Monthly Archives: June 2018

Loosen Your Grip

messy basementI recently heard the following prayer petition spoken at a conference I was attending:

Loosen our attachment to earthly things. May we receive them with the condition of their surrender.

The petition struck me because at the moment I had lost my coat and was feeling sad about it. I was gripping too tightly to my earthly possession at that exact time.

These words brought home to me too that we as a society and we as Christians even, are clinging too tightly to the things of this earth: our homes, our clothes, our smartphone, our iPads, our furniture, etc.

We attach a lot of sentimentality to things and do not wish to part with “our stuff.” In the most extreme cases, this can lead to hoarding, which a whole television show is dedicated to. We think when we see a hoarder, “How could they get to that point?” But then we go down to our own basements and see box after box of “stuff.” Why are we holding on all of this?

At the same conference where I heard this petition, Pastor Chris Singer from Houston, TX, spoke about how he and his family lost all of their possessions in Hurricane Harvey and how their house was greatly damaged and at that time still uninhabitable.

But what came out of that experience for Singer was the realization that our lives are not about things, but about Christ, and how we can serve others through him. Their church became a crisis center for people who needed the basics to survive. And people generously donated items for the people in need to use to make it through this tough time in their lives.

All of this made me see that in many ways we on a daily basis need to loosen our grip on things. As Christians, we know that this earth and everything in it will pass away and we will have only our faith in Christ and his presence with us.

So loosen your grip by giving things away to those in need and sharing what you have with others. Be willing to surrender your stuff. Don’t hang on too much to what will pass away, but hang on to Christ. He will never let you go.

In the Style of Taizé

taizeFor those of you who may not know, Taizé is an ecumenical Christian monastic community in Taizé, Saône-et-Loire, Burgandy, France. Established in August 1962, it has become one of the world’s most important sites of Christian pilgrimage, especially for youth. The community is known for music that emphasizes simple phrases, usually from Scripture, repeated and often sung in canon.

I was recently at a concert in which the choir sang  a prayer of St. Teresa of Avila “in the style of Taizé.” The choir and then the audience sang the following words several times and in a round:

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.

The effect was very calming and soothing. Any problems I was having that day seemed to be washed away by the words being sung over and around me. God alone is truly all I need in this life, my soul heard loud and clear through that experience.

Shortly after that concert, I was worshiping at my church and the congregational responses to the prayers were sung “in the style of Taizé,” the bulletin noted. After each petition, the following words were sung:

O Lord, hear my prayer. O Lord, hear my prayer, when I call answer me. O Lord, hear my prayer. O Lord, hear my prayer. Come and listen to me.

The repetition of the words and the feeling of the words being sung by me and my brothers and sisters all around me was moving. I could sense the deep desire of the people to receive guidance from God and the constant drive for us to stay connected to God in prayer.

Songs and prayers should always be flowing from our hearts, if not our lips, over and over again throughout the day “in the style of Taizé.” Repeating meaningful words and Scriptures to ourselves can have a positive impact on our faith and life and actions. We have a tendency to forget things. But if we keep reminding ourselves of the good and gracious God we love who loves us in Christ and listens to us and cares for us, we can stay grounded in him.

Find a favorite Bible verse this week or a favorite hymn and speak or sing it several times “in the style of Taizé,” as part of your daily devotionals, and see how how your approach to the day’s struggles can be positively affected and spiritually grounded.

 

 

Trajectory of Engagement

trajectory of engagementIn The Social Media Gospel, author Meredith Gould talks about the trajectory of engagement. This is the movement from online communication to offline relationships.

This concept of the trajectory of engagement is having a large impact on the church today. Engagement on social media may be a good start when it comes to church relations. But it cannot be the end result. We, in the church, know that faith engagement must at some point be face-to-face, person-to person. The trajectory must go beyond technology to faith-based living in the family of God.

So how does this trajectory happen? It happens through concerted efforts to invite those who are engaged in conversations on a church’s social media platforms to join in events at church, be it worship, a small group Bible study, a soup supper, whatever opportunity for personal engagement at the church presents itself.

It is only in the actual presence of other people that the richness and vitality of the Christian Church can be seen and felt most fully by the power of the Holy Spirit.

I know for me in my life, so many conversations I have with people in the church are now through text messages, which can be great for sharing a quick story or an encouraging word but cannot replace being together in the pew or chatting over a cup of coffee at lunch. The online and the offline communication must work in tandom for a deeper connection to develop spiritually.

I often wonder what it would have been like if Jesus had been alive during this time of social media. My first thought would be that he would point us to the parable of the Good Samaritan. Would we be like the priest and the Levite who walked by the person in need right in front of us because we were texting our friends?

It’s time for us to look up from our phones and look at social media in the church not as an end in itself, but a beginning, a doorway, a portal into a life of more meaningful real-life personal relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Be social in life and not just a screen!

 

 

Positive Proximity

positive proximityThere’s a term in urban planning getting a lot of traction these days: positive proximity. The term refers to ways in which neighbors in a community work together in a positive manner to achieve a worthy goal. Revitalized main streets in small towns and parks in subdivisions have resulted from the positive proximity approach.

Churches can be a major player in the concept of positive proximity. Being a good neighbor as a church to the businesses around it can go a long way to build up feelings of goodwill and gestures of kindness down the road.

The church is never to be an island to itself on a street. It is meant to be a part of the action, a major contributor to the needs of those who dwell in the surrounding spaces.

How does this happen? Perhaps after a snowstorm, a church can arrange to have plow trucks clear the parking lots of neighboring businesses as well as their own. I think of a florist that sat next to my church in Cleveland, OH, whom we bought altar flowers from. The florist in turn allowed our church’s school to sell pumpkins for Halloween in their parking lot each October to raise money for ministry.

So many actions can seem so small, but they are really remembered. Just a simple wave to someone who is coming out of their home while you are coming out of church can bring a smile to that neighbor’s face. That neighbor then recalls that gesture when someone else asks about your church. “They’re nice!”

The driving force behind the positive proximity concept is that it can cause a chain reaction of random acts of kindness in a community. One wave can lead to a conversation about working together on a project to keep the sidewalks clean, which can lead to increased foot traffic to shops and storefronts.

It is important in positive proximity to be open and available. Think of the old model of rows of front porches in a neighborhood. Being out and about in front of your church can help neighbors to see that you care about the place you are in and you care about the community. Make a point to engage in conversations with those who walk by while you are putting a new message on your church sign, for instance.

I think of how Jesus was positive proximity in action. He did not stay inside all time during his life on earth. He was more often walking the streets, talking to people, finding out how things were with them and then helping and healing, as we read in Matthew 9:35:

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.

That is our role as the church, too, to be the hands and feet of Christ and and not just the dwelling place of God in brick and mortar. Be a positive impact on a next-door neighbor to your church today.

 

Gluttony

gluttonyWe live in a world in which pleasure and happiness are paramount. But constantly feeding our physical and emotional appetites for pleasure leads to one of the great seven deadly sins: gluttony.

Gluttony is greedy or excessive indulgence. The pitfalls of gluttony for us as Christians are that it focuses on self and can lead to diminishing returns. The more we have of some earthly pleasure, the less enjoyable it becomes.

I like what pastor and theology professor Wayne E. Croft Sr. said about gluttony: “Gluttony deceives us into believing we can feed our souls through our flesh. The problem is when I would rather watch reruns of my favorite TV program than pray. The problem is when I would rather check my texts, emails or social media sites than pause to meditate. The problem is when I long for Pillsbury biscuits but not the bread of life” (“I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” Living Lutheran, February 2018, 45).

Our desire should always be to please God first and foremost, beyond our own personal pleasures. Our joy, our satisfaction, our ultimate pleasure should come from being with God and getting to know him more. Our motivation in life should always be to be more like Christ, serving others more often than we serve ourselves.

Unlike the pleasures of the world, our joy in the Lord leads to ever increasing returns. As Psalm 23:6 reminds us:

Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

The joy we have in God’s love for us in Jesus will continue all the way into eternal life, where we will be singing his praises evermore. That’s the lasting pleasure we seek.

 

 

Sunday School Shuffle

Sunday schoolAs with the coffee hour I discussed a couple of blogs back, the Sunday school hour is not what it used to be in our churches today, especially during the summer months.

The traditional approach of having separate grades in separate classrooms for one hour after church is becoming increasingly rare these days for many of the same reasons for the decline of the coffee hour. There are so many competing commitments on a Sunday morning for so many young families that schedules do not often allow for an extra hour to be at church for Sunday school.

In order to accommodate this pervasive trend, churches are turning to other alternatives to incorporate Sunday school into Sunday mornings. One way is through what is typically called “children’s church.” In this model, just before the sermon or right after a children’s sermon in worship children are invited leave the worship space to come to another room to learn about the Scripture lessons for the day or other Bible readings or stories in a more kid-friendly way. This approach usually involves some sort of craft or activity to reinforce the message. Children are then brought back to the worship space at the end of the service to rejoin their families.

Another model gathers all grades into one room during the entire worship service that is happening elsewhere simultaneously. This design allows for the singing of Bible-based children’s songs, a more in-depth look at Scripture and a more complex activity or craft. The gathering of all grades together also increases the feeling of community and fosters relationships that may not otherwise have happened if children were placed in separate classrooms by grade levels.

Many churches have chosen to continue offering traditional Sunday school for separate grade levels, only moving it to the same time period as regular worship.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each type of Sunday school shuffle, in my view. The advantages of children’s church is that children take part in both worship and Sunday school in the given hour. The disadvantage is that it is often disruptive, rushed and unsettling to make the transition from worship to Sunday school and back.

The advantage of the combined grade Sunday school is that there is an increased energy, the entire hour is dedicated to Sunday school and church workers can be more creative with their lesson plans. The disadvantage is that children do not get to experience worship with their families.

The plus of moving the traditional Sunday school to the church hour is that children can receive directed teaching that caters to their leaning development level and that children are with other children their own age. The disadvantage again is that children miss church.

There is no clear answer here, of course. I have talked to many church workers who struggle with how best to present the Sunday school shuffle to their congregations. In the end, it is about sharing the Good News of God’s love in Jesus to children in whatever form that may take. Let us rejoice in any opportunity we have to do that.