a little r & r

This will be my final r&r with you. Several things come to mind, not all that interrelated. First, René and I thank you for calling us to be your co-interims. We deeply appreciate the reception, cards, gifts, and kind comments many of you shared with us this past Sunday. We pray God’s blessing upon you and Tabatha as you begin your ministry with her next month. Thanks also go to the Rev. Mark Harmon, our dear friend and former associate at St. Andrew, who is preaching the next 3 Sundays and to Sharon Cantrell, Mark Phillips, Kyle Smith, & Cathy Seals leading worship these next 3 weeks.

A different kind of 10th Anniversary: This Thursday, October 22nd I will celebrate 10 years since I had my stroke while living in Omaha and completing my full-time ministry there at First Christian Church. Ever since I’ve often thought of each new day as a gift from God.

Liston Mills, my prof at Vandy once remarked in his Intro to Pastoral Care class: the key to a meaningful life is by defining your life backward from your death to the present. Forty years later his remark finally made sense to me, due to my stroke. He didn’t want us to obsess about our own death, but to let life’s end help us appreciate life until our death comes.

Called to be disciples not fans. Church membership is important because of the increased likelihood a person will be invested in the church where they are a member. But membership is a term better reserved for social service clubs and teams not churches. In fact, the only time I can think of the term “member” being used in the Bible was by the apostle Paul when he described the church as the “Body of Christ” & Jesus’ disciples as “members of it.” He was speaking of the church as an organism, not a club or any other kind of organization or institution.

Sports ball clubs have fans, but those fans usually remain in the stands or on the sidelines. Fans and members of booster clubs almost never get on the field of play. But being a disciple of Christ has to do with getting in the game. Jesus doesn’t want us to be spectators and Monday morning quarterbacks, but players in the field of service in Christ’s Name.

Discipleship isn’t true discipleship unless it costs us something. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer coined a term as relevant today as when he wrote his classic text The Cost of Discipleship prior to WWII and the Holocaust in 1937. His term was “Cheap grace.” By this he meant a person’s eager acceptance of God’s grace but no feeling of needing to pay forward their gratitude for this grace. Bonhoeffer paid the cost of discipleship with his own life when he joined the Resistance Movement against Hitler, later dying in a concentration camp.

As King David made his offering in the temple, he said in Chronicles, “Who am I and what is my people that we should make an offering to the Lord? I will not make an offering that costs me nothing.” Jesus extols the widow who had nothing but a pittance to give but gave everything she had. Jesus knew that “Where your treasure is there will your heart be also.” He didn’t say “Where your heart is, there will be your treasure,” a mistake many make in interpreting Jesus’ statement. I’ve known several widows & widowers like the widow in Jesus’ remark. These folks’ generosity reveals their understanding that grace is expensive and raises 2 spiritual questions: Does our faith cost us anything? If not, what are we really saying about our love for God, Christ’s church, and our neighbor?

The media has increasingly assumed evangelical Christians and churches are the sole representatives of Christianity to the detriment of mainline and progressive Christianity. Sometimes I wonder if most Americans know there are other Christians and churches besides evangelicals. I’ve envied their growth for a long time; though their numbers are declining twice as fast as Protestants as one reliable study shows.

But you know and I know there are churches like SCCC which are Open & Affirming and more forward looking. But right now, we’re a well-kept secret. And some of the reason is that many progressive churches have become so introverted hardly any of our members invite anyone to church. Often, a tacit expectation of many congregations is that the pastor will be solely in charge of church growth & evangelism, a term many progressive Christians dislike. Maybe it’s time we all tooted our church’s horn & didn’t passively wait for people to come to us. Jesus went to the people rather than waiting for them to come to Him.

We know we’ve got a good thing going, but why not tell someone else? How will young Americans ever learn that evangelicals aren’t the only Christians, unless we tell them and show them what inclusive faith looks like? The media sure won’t. They don’t know we exist either!

It’s too easy to get caught up in the chaos of our time and forget we Christians have unconquerable hope. Bill Rose-Heim once asked our Interim Ministers group what do pastors need to offer to their churches in these troubled times? Every single one of us answered HOPE!

The answer is easier to articulate than to execute. In fact, I think of myself as a hopeful pessimist. I can get pretty down in the mouth with the direction our country and planet are taking and the hit our churches have taken from the pandemic. I can even believe things can get worse, as bad as that sounds. Even René says I “live in a pretty dark world.”

But…BUT, I also thoroughly believe that regardless of our personal, national or planetary circumstances, God’s will shall ultimately triumph! This kind of hope is what M.L. King, Jr. preached when he said, “The arc of the moral universe is long and bends toward justice.” In other words, despite all the negative and bad things that happen to us, our country and our world, we can know God’s victory awaits. As Paul says, “If God is for us who can be against us.”

It’s like South African Archbishop Tutu retorted to an inquirer about the inevitability of apartheid’s intransigence. Paraphrasing, he said, “We have already won. You just haven’t seen it yet.” This is where we are today. Despite everything, God’s will is already unfolding. Christ is risen. Christ has won. We just haven’t seen it yet.

What makes Jesus so believable to me isn’t that he was in the religion business for his own ego—he wasn’t—but to proclaim the reign of God. I know John 3 puts into Jesus’s mouth the words, “No one comes to the Father but by me.” No verse (likely put in Jesus’ mouth by John and the late 1st century Christian community) has been more divisive or controversial. But if my reading of the historical Jesus is accurate, Jesus is the one who washed his disciples’ feet (also in John), and who said, “Why do you call me ‘good’? No one is good but God in heaven.”

I sometimes say the reason I am a Christian is because of Jesus’s humility. The greatest challenge to me of the Christian life and my life (I don’t think they’re always the same) is my ego, need for attention, to be in control, to have my own way, etc. To me the greatest irony of our faith is that Jesus didn’t boast of himself, as he is often portrayed, but came “not to be served, but to serve and to give His life for all.” His greatness was paradoxically displayed in his humility!

This is the reason I often think our Risen Lord must at times look down from His throne in heaven, shake his head in dismay at those who grasp for power, and tell us, “You fools! You have no idea, not a clue, what you’re doing!”

I also hear him saying, “But I also want you to know God answered my prayer from the cross. God told me, ‘I did forgive them, as you asked; because as you said, my Son, they really don’t know what they’re doing’.”

Thanks for your audience these 13 months! May God bless you in every possible way!