Sunday, March 4, 2007

Lent 2: Sustaining Realities

This afternoon I went to support my local coffee house Late for the of my many coffee 'homes' in Flag. I bumped into an alum of the campus ministry I serve at Northern Az U. We sat down and I had a chance to learn of Craig's future dreams. Having spent 2 years in Nicaragua for the Peace Corps he's pretty excited to get involved in sustainable living projects. He's contemplating graduate school but just wants to get some experience in a job he loves. The conversation was of particular interest as he continued to talk about sustainability within developing communities and the environment. (I think our understanding of sustainability needs to follow these kinds of conversations!!!) He mentioned sustainability as deeply related to a sense of interconnectedness. Those within his rural community of Nicaragua knew each other so well that they knew their lives depended on one another. There was a profound understanding of community relationships which sustain each other...integrated lives that are rich and complex. He mentioned that those communities had interactions with each on numerous social and economic levels which in turn helped them to realize their mutual need for and reliance on each other.

In today's Gospel lesson we hear these words from Jesus of God's longing: "How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!"

I wonder about the importance of sustainability as it relates to God's longings to hold us, all of us...the complexity of ourselves in our burdens and isolation and the collective "us" as community in God. Perhaps sustainability is in our efforts at connecting into the lives of those in our various communities beyond ourselves rather than isolating ourselves from them and "expecting people to come to us."

I have been intentionally avoiding the sustainability question from the point of view of financing because I believe it is not the primary concern. I do not believe that the legitimacy of a ministry can be reduced to whether or not it can sustain itself economically. I am serving campus ministry and we will always rely on those outside of ourselves for the support to continue bringing God's good news to those on campus. Is this an important ministry of the ELCA? Do we want to have a presence on over 100 campus' nationwide?

There is also another expression of our church up here in Northern, AZ; Rock Point mission on a nearby reservation. This Lutheran mission reaches out to many who struggle with severe poverty, abuse and neglect. At what point should we question their legitimacy as an expression of church because they aren't able to sustain themselves? At what point does distributive justice enter into the picture? At what point is the concern not 'what are you doing in isolation from me', but 'what are you doing that is very much connected to what I am doing' and even more importantly, 'to who I am as a child of God?'

I'm afraid that the sustainability question many are wrestling with is one more interested in institutionalized self preservation that loses sight of an interconnected and integrated reality much beyond ourselves and the community life God is calling us to live. I will try my best, in a future emerging community that I will be initiating soon, to get people to share resources appropriately to sustain leadership. The reality is, the Church of Jesus is sustained not by paying salaries for ordained leaders who keep an institutionalized construct of Church afloat... although that is the mirage we are believing. Church is sustained only by God holding us and speaking words of longing for us to be gathered together even as we continue to be scattered in a variety of ways, living individually and isolated ministries that want to hang on for dear life.


Tim said...

Without an understanding of God's sovereignty, evangelism is depressing. In the midst of his tears, I don't believe that Jesus was depressed. In John 10, he assures us that his sheep know his voice and come to him. He also lets us know that those who hear his voice are eternally kept in his hand and his Father's hand.

The beauty of Jesus is that he shows us how we are to evangelize:
Broken hearted for all of the lost, while trusting in the Father's perfect will to draw all of his elect through the gospel, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Check out John 6, 10, 1 Thes. 1,2, 1 Cor. 4...

Keep drinking the coffee! I'm an adict too! You might check out my pastor's blog site for a variety of thoughts that I have thrown down on paper to hopefully encourage others.

Tim said...

I like what you are saying about God's longing holding us together as the universal body of Christ. I would go one step farther and say that God's Holy Spirit fulfills the decreed will of God in building the church of Christ by spiritually rebirthing and sealing millions of believers across the planet. What do we all have in common? The empowered gospel opened our eyes. The Spirit of Christ entered each one of us. Each has had his/her desires changed and is empowered and kept on the narrow way by the supernatural power of God.

No matter the denomination or degree of misunderstanding of the Bible, every one of the church has this common belief: Jesus Christ is God in the flesh crucified and risen again to buy my forgiveness. Some add works. Others sacraments. Only God can tell you if He will allow us to add to His gospel. I can only say that if someone believes the gospel and has been changed internally by the Holy Spirit, then he/she is part of the body of Christ.

Lutheran Zephyr said...

Thank you for this post. I admire your emphasis on a spiritual sustainability as opposed to a narrow approach that focuses bricks and mortar, salary-paying, health-benefits-providing, mortgage-paying type of sustainability. Truly without the spiritual interconnectedness of the community of Christ, we have nothing. More churches would do well to seek that spiritual foundation before building on any foundation of concrete.

However . . . the church of my childhood closed down two years ago. A working/middle class church in the midst of a working/middle class neighborhood, it couldn't pay its bills. It couldn't sustain itself. I wonder if the financial problems of my home church were not the ultimate cause of its demise. Rather, perhaps the financial problems were a symptom of a spiritual malaise, a sign of this church's failure or inability to interconnect with its members, its community, its God. I'm not sure.

But I am sure that money is not merely tangential to faith. Jesus (and the Biblical witness as a whole) speaks about money much more frequently than about many other issues. How we use money is truly a faith and justice issue. "Where your treasure is, there your heart is too." There's lots of law in those words from our Lord's lips, and it's hard for me to hear. Hard for me to say. Hard for me to admit that my treasure is more often tied up in the wrong places. But its true for me and for many of us in the church and in this consumer culture.

Another church near me closed down last weekend. After 150 years of ministry, it simply couldn't afford to stay open. Again, this church was in a working/middle class neighborhood. Within the last few years it had intentionally, creatively and authentically become a congregation in the emergent paradigm. It was truly inspirational and daring. But no amount of rental income from a fundamentalist congregation who shared its space was able to offset its expenses. The mortgage, the bills, the salaries couldn't be paid.

In no way do I "blame" the emergent model for this congregation's demise. "Mistakes were made" long before the congregation's final pastor arrived, and I imagine that she and her lay leadership inherited quite a mess. But despite the spiritual sustainability and nourishment they attained, the crushing weight of fiscal reality forced them to close their doors. Now their spiritual community is dispersed.

Perhaps the synod should have provided more funding to this new ministry. Perhaps. But it is too easy to simply "blame the system" for the failure of these churches. There are alot of "shoulds" - the wider church should support ministry in low-income areas. The church should embrace new ways of being church. The church should be sustainable in the way you describe. But on this side of the Kingdom of God, we live in a different reality. The church, like school districts, is funded locally. Mortgages, salaries, bills must be paid locally. Stewardship of our resources - financial, natural, human, spiritual - is crucial to a life of faith, and to the community of faith.

A year and a half ago I blogged about institutions and the mission of the church: On Being an Institutional Type. Institutions, bricks and mortar, salaries, denominations, health benefits - these things are not bad words. Used correctly, they are tools for ministry.

Tim said...

My opinion is that if you want to make an impact for Christ, you have to do it His way. It's His church that He is building as He calls His elect to Himself. We get carried away trying to modernize God's word so that it fits our social paradigms. Modernism is killing the true church, or forcing the true church to find new buildings from which to minister. God's word stands and does not need to change to make God more acceptable to modern culture.

jWinters said...

Great to see your post!
I agree that too many of our churches have taken "A Mighty Fortress" to mean that we have to build up our local congregations to be "successful" before "serving".

I think Jesus would most certainly be in the coffeehouse. He was also in the synagogue during His time, and efforts to put Him entirely in one place or another is a bad thing.

Sustainability is a tricky thing. I mean even Jesus had a treasurer (and he was a crook). I don't know. These are great questions to be asking.

p.s. get some Nicaraguan coffee from that guy! It rocks!

dave said...

thanks again, lutheran zephyr...i appreciate engaging in this important and necessary conversation.

there a couple responses i have, that probably doesn't surprise you. i'm not sure what this "post/beyond" modern church will become or look like into the future. all i know is that many are not even finding their home in the existing and even 'sustaining' paradigms many of whom are friends of mine! so i am being led to engage in a new kind of church community that will, in many ways i realize, challenge an existing structure/establishment. I really like phyllis tickle's quote about this new reality. she says that "post" merely means we know where we've been but don't know where we're going. since i celebrate ambiguity that works for me.

1. I hear what you are saying about the tools available for us as church that can be used for beneficial and constructive resources. my problem i guess comes with underlying assumptions driving our perceptions. does church really die? i know institutionally congregations that are organized come and go...we even have one down in the phx area that closed its doors in the last year. my bishop is asking this question of sustainability and saying that in our synod 50% of "our" people (lutheran people of course, a bit troubling to speak like this in and of itself) are members of 10% of our congregations. i'm not convinced that church just closes. i wonder if in a more profound, beyond-walls, Spirit-driven-morph understanding of how church is reforming it isn't just embodying and reflecting the same death and resurrection kind of life we proclaim in Jesus. the arguments that i hear/feel from your comments within me seem to be more of a reflection and critique of the institutional construct of church, rather than the essence of what church really is. we are a reforming body...thank God. perhaps this is God's way of birthing us into a new reality. on this side of the pain it is horrible, but what waits ahead? hell if i know. my guess is that the institutional church will continue on in various ways, reforming and that this new thing, the emerging church or whatever it is, will help to be a change agent within it. what i do feel though is that the church of the future will embrace more abiguity and complexity in its various expressions.

phyllis tickle comments on the back of pete rollins' book how (not) to speak of God saying "here in pregnant bud is the rose, the emerging new configuration of a Christianity that is neither Roman nor Protestant, neither Eastern nor monastic; but rather is the re-formation of all of them. Here, in pregnant bud, is third-millennium Christianity."

2. if the goal is keeping congregational churches with buildings sustainable then where are the churches of paul? are there even any Christian communities in modern day turkey? where did they go? did it really collapse into the roman church? what about constantine's role in all of it? what are we to make of that transition or failure or evolve-ment or reformation or whatever you want to call it?

3. i agree with you that "money is not merely tangential to faith." however i'm not sure that i necessarily agree that this quote from jesus is legally oriented..."where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." mark allen powell has some great comments on this text from his book Loving Jesus. Here's a quote (p. 139-140):

"This, i note, is a promise. it is not a commandment, and it is not just an observation about life: it is a promise. most people seem to get the point backward. they think that Jesus said, "where your heart is, that's where your treasure will end up." i've heard sermons on this: people spend their money on the things they truly care about. if you look back over your check register, you will see what is most important to you. do you spend more money on sporting events than on giving to the church? then, that is where your heart is."

"well, all of this may be true, but it isn't terribly profound, and it also isn't what Jesus said. Jesus did not say, "where your heart is, there your treasure will be." he said it the other way around: where you put your treasure, that is where your heart will go. it is a promise. according to Jesus, there is a way for us to alter our spiritual affections. we can decide what we want to care about, and then we can do something that will change us inside until we really do care about those things. we can decide who or what we want to love, and then we can do something to direct our hearts accordingly."

"Jesus wants us to give according to where we believe our hearts should be, to give according to where we hope our hearts will someday be. Give of your treasure, and let your heart catch up." -end quote.

secondly, i am looking forward to experimenting with a new community to see how they choose to direct their offering, listening to the needs of those within the community. i'm not sure how it will turn out, but i can guess that there is a heart for those beyond ourselves. as well and even more, i hope that we could even say that the greatest percentage of our offerings go beyond ourselves and into the community...sustaining the life of others beyond ourselves. i'm not saying that i wouldn't like to get paid along the way for what i'm doing facilitating church, but at the same time this idea is really a part of the deconstruction of the institutional model of leadership and ordination. what do you do in early america when you don't have enough priests/pastors? does the church die? i believe the history says the laity begin taking such roles.

enough for now, thanks for spurring me on to work and share deeply in my own understandings too.

i also think this discussion needs to include the Holy Spirit as a significant part of it. We need to really explore and develop a theology of the Spirit, the initiator of faith, life and church. i've recently written a paper for class i'd like to try and post one of these days. i wrote it for class...i'm in a dmin program at luther sem. in congregational mission and leadership with craig van gelder.

Tim said...

We've done a weekly Sat. AM bible study in one of the trendy downtown coffee houses for about a year and a half now. If you want to find the lost sheep, go into where they work, play and enjoy life. Relationships are the best way to be fishers of men! A number of people have opened up because they have gotten used to seeing us every Saturday. Through a number of circumstances, we've dialogued with Kabbalah, exChristians, new agers, back-slidden Christians.

Regarding dying churches:
1. The reason why churches are dying is because they are filled with religious people who have never been born again. Without being born again, it is impossible feel that passion of Jesus and see Him as your Lord and Savior. Without being regenerated by the Holy Spirit of God, it impossible to bear legitimate fruits of the Spirit, like hate for sin and love for fellow Christians and even true faith in the person of Jesus Christ. Without inner change by God, blindness and slavery to Satan and sin prevail. With the touch of God's Spirit through the hearing of the gospel, faith and repentance spring from an alive spirit who values Christ and sees the wickedness of sin.

2. Or, churches are dying because they have apostasized from the doctrines of the Bible. Christ will eventually spit us out of His mouth, if we continue to recreate His gospel.

Further, if we change the meaning of God's character and righteousness to include an acceptance of immorality, He will not hold us guiltless. That is why we€ must give full attention to God's will as He has revealed it in His word. God clearly lays out how He wants His church to behave and be run. Many choose to distort God's will to fit American immoral culture.

In the last days, pastors will tickle the ears of their congregations and people will even deny the fact that God destroyed the world once in His world-wide flood. We're in the last days. Do you deny Noah's flood? Do you tickle the ears of your congregations?

You might check out my healthy church blog.
Or, you might not. :)

Lutheran Zephyr said...

Thanks for your posts. Don't get me wrong, I love the spirit/Spirit that you're describing and that's obviously inspiring you. But I worry that some in the Emergent throw out some baby with the bath water.

On the other hand, I don't deny that the church needs to explore some other models of being church. I have a friend that is involved in a tentmaking ministry - teaching public school full time, pastoring part-time. This is an interesting ancient model that is making a modest comeback. Hmm . . .

I'm not willing to give up on institutions, and I am willing to say that it is a darn shame that a church closes its doors in a neighborhood. Surely the Spirit that gathered those folks together is still at work, and surely those people are now in other places, but in that neighborhood there is one less gathering place to feast on the Holy Word and Meal. And that is too bad.

Well, enough from me. Keep up your work. I'll enjoy watching how the Spirit unfolds in your ministry and life . . . (BTW, check out what course offerings Andy Root offers at Luther. He is a former neighbor of mine at Princeton Theological Seminary, where my wife was a PhD candidate. Despite being a Twins fan, he's a good guy . . . :)