Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Jesus, yes. Church, no?

"Today I quit being a Christian. I'm out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being 'Christian' or to being part of Christianity. It's simply impossible for me to 'belong' to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else."
- from Ann Rice's Facebook page -

I read recently of this recent announcement of well known author, Ann Rice. Only ten years ago, she announced her embrace of Christ and the church. Now she has decided that although she still loves Jesus and considers herself his follower, she's just had it with the church.

I know how she feels. In fact, I would venture to say that I can relate to her sentiment in my own experience better than she can. Here's what I mean. She claims that her decision to leave the church and subsequent announcement has nothing to do with her personal experience with a particular congregation. It's about the "public face" of Christianity and the shortcomings she sees there, the way Christians in general behave. I, on the other hand, as one who has served as a local church pastor for three decades, have had personal experience up close with how disillusioning the church can be. I've seen a good deal of ugliness among church folks, and have on occasion been on the receiving end of it myself. In contrast to Ms. Rice, I find myself loving the idea of church in general, but sometimes find some of my personal experience with real church people more difficult. As one pastor said, "I love the church - it's just the people I have trouble with!" There have been quite a number of times over the years I have found myself very disillusioned and frustrated with the church and wanting to get out myself. Rice goes on to say that she's going to follow Jesus individually. She says, "Christ reaches out to us individually. He's saying 'Come follow me; I am the way, the truth, and the life.' These are beautiful things. I read Scripture every day, I study it every day, I'm mindful of it every day. I don't claim to have the right interpretation of every passage, but I wrestle with it, and that's what I think he wants us to do."

Sounds great. The only problem is, the Scripture doesn't know anything about Christianity without church. As John Wesley said, "Christianity is a social religion. To make it a solitary thing is to destroy it." (I believe I'm quoting that accurately). Following Jesus can't be done except in community. The problem with the church is it's made up of humans. But I'm human, too. The reason why I surrendered to Jesus as Savior and Lord in the first place is because of my broken humanity, and my need for transformation. And an essential way in which Jesus transforms us all is through relating to other followers of Jesus. If I'm going to be a follower of Jesus, I'm stuck with the church. Like I heard another pastor say, "You choose your friends, but you're stuck with your relatives." And when we begin to call God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we're claiming our brothers and sisters, too, warts and all. But they're also stuck with me. Years ago, a man in a church where I had just become pastor was sharing with me about his coming to be part of that congregation and how he had trouble with this church and that one, etc. before coming to the current one. I jokingly said, "Once you find that perfect church, you're going to ruin it when you get there...because you're not perfect." He didn't seem to think that was funny. Later on, he found fault with our congregation, and me in particular (big surprise).

Let me also say, that although I've witnessed some pretty bad stuff in the church, I've also seen some great things, things that would never be possible with all of us doing our own thing. The church belongs to Jesus. He hasn't rejected it. Neither should we.

Sorry it's taken me so long to post. I'll try to do so more often. I've been too busy dealing with the church!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Wrong Paths in Prayer

"Forgive me in those areas where I have failed you, and strengthen me further wherein I have served you well. Save me from complacency and smugness over my spiritual successes as much as despair and guilt over my spiritual failures..."
~ This Day; A Wesleyan Way of Prayer

This prayer that appeared in the devotional guide I'm using these days, articulates the struggle I find myself in quite frequently in my spiritual life. Richard Foster, in his wonderful book, Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home, talks about the different types of prayer. One is what he calls the "prayer of examen." Examen comes from the Latin word that refers to the tongue or weight indicator, on a balance scale, hence conveying the idea of an accurate assessment of the true situation. So this type of prayer is an honest, transparent self-examination. We pray, along with the Psalmist, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends me, and lead me along the path of everlasting life." Psalms 139:23-24 NLT

This examination is something we can't do by ourselves. We fall off the path in one of two ways. One is to justify our attitudes, evade responsibility and rationalize our behavior. We are able to put up a strong defense against the truth about ourselves. But we are just as prone to wander astray in the other direction by engaging in self-flagellation. As Foster puts it, "If left to our own devices, it is so easy to take one look at who we truly are and declare ourselves unredeemable. Our damaged self-image votes against us, and we begin beating ourselves mercilessly." Foster, p. 29

There are times in my life of prayer when I veer off in one of those directions, and others when I stumble off in the other. But under God's searching, under the "scrutiny of love," we are able to both face the darkest truth about ourselves and at that very point experience sheer grace.

But we can't offer God who we hope or aspire to be, but who we actually are, including all our warts, flaws, and even deep stains. But that allows God to take who we are and transform us into who we wants us to be. May God join with me in this journey to keep me on that path.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Unimaginable Suffering

Ever since I received the first word of the earthquake in Haiti, I've been trying to assimilate the news. But I just can't wrap my mind around it. And my heart just keeps breaking. We still don't know the death toll. Images of front-end loaders loading up corpses to bury them in mass graves - a grotesque thought, but one made necessary in the fight to save the lives of those who remain. People injured and lacking medical supplies and care. People starving and without shelter. Children orphaned. It's just too much to take in.

Today I attended the funeral of a colleague of mine - a clergy member of the Southwest Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church, named Clint Rabb. He was about 10 years older than me. I first met him when he was a young UM minister and I was about a junior or senior in high school, way back in 1976. My memory is he was chaplain at Bexar County Jail in San Antonio at the time. Later in the 90's we served together in San Angelo. Since the late 90's he's served with the Board of Global Ministries, our United Methodist mission agency. He was in Port-au-Prince, Haiti for a meeting with other mission executives to strategize in how to be in mission with the people of Haiti. They had just entered the Montana Hotel there when the quake hit. They were very near the front desk when the whole building collapsed. Three of the men, all UM clergy, were trapped together, two of them with their legs hopelessly pinned. They were there for 55 hours until rescuers reached them. They sang the doxology as they heard the firefighters call to them to say they were going to get them out. One of them died before they could extricate him from the rubble. One escaped without serious injury. Clint was rescued, but died two days later in a Florida hospital from his injuries. I myself experienced the roller coaster of emotions when I learned he'd been there, that he was missing and feared dead, that he was discovered alive and rescued, but critically injured - that he would have one leg amputated below the knee and the other foot removed. I had just finished worship last Sunday where we had prayed for him and thanked God for his rescue and survival, when my wife called me while I was still at the church to tell me that she read that he'd died. I was stunned. This wasn't some stranger, this was a person I knew.

Certain aspects of the funeral were excruciating - hearing that story from his companion who survived, the tributes of his children, the lamentation of his widow. But it was also a marvelous blessing - gathering together with my brothers and sisters from across the church to grieve Clint's loss amidst such an ocean of loss, as well as to celebrate his life and ministry, the lives he touched, and even his acts of service to others right in the midst of their ordeal.

This tragedy, both the microcosm of Clint's death as well as the macrocosm of the tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of others who died (not to mention all the other suffering still going on there) raises all kinds of spiritual and theological questions. Why do some die and others live? Why do things like this happen? There is not enough space here for me to even begin to deal with many of those questions. And even if I did, any attempt of mine to do so, would fall far short.

But I do know this. Even in the midst of unspeakable human tragedy, God is present. I saw that today, both in what I heard of the event, and in the event of the funeral service itself. One of the bishops who spoke today read this text from Lamentations 3:19-21 (Message):

I'll never forget the trouble, the utter lostness, the taste of ashes, the poison I've swallowed. I remember it all - oh, how well I remember - the feeling of hitting the bottom.

But there's one other thing.....I remember,

and remembering, I keep a grip on hope:

God's loyal love couldn't have run out, his merciful love couldn't have dried up. They're created new every morning. How great is your faithfulness!

He had us repeat the phrase "I keep a grip on hope." That is our prayer - for God to help us "keep a grip on hope" - our prayer for ourselves and for the people of Haiti.