Thoughts on christian formation before my vacation...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for this Sunday - June 22, 2014 - my last before two weeks away for rest, reflection and renewal. They are in pretty rough form, but you can still get the essence, yes?

I have discovered over the years that almost every clergy person wishes that their congregations were biblically literate – that the working majority of people knew ALL the core stories of the Old and New Testaments – and could use them in shaping their everyday behavior.  Others among the ranks of those we call pastors would settle for liturgical literacy – knowing why and how we do what we do in worship – because the liturgy – or order of worship for each Sunday – is a sacred way of living that invites us to enter each moment and day in the spirit of being GATHERED into God’s grace, REFLECTIVE about everything that is said or happens, REFLECTIVE at the close of each day about what we learned and experienced of God’s presence, and then moving forward as a BLESSING for ourselves and others.

St. Paul expresses what is often at the heart of every pastor I have ever known: When we are lowered into the water, it is like the burial of Jesus; when we are raised up out of the water, it is like the resurrection of Jesus. Each of us is raised into a light-filled world by our Father so that we can see where we’re going in our new grace-sovereign country.

But the TRUTH of most churches – ours included – is that life is just too freakin’ busy and demanding for most people to become biblically – let alone liturgically – literate.  I was talking with my sister Karen two weeks ago at our daughter’s wedding….

So while it is true that Jesus told his closest disciples – Don’t think I’ve come to make life cozy. I’ve come to cut—make a sharp knife-cut between son and father, daughter and mother, bride and mother-in-law—cut through these cozy domestic arrangements and free you for God. Well-meaning family members can be your worst enemies. If you prefer father or mother over me, you don’t deserve me. If you prefer son or daughter over me, you don’t deserve me. If you don’t go all the way with me, through thick and thin, you don’t deserve me. If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you’ll find both yourself and me – for most of us it just doesn’t happen. 

·   Or maybe it is better to say that it doesn’t happen with the depth and verve and intentionality that we preachers want and expect. But it DOES happen… slowly and tenderly – with integrity and ingenuity – it does happen in a variety of ways – and YOU are the proof.

·   So with respect for the very real demands on your lives AND the call of Christ to grow deeper in faith what I want to share with you are my deepest dreams about what a ministry of Christian Education and Formation might look like over the next few years in our church.

I don’t think I’ve ever been this explicit and vulnerable about what I hope and dream for when it comes to disciple-making among us.  So, please listen carefully – and then tell me how it strikes you. And, look, you don’t have to be “nice” – not cruel or snarky – but if something seems weird or just not right, I’m counting on you to tell me, ok?

I’m going to take my cue from St. Paul who was known for cutting to the
chase.  In today’s text he’s reminding people that when they were baptized – and when they made a conscious decision to follow Jesus as Lord and Savior – their lives needed to look and be different from the status quo. Paul said:

Could it be any clearer? Our old way of life was nailed to the cross with Christ, a decisive end to that sin-miserable life—no longer at sin’s every beck and call! What we believe is this: If we get included in Christ’s sin-conquering death, we also get included in his life-saving resurrection. We know that when Jesus was raised from the dead it was a signal of the end of death-as-the-end. Never again will death have the last word. When Jesus died, he took sin down with him, but alive he brings God down to us. From now on, think of it this way: Sin speaks a dead language that means nothing to you; God speaks your mother tongue, and you hang on every word. You are dead to sin and alive to God. That’s what Jesus did.

·    As people born again by forgiveness, our lives need to be shaped by gratitude and grace.

·   As women and men who have experienced God’s love in our flesh we must honor one another’s body, treat NO ONE as a commodity or means to an end and find ways of bringing hope into every situation – from the bed room to the board room or class room.

·   And as those who have been fed with Christ’s healing grace from the inside out, we are to be people whose priorities are BIGGER and DEEPER than simply having more things, striving to be successful only in the world of commerce – not that those things are wrong, they are not – but they are not to be our deepest obsession.

Let me stop here to see if you are still with me:  what do you feel and think about the notion that those who follow Jesus must live lives that SHOW this love?  Lives that are different from the status quo – lives that embody the values of forgiveness, hope, peace and caring for the common good – what do you think of this?

·    Do you know the old saying that disciples are MADE not born? Disciples come from training rather than abstract thinking.

·   The really old evangelicals used to put it like this: the church is always just one generation away from extinction.  And their point was that we have a sacred responsibility to pass on the love of Jesus to the next generation – and to others in our own generation, too.

And as I’ve thought about what that might look like, I’ve come to see that there are three parts to my vision:  children; youth; and adults.  All three are important – and all three can happen even in a small church like ours – if we are creative and faithful. 

·   But one of the essentials and non-negotiables for doing Christian Formation for me is that we START with adults. Children learn by what they see the important adults in the lives doing – and if the adults in a church don’t take disciple-making seriously, their children won’t either.

·   One of the reasons so many young people left our tradition over the past 50 years is NOT because the conservatives had better music or coffee or fellowship and study groups – although that was often true, too. No the reason so many teens and young adults left is because church didn’t matter; it was no different from the Lions or Kiwanis club. It was a collection of nice people doing nice things that everyone else was doing, too.

And there was NOTHING life changing or challenging involved: there was no inward sacrifice, there was no outward discipleship and it really didn’t seem to matter what you believed because for about 50 years, our way of doing church was more about being NICE than being FAITHFUL.  All people want their lives to mater – especially young people – and when all we could give them was playing nice… well, we’ve seen the results.

·   So the FIRST thing a Christian Education and Formation ministry needs to have is a STRONG AND VIBRANT ADULT PROGRAM of discipleship.

·   It should be challenging, creative and honest – it should met adults where they live and help them grow in both Christ’s love and Christ’s strength – and it should be saturated in grace.

And at the very least I think my ideal dream adult formation ministry would include:

·   An annual spiritual life retreat that gave busy people a chance to rest and pray and think in beauty and quiet.  There might also be ALL CHURCH retreats that are inter-generational, but without time to rest and think in some degree of solitude it is really hard to for us to know where God is calling us.

·   A few small study/action/reflection groups built around the felt needs of its members.  Example:  Jesus teaching the disciples on the Emmaus Road after the resurrection.  It was only in the doing – and the asking deeper questions – that their lives were changed.  A few examples:  church council questions – a group geared for parents with children approaching puberty – a gathering of young professionals in business who want to live the values of compassion in an aggressive market place. These small groups could be focused on men’s spirituality – or women’s spirituality – they could have to do with aging parents or disabilities…

·   Three seasonal studies that would take place both in worship and after church that are linked to our ministry and mission in the world:  in the fall that might be eco-justice and river clean-up – in the winter it could be an aspect of peace-making – and in the spring it might focus on community renewal through Habitat or Heifer International or… who knows.  The key would be helping us all make the connection between our faith and our actions in the world.

That’s what I’m thinking about for adults – and I started with us for a reason – unless WE get it and DO it, our children won’t even notice.  Thoughts…?

For children I think there are three things that are essential, too – and we’re doing two of them:

·   First, more than anything else our children need to spend time every week with loving guides who model Christ’s love.  These teachers tell stories, but the content of the lessons is less important than the love that they share. And that is something we do and I give thanks to God for it.

·   Second, I pray to the Lord that our ministry might also embrace a commitment to holding at least one meal every week where parents and children would sit down together and talk about the Bible story for the week. This would require practice and ingenuity – it wouldn’t be easy for some right away – but if you talked intentionally with your children about the ethical implications in their lives of the weekly bible stories, you would be raising up a crop of disciples. 

·   And third, throughout the year we find ways to include our children and youth in worship festivals that are fun, creative and intergenerational.

Tell me what you are thinking:  good, bad, crazy, impractical?  What are the obstacles?  What’s missing?

And then there are our YOUTH:  I ache for our youth to have a mentoring program that includes initiation rites for girls as well as boys.  I am particularly concerned that our culture is raising up selfish, soft and self-absorbed men who don’t know how to use their strength and passion for the care of the community…

·   I am a big believer in mission trips – where deep conversations and fun times are mixed with times of quiet and prayer and service.  These are life changing…

·   And the time has come to create a combined youth group of the downtown churches that meets regularly, shares leadership and resources and gives our young people an alternative to just hanging out…

When I was first starting out in ministry I read these words by Sr. Joan Chittister and they have haunted me for over 30 years:  There IS a way for people to live calmly in the middle of chaos, productively in an arena of waste, lovingly in a maelstrom of individualism and gently in a world full of violence – but it takes practice.  Another pastor put the challenge like this:  most of the people in my church ADMIRE Mother Theresa, but have no idea how to become a person with such deep peace and integrity.  Again, it takes practice – and a very specific type of practice.

My hope is that we’ll keep talking and praying and thinking about what practices we are willing to commit to together as this summer unfolds.  For in doing this we will grow closer to living within and amidst the community of God for our generation.


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