Monday, January 19, 2009

Martin Luther King Day

I am a bit of a non-conformist and so some part of me rebels at the notion of honoring MLK when everyone else is doing it, not because he is not deserving of honor, but because everyone else is doing it too. At the same time MLK is definitely one of my heroes both in his actions and his thinking.

What I want to highlight today is MLK's keen insight into the state of the church and to give my own struggles and perhaps convictions with that same insight.

In his Letter from the Birmingham City Jail, King observes:
There was a time when the church was very powerful in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators"' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide. and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender of the status quo. Par from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are."

What I love about this quote is the accurate assessment that churches tend to be better thermometers than thermostats. However at the same time I am convicted and challenged by his assessment. King, rightly argues in his Birmingham letter that the role of the church is not to be silent on issues of justice but to stand up and fight for the rights of everyone. Where I struggle is how that need to fight balances against other needs that exist for the church. Should a church or a denomination that is struggling with growth issues or financial issues set those aside in favor of issues of justice?

Here are my two thoughts on that: 1) a church cannot help others if it cannot help itself. You would not expect a sick person to donate an organ, instead you would look to a healthy person for such a service. Churches that are struggling with declining numbers and difficult finances do not help anyone if embracing issues of justice creates further conflict for them or distracts them from the things they need to do to recover and be a health part of the Body of Christ. 2) If a church is not willing to stand up for issues of justice, what does it matter if they are healthy or not? It seems to me that justice and compassion for all is a cornerstone of the church that Christ founded, how can we call ourselves a healthy church, or really even a church if we do not concern ourselves with these issues.

Unfortunately as a pastor I can see a great many issues of justice that divide congregations: issues around sexuality, poverty, and immigration raise serious challenges and disagreements as to how we as a church are to respond. Can the resulting conflict as you try and work for justice do more harm than good? How is the church called to be a bastion of change and seek justice while also respecting its own internal differences and its own internal issues?

All that being said, I am grateful for all the work that MLK did and on this day I remember not only his work and legacy but also the work of the countless people, well-known and obscure, who helped to bring his dream closer to reality.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Playoff Fever

It is playoff time in the NFL and so naturally my thoughts tend to be influenced by that. Yesterday morning however my thoughts were much more focused on my sermon and how it just did not feel like a good one. One of the first things I learned in seminary is that no matter how good or bad a sermon is, you can never know if it is going to make a big difference or not for people. That is not to say that as a pastor I do not strive to preach the best sermon I can, but I do so knowing that there are a lot of factors outside of my control (thank goodness).

Some of what made it hard for me was that my sermon was basically the first thing I did after coming back from vacation and so it did not get the full week of attention a sermon usually does. The bottom line is that it was easy to come up with excuses for why this would be an off week, but it raised the question in my mind, is it ok for a pastor to have an off week? Is it really possible to avoid it? Which brings me back to the playoffs and football. Football, like preaching has one big day, Sunday, with everything else as prep leading up to it. Football has a lot of regular season games that lead up to the playoffs. Each of these games on their own means less but combined determine a teams fate, will they make the playoffs or not. For this reason coaches often talk about the one game at a time strategy, getting their players focused and ready to play each and every game, never looking to the next week, approaching each game with the same level of passion and intensity. I feel like preaching is similar. Each week is not likely to make or break a church, though I was reminded this week by my relatives that a bad sermon really can set the wrong tone. Also in preaching there are some obvious "playoff" games, things like baptisms, confirmation, Christmas, and Easter, times where you have lots of people and often more unaffliated people than usual in the congregetion. These are really the sermons you want to come out strong on. I guess my real question is can a team, or a preacher really keep the one game at a time, every sermon is a playoff sermon, mentality up or does the mind simply adjust and still takes those less important games/sermons in a different way than the really big ones? I was hearing on the radio today about how we build up tolerances to drugs, can we do the same to that playoff style pressure, so that eventually we are just as lax as we used to be, despite our best efforts.

Maybe there is that other question, should every sermon be preached like it is a Christmas sermon? I was taught in fencing to always lunge at about 80% of my maxium range, so that I could lunge further if needed. Should I be preaching at 80% so I can preach better if needed? Does preaching at less than 100% do the congregation a disservice or does it keep me from burnout and from my 100% being closer to what was once 80%. Just some thoughts.