Just a few random thoughts before the week gets away from me....
- It took two months but we finally got every service through Christmas Eve laid out. I struggled with mapping out these series more than I ever have before, partly because nothing I read this summer particularly inspired me and partly because I worry that I sound like a broken record, giving the same sermon over and over again. That's the trouble of being a liberal, hippy United Methodist pastor.... lots of sermons about self-sacrifice and helping others.
So we're gonna try and open it up a little bit. Starting in a little over a week we'll be doing five weeks on what Bishop Ough has deemed (with the help of others) as the five marks of a growing congregation.... except that we've decided that you could probably go a little further and say that they were the five marks of a growing disciple of Jesus Christ. They include...
- Becoming Radically Hospitable: I always think of my friend, John Bachelor, and his willingness to let a young African college student live in his house for free while he worked on his studies. The student ultimately was bound for service within a mission organization in Western Africa, doing a combination of computer work, airplane repair/maintenance, and piloting said airplanes. It took years and years for the young man to get his studies done, but I'm convinced that if it took a million years, John Bachelor would have said "mi casa es su casa". A more gentle, thoughtful Christian I have not met.
- Desiring Passionate Worship: The other evening I was at a meeting being held by my friends at the Future Church of Tomorrow for the purpose of planning their 35th Anniversary/First Sunday In Their New Digs weekend extravaganza. As they were debating what activities would be taking place that weekend (and what small part Shawnee UMC might get to play to welcome them to their new home), the conversation drifted to a recent Sunday-morning worship service that, unplanned, lasted seven hours. I sat incredulously listening to the folks gathered explain what the world would hold the attention of a crowd of people for seven hours, only to hear them say, again and again, that the Lord's presence was intensely real.
Can't say that I've ever had a seven hour worship experience, but it did take me back to various experiences I've had where after the worship began I was not eager for it to end. A sunny July morning at St. Luke United Methodist Church... a few early Sunday mornings outside of Rax with nothing but the sun and my cassette player... various evenings at The Life Center during the old Church Vision Conference worship services and on one special TGIW right after 9/11 ... driving east through Wyoming as Third Day played and the sun came up over the rocks and mountains.... in a small compound in a remote corner of Haiti... a Communion Service or two at Lakeside... these examples and others still stand out for me as great worship moments.
But the most powerful worship experience I've ever had occurred on the evening when three young men from Goshen, Indiana died unexpectedly in an auto accident. Since one of the three had just graduated, and the other two were going to be seniors that fall, the outpouring of grief in the community - particularly among teenagers - was overwhelming. Because one of the boys had attended our youth group, the decision was made among their friends that an impromptu memorial service should take place at The Life Center that night. With the parents' (and in one case, grandmother's) permission, we went forward. The building had never been so full before, or after, as hundreds and hundreds of people gave themselves over to worship in the midst of great pain. The service lasted a little over two hours, featuring only some singing, prayer, and kids taking turns sharing their thoughts and feeling in front of their friends. Not a soul moved or left until its conclusion, and people continued to hang around hours after its conclusion. Words can't really describe the worship that evening.
- Intentionally Engaging In Faith Development: One of my favorite experiences as a pastor was the first Disciple class I ever taught at Goshen First UMC. In that class were a number of people from a variety of backgrounds, but the person I'll always remember the best was Jeff. When he was young and dumb (like most of us), he barely made it through high school, rarely ever applying himself to his studies in exchange of pursuing other things (mainly girls and a good time). Given his poor academic performance, Jeff had convinced himself that he was not a smart person. So you can imagine how overwhelmed he felt when he showed up for that first Disciple informational meeting and found out that the class would demand the reading of 80% of the Bible in only 36 weeks as well as additional hours of written reflection and background reading. I remember him telling me that there was no way he could do all of that because he was too "slow" or "stupid".
How wrong he was.
Jeff not only crushed all the reading and writing for that study, but went on to do three more equally demanding classes. By the time I was about to leave Goshen, he was toying with the idea of going to college and getting a degree in adolescent social work. Such was the growth personally and spiritually in him during that time. As far as I know, he never did end up going back to school, deciding instead to continue working at an area plant, the demands of raising two boys and paying bills factoring greatly into his decision. But if a way had been made, I am convinced that four years of intentional faith development in Jeff opened his eyes to his, and the Lord's, possibilities for his life.
- Willingness to Engage In Risk-Taking Mission and Service: I do not think my father, on that fateful day fifteen or sixteen years ago when I asked him to fill in for an adult volunteer who had bailed on a teen mission trip I was leading, realized how profoundly that eight days would alter the course of his life. Now, I am aware of no greater proponent of serving others than he. I've seen him talk to complete strangers in restaurants, airports, parking lots, and even golf courses about going to Haiti, or some other place where there is great need, on a mission experience. Now, he's the one cajoling me....
Come on, it's only a week. Let's go. People need you down there.
What can I say. The student has become the master.
- Becoming Extravagantly Generous: And yes, I mean this in terms of money.
I'll be honest... in 18 years of ministry I've discovered that (mostly) the people who don't complain when a church asks for money are the folks who support it the greatest. It's kind of the reverse of what you'd expect. In fact, those who tend to be the most generous tend to be the most radical when it comes to a congregation extending itself into new forms of ministry and mission.
My favorite example of this was a former parishoner of mine named Lorraine. Lorraine would have no trouble with me telling you that nobody gives more to her church than she does. In fact, she would volunteer regularly to teach classes on giving as a spiritual gift and opportunity from God. The only times I remember Lorraine getting upset with me was when I'd share an idea about something, and then say, "but we can't do that cause it costs too much." That'd drive her up the wall.
People who are extravagantly generous don't want to miss opportunities God presents along the way, especially when a lack of money is given as the reason. For them, giving it away has become a measure of faith, and they can't stand it when they are trapped in an institution or movement with others who refuse to put the depth of their faith to the test.
After that series is over, we'll jump over to the Book of James for five weeks of something we're calling "James Unfiltered". The premise is that if James showed up on Charlie Rose's program to talk about the world, the church, and direction Christians have taken, and should take the church, what would he have to say. To get ready, go grab a copy of "The Message" or your "New Living Translation", or whatever readable version of the Bible you have handy, and go read James for yourself. I think he'd pull no punches discussing issues like faith, truth, love, respect, and the nature of freedom. I'm am looking forward to spending some time with him in late October/November.
And finally, we'll be doing an Advent series which will look at the centrality of Jesus in the creation, the plight of the poor and oppressed, in the heavenly court of the Lord, and hopefully, in you.
You can check out www.shawneeumc.com for digitial copies of the sermons. Listen and enjoy.