Why a Reformed Presence is Important in the City

I am a Reformed minister through-and-through, and I feel very strongly about the Reformed theology.  I do not think Reformed theology is the only way of being a Christian, I simply think that it is a good way.  I think that is Biblically sound, and I think that it speaks to our world in a way that other traditions do not.  Some people tell me that theology doesn’t really matter in the inner-city, particularly when educational attainment is not incredibly high.  This is, of course, something that I vehemently disagree with.

First, I think that it is wrong to assume that educational attainment alone dictates someone’s capacity for understanding is short sighted.  I have known many wise people that had a 9th grade education, and I have known many dull people with master’s degrees.  Secondly, it downplays what Reformed theology has to offer the world.

I don’t use the words sovereignty, providence, election, irresistable grace, or atonement in the regular course of my preaching and teaching.  These are all terms that are near and dear to Reformed theology.  However, I talk about them all the time.  These doctrines are prevalent in my preaching and teaching, they are what I stand on, and they are the avenues through which I communicate the faith.  Reformed theology is not important so that we can use big terms like this or be able to understand the finer points of the differentiation between orthodox Reformed theology and Arminianism.  Reformed theology is important because it stands on the bedrock of God and God’s grace.

Rather than starting with humans, the Reformed start with God.  The idea of starting with ourselves makes sense when we feel as though we can depend on ourselves, on our abilities, on our capacities.  However, if we feel (or better, when we finally realize) that we cannot depend on ourselves, suddenly relying upon a theology that begins with us is not as comforting and stabalizing.  We understand that it is a foundation which is not solid and will shift around a lot, causing the building of faith to fall.

When we feel as through we’re empowered and that we largely direct our own destiny, the idea of the sovereignty of God can offend our individualistic sensibilities.  When we feel as though we can provide for ourselves through employment, the providence of God doesn’t seem to be that relevant.  When we feel as though we are able to make the decisions for our lives and that our lives are under our own control, irresistable grace and election seem to contradict the respect for our own agency.

It is true that no one really cares about soverginty, providence, irresistable grace, election, etc… but people do care about the fact that God is in control and nothing is out of God’s reach, people do care that God provides for us, people do care that God pursues us even before we begin pursuing God, that graciously chooses us for God’s own. These are all benefits of a distinctively Reformed witness in the city.

In the midst of a community where people are told that they must speak in tounges, that they must be careful not to lose their salvation, that if they do something wrong God will leave them, that if they sin, they must turn back to God on their own…I am proud to be a witness that stands upon, first and foremost God’s action and then secondarily our response, and a witness that is founded upon God and God’s grace.  This is why I think and believe very strongly that a Reformed presence in the city is so very important.

Stewardship in the Inner City

At our church, we have a board inside the narthex that has the register of attendance and offerings.  This board has numbers on it: our attendance the previous week and the attendance to the corresponding week last year, it includes our weekly giving goal, and our offering from last week.  This is, of course, not to serve as a comprehensive evaluation of the health of our church, but it is certainly a dynamic of it.  While I think that at times our denomination (the Reformed Church in America) can focus too much on numbers and statistical measures of growth, we cannot deny the importance of attendance and offering numbers as a component to our health.

Some people who visit our church in Milwaukee from elsewhere are sometimes surprised that in our inner-city church in a largely low-income neighborhood, we display these numbers for all to see.  However, I think that highlighting such numbers is important regardless of whether you are in a high-income church or a low-income church.  Giving is not just about the amount, it is a spiritual discipline.

I sometimes hear people talk about how churches are all about money, that they focus too much on money.  Sometimes I hear people refer to the offering as the “admission”, usually tounge-in-cheek, but I think that there is often a hint of seriousness to it.  Unfortunately, I think that there are many instances when these observations and critiques are accurate.

There is a fine line between appearing like we worship money (which it can seem like, everyone stands and we sing the Doxology), and placing such a low importance on giving that it is not even in our worship services (at one church I visited one time, they had “joy boxes” on the back wall, and they encouraged you to put money in there if you would like).  The danger of focusing too much on money is that those of limited means can feel left out or even excluded.

The purpose of the church is not to exclude, but to include; not to cause divisions, but to create unity; not to make a hierarchy between “useful” people and “unuseful people”, but to help everyone to understand that they have a purpose, and to help everyone to participate in the greater mission.  Regardless of how wealthy one is, everyone needs to feel as though they have some ownership in their church, as though they have a stake in their church, as though they can contribute.  This is the real point of an offering.

It is true that a church, as an organization, needs money to function, but the offering is so much more than a fundraiser.  We often talk about the offering as the time in which we “give back to God”, which technically is correct, but it is a bit abstract.  It also carries the undertone that money is the only way that we can do this, and those that cannot offer much money may feel as though they don’t have something to give to God.  This is why it is important to understand the offering as both material and symbolic.  Money is one way that we can, and need to, give of ourselves.  But for those of us of limited means, those of us who cannot offer much other than a few coins, the offering is also symbolic of giving of ourselves to God.

I don’t make judgements or conclusions about our church, our people, or our stewardship solely by the numbers on the board.  I don’t even talk about it that much.  I allow the numbers to just be.  Some weeks we get closer to our giving goal, other weeks we are way under our goal.  It is important for us to be aware of it, but we need not stake our whole existance on it.  We need to encourage giving and stewardship, also being aware that we have many with limited financial resources and fixed incomes, and we invite these folks to give what they are able.

No where in the Bible (that I am aware of, at least), is stewardship limited to wealthy folks.  No where are we told that only a certain portion of the people need to be stewards of what they have.  Stewardship is universal, and even when we may not have much money to offer, we can offer what we are able.  The point is not that we must offer ten percent, or that we must give a certain amount, the point is that we give of ourselves what we are able.  More than anything giving is a spiritual discipline, and this is why we keep having the numbers on the board.

“Remember, you are dust…”

I’ve always enjoyed Ash Wednesday services.  I enjoy them not because they make me happy, but because they are powerful.  The reminder that we are dust, and to dust we will return is an important reminder.  The feeling of the grit of the ash on my forehead helps me to remember the grit of my sin.  I enjoy Ash Wednesday services because they help me to refocus my life on God, and it helps me to re-center my existance on God, and God’s transforming work.

I have participated in the imposition of the ashes many times before.  Hearing the words “Remember, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” is always a very sobering experience.  Saying the words wrenches my heart.  But Ash Wednesday this year, the first Ash Wednesday as the pastor of my church, I had an experience that almost moved me to tears: I looked a three year old girl in the eyes and said, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”  The fact of the matter is that she is dust, and she will return to dust, just as I am and I will also. For some reason, it is much more powerful when I say it to a child.

I think about how many years they have ahead of them, how many great things they may do.  It is sobering to think about mortality before their life really even began.  I suppose, though, that that is the point of Ash Wednesday. That it is not about us — it is about God.  We can not do anything lasting.  I suppose that is a bit of what Qoheleth was thinking in the composition of Ecclesiastes.  The point is that God does the lasting work, and in understanding our mortality, we allow ourselves to be changed by God.

Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, and Lent is a time of repentence, prayer, transformation, and renewal. In order for this transformation and renewal to happen, we have to recenter ourselves on the order of the universe.  God is God, I am dust — and in response I will open myself to God’s transformational work so that I can face Easter a renewed person.

Walking the Neighborhood

Each week, usually on a Wednesday afternoon, I go for a walk around the neighborhood.  I do it for several reasons.  The first of which is that it helps me to toss around the scripture text for Sunday’s sermon in my mind, and allows me to get some fresh air in the process.  Secondly, it helps me to get to know the neighborhood, and the neighbors.  I love it when I see one of my parishioners on my walks.  Thirdly, it allows me a chance to pray not only with my mind, but also with my body, as I pray for our neighborhood while I walk it.

Each week, I am overcome with the same incredibly overwhelming feeling of despair mixed with hope.  I despair because I see so many homes boarded up and posted as unfit for human habitation.  I despair because I see people who are desperately trying to scrape by, sometimes being able to do it, other times falling short.  I despair because I see the fallenness of our world.  I am so thankful, though, that despair is not my only feeling.

I also feel hope.  I feel hope because I believe that God can restore our neighborhood.  I feel hope because I believe that God can transform our neighborhood.  I feel hope because I believe that there is so much more going on than I can see with my eyes.

It is a very strange, and sometimes uncomfortable, mix of feelings.  It is the feeling of being at the middle of a cross road and not knowing exactly where it will take you.  I wish that I knew for sure that our neighborhood would be transformed and rejuvinated.  I wish I knew for certain when said transformation was going to happen.  But I don’t.

While I hope, I don’t know for certain that something miraculous is going to happen, and I don’t know when.  I suppose that is what hope is, as Paul writes in Romans “…we hope for what we do not see…”  This mixture of feelings is unsettling, and it burdens my heart.  However, I think that this mixture of feelings is something that we all experience in one way or another.

For me, I think that it is the feeling of despair that helps me live in the real world, and understand our need for redemption and restoration.  It is the feeling of despair that opens me up to something more, it is the feeling of despair that tills the soil of my heart to prepare it for new growth.  Moreover, it is hope that allows me to continue on: to continue preaching, to continue praying, to continue walking with people.  I do not think that true hope can exist without some feeling of despair, and despair without hope is, quite literally, hell.

This mixture of feelings, of despair and hope, I think, is the tention that we live in, the already but not yet, to use a well-worn phrase.  This is a tension that pushes us to live and pray earnestly, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

Recovering Evangelism

Let me begin with a confession: the word “evangelism” makes me cringe. It’s not that I don’t like talking about God, I certainly love doing that. It is just that I associate “evangelism” with programs: Evangelism Explosion, The Way of the Master, or other simplistic techniques: the Roman Road, the EvangeCube. I often find that evangelism,. as I have experienced it, is somewhat anemic. We are called to make disciples, not just converts. Additionally, the focus is usually solely on getting to heaven and after-death salvation, as if this world is simply a waiting room for heaven. Therefore, if we just go and evangelize, are we really fulfilling our call to help form disciples?

In studying for my sermon on Sunday, the appointed Gospel text is from John 1:

“Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.'” (vv. 45-46).

What I find fascinating about this, is Philip’s simple response, “Come and see.” Now Philip’s response was first and foremost an invitation. Philip didn’t say anything about heaven or hell, he didn’t try to give irrefutable proof of why he believed that Jesus was the one whom Moses and the prophets wrote about, he didn’t try to convince him that he was a sinner who was destined for destruction unless he said the sinner’s prayer. Philip simply offered an invitation, “come and see.”

This simple invitation says so much in so few words. First, this invitation is to come along with Philip and not “go”. Philip didn’t say, go see him and see for yourself. Philip was going that way, and he invited Nathanael to come along with him. Second, Philip appeared to truly believe that Jesus had something to offer them right then, not simply after they died. An invitation such as this only works if you think that one’s faith impacts life right here and right now, not only after death. Third, his invitation focused on the good of Jesus. He didn’t condemn Nathanael for asking such a question, he didn’t try to convince Nathanael that without following Jesus he would be lost, Philip knew that Jesus had something good to offer Nathanael and Philip invited Nathanael to come and see for himself. No threats, no promises, simply an invitation.

This is the business that we as Christians need to be in. We must always be offering people the invitation, “Come and see.” We cannot threaten people, nor can we promise people particular things, all we can do is offer an invitation, “Come and see.” We cannot even offer anything, only Jesus can offer anything, we can only extend an invitation. While I won’t be walking around with an EvangeCube any time soon, nor will I be asking people if they think that they are “pretty much a good person”. However, I will continue to invite people to “come and see.”

Writing Letters

One of my favorite pastoral tasks is writing letters.  I write a lot of letters.  I write letters to individual donors, I write letters to churches thanking them for donations.  I write letters informing people of special needs that we have.  I like writing letters.  I don’t send e-mails, and I don’t even use the telephone unless I have to, a letter is my preferred method of communication.  Every letter that leaves the church with my name on it was individually penned by me.  I write many letters by hand, which give it a personal touch.  Other letters I use the computer, but I type every word myself.

There is something special about letters, something that has been lost.  When I read a letter I am forced to listen.  I can’t ask questions, I can’t make comments, I just have to listen.  I can send a letter back to do those things, and then the other person is forced to listen.  I don’t use the word “forced” in a negative sense, perhaps “helped” is a better term.  Listening is not something that we do naturally, so letters help us to listen.  Sometimes when I talk to someone I spend so much time figuring out what I’m going to say next that I don’t actually listen and try to understand what they say.  This is where letters are helpful.

I don’t have to worry about thinking about what I am going to say next, because I have nothing immediate to say.  I have time to think after I have read a letter, after I have listened to the other person.  Writing actual letters also helps me to slow down and me more intentional.  It is easy to shoot of a quick email or text message, but writing a letter takes time. Even if I use the computer to type it, I still have to address the envelope, I have to seal it, put postage on it, take it to the post box or post office.  All steps which force me to be more intentional about what I write.

I love receiving letters much more than I love receiving emails or text messages.  Letters require a measure of time that electronic forms of written communication do not.  I do not see writing letters as an administrative task, it is a pastoral task.  This is the main reason that I write my own letters.  Receipts can come from our treasurer, phone calls can come from our secretary, but the letters…the letters come from me.

Sitting In My Office

Every day when I come to church, I walk in the main door, and I walk in the back of the sanctuary.  From there I walk all the way to the front of the sanctuary to where my office is, and I sit down and start working.  At first it feels kind of strange to have an office right off the sanctuary.  This is particularly so in times like this when churches are becoming assimilated into the corporate organizational mindset and have office wings or annexes or even office buildings.

Not my church.  I pastor a small inner city church.  Our church building was a Presbyterian church and was built in the early 1930s, with all of the wonderful classic Reformed architecture.  The pastor’s office was probably placed right off the sanctuary so that the minister could go right from his (they were all his-es at that time) office to the front of the sanctuary, a pretty utilitarian purpose.  In fact, I still take advantage of this proximity, I don’t have to traipse all around the church in my robe before worship (Yes, I wear a robe, I’ll write about that another time).

But the placement of my office right off of the sanctuary is also meaningful to me because the sanctuary is the first thing that I see when I come in, and I walk through it multiple times per day.  It is hard for me to slip into this idea that I run a business or that I am a coporate executive.  I am a pastor, I lead a congregation.  Worship is the focal point of what a church is, and therefore it is the focal point of my life as a pastor.

Many days I like to spend some time and just sit in the sanctuary. It helps me to refocus my understanding of my role.  I am not the executive of a corporation, I am a Minister of Word and Sacrament, called to lead this community to love God, and to love others, which must all be centered in worship.  It’s fitting then, that I see the sanctuary and go through the sanctuary multiple times per day, it reminds me of the purpose of my calling.

Why I’m Avoiding Christmas Music During Advent

This is the time of year when people begin talking about getting into the “Christmas Spirit”.  I must confess, I’m not in the Christmas spirit, but I think that it is okay, because now is not the time to be in the Christmas spirit, this is the time to be in the Advent spirit.

In my experience, Advent is a difficult season for many of us to celebrate (as is Lent, but that is a thought for another time).  As can be seen in many areas of life, we want things faster and more efficient.  We want definitions to words by just clicking on them rather than looking them up in a dictionary.  We want synonyms for words by clicking on them rather than using an actual thesaurus.  We want to write papers based on sources solely in the internet rather than going to a library to research.  If we want music, we simply turn it on.  If we want to follow a thought, we do it immediately.  There is no need to wait for anything anymore with smartphones, broadband internet access, and hand-held mp3 players, and various other gadgets that we busy our lives with.  I must confess, that I also fall into this, and I find waiting difficult as well.

Advent is not always easy to celebrate because it is a season of waiting.  Who wants to wait during Advent when we can jump right to Christmas now?  There are radio stations playing Christmas songs 24/7 right now.  I have stacks of Christmas music that I can listen to.  I can read any of the birth narratives in the Bible whenever I want.  While none of these things are bad, there is something to say for a fuller experience of Advent.

While I can jump right to Christmas, the one thing that I cannot do is jump to the Parousia.  Celebrating Advent is not an exercise in self-denial, celebrating Advent is an exercise in life!  The song for Advent is “O come O come Emmanuel” knowing that there will be “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” It is tempting to jump right to the latter, who wouldn’t?  While in the church year we celebrate the birth of Christ, we live our lives looking forward to the return of Christ.  We live, in a very real way, singing, “O come, O come Emmanuel…”  We know that Christ will return, and bring redemption and restoration with him.

Advent is not simply the time before Christmas.  Advent is not a space holder on the liturgical calendar.  Advent describes our lives in a very real way as we long and yearn, and prepare for the coming of God.  The sesason of Advent reminds me of my need to live an Advent life, not longing for rapture or with some escapist purpose, but an Advent life that includes expectation, and preparation, and trying to take my part in the whole church’s mission to be a foretaste of the Kingdom of God.

That’s why I’m celebrating Advent, and that is why I’m avoiding Christmas music during Advent.  I want to sing, live, think, and deeply feel the essence of “O come, O come, Emmanuel.”

Advent in a Wintry Eschatological Perspective

Winter_oak_tree

As a child, my family did not fully celebrate Advent. We lit Advent candles at church, but we still put up Christmas decorations and sung Christmas songs during Advent (which is not exactly proper observance). As an adult, I have begun celebrating Advent, and I have found it to be very meaningful. Advent is a season of arrival, of preparation, of expectant waiting, of a longing for what will be but what is not yet. As the first season of the western Christian calendar, Advent gives us an opportunity to reorient our lives as we look forward to another year.

Advent is not about passive waiting, it is about expectation, yearning, longing, and hoping.  Advent is a time to refocus our lives toward the end goal, which allows us to live more fully right now. In my view of the Christian tradition, this goal is restoration and redemption of all creation.

I live in Michigan, and here, Advent comes when the leaves have fallen, the birds have flown south for the winter, and bears have entered into their dens. While they are not necessarily linked, my spiritual formation around Advent has always included something of the transition into winter, as during my whole life they have come together. Winter looks dead, it is quiet, and it is still (snow storms excepted). Winter is a time when I feel my dependence on God most clearly. Winter can be harsh, unforgiving, and life-threatening.

For me, this transition to winter has served as a big object lesson for Advent. The oak tree outside my window looks barren, almost dead. It certainly looks like a shadow of its grandeur. I, at times, wonder, if a tree could have feelings, would it feel sad and grim? Perhaps. But I would also imagine that the tree would have hope of spring and the return of its leaves and its full foliage. That tree is not always destined to remain bleak and bare, but its leaves will be restored. Similarly, it is during Advent that I can experience feelings of desolateness, and bleakness, and barrenness to the very depths of my soul. But with this always comes the knowledge and expectation that an everlasting spring will dawn and the bleakness and barrenness will be replaced by fullness of beauty and redemption.

I have always thought it somewhat paradoxical that I find the greatest hope in the feelings of despair. I have always considered those as opposites. Perhaps, however, they are not opposites, but cousins of sorts, related closer than I have always thought. Perhaps the two need each other. But the despair I feel during times like this is certainly not total, because just when I think that winter brings death upon the world, I hear a child playing in the distance or a squirrel scamper across the shimmering white of the snow to serve as a reminder that winter is not death, winter is very much alive, one might just have to look a bit deeper. Likewise, Advent is a time when, though life may sometimes feel bleak and as though God has turned God’s face away, one may be able to find something, in some way, in which God may be saying, “Hang in there. Redemption is coming. Winter will end. I promise.”

The oak tree outside my window is not dead, it is very much alive, it is just winter, and the tree has prepared for it with the eager longing and expectation that spring will arrive and it will be able to grow leaves once again. The birds have flown south in the expectation that they will be able to return. The bears have retreated to dens believing and knowing that they will be able to emerge yet again.

Me? I long and prepare for restoration. I expectantly long for redemption, for justice, peace, and wholeness. What gives me hope in living is the belief that how things are now is not how they should be or will always be. I ultimately wait, in a very active way, for the Parousia – the coming of God. Advent gives me hope and pushes me forward to live fully with a renewed clarity on the ultimate goal of the gift of the beatific vision. This Advent season, like ones past, I expectantly wait and yearn, but most of all, I hope.