Wednesday, September 17, 2008

What does it mean for Religious Leaders to Coooperate?

Blog Comment: Today an important announcement and press release points to a vital interfaith partnership to address the enormous crisis affecting the states and people of the Gulf Coast following the recent hurricane disasters. I point this out because one of the signatories to this call for a partnership between government and faith groups is Rev. Richard Cizik. Rev. Cizik is Vice President for Government Affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals. He will be speaking this Thursday, September 18 at Countryside Community Church (UCC) about "Evangelicals and the Interfaith Movement". I'll be attending that lecture and I hope to ask Cizik about this advocacy effort by a broad coalition of religious groups calling for a moral response to the Gulf Coast Crisis. Having traveled to the Gulf Coast three times in the last couple of years on mission trips and to attend a national church mission conference there, I've developed a passion for the suffering of our brothers and sisters in this region of our nation. This is a crisis of government and of the faith communities in our nation. I'll post after Thursday night's lecture.... See the press release below...

Leading religious officials today (September 16) signed an interfaith statement calling for not just a charitable response but for justice through long-term human rights-based recovery policy to help Gulf Coast families.

The statement urges national leaders to make enacting bi-partisan resident-led federal solutions, including the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act, helping families return and participate in rebuilding their communities, creating living wage jobs, restoring the coastal wetland and ensuring human rights along the Gulf Coast a national moral priority.

The Gulf Coast Civic Works Campaign is a nonpartisan partnership of community, faith, environmental, student, and human rights organizations in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi and their national allies advocating for federal legislation based on HR 4048, the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act and urging national leaders to make creating jobs, rebuilding infrastructure and affordable housing, and restoring natural flood protection along the Gulf Coast a national priority.

The 108 signers include Richard Cizik of National Association of Evangelicals; Richard Stearns, president of World Vision; Rabbi Steve Gutow, Jewish Council for Public Affairs; Michael Kinnamon, National Council of Churches; Ingrid Matterson, Islamic Society of North America; Larry Snyder, Catholic Charities USA; David Beckmann, Bread for the World; and Jim Wallis, Sojourners.

Interested persons can support this effort by contacting their member of Congress at:

The text of their statement:

Gulf Coast Civic Works Campaign Interfaith Statement

Supporting Human Rights in Gulf Coast Recovery Is a Moral Priority

As Hurricanes Ike and Gustav hit the Gulf Coast, internally displacing over one million people, we as a nation were reawakened to the needs of the Gulf Coast. Three years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck and the levees breached, the slow pace of recovery and the new needs caused by Ike and Gustav's destruction have created a moral crisis along the Gulf Coast that demands a powerful response from people of faith.

While the nation has learned to better prepare for this latest hurricane, whether by inaction or injustice, we have still failed to protect the wellbeing of Gulf Coast survivors, new residents and their families, especially the children, the poor, the sick, and the vulnerable through just long term rebuilding policies which fully support human rights. The collapse of local institutions, homelessness, internal displacement, poverty, abusive labor practices and environmental degradation mean they continue to suffer and struggle unduly. A spiritual wound remains open across the region, one felt in God's creation and every community across this country.

Our God is a God of justice, of humanity and of healing, and this moral injustice calls each of us to bold action in support of the common good. We must act to justly rebuild communities, restore the Gulf Coast, and empower families to overcome the devastation they suffered in our nation's worst natural disasters.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Part 2: 21st Century Church-the Vital Mainline Church

"Thawing God's frozen chosen, one at a time!"

(poster in the youth room of a Presbyterian church, seen on a mission
trip to New Orleans post-Katrina)

In my last post, I wrote about a 10 week adventure of worship and learning about the 10 spiritual practices that Dorothy Butler Bass reports about in her important book "Christianity for the Rest of Us." I heard Bass in a lecture series not long ago, as she spoke about the 3 year Lilly Endowment research project that allowed her to study in depth some 50 mainline churches all across America. By way of introduction, Bass commented to us that "When I told people of my quest to study the practices of vital mainline churches across America they would often respond." "Vital mainline churches? Must have been a short journey!" People sometimes commented to Bass about the mainline: "Aren't they the frozen chosen?" And then another remark often made by people in her audiences: "Only conservative churches can grow." Bass then shared with us that some critics consider the old mainline denominations "culturally irrelevant and hopelessly confused."

How would you respond to the above comments?

There's something bubbling under the surface of many mainline churches that is now beginning to receive attention from students of church transformation and renewal like Bass. In Bass' study of 50 mainline congregations all across America, some new and exciting things are happening, and people are growing deeper in their faith and are experiencing a new sense of identity as people of faith.

For many people in churches, there seem to be only two current options that are receiving attention: You either try to join the Purpose Driven Movement of churches or you attempt to become a better Program Driven Church. Those are not the only options according to Diana Butler Bass.

How would you introduce change? a group of church leaders asked me recently.

Bass does not argue that mainline churches should change. Rather, she maintains that mainline churches are changing and have already changed. Many are moving beyond the Purpose Driven and Program Model Churches to embrace something different. Here's how Bass describes the change already taking place:

"... a new kind of mainline congregation--the practicing congregation--- has been born because of these changes. Practicing congregations weave together Christian practices---activities drawn from the long Christian tradition---into a pattern of being church that forms a intentional way of life in community."

Bass argues that these vital mainline churches are taking ancient and fundamental practice of faith "Out of the Historical Deep Freeze" and putting them back into the shared life of congregations. This movement of the Spirit goes far beyond the limited way many church folk describe their congregations, when they limit their comments to "We're a friendly church."

If discipleship means following the "Way of Christ" surely there's more to be said than calling ourselves a friendly, nice group of people. As Dorothy Butler Bass observes, "Jesus asks everyone to change. It is the heart of his message." Our is a not a faith frozen in some historical deep freeze, it is a living, breathing relationship with a God who claims us for purposes grander than we can imagine. We can no longer assume that people, even in our churches, understand what it means to live a vital faith. That's why we are called to teach and model the practices of faith that are a part of the ancient tradition of faith, come alive in a new day!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

21st Century Church: the Vital Mainline Church

Key questions:
  1. Why are some mainline churches succeeding?
  2. How are those churches finding new life in a time of religious change?
  3. What can those of us seeking a meaningful Christianity learn from them?
  4. What does their vitality mean for the rest of us?
Over the course of 10 weeks this past summer, we explored those questions at our church using Diana Butler Bass' paradigm challenging book "Christianity for the Rest of Us."
Bass's achievement is to debunk the myth that only conservative, evangelical, or mega-churches are growing!

Early on in her book, Bass comments that "the religious right seems to have hijacked American Christianity by creating a kind of 'one-party' Christianity for this country." Give that some thought and ask yourself this question: When people hear the word Christianity, what image comes to mind first in the public media?

So, this summer I designed with our church's worship planning committee a 10 week adventure in "Back to the Future" Christian spirituality and worship. This was our approach. I would plan a 10 week sermon series on 10 vital faith practices that Diana Butler Bass describes in growing and vital mainline churches all across America. Each week on Wednesday evenings, I would also lead small group book discussions of Bass' book as preparation for the coming Sunday.

Over the course of these 10 weeks, a creative team assisted me in designing some visual settings to illustrate each of the spiritual practices portrayed by Bass. That was especially fun to do.
Week by week, a new visual setting was added to the sanctuary to match the faith practice that I would preach about. As the weeks unfolded, the worship space began to come alive with these creative elements. "What will they do next?" was a comment I often heard. Take just one example. For hospitality, we placed a table in the chancel area across from the pulpit, covered by a cloth and on the table a beautiful pitcher with two earthen cups. Imagine weary travelers who are thirsty for a cup of cold water, and the image of Christian hospitality was vividly conveyed.

An added dimension proved especially exciting. With each of the 10 practices of faith, we would also offer opportunities for our small group and for the worshipping congregation to engage the practice, and not just read or talk about it. This was the "praxis" or practice side of our learning.
What a grand adventure we had!

Here are the 10 practices that Bass writes about and describes in churches she has involved in her Lilly Endowment Research Project about Vital Mainline Churches:

  1. Hospitality
  2. Discernment- discovering the will and intention of God for our personal and shared life in community
  3. Healing
  4. Contemplation- It's a rare word for Protestants, but one growing in appeal as congregations are re-learning the ancient spiritual practice of being invited into the presence of God through guided meditation, silence, and use of bible reading known as "lectio divina"
  5. Testimony- learning to speak about our personal faith in confident and engaging ways
  6. Diversity- welcoming people of varied racial/ethnic/socio-economic backgrounds into our faith communities. During the course of our 10 week experiment we helped launch a Sudanese fellowship in the church and invited our Sudanese brothers and sisters to sing with us and for us in joint worship. Awesome!
  7. Justice- reflecting on God's compassion and passion for the poor and mistreated among us and asking us to consider what our call might be as justice lovers
  8. Worship- How can our worship reflect God's invitation to worship with joy and creativity and with a call to transformed lives?
  9. Reflection- learning how to use our minds in growing spiritually so that we become more "thoughtful Christians
  10. Beauty- Finding ways to appreciate beauty as a gift from God in all aspects of our faith and living
I'll follow up this post with a couple of more entries on how all of this progressed over the course of 10 weeks. One key learning along the way. We began to ask how each spiritual practice was related to the others. An example: When you think about hospitality, which is more than mere friendliness, how does that impact our view of becoming a more diverse congregation, because Diversity is one of the spiritual practices. That's just the first example of how we began to gain energy and insight into how the varied spiritual practices were inter-connected not just in our understanding and reading, but also in our practice.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Food for thought

~Presbyterian Pilgrimage Banner~



Sunday, September 07, 2008

Prayer for the Day

"My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following
Your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this You will lead me by the right road,
thought I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust You always though I may seem to be lost
and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for You are ever with me,
and You will never leave me to face my perils alone."

~Thomas Merton "Contemplative Listening"~

Saturday, September 06, 2008

"The Great Awakening" by Jim Wallis of Sojourner's Magazine

In the last big election cycle of 2006, I heard Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourner's Magazine and at the time the recent author of "God's Politics", speak at a lecture hosted by a large area church in Omaha. The sanctuary was filled to overflowing and my son who was a junior in high school was with me. It was a dynamic presentation by Wallis that night. "What did you think?" I asked my son that night. " Awesome" he said. Afterward, we met Wallis in a book signing and I'll never forget how Jim Wallis engaged my son in conversation while a long line of adults were waiting to get their own books signed. "What do you want to do when you go to college?" he asked my high school son. And Wallis listened with genuine interest. He did that because he knows the emerging generation of new Christians matters deeply to the future of the church. My son was impressed also.

Now, Wallis has followed up with another vital book titled "The Great Awakening" with the subtitle: "Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America".
This is an important book for Christians, for churches and their leaders, for the national conversation on how faith and politics intersect in our personal and corporate lives.

Early in his new book "The Great Awakening", Jim Wallis tells the story of his own high school experience in struggling to relate faith to politics and issues of social justice while growing up in Detroit, MI. At the time, Wallis was struggling with the troubling issue of racial segregation and related conflicts in Detroit, while trying to see how all of that related to his faith as a young Christian.

While at church one Sunday, a church leader sensed Wallis' agitation and impatience with the church's avoidance of coming to grips with racism and segration. Wallis recalls the advice he received. "You have to understand, Jim, that racism has nothing to do with Christianity. That's political, and our faith is personal." Not long after, Wallis left the life of the church, refusing to be part of such a faith, only to return some years later with the deeply held belief that "while faith is deeply personal, it is never private." Christian faith calls us to love the world and to become engaged in redeeming public life, for the sake of the "reconciling love of Jesus Christ."

I heartily recommend Jim Wallis' new book for church discussion books in preparation for the coming political season, where this discussion of what constitutes substantive moral/ethical/political commitments and values will play out with enormous consequences for our nation.

A few words about the substance of the book and its title. The phrase "Great Awakening" refers to periods in our national history when faith tangibly changed things for the better, not just in personal faith, but also in matters of national justice. Students of American religious history are familiar with the first two great awakenings, the first from the 1730s and 1740s, which many argued helped to spark American Independence. The Second Great Awakening occurred between 1800 and the 1830s and called for the abolition of slavery.

Faith changes things! But how? In the course of his new book, Wallis identifies "7 rules for engagement", what he argues are spiritual and theological guidelines for relating faith and politics. The first rule is that "God hates injustice" as revealed in the lives of the Old Testament prophets. Jesus continues that prophetic critique argues Wallis. Another guideline, Wallis maintains, is that the church is "an alternative community" that witnesses to the compassionate and just relationships that God calls us to practice.

Along with those "7 rules for engagement", Wallis identifies "7 commitments" for the intersection of "faith and politics". It is here, that Wallis challenges the narrow agenda of the Christian Right, that restricted morality to only two concerns: abortion and gay marriage. Wallis enlarges the agenda of Christian moral concern and justice to include matters of "poverty and economic fairness", environmental concerns such as global warming, issues of race and immigration and diversity in our rapidly changing nation, a broader view of the issue of pro-choice/anti-choice debates about abortion and life, and the inescapable issues of war, peace, terrorism and the war in Iraq.

Church leaders might be tempted to say: "All of that is too controversial!" I believe we ignore these pressing issues at our peril. If the church cannot serve as a community of moral discourse, what does our faith have to offer a conflicted world?

Wallis ends his book with stories about how young people are responding to his presentations and to his work all across America. Younger generations are hungry for a faith that engages matters of substance. Wallis captures that feeling well, in his comment that "the big struggle of our times, is the fundamental choice between cynicism and hope...The choice between cynicism and hope is ultimately a spiritual choice, but one that has enormous political consequences."

As Jim Wallis travels across our country, he has come to believe that the two great hungers of our time are a hunger for spirituality and a hunger for justice, the belief that God is on the side of what is right for all people. And in Wallis' faith, these two hungers are deeply connected.

For all of us who share these two hungers, Wallis further offers a word of encouragement to our spirituality when it seems at times that injustice will carry the day:

"Majorities normally don't change things; creative minorities do, and the majority just goes along for the ride."

An old proverb: "You're so heavenly minded, you're no earthly good"

~A meditation for the day~

"What is wanted now is not simply the Christian who takes an inner complacency in the words and example of Christ, but who seeks to follow Christ perfectly, not only in his own personal life, not only in prayer and penance, but also in his political commitments and in all social responsibilities."

We have certainly no need for a pseudo-contemplative spirituality that claims to ignore the world and its problems entirely, and devotes itself supposedly to the things of God, without concern for human society. All true Christian spirituality, even that of the Christian contemplative, is and must always be deeply concerned with man, since "God became man in order that man might become God." (St. Irenaeus). The Christian spirit is one of compassion, of responsibility and of commitment. It cannot be indifferent to suffering, to injustice, error, and untruth."
~Thomas Merton "Choosing to Love the World"~

"American Savior"

(Check out the description of the new novel below that speaks to our times. I can't wait to get a copy. The publisher calls it a novel of "Divine Politics". But don't be put off; it isn't one of those far right novels meant to scare the pants off of you. It blends high comedy with serious reflection on the state of our politics. Come to think about it, that's about right, because our politics does in reality blend high and low comedy with very serious drama about the future of our nation.)

In a country divided by partisan politics, into a world torn by hatred and war, at a time when it seems that everyone and no one has a solution to the problems that plague humankind, there suddenly appears someone who can rise above the madness, someone with knowledge and power, someone with a finely tuned sense of the ridiculous—someone, in short, who can make it right.

And thus we finally have an answer to the long-simmering question, "What would Jesus do?"

Roland Merullo's novel American Savior posits an inspired "what if" scenario: What if Jesus, alarmed at how the earth's most powerful nation has lost its spiritual footing and dismayed at how His own teachings have been distorted—used by politicians and religious zealots to turn love into hatred and faith into call to arms—returns and announces that he is running for President of the United States? What if He becomes a third-party candidate, is heralded as the Son of God, and not only threatens to disrupt the status quo but poses a serious threat to the already established Democratic and Republican candidates? What would happen? How would the media react? And, more important, how would we react?

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

What word do I speak?

~A meditation for this day~

"What am I? I am myself a word spoken by God. Can God speak a word that does not have any meaning?

Yet am I sure that the meaning of my life is the meaning God intends for it?
Does God impose a meaning on my life from the "outside", through event, custom, routine, law, system, impact with others in society? Or am I called to create from "within", with Him, with His grace, a meaning which reflects His truth and makes me His "word" spoken freely in my personal situation?

My true identity lies hidden in God's call to my freedom and my response to Him. This means I must use my freedom in order to love, with full responsibility and authenticity, not merely receiving a form imposed on me by external forces, or forming my own life according to an approved social pattern, but directing my love to the personal reality of my neighbor, and embracing God's will in its naked, often impenetrable mystery (Romans 11: 33-36). I cannot discover my "meaning" if I try to evade the dread which comes from first experiencing my meaninglessness."

Thomas Merton "Choosing to Love the World"

Monday, September 01, 2008

"The Wisdom of Donkeys: Finding Tranquility in a Chaotic Age"

Here's a meditation for Labor Day from the new book by Andy Merrifield, titled "The Wisdom of Donkeys."

Merrifield mentions the observation by Milan Kundera, who says in his novel Slowness that speed, the demon of speed, is often associated with forgetting, with avoidance, and slowness with memory, with confronting.

We move slowly when we want to listen to ourselves, to others, and to the world around us. We move more slowly when we want to confront ourselves.

If only we could slow down!

The rush of contemporary life overwhelms our ability to observe, to hear, to step back and wonder, and to meditate."

Merrifield took this wisdom to heart and stepped away from a frantic, overwhelming life that seemed successful by every measure. He journeyed to France and there borrowed a friend's donkey by the name of Gribouille to walk at a slower pace and to reflect on the deeper dimensions of life and fulfillment. At a slower pace, some things become clearer.

Happy Labor Day! Take a rest!