytery's commissioner to the General Assembly in 1967, which gave us not only the Confession of 1967 but also the Book of Confessions.  They witnessed how to be together, but not the same.  They were more than civil, but as Jesus would have us be, they were loving of the other.  They are now in our cloud of witnesses, in the balcony cheering us on.  "We’ve done this.  You can do this.  You've got this!"   As disciples of Jesus Christ in this time and place, be a witness, Be together, not the same!

Monday, April 6, 2015

Easter Sunday with the First Presbyterian Church of Holt

It was my joy to worship with the First Presbyterian Church of Holt on Easter morning as they concluded their 150th Anniversary Celebrations.  Along with Kirk Miller, pastor, and Kathleen Henrion, associate pastor, and Dave Milbourn, honorably retired member of Presbytery and former pastor at Holt, I joined the procession and shared in the liturgy.  We celebrated Christ's victory over sin and death with organ and bagpipe, bells and brass, tympani and works of art!  I introduced the passing of the peace with these words. "Aliens or foreigners no more. Christ has broken down the dividing wall between us.  We are sisters, brothers, members of the household of God. The Peace of Christ be with you."  At the table during communion, I prayed, "Feed us with the Bread of Heaven, so we can fill the hunger of the world."   I thought how appropriate these words are for all of us in the Presbytery of Lake Michigan today.  As we also live into our future, may we claim the peace which Christ has already made possible, having broken down the dividing wall between us.  May we live in that peace and continue to be fed with the bread of Heaven, so we may fill the hunger around us.  

From Upstream Worship at FPC, Holt, Easter Sunday
In a time when doing more of the same things better and with more effort no longer produces the same fruit, we are called to adaptive leadership, adaptive change.  Holt, First's history gives witness to adaptive change.  The building they now worship in is their third church building.  When the community began to transform from a rural community to a suburban/town, they strategically moved from Cedar St, the main route south of Lansing, to North Aurelius Road, and build a new building.  A couple of years ago they added monitors throughout the sanctuary for visual aids in worship and introduced an alternative worship service they call "Upstream."

Crosses made from rafter of earlier church building
At an earlier anniversary celebration, I received a gift, three wooden crosses with a candle in the center of them.  The crosses were lovingly grafted by a church member from the wood of a roof rafter taken from the former church building.  The wood had been stored in a members barn over the years.  Every church household received a wooden cross.  These crosses are a physical link to several hundred of years of history in Holt.

This I Believe statement added to FPC, Holt Time Capsule
The culture in which we live and serve today no longer sends people through our church doors.  When our numbers and programs dwindle, we grow anxious, as if our identify were linked to them.   Our identity is rather in Christ as his disciples!  We are the household of God.  We are the body of Christ, the salt of the earth, the aroma of Christ!  We do what Jesus once did and continues to do today through us.  With Jesus, we are called to pay attention to our neighbors, love our enemies, and respond with compassion and healing to those in need.  And though we are not practiced in it, we must learn to give witness to the hope we have in God!  During this Easter worship service at Holt, First, members were invited to bring forward "This I Believe" statements and placed them in the church's time capsule, which will be opened in 2065.
 I pray members will also find appropriate and authentic ways to give witness to their hope.

Kirk Miller has been awarded a Lilly Foundation Sabbatical Grant for this summer.  The Sabbatical Theme is "Divin' into Dreamin'!"  The congregation will hold a series of events and retreat dreaming about what God is doing and wants to do through them.  This theme has a powerful connection with Easter for me.  Some years ago, I preached an Easter Sermon entitled, "Don't Bury Your Dreams!"  The next day I traveled with a church group to my congregation's sister church in Guines, Cuba.  I preached the same sermon there.  Many hopes and dreams were buried on Good Friday when Jesus was crucified on the cross, died and was buried.  His followers, who were so hopeful, were devastated.  Some started to return home.  Yet, God rolled the stone away and raised him.  The tomb did not, could not hold God's dreams!  This message resonated with my small congregation anxious about its future.  It resonated with the Guines Church having survived several decades of religious persecution.  Rev. Madruga, hosting us in Guines, shouted out the refrain like a antiphon through out our week together, "Don't bury your dreams!"   Since then, I've rethought this a bit....maybe we need to let go of some of our dreams, of what we have known.  And may we take up the task of paying attention to God's dreams, looking for what God is doing, and finding ways of joining God in it, with the gifts God gives us.  God's Dreams, though we may bury them for a time won't stay dead.  God raises them anew.  With the Holt, First members, may we be about Divin' into Dreamin!  And through the power of the Holy Spirit bring them to life.