Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Angels of Mercy...

While spending time with a church family in a Pittsburgh hospital this week, I took notice of the medical professionals attending to the patient I was visiting. What amazing people. Each one that entered the room was cordial, exceptionally accommodating to the family, and communicated in a clear, helpful way. Nurses, aids, physicians, even the housekeeping personnel were, to a person, superb in both plying their skills and interacting with the family in an encouraging, open manner. It may be my imagination, but it seems to me that this kind of patient-centered medical "hospitality" is on the increase, at least in the hospitals we visit as clergy. Given the way the medical community is being hammered by bad press today, this is an unexpected reaction, taking human nature into consideration.

Medical costs are too high...hospitals are understaffed and over-crowded...doctors have a poor "bedside manner"...UPMC stands for "U Pay Me Cash"...why does an aspirin in the hospital cost $10? On and on, we are critical of the healthcare field--that is until you really need these people. Even with our criticizing them from every direction, they appear to be working to be nicer to us, more caring, and more careful in how they care. The cynic might say these behaviors are "required" strategies to ward off lawsuits in a litigious time. However, the genuineness and integrity of the behaviors I have observed would seem to dispute this assertion. Maybe, just maybe, at a time when their profession is somewhat under siege, these professionals are responding by doing their job even better and with more obvious caring concern for their patients? What a concept. Is this healthcare's answer to "turn the other cheek?" (I could suggest a bad "injection site" joke here, butt I'll refrain...)

Maybe the world would be a better place if we all chose to respond to biting criticism and cutting sarcasm (even when it is at least partly deserved) with doing what we do better and in a friendlier mood? Maybe this is exactly what Jesus meant when he did the "turn the other cheek" thing. Human nature, unbridled, would have us become defensive, looking to blast holes in the presenting criticism, or even worse, taking a swing at the critic. The worst "punches" we throw are the ones that may be deserved by the punch-ee, at least from Jesus' viewpoint. Having every reason to strike back, and every right, according to some, the Christ-follower is beckoned to drop the fists, offer grace, and even strive to understand the one who raised our ire.

Nobody said discipleship is easy. The word disciple means "student" or "one who learns." Going to school on those who criticize us, and hearing their legitimate, helpful "correctives," though they may be couched in vitriol or impudence, and then responding by improving our "serve" is a Jesus kind of way of handling the situation. It's decidedly NOT easy! And if the criticism happens to strike a nerve worn bare by a history of harassment or emotional abuse, it may not even be possible for everyone, even people committed to growing in faith. But for those of us who are fortunate to have avoided these developmental pitfalls, it is a good goal. The Bible says that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness...there is no law against these responses.

My clergy colleagues and I (and, our St. Paul's Leadership Team) have been reading the book, The Anatomy of Peace from the Arbinger Institute. In this book, it is suggested that we can approach controversial issues--or criticism--with either a "heart of peace" or a "heart of war." The "heart of peace" people see the person first, respects them, and then addresses the issue at hand. The "heart of war" people see only the issue and the argument, and their "conversation" may too quickly move from debate to debasing the other. Developing a "heart of peace" may be a secular way of saying "turn the other cheek," and "love your neighbor as you love yourself." Friends, I can write about this stuff, but this is one area of my life where I have to work so hard to develop a "heart of peace," as my sarcastic, often "salty" retorts in forensic exchanges can pop out SO effortlessly. With Pentecost upon us this coming weekend, my personal Holy Spirit prayer is that I will learn to live out I Peter 3:9 from the Bible: Don't repay evil for evil. Don't retaliate with insults when people insult you. Instead, pay them back with a blessing. That is what God has called you to do, and God will bless you for it.

The medical professionals I witnessed this week were doing that "heart of peace" thing, and were offering blessings. Bravo to them. Bravo. Can church people do this stuff? Can we develop the "heart of peace?" I wouldn't be doing what I do if I didn't believe we could. As we celebrate Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit this week, may we get the gift of "speaking in tongues"--of speaking with a civil, affirming, and conciliatory tone and tune. Grace, Yinz...

Friday, May 4, 2018

Future Church...

Jesus said "...on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." (Matthew 16:18). I wonder if he was looking ahead to our time and seeing the perilously uncertain times the Christian church is facing? "The gates of hell" that threaten it may not have anything to do with the "Church Lady's" Satan or Dante's hell. Much simpler but in some ways more "sinister" forces are knocking. Let's examine some of those things...

Apathy: many people of faith are too tired, too stressed, or to scheduled to participate in the church. These are folk who want to be church members, who want to live and express their Christian faith, but who have just gotten out of the "habit" of attending worship or plugging into their small group. Bad habits are easy to pick up again, "good" or beneficial habits are much, much more difficult to reengage once dropped or let go dormant. That just seems to be human nature. These are folk who get that "I'm guilty" look on their faces when I, as one of their pastors, run into them in the Giant Eagle or at Eat n' Park.

Apoplexy: others are "crippled" by anger or disgust at what they see being portrayed as "Christian" or "Evangelical" in the media, and have chosen to disassociate themselves from the church. "Evangelicals" who support autocratic leadership bordering on tyrannical, or leaders whose lifestyles seem 180 degrees out of phase from what followers of Jesus are challenged to exhibit, create angst in some and anger in others whose idea of following Jesus means actually doing and supporting the things Jesus did and taught us to do. Angst or anger are enough to drive persons away from an institution seen as a "home base" for "Evangelicals." Why would those calling themselves "Evangelicals" support leaders who do such things? Unfortunately, the answer seems to be that they see such leadership as being able to deliver on a singular goal: a large enough majority on the U.S. Supreme Court to get the specific rulings they want. These "Evangelicals" seem to be easily "look the other way" when licentious national leaders demonstrate an excessive talent for personal immorality.

Alienation: the controversy over inclusion of LGBTQ+ individuals in the church has certainly affected how people choose to affiliate with or or disassociate themselves from the institutional church. A contentious feud has been brewing within my denomination, The United Methodist Church, over this very issue. People who represent a broad spectrum of theological and social perspectives, and who currently affiliate with Methodism, will either go or stay, depending upon the direction the denomination chooses (some iteration of inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons, maintaining the ambivalent status quo, or adding new rules and punitive measures to "enforce" them). However, as the denomination makes this determination, it should realize that the "church of tomorrow," namely the younger set, are strongly shaded in the direction of full inclusion of all persons in the total life of the church, and they will "vote with their feet" if The United Methodist Church--and any institutional church--chooses to restrict or disallow LGBTQ+ involvement in the organized church. And they happily point to Jesus who was light years ahead on inclusion of marginalized persons into his "kingdom," and didn't speak out against persons based on sexual orientation or identity.

Another "gate of hell" that will could threaten the future of the church is that of complacency. The current structure--both organizationally and literally (meaning the actual church facility)--needs to be reevaluated for the future. Our organizational structure, and this goes for all denominations, including Catholic and Protestant, is daunting and crippling in the minds of the people whom the church will need for the coming years, if it is to survive. And, as I have seen, younger people eschew spending lots of money on buildings and grounds, and prefer funding mission and ministry, an almost complete reversal from the "church values" of my Baby Boomer generation and older. They will be less attracted to a fancy or expensive edifice, and more drawn to a lean, "mean," missional machine. The church I serve--St. Paul's--desired to expand its ministry twenty years ago, so it began expanding its facility to accommodate this goal, and the people ponied up the dollars. (Incidentally, when the people of St. Paul's DID build, they built serviceable, practical space, not "eye candy.") Today when we talk about expanding ministry, the leaders aren't nearly as excited about expanding a building as they are at finding innovative ways to do ministry that is not hampered or limited by a building!  The church of the future may not be one limited to a physical address, if it is to attract the coming generations of people. What we DO may be much more important to these people than what we ARE. Honestly, if that doesn't sound like a good idea to you, you'll have to take it up with Jesus, as he wasn't into addresses, either.

Finally, another "gate of hell" is something I read in an article a colleague shared with me recently: the church of the future may well find itself with a severe shortage of clergy to lead it. The Roman Catholic Church is already seeing this, due to its overly tight rules as to who can be a priest and who cannot. Younger people are beginning to resist ministry as a calling in the Protestant churches as well, and for many reasons: the exorbitant cost of the required education vs. poor pay upon placement; the resistance to change and new ideas in the established churches they may serve after graduation; and the aging of current congregations which limits both volunteer manpower and funding for ministry. Younger potential pastors also resist serving any church that restricts in any way whom they may serve--for many of them, for instance, LGBTQ+ exclusion is a deal-breaker, as is the homogeneous nature of so many current congregations.

Well, we still have that promise of Jesus that the "gates of hell" shall not prevail against the church. Note, however, that Jesus was not talking about the "institutional" or "organized religion" church, as it did not yet exist. He was talking about the church as the basilea of God, the worshipping, learning, serving community of Christ followers who take literally the Matthean parable that the "Kingdom of God is like a great dragnet thrown into the sea that gathered some of every kind," meaning the work of the church is to "fish" for every kind of "fish" (diverse persons) and welcome them into what God is doing, with no strings attached (other than those of the net itself). No, I believe the church will prevail, as Jesus said, because it is based upon the "solid rock" of the Good News of Jesus Christ, and upon what Jesus taught us. He taught us to love, redeem, and transform people, not to be "fish" inspectors. (I've always loved a bumper sticker I saw several years ago: "You catch 'em, I'll clean 'em."--God.)

Let us pray for the church of the future, and for a change of heart in the church of the present that it may become future-oriented, rather than a museum of its past.

What's Next?

  What’s Next?   2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 6:1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 6:2 David and all the people...