-Rev Melissa Fain-
In the past few months there have been moments where I felt I've been on the wrong side of things. Not that I've chosen the wrong side of an argument or anything, but I've found myself being on the inside of need instead of the outside.
Not long after my ordination, a ministerial colleague expressed what she felt was my biggest pastoral gift: speaking truth to a system. She told me I named something no one was looking at, and correctly voiced that if nothing was done about it it would not be helpful. Now, I'm not spilling the tea here. You're not going to hear the details of that event, just that it's repeatable. On the outside of conflict, I can usually bring down the mob and calm everyone down. I understand the reasons beyond the initial conflict. (Honestly, it's probably why my favorite theology is the systematic kind, the kind that requires us to connect the dots.)
February 14th marks a pretty big milestone this coming year. I'll be ordained exactly one decade. If you count my church work before the ordination, I've been focused on working for God for twenty years. Just for context, that's little over half my life, and when you consider my volunteer work before that... well, that's most of my life.
With that being known, we've gotta have a pretty real conversation here. It's time for me to speak truth to this system. I've been on every side of it. I've been a Christian child, young adult, and adult. I've been a volunteer and paid staff. I've been everything from a choir director, to a youth leader to a senior minister*. I've been inside the church, in a ministry outside the church, and completely outside the system. I've seen it all. I've heard it all.
I know what if feels like to be a congregant in a dying church, and I know the frustration of being a minister in a broken church. I've witnessed the heartbreak of a congregation, and mourned with them when their minister betrayed them. Yes, I have the Masters of Divinity to show I have the book smart, but I come to you with street smart to back it up.
There are a few problems going on in the church, and some of them overlap, which is probably why it has been so difficult to nail it down and deal with it. This will be a very honest mirror church, so it's not gonna look pretty.
1) Most of humanity will sacrifice what is right for comfort.
I used to think everyone chose to join a church/temple out of the deep desire to make the world a better place and grow closer to God. In reality people join churches for a variety of reasons, and those two don't often come in first place.
Those things are comfort. They're selfish. Sometimes it's good to be selfish, and I've written on those things before, but they are not the catch-all for church.
No matter what, most people don't want to truly sacrifice for anything. They don't want to actually have to build something, or create. At the end of the day, the church building is comfortable. So many of us have felt God has left the building, yet we stay because we've put the building among the assets. Why can't we fix the church inside the physical church? Ask that to the Israelites, who were called to the Wilderness. They had a building too. They had comfort, but their comfort were as slaves, and we've become sedentary slaves to our physical church.
2) No one wants in once they've been kicked out.
3) We are blind to ourselves.
There was this craze in the Aughts of looking at mental illness as a television special. Hoarders, over-eaters, abusers... it didn't matter. If they were willing to get better in front of a camera, there was a show willing to be produced. We watched celebrities almost die from drug overdoses, while a few channels over we watched a woman try to explain why she needed to keep 28 used pizza boxes. It was all depressing. While maybe progress was made in the episode, usually the person sifted back into their old way of life, and some of them died from their illness.
I believe the Church is suffering from a spiritual illness that is attacking the Body. Some of the overarching themes of these twenty year old shows, especially the ones about hoarders, might at least help us see the problem.
4) The Problem is always "over there."
On some level, I can take the first three. I have focus with the the first three problems. Number four is the one problem that sneaks in and takes away any real power for change. Someone posts a story of church brokenness, and the Church might be outraged, and even sad. Their very friends might show the broken person specifically sympathy. Then, nothing at all happens or changes?
Why? Because the problem, an entire Church problem, suddenly turned into a specific congregation problem. The congregation in question didn't hear the outrage because the church (or the person themselves) swiftly cut "the problem" out, taking away any substantial power to change the system. Eight years ago someone asked me what they could do to help my situation. I told them, "Stay." They did not stay, and it took away their power to make a congregation healthy for future ministers and congregants.
Here's where the Church as a whole really turned into monsters. There is part of our call as Christians we've totally neglected since at least 1992, more than likely longer. We are called to name our failure, bring it to Christ, and die at that cross! Death is actually part of the story! Instead we take our sins, put them on a glorified scapegoat and cut those people loose to do the dying for us!
HERE'S MY ANGER! HERE'S MY OUTRAGE! It's not about having a cushy job in a cushy church! You've thought that's what I'm doing this for? Once those churches cut those people out they talk about the problem in the past tense. In reality the person left, but the problem stayed to fester and grow. Some of those who left take years to realize they haven't been carrying someone else's problem. The damage is huge on both sides!
What gets me the most, is Brueggemann was right in his second edition preface to "The Prophetic Imagination":
A confrontational model assumes that the "prophetic voice" has enough clout, either social or moral, to gain a hearing. Currently, the old "prophetic stance" of such churches lacks much of that authority, so that the old confrontational approach is largely ineffectual posturing. Given that social reality, which I think cannot be doubted, I suspect that whatever is "Prophetic" must be more cunning and more nuanced and perhaps more ironic. -xii
Here's your irony! Here's your prophet telling you in 2001 you will ignore him because the Church stopped listening to her prophets! What has that truth gotten us?
Our insistence to point the finger at someone or something else means so many congregations are gasping for breath at death's door, and no one with the power to stop it cares. You have spent fifty years slowly digging your own graves. Now it's done. You sit in your pit and you'd rather starve than admit God's not in the grave. God's here with me. God's here with those you've cut loose. God is alive, on the other side of death, but for you to reach Him, you have to accept your inevitable fate. You have to admit you met death. Something will die in that grave. It will either be your old way of "church," or the Church itself.
Either way, I'm done waiting. I'm done posturing. This year, I'm moving forward. I'm moving on. I'm going where God is.
* The links to congregations and Christian institutions are for reference only. To link the "senior minister" job is unnecessary. It's important to know that call was to a broken congregation, but as I feel they can find healing, I don't want to put focus on them before they do.
-Rev Myra Torance-
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.
John 3:16 CEB
For me the word “love” is a verb; an action word. Far too many are the people who believe and take for granted the word “love.” True, real love takes patience, and faithfulness. It is not easy but when you finally believe; it is the easiest of action verbs to live.
Example: I wrote to a young man in the army stationed in Vietnam. For over a year I wrote him a letter every day. Well to be honest, for two of those days my mother sent him cards because I was sick with the flu. We did it because this way when they had mail call he always had mail! Every week I sent him a box (5 lbs) filled with chocolate chip cookies.
Now, there is a lot more to this story in the background, but that is for another time.
Anyway, this man, in a letter, asked me to marry him and I accepted; without ever having seen a picture of him. When he was discharged he flew to a nearby airport for me to pick him up.
I had heard his voice over a telephone once. I was twenty years old, never had a date, but our love grew from letters and chocolate chip cookies. I asked him how I would know who he was and he stated, “I’ll be the one in uniform.” Imagine my surprise when five gentlemen in uniform came forth from the plane?
We had a hard but beautiful marriage for 44 years and then his fight with cancer won and he went to God. I miss him every day of my life, but the love we shared gave me 4 children and 9 grandchildren.
God sent Jesus to teach us what love is and he lived it every day of his short life. What he gave is a gift we should always cherish. From a stable to a cross he lived love. This season of Lent I pray you do also.
- - -
Jesus, lover of my soul, sing in my heart, so that I may shine your love into the world.
Rev Myra Torrance is the pastor of Chelan Christian Church, where she has led the congregation for four years. She has been a pastor in the Disciples of Christ Christian Church for over 35 years. Prior to being called to the pulpit, she was the Executive Director for Hospice in Vincennes, Indiana. Myra is originally from Vincennes, Indiana, where she raised her four children with her husband, Bud, before his passing in 2011. Myra loves to write and enjoys time with her two Chihuahuas.
-Rev Rebecca Yowler-
“You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.
Mathew 5:43-48 CEB
I do NOT love my neighbor. Not “my neighbor” as in the global sense, or as in loving all of humanity. I mean the person who lives next door to me right now. I do not love her. I don’t even like her. I border on feelings of hate, anger, and complete abhorrence of her, to be quite honest. I’m not usually a hateful person— I tend to look for the good in everyone and find the essence of the divine in them. But not this woman. She has been a thorn in my side since my wife moved into the house we now share. She’s called our landlord to complain (we don’t share the same landlord), she sabotaged our wedding reception, she even bought an extra-loud speaker to blast at our house in an admitted attempt to run us out of the neighborhood. But none of these things is the reasons I don’t like her. I really don’t like her because of the way she treats her elderly dog. This poor dog is forced to live outside 24/7 regardless of how hot it gets (over 100) or how cold it gets (sometimes below freezing). His fur is matted to his body, and we can hear him crying in pain. I don’t even understand the level of cruelty this poor dog endures. So there, I said it. I don’t like my dog abusing, stereo blasting, wedding reception sabotaging neighbor.
And I’m sorry for it. Truly and deeply sorry. We’ve tried conversation. We’ve tried being nice. We’ve tried ignoring her. We’ve never stooped to any level of retribution. We’ve “turned the other cheek.” But we don’t love her and we certainly don’t pray for her. For her dog? Yes. For her? NO.
Today, this scripture reminds me that I am called to love my neighbor, not just in the global sense, but even in the sense of the woman next door. I am called to love her, pray for her, and ask God to give her good things. This scripture reminds us that love means looking past all of the reasons we hate someone. This is difficult. I mean this is REALLY difficult. What does this kind of radical love even look like? How can you love a neighbor that won’t even make eye contact? How can you love a neighbor during a 3am heavy metal blasting session? How can you love a neighbor that abuses an animal?
I don’t know, but I’m going to try harder.
Is there a neighbor you don’t love? Maybe they don’t live right next door, but is there someone in your life that you don’t love? Even if you have a good reason, what would loving them anyway look like? Are you willing to try harder?
- - -
God, please remind me that loving my neighbor includes the one that lives next door (or down the street, or across town). Please help me to be a better neighbor and a more loving neighbor. Help me to learn to love even those who are hardest to love, and if I can’t love them, help me to at least be nicer. Amen.
Rev Rebecca Ann Yowler is an ordained Disciples minister and an academic librarian. She is currently adjunct faculty at Valparaiso University. She is passionate about pugs, knitting, and figure skating. You can read her occasional sermons and devotions at www.beccassermons.livejournal.com
-Rev. Evan Dolive-
This is how love has been perfected in us, so that we can have confidence on the Judgment Day, because we are exactly the same as God is in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love. We love because God first loved us.
1 John 4:17-19 CEB
During this time of Lent, we are on a journey to a destination that many of us want to forget; we want to jump to the end, we want the resurrection, the shouts of Hallelujah and angelic choirs singing. This road that we are not now is dark and depressing at times. But we can’t leave, we can’t jump ahead yet. We need to stay and settle into this of uncertainly and self-reflection for a while longer
We live in a world of uncertainty and fear; news channels use this to their advantage to promote their story line, politicians use it to promote their ideals and even the church uses it to bolster numbers and attendance.
The fear of the unknown can be so powerful that we are cemented in our own ways and in our own “comfort zones.” We eat the same thing for breakfast, we take a coffee break at the same time and we like our TV shows at a certain time and on and on and on.
The fear we experience in our lives is normal and natural but so is antithesis, the love that we have. Love is one of those things that we talk about all the time and strive for; in a nutshell, we love love. Love is a wonderful feeling and emotion. The author of I John is imploring the hearers to cast off fear not in a brazen way rather to settle into the notion of the abiding love of God. The author continues and states that as followers of Christ we are called to a standard not of fear and contentment, but to a standard of love for all others.
I John 4:19 is one of my favorite verses in all of the Bible. It is central to my theology of love for others; the only reason you have the capacity to love another human being (romantically or not) is because of the love that God has shown you. We as human beings has been given a gift, a free gift, a wonderful and miraculously gift, unconditional love from God. We then are to take this free gift and share it without hesitation to all people we encounter. If we at any point start to put conditions on the love in which we give then we are squandering a free gift that was given to us.
Being bearers of God’s love is of great importance. This cannot and should not be taken lightly. Thomas Merton, a Catholic Monk, once wrote, “Our job [as followers of Christ] is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody's business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.”
O God the source of all love, may we this Lenten season see you in the people around us; may we cast off our fear and open our hearts to feel what you feel, see what you see and love who you love. In the name of the one who gave for our sins, Jesus the Christ, Amen.
Rev Evan M. Dolive is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He currently serves as the Associate Minister for Family Life at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Longview, Texas. He is the author of "Seeking Imperfection: Body Image, Marketing and God," a theological examination of marketing and body images propagated in the world today and the Christian response. He also writes for various online publications and at evandolive.com.
He is currently working on his Doctorate at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, TX. He is married to his high school sweetheart and has three children ages 6,4 and 2.
“What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like.”
-Rev Paul Appleby-
"Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth. Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things."
1 Corinthians 13:4-7 CEB
Most of us have encountered Paul's "Hymn to Love" before. It is one of the most quoted texts at weddings and funerals, and there is little wonder why. Patience, kindness, lack of ego, politeness, forgiveness, these are all virtues we would promote in a happy marriage, as well as those who look to celebrate in a life well lived. As a minister, I have read these words at both my sister's wedding and my grandmother's funeral. I can appreciate their attraction and their power during these seminal moments.
The thing is, in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul isn't reflecting on weddings or funerals. He isn’t even reflecting on the prosaic qualities of love for love's sake.
Paul is telling the church how it ought to be, and how we as members of the church are supposed to act towards each other. Can you imagine?
Picture it. One day a week, you know that when you get up you are going to get to go somewhere special. During the week, you have felt the rush of deadlines and appointments. Hurry, hurry! Rush, rush! Today, however, you get to go somewhere where everyone you meet has made the decision that they are going to be patient with you. During the week you've been cut off in traffic, you've been taken advantage of, and you've had to deal with others who think their wants ought to come before your needs. Today, however, you get to go somewhere where all you encounter are folks who have made the decision to be kind to you. Today you get to go somewhere where no one is jealous of you, no one is looking to brag about how much newer their iPhone is than yours, or how much smarter their kids are. Today you get to go someplace where folks are polite, where they look to see what they can do for you instead of looking at what you can do for them, where people are thick-skinned, and quick to forgive. Today you get to step outside of the world of daily politics where folks look to loop "gotcha" quotes and unflattering sound-bites from "the other side's" candidates and instead you get to be a part of a people who mourn injustice (regardless of its victim), and rejoice in the truth. Today you get to be a part of a people who put up with you, who trust in you, who hope for the best for your life, and will be by your side through thick and thin.
To me that sounds like a little piece of heaven on earth.
As a Pastor, I am often asked about the decline in the membership of the church. I'm sure you've seen the reports in the news or on-line. I'm asked why Millennials aren't attending services. Do we need to make our services more contemporary? Do we need to be more progressive? Do we need to get back to that "old time religion"? Frankly, I don't know.
What I do know is that if our churches took Paul's advice and did the difficult work of choosing to be a community whose calling card is love, if we were renowned not for being judgmental or hypocritical, but instead for being a community intentionally committed to loving all who walked through our doors the way Paul tells us to in 1 Corinthians 13, I don't believe there would be an empty pew in a single church in America on a Sunday morning.
Make the decision, today, to be an agent of love. Make it today, and tomorrow, and the next day.
This stuff is contagious!
Maybe someday soon (we can hope, we can be patient, we can endure until that day) they will know that we are Christians, not because we support the "right" causes, or have a fun worship service- maybe they will know we are Christians by our love.
- - -
Loving God, make us agents of love, not just for today, but forever.
Rev Paul Appleby: Raised in the Church, the teachings of Jesus came alive to Paul in a new and exciting way after studying the Sermon on the Mount, and rediscovering the brilliant, simple, and profound way Jesus encourages his followers to live and love. Along with his amazing wife Sage, he serves a loving Christ-centered congregation in Killeen, Texas.
18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. 20 As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:
23 Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,
And they will call him, Emmanuel.
(Emmanuel means “God with us.”)
24 When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife. 25 But he didn’t have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
Media completely messed up my child-like definition of love.
First offender: Disney. I learned through The Little Mermaid that true love is only a couple of sunsets away, and a family trying to keep you safe is the opposite of love. Now, don't get be wrong, I still belt Ariel songs in the shower, but I no longer take life lessons from a fish.
Second offender: Adults. Yeah, I grew up during that weird purity phenomenon. I wasn't pushed into the actual purity culture. Our family wasn't evangelical, so it really wasn't being used in our churches, but it still made an impact on me. The result was actually worse. A bunch of nothing. There was this strange fear of adults to talk to their children about S.E.X. I mean, I understand where it was coming from. I have kids now, and I wonder how that conversation is going to go, and I'm worried I'll wait too late to give it, but I don't want it to happen too early.
Third offender: Media in general. This one was deceptive, because it was so subversive! Media knows the general person wants to be loved. Scrooge be darned, even the biggest humbug wants to find a lasting relationship. Therefore, media pushed their products through the lens of love. (Or finding lasting relationship to be more subtle.)
"You look like a flat slob, take this pill to lose a few pounds and that special someone will notice you."
"You smell like you've been living with seals. Here, squirt this on you and you will smell attractive."
"This specific product will give you the thing you love the most: [insert want here.]"
It made love look like this big candy machine. If we just push the right buttons it's ours. No questions asked. Easy Peasey.
Wrong. Obtaining love and keeping love will always be, without question, work. There are no easy ways to love. Even parents, that seem born with that inate compassion for their child, work at the relationship. Real love seems to come with blood sweat and tears. Oh, wait, there's a bible verse for that. "For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son..." [John 3:16a]
Christmas is the worst tool marketers use to manipulate consumers into buying fake love. Don't buy it. The real story of Christmas is all about the beginning of a love story that took tons of work and preparation. So when December 25th rolls around, and you are watching for that magic look of glee as that special someone opens that present you waited up to an hour in line to buy, remember that's not important. It's the relationshp and the work you do to mantaining the other 364 days that are important. Sit back and realize the greatest gift was given over 2,000 years ago in an animal barn. It all began with a mother holding her child, a child that would change the world.
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Besides that, have a very Merry Christmas! May Christ's light shine on your holiday and light in your heart!
AHallmark destroyed love.
If only it was that easy. Really, Hallmark made it more difficult to label love. We are told love is flowers and chocolates. Love is sentiment in a kitschy card. In reality love is seeking the best scenario for a person or group. When the perfume and caffeinated candy is peeled away, what is left? Is it love? It could be.
We have to separate our relationships from our gifts... mostly.
"No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you."
John 15:13-14 CEB
Jesus showed us the greatest love by willingly accepting an unjust punishment. Jesus is God's gift to us. There is no taking away the wrapping. It exists as is. God loves us.
How do you live out that love?
Let us get to the essence of what that love means.