-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.
18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in[b] the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
When I was sixteen years old, I stood behind my father’s pulpit one Sunday morning and passionately spoke about evangelizing our community. There were people, right in our Bible belt, who hadn’t been brought into the church yet. People who thought churches wouldn’t want them. People who thought God wouldn’t want them.
I got a lot of “Amens” that morning, and when I got even more fired up, I said, “Who here wants to take this town for God?” I got an absolute chorus of “Amen” and “Yes” and “That’s right”.
“Great,” I said, “What’re we going to do about it?”
And then there was silence and awkward stares that said, “What? We have to do something? We’re already doing something—sitting in a pew is doing something.”
Christians really like the idea of evangelizing and reaching out to people, but most of them would prefer it if the Holy Spirit would handle all that without any input from them.
19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.
1 Corinthians 9:19-23
When Paul began his ministry, he did things a little differently. He reached out to Gentiles and he didn’t insist on strict adherence to Jewish law. He was doing something new and not everyone in the early church “got it”.
I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel…”
What’s happening with Fig Tree is different too. And that’s the point. If Paul were alive today, he might write something like, “To the disillusioned people who hide on the internet because traditional churches freak them out, I have become Fig Tree Christian…”
I was one of the first people to sign on when Fig Tree opened up for membership. Filling out that form was a big step for me. It’d been more than 15 years since I’d been active in a church.
About two years ago, I came across a link to one of the Meditations on Fig Tree. Over the next few months, I kept coming back to read and got to know Rev. Melissa.
Here’s the thing about me. Christians scare me. Put me in a locked room with Dracula, and I’d just stand there making fang jokes. But put me in a room with a nice, upstanding Christian dude and I’d be clawing at the door until my fingers bled.
I won’t walk into a church. I want to, but I can’t. I was so traumatized by my old church that sometimes I actually have panic attacks when I try to attend a new church. I don’t know if the Christians sitting in the pews around me are safe people or not.
What I will do is hop on Facebook and participate in Fig Tree’s Live feed. I’ll participate in online Bible studies. I’ll read the Meditations. And I don’t even have the language to describe what a huge step doing that is for me.
I’m far from alone. A while back, I started sharing my own experiences on my blog and on reddit. I was overwhelmed by some of the responses I got. So many people out there have been hurt or traumatized, not by individual people who happen to be Christians, but by entire groups of Christians within a church. And do you know where we tend to go after that happens? Well, not back into a church building. (Most people aren’t going to touch a stove after it’s already burned them.) We’re online, because who isn’t on the internet these days? Fig Tree is a safe place for all of us online church orphans.
But there’s a second step that needs to happen.
Fig Tree is in its first month of meeting as a physical church, offline. The whole thing is streamed live on Facebook so people like me can participate.
Now, I live way up in Michigan and Fig Tree is meeting way down in Georgia. If I lived in Georgia, I would feel comfortable enough to attend a physical church there. And that’s exactly what hurting people in that area need. A safe church. Because there are tons of people in that area who need to know they are wanted by a church and by God.
If you live in the area, I encourage… no. Scratch that. I beg you, on behalf of all the people like me who’ve been stomped on by people who claimed to follow Christ and desperately want to be part of a church that won’t do that again, stop in for a worship or two while Fig Tree is meeting. See what Rev. Melissa is doing. Understand that there is a vision there and there is a reason for doing things a little differently.
Go and support what we’re doing there. Show us that you care about the people who can’t come to the traditional Sunday morning worships. What Fig Tree is doing is new and it’s needed.
And isn’t that what we’re called to do? Go and make disciples.
Kristy is an ex-Mennonite adult PK who blogs about life, active pacifism, and wandering through the spiritual wilderness at kristyburmeister.com while consuming ridiculous amounts of coffee and pie.
“Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them.”
Matthew 5:17 CEB
-Rev Melissa Fain-
We must pick up the Hebrew Bible for the sake of fulfillment. It is very difficult to understand the New Testament without these early books. It must be done before we move further into our wilderness.
The Ten Commandments remain a piece of the Old Testament we can easily pull into our Christian context. We can unite under these simple truths. Don’t murder. Don’t get caught up with the stuff your neighbor has. Don’t make false idols. Don’t put anything before God’s eyes… What was that? You don’t remember that commandment? It’s right there, right before the idol commandment. What we are used to reading is,
“You must have no other gods before me.”
(Exodus 20:3 CEB)
As a child, it confused me that we separated this commandment with the nixing idols commandment. They sound exactly the same. In an important way, they are connected. Both have to do with worship. The idol commandment is about worshiping something other than God. Early on, this would be, don't go to other temples, or raise up Golden Cows, or worship Ba'al. That sort of thing. This “no other gods before me” is directly related to what we bring in to worship our God.
Quite literally, we are not supposed to bring anything but our worship and adoration before God. This commandment is discussing the Holy of Holies, the Ark of the Covenant. God’s home. When we come to God’s house, we are coming only to visit God. Now, I’ll be the first to say it is difficult to understand what is adoration and worship, and what is not. Do we worship and adore God with music? If so, what kind? Do we worship and adore God with our fellowship? What about the sermon? Is it worship and adoration? When we don’t come at the Holy of Holies with particular care, almost anything could find itself in a worship, because almost anything can be justified.
This is yet another reason why we are beginning with nothing. Did you know that while the general Protestant Church has been dying to oblivion, the Lutherans, Eastern Orthodox, and Catholic Church have all been growing? These traditions would tell you it’s because there earlier understanding of the Truth is the correct one. When I read or hear from those who have chosen one of these faith traditions, this is what they generally say, “It’s not that I really believe the reason why they do what they do, but they know what they do.” In other words, if you approached a Catholic Priest, after Mass, and begun asking why certain objects were in the room, he’d be able to tell you. If you were to ask an Eastern Orthodox Priest why they do each aspect of worship, he’d be able to tell you. If you asked a Protestant why they do a Call to Worship, sit during certain times, and stand at other times… I doubt the minister could even really explain why anymore.
When we can no longer explain why what we are doing is worship to God, we might not be worshipping God anymore. At least, that’s what all these “nones” (The group of people who believe in God but cannot find themselves going to church) conclude. Why we do things is just, if not more, important than what we do.
1 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
Genesis 1:1-2 NRSV
-Rev Melissa Fain-
(The plan, from here on out, is for meditations to relate to our live experience. Reading a meditation should enhance what happens Saturday at 2pm.)
If you asked kid me what the scariest movie out there was, she would be thinking Critters. She'd only think it, because it was one of those movies she wasn't supposed to have seen, but did. She would say The Neverending Story. The idea of nothing frightened young me. I can still recall how terrified I was at the rockeater's speech.
The rocks were there, then they were nothing. Wasn't there a hole, someone asks. No, he answers. A hole is something. This was nothing.
Just trying to wrap my head around this idea scared me to my core.
At the same time, I loved the movie. Bastion names the Childlike Empress at the end of the movie and brings everything back... or does he?
When I was in high school, I checked out the book from the library. It was a German novel by Michael Ende. (Translated into English. Don't any of you think I'm a German scholar.) At the time I enjoyed reading books after I saw their movie adaptations. I liked to imagine the characters had the faces I saw on screen while those same characters often did very different things than what their movie counterparts did. This gateway reading transformed me into the bookworm I am today. Anyway, imagine my amazement when the first half of the book is relatively where the first movie concludes! Yeah, the second movie kinda picks up where the first movie left off, and the third movie is the nasty leftovers no one wants to see, but I assumed the first movie was the story of the book.
All this to get to the question I posed above: Did Bastion bring everything back?
Um, kinda? Yes, he does bring back Falkor, and Atreyu, but he also creates new fantastic worlds. The silver city in the second movie was a new world of his creation. There are oceans and deserts that exist because he created them. Consider this: Before the "Nothing" came, there was no room for his imagination. The "Nothing" made room for the recreation that happens every time someone takes ink to paper.
I guess it gets to the broader point. Who is the author of Fig Tree Christian? Yeah, I guess in a small part it's me. I've been at this for years, and continue to strive to be ministerial in my endeavors. In a small part it's the congregants, some of whom have been around for a few years now. The real answer is God.
When God creates, it's from the void; the nothing. Perhaps we have our fancy notions of what it means to be in God's presence, when God just want presence. We need to put aside our desires and wants to allow God's desires and wants to flourish. We are about to start something daunting. We are going to empty ourselves out, and come to God with nothing. That's scary. I get it. If you trust me, this will be amazing, If we come with nothing, we will leave with a recreation of God's choosing. What does that look like? I have no earthly idea! That's part of the excitement. The point is, before we can begin, we must first let go.
More on that on Saturday.
We can talk about transformation and our greatest want until we are blue in the face, but if we can't connect the dots we are wasting our breath.
I've been to enough broken churches to see the biggest hinderance to positive transformation towards Christ, our greatest want. Imagine this with me: Every church (and person for that matter) has a metaphorical mirror. A healthy person, or group, has the capacity to self-reflect. Normally, we can tell someone to consider the situation and they will see themselves as they really are, and change their ways.
Well, there is a reason broken churches stay broken. At some point they look into that metaphorical mirror and decide to tape an old picture of themselves upon it, instead of taking in what they see. So when you ask them to reflect they are all ready to talk about the glory days as if their dwindling numbers really reflect something that can no longer exist. You can try to ask them to talk about now, but to them, the glory days are now. (Even when it is blatantly obvious to anyone on the outside the glory days were years before.)
As long as that false image continues to cover the mirror, there is no one who can help that person or group change. You might as well being trying to change a brick wall for the good it will do. You can tell them they are seeking the incorrect "greatest want" and tell them what you see physically happening at that moment. They will simply reply by sharing the image taped over the mirror. You can easily pinpoint taped over mirrors because the language will always be in the past tense. "We had this great event, where we did these wonderful things." "We loved this particular minister who served a decade ago." When things are talked about in the present tense, it's related to the needs to accomplish their new greatest want. "We earned enough money to pay our mortgage this month." We redesigned our our narthex to make it neater." Those kind of things.
What do you do? You show the false math in a Christian way. (I stress the word Christian. The false image is a safety blanket. You don't rip safety blankets away.) Last week I said X+Y=Z. Z is our greatest want. X and Y are the means to get to that want. Our in other words, our needs to get to it. For these churches that have lost their ability to self-reflect their math looks like this:
A and B don't equal Z. X and Y equals Z. To help a person, congregation or church see the light you have to show how A+B=C. Help them see that their greatest want has changed. (Or worse, they never had Z as their greatest want.) We all know this is easier said than done. There are reasons people live in their brokenness. Honesty is a tool, but it often fails. People tape over their ability to self-reflect because they don't want honesty.
In the end individuals are blessed with freewill. Change has to be a choice for it to have a lasting effect. Therefore, until the person chooses to change, nothing really changes. This brings us around full circle. Let me define our monthly sentence:
Our needs should focus on Christ as our greatest want, if we desire positive transformation.
Make this statement your mantra. Hold yourself accountable to it. Hold us accountable to it. Ask "why" more often to find the want behind the need. Ask "why" more often to seek Christ in the methods.
Next week we will discuss "X" and "Y". Today, let's talk about "Z", or the end result. Everyone and everything has a "Z". "Z" can best be described as our greatest want.
The world is full of needs and wants. I used to think what we need is greater than what we want. I realize this couldn't be further from the truth. In reality, needs are picked by what we want. Let me give you an example. Jane wants to live. The want is the prime point. For Jane to live she needs to eat, find shelter, and stay healthy. See? The want figures out what the needs are. Let's do it again. John wants to play in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. For John to have a chair in the orchestra he needs to purchase an instrument, learn to play it perfectly, audition, and have those doing the audition feel he is better than everyone else who auditioned.
We all have lesser and greater wants. Our greatest want is what drives all of our decisions. I think if many were to name what the most common greatest want is, many would name the desire to live. I don't know if that is really the case. I would say there is a struggle between wanting to live, and wanting to be comfortable or happy. When these two (life and happiness) are sold as a package, it can motivate people to do horrendous things. People will sacrifice the life and happiness of others, to maintain their own.
This is where I want to seriously look at scripture:
9 “As the Father loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete. 12 This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.
John 15:9-14 CEB
24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. 25 All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them. 26 Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives? What will people give in exchange for their lives? 27 For the Human One is about to come with the majesty of his Father with his angels. And then he will repay each one for what that person has done. 28 I assure you that some standing here won’t die before they see the Human One coming in his kingdom.”
Matthew 16:24-28 CEB
Before I get into how this works within a church or organization, let me suggest something radical that Jesus was the founder of:
Jesus wanted us to make God, in the form of Jesus, as our greatest want. If we understand the two texts under the idea of wants and needs, "saying no to themselves" would be replacing our greatest want, with Jesus. This completely alters why and how we do things. Instead of doing something for happiness, we are doing it to keep the Body of Christ healthy and happy. The outcome, when the Body is functioning correctly is health and happiness.
Now it should be obvious that the great want a church should always have is Christ.
Z is our greatest want. X and Y are the needs to get what we want. Now here's where things get complicated. We could all agree a church exists to make Z equal Christ. We could also probably agree that all the congregants are there for the same purpose.
Here is the hard to hear truth.
Not every person is in church for Christ. People go to church for all different reasons. Perhaps they want to get their children in something they feel would be safe. Perhaps they go because it is what they have always done. Perhaps the church is offering something the person can only get if they are a member. Maybe being a congregant is advantageous to the person in some way. For example, a politician might gain poll points for being an active member at a church. Some politicians go to church for the polls, not for Christ. No matter what the reason, their Z is different than Christ.
Those people will (mostly unknowingly) try to replace Z with their greatest need. This will derail the healthy transformative process, and break the church. Always. If you are in a broken church it is your job to discover that new Z, why it happened, when it happened, and put the church back on the correct path again.
This is what I want you to do this week:
Discover if your faith institution has Christ as their greatest want.
Try to name your own greatest want. Is it Christ?
It is time to get super intentional. Over the next few months we are going to look deeply into new church planting. After all, this is a new church plant. Our first journey is to look at the deceptively loaded sentence: "It doesn't mean something unless it transforms you."
This is what I'd like you do do:
(I'd like to thank Rob Lester. He donated an older version of Illustrator. I used it, in conjunction with Photoshop for this image. I'd also like to thank "Just Some Weird Guy," "Duchess of Shoofly," "Anonymous," and Kimberly Russell for donating money for the domain name. I know who you are. :) I'd also like to thank Jessica Nettles and Amanda Bales for helping look into cheaper domains. Finally, thank you for all the support throughout the years from everyone. Everybody makes this possible.)
Naaman, a general for the king of Aram, was a great man and highly regarded by his master, because through him the Lord had given victory to Aram. This man was a mighty warrior, but he had a skin disease. Now Aramean raiding parties had gone out and captured a young girl from the land of Israel. She served Naaman’s wife.
She said to her mistress, “I wish that my master could come before the prophet who lives in Samaria. He would cure him of his skin disease.” So Naaman went and told his master what the young girl from the land of Israel had said.
Then Aram’s king said, “Go ahead. I will send a letter to Israel’s king.”
So Naaman left. He took along ten kikkars of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothing. He brought the letter to Israel’s king. It read, “Along with this letter I’m sending you my servant Naaman so you can cure him of his skin disease.”
When the king of Israel read the letter, he ripped his clothes. He said, “What? Am I God to hand out death and life? But this king writes me, asking me to cure someone of his skin disease! You must realize that he wants to start a fight with me.”
When Elisha the man of God heard that Israel’s king had ripped his clothes, he sent word to the king: “Why did you rip your clothes? Let the man come to me. Then he’ll know that there’s a prophet in Israel.”
Naaman arrived with his horses and chariots. He stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent out a messenger who said, “Go and wash seven times in the Jordan River. Then your skin will be restored and become clean.”
But Naaman went away in anger. He said, “I thought for sure that he’d come out, stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the bad spot, and cure the skin disease. Aren’t the rivers in Damascus, the Abana and the Pharpar, better than all Israel’s waters? Couldn’t I wash in them and get clean?” So he turned away and proceeded to leave in anger.
Naaman’s servants came up to him and spoke to him: “Our father, if the prophet had told you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it? All he said to you was, ‘Wash and become clean.’” So Naaman went down and bathed in the Jordan seven times, just as the man of God had said. His skin was restored like that of a young boy, and he became clean.
2 Kings 5:1-14 CEB
Let's see, how many times can I preach on the same text? I wrote about how the entire text hinged on the smallest of voices. I also connected the Jordan to the Missouri. (This later one is very important to understanding where I'm coming from. I highly suggest you take a moment and read it if you are new here.)
I guess, for now, the answer is three, because today I'm at it again!)
This month is movie/book month. Last week we were introduced to Evan Dolive's new book: Seeking Imperfection. In the next few weeks we will look at The Aviator and The Giver. Today it's all about Cinderella!
My initial experience with Cinderella was probably not your initial experience. I grew up reading illustrated fairy tales that piled up in a wicker basket in my grandma's farmhouse. One of those fairy tales was Cinderella. It was true to the original, with the stepfamily having their eyes gouged out by birds and all. I loved the Disney iteration, but it was a secondary experience for me. Since then, I've seen multiple versions, each choosing to change it's own thing. I've seen the Hammerstein musical, I've watched the Brandy Norwood version which is probably the most multicultural adaptation out there. Yes, I admit to seeing Hilary Duff try to fit into the role with A Cinderella Story. My favorite is probably Drew Barrymore in Ever After: A Cinderella Story. Then so many others, I barely remember. As our cultural identity moves towards new understandings of equality, our view of Cinderella becomes more and more difficult to tell.
The piece that always seems to stay the same in all versions of Cinderella is the extraordinary has to come from the ordinary. Cinderella is the servant of her house. Everyone in the story, except her, can get to the castle in their own carriages, and wearing their own pretty dresses. In the Disney Cartoon movie, at first even Cinderella attempts to use these methods to get to the castle. She wears her mother's dress, and tries to hitchhike on her family's carriage. Of course, it doesn't work, and Cinderella is left to cry outside the house, all hope lost.
That's the way new church planting has gone for generations. Follow this exact path, look a specific way, and you will make it [to the party]. Only, so many are gently feeling nudged into new church planting, but there is no way they could follow the formula. Maybe, like Church of the Misfits they are countercultural already, and conforming will cause them to lose a piece of their unique identity. Maybe, like Jerusalem Christian Church, they are in the context of being a church birthed from a dying church. It's a context where there has to be much more intentional grace and love for what was. Maybe, like us, you have a minister who started her journey taking the traditional route, and discovered her dress in tatters; no means to get to the party.
There was a time I thought the journey had be taken by knowing the right people, and dressing the right way. That just isn't always true. Like Naaman, God can take the ordinary to make the extraordinary happen. It's possible, for a plain dirty river to heal a foreign lepar. It's possible. God can take shoestring and bubblegum and change the world. John the Baptist was a zany and fool, and he was the one who started the journey for Christ. In the end, it's not about having/getting the right things; it's about God being present with the ordinary things you already have.
I've been to Disney World more than many will be in their entire life. I believe the number is four. I went twice when I was a kid, and twice as a teenager. I realize Disney World and Land have become the American Mecca, which makes me uncomfortable sharing this information. (I say this knowing the real Mecca is a holy journey for Muslims, they spend years saving up for. It feels so superficial Americans have such a consumer driven version.) I continue, because I have a purpose.
When I was a kid I loved the Small World ride. This was before the internet, and the world seemed so huge to me. I was filled with so much awe and wonder. I loved the syrupy-sweet song, and was even more ecstatic when we learned it in Elementary School choir. I wanted to play with the animatronic kids in the ride. Their world looked so perfect, and I wanted to be part of it...
Only real life kicked in. The real kids, in their real world.. it isn't perfect. My life isn't perfect. Nothing is perfect. I thought about the Small World ride just last week. I don't like it at all anymore. What have I turned into?! Where is my sense of innocence? I lost it. The last vestiges of innocence died three and a half years ago. Just thinking about that ride feels like I'm being spoon fed pure sugar. Blah!
So does Isaiah 40. I ask again, what have I turned into?! I want to be that girl again. I want to embrace the scripture with awe and wonder. I want the simplicity of just accepting what I'm reading. I can't. I won't. You shouldn't either.
This summer the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) will focus on this scripture. I want to bring Isaiah's words to reality. Connect to what is going on in our homes and churches.
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People are broken. People are hurt. They've been hurt by people they have previously called friends. We've possibly hurt people. (The only fingers worth pointing, are worth pointing directly at ourselves. ) We've got war wounds, or at least battle scars. It's difficult to see the love and compassion in the church when there is so much pain within:
"Comfort, comfort my people!"
says your God.
Speak compassionately to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her that her compulsory service has ended,
that her penalty has been paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins!
(Isaiah 40:1-2 CEB)
Some of us, like myself, have worked our butt off. We have been trying to figure out what Christianity looks like in the next generation. It has become really difficult! There are mountains in our way! There are chasms stopping us flat! People, who should be on our side, stand in our way! We have to be the ones to try out new ideas, and brainstorm the crazy possibilities. However, if we don't follow the formula that is currently killing the church, we are doing it wrong. Sometimes I feel like Macgyver. I feel like I'm called to create a fully functional church with nothing but a toothpick and wax paper! Either someone is in my way, or I have nothing to work with, The path is extremely difficult.
A voice is crying out:
“Clear the Lord’s way in the desert!
Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God!
Every valley will be raised up,
and every mountain and hill will be flattened.
Uneven ground will become level,
and rough terrain a valley plain.
The Lord’s glory will appear,
and all humanity will see it together;
the Lord’s mouth has commanded it.”
What should I call out?
All flesh is grass; all its loyalty is like the flowers of the field.
The grass dries up and the
flower withers when the
LORD's breath blows on it.
Surely the people are grass.
The grass dries up;
the flower withers...
but our God's word will exist forever.
Isaiah 40:3-8 CEB
Then there's the dwindling numbers. Many of us have seen it. There was a time when the pews were filled. I remember an event, at this church I used to attend, where chairs were brought in because there was no room in the pews. Now, the lack of bodies in the church brings anxiety. Anxiety brings negative behavior from us. Negative behavior drives more people out of the church. It feels like a losing battle.
Go up on a high mountain, messenger Zion!
Raise your voice and shout, messenger Jerusalem!
Raise it; don’t be afraid;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
Here is the Lord God,
coming with strength,
with a triumphant arm,
bringing His reward with him
and His payment before him.
Like a shepherd, God will tend the flock;
he will gather lambs in his arms
and lift them onto his lap.
He will gently guide the nursing ewes.
Look up at the sky and consider:
Who created these?
The one who brings out their attendants one by one,
summoning each of them by name.
Because of God’s great strength
and mighty power, not one is missing.
Why do you say, Jacob,
and declare, Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord
my God ignores my predicament”?
Don’t you know?
Haven’t you heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the creator of the ends of the earth.
He doesn’t grow tired or weary.
His understanding is beyond human reach,
giving power to the tired
and reviving the exhausted.
Youths will become tired and weary,
young men will certainly stumble;
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength;
they will fly up on wings like eagles;
they will run and not be tired;
they will walk and not be weary.
Isaiah 40:9-11; 26-31
The time has come when we need to lick our wounds, stop focusing on what can't be, and start focusing on what we could become. It's time to stop going back to old programs, and start field testing new possibilities.
We sit on the precipice of a new day. We have two choices. We can live in our loss and pain and go down with the setting sun. -OR- We pick ourselves up, take a leap, and soar!
1 The Lord’s power overcame me, and while I was in the Lord’s spirit, he led me out and set me down in the middle of a certain valley. It was full of bones.2 He led me through them all around, and I saw that there were a great many of them on the valley floor, and they were very dry.
3 He asked me, “Human one, can these bones live again?”
I said, “Lord God, only you know.”
4 He said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, Dry bones, hear the Lord’s word! 5 The Lord God proclaims to these bones: I am about to put breath in you, and you will live again. 6 I will put sinews on you, place flesh on you, and cover you with skin. When I put breath in you, and you come to life, you will know that I am the Lord.”
7 I prophesied just as I was commanded. There was a great noise as I was prophesying, then a great quaking, and the bones came together, bone by bone. 8 When I looked, suddenly there were sinews on them. The flesh appeared, and then they were covered over with skin. But there was still no breath in them.
9 He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, human one! Say to the breath, The Lord God proclaims: Come from the four winds, breath! Breathe into these dead bodies and let them live.”
10 I prophesied just as he commanded me. When the breath entered them, they came to life and stood on their feet, an extraordinarily large company.
11 He said to me, “Human one, these bones are the entire house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished. We are completely finished.’ 12 So now, prophesy and say to them, The Lord God proclaims: I’m opening your graves! I will raise you up from your graves, my people, and I will bring you to Israel’s fertile land. 13 You will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you up from your graves, my people. 14 I will put my breath[a] in you, and you will live. I will plant you on your fertile land, and you will know that I am the Lord. I’ve spoken, and I will do it. This is what the Lord says.”
Ezekiel 37:1-14 CEB
Sermon illustration forthcoming. Maybe you've heard it before. I know I've heard it a couple of times:
Once there was a woman who found herself stuck in a house during a really bad flood. The waters were beginning to rise and fill into her house. She prayed, "Dear God, save me from this flood."
A moment later a man floated by in a boat. "Ma'am, jump into the boat, and I will bring you to safety."
"No," she responded, "I'm waiting for God to save me."
The young man tried to talk her into getting in the boat, but she wouldn't budge.
The waters continued to rise. They rose so high she had to go up her stairs to the second story. Once again she went to pray, "Dear God, save me from this flood."
A moment later the Coast Guard came by in their boat. Knowing they would force her to leave, she hid in the house. "God will save me," she thought.
The waters continued to rise. The rose so high she had to go up on top of her roof. Once again she went to pray, "Dear God, save me from this flood."
A moment later a helicopter arrived and dropped a ladder for her to climb up to safety. She refused to climb, and eventually the helicopter gave up to save others. When the helicopter returned, it was too late. The waters rose too high, and she drowned.
In heaven, the woman went to God, "Why did you not save me?"
God replied, "Save you! I sent two boats and helicopter!"
A few things jump out at me regarding the scripture today. The most blaring has to do with the illustration I just shared. We want God to do it all, when that's not how this works. We are not here to be catered to by the All Mighty. God isn't some magical wish granter. We live in this world to be in relationship with one another and God. This requires us to take some action in the divine plan.
Notice in the scripture, dry dead bones came to life. No one can deny it was God who gave life where it appeared life had concluded. Where we tend to gloss over, is God gave the initiation of the event to Ezekiel. In other words, we have a part in God's plan! So a bunch of bloggers are up in arms because the American church is bleeding out. Here's the obvious question: What are they/you doing about it?! Instead of praying, "God, fix this problem," perhaps you should be praying, "God, help me find the tools to fix the problem." In other words, trust God enough to find the boat and take it. It just might save our lives.