Tuesday, February 26, 2008

An unexpected windfall of/for change

Recently the government united on something, that the way to help our struggling economy and the desperate times we find ourself in as a country was to give everyone money. Well as it turned out it was not everyone everyone, but still the government felt it necessary to give out rebate checks to something like 100 million households. When I first heard about this potential windfall heading my way, like most people, I started to think about all the good I could do with this money ... for myself. Some of my ideas were clearly self-serving, like getting some piece of cool new technology, but others had some greater value, like paying off some of my loans from seminary. When I thought about this some more I thought about how this could be a way to help my church out. If I gave this money to my church think about how that would help it out financially. As tempting as that was, I also realized that this money could really make a difference given to some of the many struggling charities that are bearing the brunt of the collapsing economy. Places that are struggle to meet the needs of hardworking people who just need a little more help getting by.

Out of my reflections on those topics I am starting a campaign in my congregation and I am hoping that it is something other people considering embracing, and that is using this "change" that the government is giving us to really work to change things. At Light of the Lakes we will be asking people to pledge some or even all of their government rebates to help with projects around the church or to go towards helping charities in the community. Our congregation is not that large, only 47 members, but if I did the math correctly as a group we will be getting over 20,000 from the government. That is a lot of money to make a difference with. If my math sills are to be trusted, probably some 3 million of the households receiving these rebates will be United Methodist. Which conservative would mean easily over 2 billion dollars that United Methodists could be using to make a difference in their communities. It will not buy a solution to all of the problems of the world, but it would help to show that we as Christians are committed to something greater than ourselves. It would help to reject the consumerism that captivates our nation and our world. With every major presidential candidate talking about how they are the best agent for change, I think we as Christians can demonstrate that in fact, we too can be agents of positive change in the world. Unlike the candidates, we do not need to win in order to change, all we need to do is lose our own selfish desires and let that change start to happen.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Prophetic Power of Tolkien

I have heard arguments about the Christian imagery that Tolkien wove into the Lord of the Rings books, and I have heard theories about how the books were meant as a commentary on the politics of his day. But what I find most intriguing is how contained in his stories are some very prophetic words for the church.

"Kings made tombs more splendid than the houses of the living and counted the names of their descent more dear than their sons. Childless lords sat in ageless halls musing on heaven or in high cold towers asking questions of the stars." (roughly transcribed from the extended version of "The Return of the King")

While Gandalf is referring to the fall of Gondor when he makes these statements, I think has some strength when applied to the church as well. I think there is a strong temptation in the church to think more about building up our halls of worship, our altars, and our memorials than we give thought to the needs of the members and the surrounding community. And while Tolkien was unaware of it at the time, the mainline church in the United States as faced a similar decline over the years, constantly looking to the past and our membership lists and confirmation photos from years past rather than thinking to the future and how we are called to continue the church. I just realize how little we think in the church about creating new churches, about giving birth to something new, and instead tend to focus on our legacy, our traditions, or simply on maintaining the crumbling structures (both physical and perhaps spiritual) of our denominations. I believe that we look to the stars for the magic answer, like Gondor we await the coming of the King, the perfect pastor, who will lead us back to our heyday, rather than actively seeking that return for ourselves. I watched the Return of the King last weekend on my day off (it really does take a whole day to do it) and was just overwhelmed with a desire to work for renewal and I wanted to share that with all my avid, or at least somewhat regular readers.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Meaing what we say or saying what we mean

One of the participants in the Gospel According to Starbuck's small groups I am running brought up an interesting challenge to me. She shared that it is hard for her to always say the call to worship because it does not always feel like something she is in the right frame of mind to say. For example, on a day when she is feeling down, to say that she is rejoicing in the Lord may not be true. Rather than reflecting her feelings, the prayers and call to worship seem to speak the mind of someone else. Her challenge and one that has really got me thinking is, how do we find authentic ways for people to participate in worship in way that is both real to them and yet fits with the theme and mood of worship. In more ritualized services, the words work well to create the mood and to pull people into a sense of worship. Is it better to try and have the prayer and everything create that right frame of mind. If the focus of the service is peace and justice, certainly having prayers centered around that can help create the mood for people, but is there a good way to let people acknowledge that they are not in that place. For me corporate prayers allow the congregation to participate in worship, but maybe they fail to actually let people say where they are at, and instead merely become a reflection of my mood when I am writing the prayers.

As I think about the structure of worship at Light of the Lakes UMC, it seems to me that maybe I am going about things the wrong way. There are two opportunities for people to express and/or let go of the things they are struggling with at the moment. We have a time of centering prayer and we have a time of joys, concerns, and "God sightings" (where people share how they have seen God in their lives in the last week). Both of these fall more to the middle of the service, the centering prayer comes after the call to worship and three songs; joys and concerns follow the sermon. Maybe what is really need is to move on of these to the very front of worship, so that people have a moment to shift their focus, lift up those things they are struggling with, and allow themselves to move into an attitude of worship.

I think what I continue to struggle with is the challenge of merging both the needs of the individual and the needs and feelings of the community. Finding a way to make corporate worship authentica and meaningful to the whole church and the church as a whole.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Jamming for Jesus?

In I think the first Harry Potter book, J.K. Rowling talks about the Hogwarts school song what is notable about the song is not the bizarre words, but the way the song is sung. Dumbledore starts the song and each person then sets off to singing it at their own pace, with their own tune. In their usual flippant and attention grabbing manner, the Weasley twins chose a funeral dirge, and so finish much after everyone else. Recently I have been trying to figure out how to capture the spirit of the Hogwarts song and make it work in worship. In particular I am thinking about the ability to allow for individuality and diversity. I am currently puzzling over the idea of the jam session, where people simply gather to make music that is spontaneous, authentic and lacking the polish of a performance but instead capturing the spirit and energy of the musicians. I want to have a worship service that is not meant to be judged on its technical merits, but instead to be judged on how it speaks to and from the souls of those who are gathered there. Relatively spontaneous and individual modes of worship work when you have outgoing, unabashedly outspoken people like the Weasley twins, but are not helpful for people as a whole. How do we help people to find their own voice in worship? How do make room for those who are still just wanting to hear what others have to say? It seems like a lot of the challenge I am facing, though I hope I am wrong, is that when it comes to worship, we as pastors have spent years, if not centuries performing for people rather than inviting other to jam with us. Our good intentions have served only to infantilize our members and teach them to watch and not to act. Maybe I am painting with too broad a brush, but I know that I for one have been guilty of this. The challenge for me now is to figure out how to give that voice back to the people and to affirm the role that each person has in the act of worship

Monday, February 4, 2008

A Need to Be Involved

I have been reading and really enjoying the book "The Gospel According to Starbuck's" by Leonard Sweet. One of the things he comments on is the increased need for people to participate in something rather than just be spectators. He points out that American Idol, which asks people to vote is hugely popular whereas most major sports struggle to retain their audiences. He also notes that things like Fantasy Football help to provide interaction instead of simply being a spectator. Part of me finds this hard to believe, even as a young adult, someone who is supposed to fit into these stereotypes, I watch sports and enjoy the spectator part. On further consideration however I realized that my sports watching has grown as I started to do Fantasy Football. Perhaps the thing that hit home the most to me was watching the Super Bowl last night with my youth group. In the final 2 minutes 30 seconds of the games, which is a fair amount of real time, but still not a huge amount, one of my youth sent 300+ text messages in an attempt to have Laurence Marooney voted as the MVP for the game. For him watching the game was fine, but what made it better was the fact that he could have a small influence on some part of the action, he was enjoying getting to be a part of things. Not sure what to do with this anecdote yet ... but it does reinforce the fact that churches need to make sure we are finding ways to engage people, not simply intellectually, or as spectators, but as active participants in worship and all other areas of ministry.