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The Cycle of Death and Resurrection in the Church

We disciples of Jesus Christ hinge the epicenter of our lives on Christ’s death and resurrection. It’s more than just a doctrine to be preached (what we call kerygma) or something for individuals to believe and trust for their salvation. The more I live as a disciple and serve as a shepherd of Christ’s Church, the more I see that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a massive force that shapes the movement of all things. In the turn of the seasons or in the life cycle of butterflies and flowers, we see universal images of Christ’s death and resurrection. Indeed, all of creation sings in celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

So how might it change the way we understand Church if we look at its life through the lens of Christ’s resurrection? To get to the point, might the decline of most mainline Protestant churches be a sign of death with a doorway into resurrection? Instead of consternating over the state of things, can we re-imagine the church we’ve inherited by allowing things to die in order to release new, unfettered life?jr_sunrise
To understand what I mean, let’s take a look at Jesus’ own life and ministry. Born in a manger stall, his life began in small, lowly, lonely circumstances. By the height of his public ministry, Jesus was surrounded by thousands of people. Then from there, the crowds got smaller and his miracles became fewer and fewer. On the last night of his life, Jesus went from twelve companions, to eleven, to three, and then to no one as he was arrested and taken away to be judged by the Jewish Sanhedrin. Jesus, the one who captivated throngs of people, died an embarrasingly ugly death on a cross, scorned and rejected by the whole world. The Son of God, Son of David, the one whom people called Lord and Messiah, died.

But before Jesus died, he said a few things about the nature of his death. He said, “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it does, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24).  Later in John, Jesus taught his disciples about the meaning of his imminent death. In one instance he said, “Very truly I tell you, all who have faith in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12, TNIV). How is that possible? God would send the Holy Spirit. Jesus then said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever– the Spirit of truth” (John 14:15-17a).

Right after the close of John, we read in the book of Acts that after the resurrected Jesus ascended, the disciples were filled by the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. From there, the mission and work of Jesus Christ spread like wildfire throughout the entire known world. Just as Jesus had promised, the disciples, living and working in his resurrection power of God’s Holy Spirit, accomplished far more than Jesus ever did in his earthly ministry. His death opened the way to his resurrection, which in turn infused his ever-present life into the lives of his followers. One single seed died and erupted into bountiful fruit.

Could it be that the current mainline church finds itself in the waning hours of its life, much like Jesus’ last week? If we choose to see our decline that way, it would free us to imagine what resurrection might look like. We could allow the seeds of our tradition to bloom into new, unimaginably powerful life.

But instead, the mainline church has been looking for resuscitation.  We’ve been looking to pump new life into a dying body. Or as Jesus put it, we’ve been trying to pour new wine into old wineskins. The old wineskins are bursting and the new wine gets wasted. This simply doesn’t work.
John Wesley learned this lesson. The 18th Century Anglican church was a dead, corrputed shell of an institution. Instead of trying to challenge and change the internal structures of the church– for which he often got the boot!– he preached outdoors to masses of people, created small-groups of believers which he called classes, arranged them into regionally based societies, and called and equipped preachers and leaders. By doing all of this, Wesley ushered in sweeping revival, not only to the Anglican Church, but also in England the American colonies through this movement better known as Methodism.

I’m an inheritor of Methodism. But I’m seeing that the formalized version of Methodism which began in 1784 has run its course in America and is quickly heading to its death. Other forms of mainline church could share that assessment. Does that mean Methodism has failed? Not at all, no more than we could assert that Jesus failed when he died! But we must stop our attempts at resuscitation and instead make way for resurrection.

Resurrected church in America will in many ways resemble the pre-resurrection mainline church, but much like the resurrected Jesus, it will look, feel, and act very, very differently. Let me imagine what this might look like in decades ahead. As Sophia from the Golden Girls says, “Picture this…” In the resurrected church, disciples of Jesus will gather for worship, learn and study together, and engage in the missional work of serving and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. But long gone will be the old systems of mainline church structures and traditionalism. Congregational styles of church life may cease to exist or be radically reshaped into networks of disciples worshipping, learning, and ministering in small groups.

Denominational structures will become less centralized to be simultaneously globalized and localized to support these networks of disciples. Pastors like myself may have to radically alter the way we live, work and support so that we’re acting more like apostles, building, equipping and shaping these small group networks.

Those are just a few ideas, but in each congregation, including my own, we’ve got to get on with readying our churches for a season of resurrection. We must allow failing, ineffective means, methods, and priorities to die.

Then, we must allow the best remnants to grow up into a newly resurrected church.

I’d love to read your ideas and insights about resurrection, too. Let’s get the conversation going!!

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Filed under Church Culture and Leadership

Real Connections in a Networked World: A Sabbath Day Reflection

Living in a small town like Laurel, no matter where you go, you’re apt to encounter a whole plethora of people. While it’s not quite the size and movement of a city, I definitely meet large numbers and a diversity of people all the time. I’ve also got the small town blessing of regular neighbors and friends whom I frequently see. On my Sabbath day today, I went out walking with my son Jacob while praying one of my favorite prayers, “Lord, show me where you are at work right now. Allow me to see where you are and what you’re doing.” I pray this in keeping with Jesus’ words about himself,

I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can only do what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does… (John 5:19-20a)

Striving to be like Jesus, one of my daily goals is to look for the activity of God around me and to join in.

So, as I walked along, I began to notice a pattern with passing by people I don’t yet know. There was either minimal eye-contact or maybe a muttered “hello”. But very little effort was given by either of us to genuinely connect. Have you ever wondered why this is? In situations like these, my first inclination is to avoid striking up a conversation with a stranger. I can do it, yes. It’s something I’ve trained myself to do, but it’s not my gut impulse to give a cheerful, “Hey, how are you doing? Where are you headed today?”. Part of me thinks I should be more open to them; after all, I bear the good news of Jesus Christ, something they need. Shouldn’t that be worth the effort?

And yet while we’re hesitant to connect with a stranger on the street, many of us could say that we’re highly networked with numerous people, many of whom we don’t know very well, if at all. For example, I’m active on Facebook, write this blog and through them, have conversations with people I’ve never met before. As a pastor in my community and a part of a larger United Methodist connection, I network in cooperative ventures with hundreds and hundreds of people, some of whom I barely know.

Networking, especially on Internet social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and Xanga are all the rage. So it’s ironic that with all of these virtual connections, so many of us find ourselves feeling incredibly lonely. It astounds me that someone can look at a computer screen filled with scores of “friends” while looking at all of their contacts listed on a Blackberry and still, at the end of the day, feel isolated. It’s happened to me before…
Circle of hands 2 lowSo as Jacob and I walked on a path along the Patuxent River here in town, I saw something I had never seen before in all my times up and down that path. A Laurel police cruiser was actually driving on the pathway! I pulled Jacob’s stroller over to let him pass, but he waved me on and then rolled his window down.

“Hello there! How are you doing?” I asked.

“Just fine,” he said. “I saw you have some precious cargo, so I thought I’d let you all pass by first.”

“Well, thank you! This is an interesting, out of the way beat you’ve got here, officer,” I said.

“Ahh… I’m just making sure there’s no trouble down here. We had a stabbing recently nearby between two homeless guys, so I’m just trying to keep this area safe for folks.”

“Well, thanks,” I said. “I probably know who they are. I’m the Senior Pastor up at First UMC on Main Street, and we do a lot of work with our homeless population.”

And on and on we went, back and forth, probably for ten minutes or so. We talked about both of us needing to get in better shape and the safety of our community. After we said goodbye, I walked away grateful for the opportunity to get to know this man and wondered how my church could do more to honor and thank our local police department. But it all began with an open “hello” and some neighborly conversation. I only wished I had more time to talk with him. And I wished even more that I had slowed down enough to talk to some others I passed while out walking.

I think God answered my prayer by reminding me that most of us in this transient,  fast paced, highly mobile, digitally networked world are starved for meaningful relationships. For all the same reasons, we’re not so certain how to keep strong the relationships we already have. No wonder the divorce rate is high. Our children are increasingly acting out and growing up far too quickly. We fill our emotional gaps with multimedia stimulation. More people are prone to addiction and mental illness.

To a degree, our culture will always suffer from these things because we are fallen creatures. However, these diseases have risen to pandemic levels as families, communities, and churches cease to be the environment where people find their personal moorings. The real connections of family, community, and Church continually remind us who we are and whose we are. Otherwise, we drift into a morass of loneliness and existential crisis.

God also reminded me to do one more thing: slow down. Take the moment to just to talk and listen with people. Don’t worry so much about time and obligation. Make space for people, for anyone– strangers and most especially the people I’m closest to. Think of every opportunity I have to speak with someone as a gift from God. For we never know just how a person, each made in the likeness of God, could turn out to be among God’s richest blessings.

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Filed under Spiritual Growth and Practice

The Tragedy of Michael Jackson

Like so many today, I was shocked and saddened at the sudden death of pop icon and superstar Michael Jackson. As a Gen-Xer I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t know his name or hear his music. Michael’s death reminded me that the first album I ever owned was a tape of Thriller. My mother bought it for me along with my very own walkman. (Do you remember those?) With my headphones on, I listened to that tape over and over again, non-stop. And when I wasn’t listening to the tape, I had the radio on, cruising from station to station to hear “Thriller”, “Beat It”, and “Billy Jean”. I don’t recall any other performer who held his kind of superstar power. He and his music riveted my imagination. When Michael Jackson came to town on his Thriller tour, the Washington Post had a full-page autographed insert picture of him which hung on my bedroom wall for several years.

Michael’s good friend Elizabeth Taylor rightly dubbed him “The King of Pop,” and that he was. His music and artistry captured the adoration and respect of a whole generation of young people. And I was one of them.
But then, right at the crest of his powerful career, the magic of Michael Jackson began to ebb away. His inwardly-focused, unusually exotic, outlandish lifestyle seemed to take a strange twist. We heard tales of amusement parks, zoos and other lavish attractions at his Neverland mansion. Then we began to see odd changes to his face– Michael’s infamous plastic surgeries. Speculations about his health and behavior covered the tabloids. We saw images of Michael dangling one of his children outside a window balcony. The stories of lawsuits over child molestation, breaches of contact, and his marriages flashed across the headlines. And it went on and on and on…

Only God knows the inner workings of Michael Jackson’s soul and the things in his mind that led him to the decisions he made over the course of his life. I’m sure the speculations about the kind of man he was will dominate entertainment shows and documentary specials for years to come. Frankly, I think it’s all pretty pointless. He was who he was.

The real tragedy of Michael Jackson, however, is not any of this, but rather the neglected opportunity he had to rally his massive influence to benefit the world who made him famous. When I was a preteen fan of Michael Jackson, anything he might have said or done would have motivated me to be a better person. Even his reclusive, quiet voice could have commanded so much in the lives of people who adored every aspect of his being. And yet, for whatever reason, he turned most of what he had onto himself. And that’s the true tragedy of Michael Jackson: he failed to use the influence he had to make more positive, lasting impacts on the world.
michael_jackson07Yet Michael Jackson doesn’t stand alone in this failure. I think of others like Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin, and others who died far too soon without living up to their full potential in using their gifts to accomplish untold amounts of  good. It makes their deaths all the more painful.

Looking at Michael Jackson’s death, I’m also deeply challenged to examine my own life. If I were to suddenly die today or tomorrow, could I honestly say that I used every gift of influence and ability God has given me to accomplish the most good? It’s easy to pounce on a fallen giant, but do I stop to look at my own life with the same kind scrutiny? My former hero’s death has me thinking again. I hope he has even gotten you to think of your own legacy, too. Perhaps then, the ongoing influence of Michael Jackson, even in his death, could spur on some lasting good.

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Filed under Cultural Quakes, Music