Monday, March 26, 2007

Intraverts and the Great Commission

The Great Commission tells us to "go and make disciples of Jesus Christ in all the world," or at least something very close to that. Even if you do not try and universalize it and believe that you should not rest until you have reached everyone, it is still a daunting command. It becomes even more daunting to an intravert. I was at a conference recently and a fellow pastor was talking about his struggle of knowing how to invite the person he was playing basketball with to church. Now, by this point in the conversation he had already talked with him and found he was attending church a good 30 plus minutes away. For me the challegne would not be the final invitation, but even just beginning the conversation to begin. I also do not think I am alone in my struggles with this. Jeehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, and many new churches move door to door, inviting people into a personal relationship with God through their congregation. This certanly works, and I believe that many people have been made disciples of Christ through by this method. I do not think that is works as well for intraverts. No matter how deep and passionate their faith, intraverts do not tend to socialize in that way.
I think that we need a new way that intraverts can participate in the Great Commission. It may just be that evangelism is a slower process for intraverts. We do not help make disciples with the same efficiency as extraverts. The relationships that I develop take time and so I think conversions that I make are much more gradual in nature. The life-changing is done much less by what I say and instead by what I do. Gandhi was an extremely shy and I would argue intraverted person. From what I recall of his biography, he never truly developed a skill for conversation. Though I love his quotes and his writings, I doubt he was very successful as an evangelist for his causes, by his words. His deeds on the other hand speak for themselves. The quiet dignity by which he stood up and resisted the foriegn rule of the British is moving and inspiring. The question for an intravert is perhaps not how do we get better about talking about our faith, but how do we live our faith in a way that others want to talk to us about it. Whether or not that is the right answer, I think intraverts like me need our own way to authentically live out the Great Commission, not pressured by how others do it, but in a way that is honest to who we are and faithful to God.

Monday, March 19, 2007

A personal creed

I preached a sermon on the Nicene Creed this week. As part of my preparation I tried to re-write the creed in a way that made it more understandable to me. Perhaps I have changed to meaning in what I have done, but I wanted it to be a statement that reflected my faith not simply a empty reiteration of those that have come before me:

I believe in One:
who is infinitely powerful and infinitely personal
bringing order in the midst of chaos
part of us all
known and yet unknowable

Millstone of Ministry

I attended a budget hearing on Saturday. The combination of being surrounded by numbers and the chai that I was drinking set my mind spinning down numeric roads. Now, granted that these were all rough estimates, but based on the current, and actually statistically very good, giving levels of the congregation, we would need to grow to double our current size in order to sustain our current budget. Now, there are a coupe of giant stones that are placed on our budgetary backs. One of these is my salary ... not that I make a lot, but even at half time it is a significant part of the budget. The other large expense howevecr is the loan payments on our mortgage and the assessments owed to the city for recent improvements. The church has been caught between a rock and a hard place. Without a building the church was struggling for identity and a space to call home. But now that they have a building they are facing the intense pressure of paying for it. While its numbers might be slightly more oppressing than some churches, because of the assessments on top of the mortgage, from what I can tell the story is the same in many other churches that are starting out.
So what is a congregation to do? Should it struggle with rent payments and shared space until it is large enough to sustain itself? Does this mean that in today's economy of churches, small congregations are simply not viable in the long term? More and more churches in rural Minnesota are faced with the possiblity of closure because the combined weight of maintaining pastor and building is to great to bear. These are not new questions or challenges, but the need is growing for increased brainstorming of creative new solutions to these problems. The more time I spend struggling with these issues the more I feel that small churches need to look at new and different ways of living out our Great Commission.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Life, Death, and New Life

For some reason memories of my great-grandfather's last moments have been echoing around in my head over the last week. As I was pondering them the other day I realized they could be illuminating for the church.

My great-grandfather passed away in the hospital. His death was very powerful for me. He had been battling illness for a long time and just before Christmas was clearly fading. My grandfather, his son arrived first on the 23rd, early in the morning, my brother, mother, grandmother, and myself all drove down later in the morning. Since he was not conscious when we arrived, my mother and grandmother went out for sandwichs while my brother and I sat in the waiting room. A nurse came in at one point asking for our mother and grandmother, she informed us that we were to send them in as soon as they returned. Shortly after their return the nurse summoned my brother and I to my great-grandfather's room as well. It was not long after we arrived that my great-grandfather passed away, my memory says it was 12:20 but I may be wrong on that. I remember watching his heart monitor or some other machine that monitored his vital signs. At one point it dipped very low and then began to climb again. As I watched the machine I wondered if that was the turning point. I thought about what would happen if now he began to recover and get better. I remember also wondering what lay ahead for him. My great-grandfather was in his 90s, this was not the first time he had been ill. I seriously wondered what sort of future lay ahead for him in this life. A short time later a nurse came in, checked his vital signs, and told us that he had passed away. Appearantly even after his death the machines would pick up on phantom signals or something else what would confuse them and make them think there was still activity. I am not 100% sure, but I believe that dip that I had pondered upon was when he died. I believe my great-grandfather wanted the family there when he passed away. He could have died at any other time, but it was only once everyone was there that he passed away. What struck me most recently however was the way that things can appear alive even after they die. How often do we see the echoes of life in organiztions after they have passed away. Our technology can confuse us into thinking somethin is alive that is not. Is the same for true for the church? Death is often seen as a negative thing, but I think that good things can come from it. I know what my great-grandfather meant to me, and even now, over ten years later I still remember what it meant to be there as he died, and I am still learning from the echoes of his life.

Monday, March 12, 2007

What is real? What is truth?

One of the things I remember from my intro to philosophy class in college was the discussion about what was real. I think what is real is changing today. For the last several hundred years, real has been something you could isolate scientifically. Reality was defined by objects and existence in a very physical sense. This understanding of real was strongly rooted in the rational mind, something that was highly prized and highly regarded. Immanuel Kant struggled with those things that were beyond reason alone, things like beauty.

I think that things are changing. I think that today what is real as a much more personal nature to it. What is real is not something to be defined by the scientist or the “impartial objective” third party. I believe that reality has instead become intensely personal. This is not to say that there is not an objective component to it, but that reality is ultimated defined by the each individual. This comes from the realization that an “impartial objective” individual does not exist. Each person is forced to filter the world through their own lenses, their own sense of what is what. We cannot step outside of who we are, where we are, and the forces that have shaped our lives to this point in time.

Now, I am aware that I am walking dangerously near the looming chasm of relativism. I am aware that the removal of objective truth in favor of subjective truth is very intimidating. At the same time I think this understanding of truth and reality can be very freeing. Consider the Eucharist, Holy Communion. A great many philosophers struggled to explain how simple bread and wine can also be the body and blood of Jesus Christ. At the heart of this struggle is the fact that according to “objective reality,” the bread and wine appear unchanged. I believe that part of the mystery of Communion is how these simply items of bread and wine, or grape juice in my case, become the very real body and blood of Jesus. To try and come up a simple scientific explanation insults our faith. To believe that everything that occurs in this world is observable, understandable, and can be reduced to things our basic senses and limited intellect can comprehend seems to elevate ourselves to the level of gods.

I do not think we should simply throw out all scientific knowledge, storm the libraries of the world with torches and reduce all that we know to ashes and dust, but I do think we need to realize and appreciate that we are not to be limited by what we can know scientifically, or to think that truth and reality are confined to its bounds. Instead we need to appreciate how our faith and ours minds can take us beyond what is “objectively” real to find something that is intimately, personally, real. I believe that we are going to find God in that sort of real, and so I look at this change as a way that we can begin to develop relationships with God that are passionate and real for each of us.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Forget and/or forgive

A couple of different things over the last few days have caused me to want to consider what forgiveness means in the church. I was watching a rerun episode of Law and Order on TNT last night and the case revolved around whether or not a person who committed a crime years ago and then had become a born again Christian, should be punished for his crime, or whether his clear transformation and devoted life since was in fact a sign of rehabilitation and that the court should not punish him for something that God had forgiven him for. The second incident I am less aware, but noticed in a NY Times article, New Life Church in Colorado Springs has done an "audit" of its staff in the wake of Ted Haggred's resignation. At least one person appearantly has been fired for "unrelated issues of sin."
These two incidents lead to me to wonder where grace and forgiveness really come into play in our daily lives. Each of these examples seems to show how the grace of God, which takes away our sins, does not infact remove us from punishment. Now, I certainly agree that there is a compelling arguement for punishment in the court system separate from grace. After all, the reason for the courts is not in fact to deal with sins, but infact to maintain justice in society. Any punishment that should occur is done because of harm that has been done to the victims and also to the society as a whole by the criminal. But does this argument hold up in a church as well.
I agree there can be excellent reasons for forgiveness working along side "punishment." Often things like child molestation are not isolated sins, but a sign of something deeper that needs to be treated even as the person is forgiven. The reason for defrock a minister over such an instance is not punish them, but because it is no longer in their own interests or the interests of the church to have them as a minister. They need to deal with their own problems instead.
Taking all of this into account there is still the question of firing church staff for their sins. I do not know the particulars of New Life Church, nor would I want to stand in judgement of them if I did. I simply want to take the possibility of what is reported to have occurred there and use it for my own ethical speculations. It would seem to me that what is essential in an issue of the sins of church staff is the level of sin. As I said before I think there are some sins which are clearly signs of deeper problems. Forgiving someone for passing out drunk at your house one night does not overcome the issue of alcoholism they might be dealing with. It is also understandable that there are some sins which undermine the trust necessary for a pastor to do their work. Such an instance could mean thave even as a congregation forgives the individual, it is no longer possible for them to continue as the pastor.
Can we forgive and still punish? Does the removal of sin remove that from us? Is it not punishment that is important but instead reformation? Should we be concerned not with punishing, but assisting both sinner and any victims of sin of re-establishing the best life possible. As much as I understand the need for punishment and a cost for one's actions. What makes God's forgiveness so powerful is that it takes away the cost. Inspite of everything else, it just seems to me that ultimately, forgiveness that is accompanied by punishment is not true forgiveness. There are a great deal of caveats to that statement, but I think I have ponder them enough.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

A Slave to Technology?

One of my projects for the week is figuring out how to make my computer record the worship service so that I can take the sound files and translate them into mp3s to be put on the website as well as burn them into CDs for archiving purposes. This will be very helpful I believe but will also make the service more dependent on technology. Sunday I had a problem with my dependence on technology. I managed to print thewrong copy of the bulletins for the service because I forgot to save the most recent version before sending it to be printed. The result was that we basically did not have bulletins for the service. This was easily overcome by making quick copies of the call to worship and songs for the day. It raises the question, are we becoming too dependent on technology? Or perhaps if not too dependent, unneccesarily dependent. Perhpas I am wrong in this, but it seems that the service went fine even without bulletins.
There are two reasons to record the service ... archiveal purposes and to let people know what our worship is like. A number of people, myself included like to be able to listen to the pastor and the worship service as a way of checking out a congregation. These are both good things for a church, but are we adding too much extra? Suddenly there is one more thing to work on, one of more thing to go wrong each week. Are we building up a culture that is dependent on technology and in doing so limiting ourselves from simple, authentic worship. As soon as you beginning recording services there is a temptation to make sermons more than just worship but also a marketing tool. Meaningful theology can easily be exchanged for sound bytes. I am a begin fan of technology, but as I sit here typing on my laptop using wireless internet, I am just left to wonder if it is easy for it to go too far.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Quiet Dedication

Thoughts of what to write have been swirling around in my head all morning just as the snow swirls in chaotic circles in the sky. While I wait for the thoughts to clump together and take shape I wanted to share what I just observed. I have been watching a man dutifully shoveling the sidewalk across the street from me. while many might be inclined to wait since the snow continues to fall he was already working to clear the sidewalk. Not only that but I watch as he patiently shovels load after load of dirty snow that has been spread onto the walk from the street back. His efforts mean a lot to those people who now can walk without filling their shows with nasty polluted snow. This luxury does not come without expense; even as he shovels the walk clean, vehicles continue to drive by, spraying this man and his work with more and more snow. There is something beautiful about his quiet dedication.