Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Community of Friends vs. Friendly Community

It never fails that when I do work with congregations they describe themselves as friendly places. Sometimes they carry on about just how friendly they are. Unfortunately, that friendliness is often one to another, internal and exclusive, friends who are friendly to friends. The great litmus test is to walk into any parish hall or central meeting space of a church on Sunday morning and see how many people sincerely greet and welcome you. You may be surprised at how invisible you seem to be. How many notice you? One person? A couple of people? Do they go out of their way to introduce you to others? Do they bother to record your contact information? Do they follow up after that Sunday in any way? Is there an authentic sincerity in their welcome? These are the tell tale signs of a friendly church, one that is truly a friendly community and not just a community of friends. The Rev. Patrick Gahan from St. Stephen's, Wimberly, Texas, speaks on the video below about what it truly takes to be a welcoming congregation. He also speaks of the imperative nature of this intentional ministry. Welcoming the stranger is Gospel work. And it is work. Take a few moments to be inspired and challenged by watching Father Gahan. He will enlighten and unsettle you. Then vow and commitment to help your congregation become a 'friendly community' and not just a 'community of friends.' If the Church is to be the manifestation of the Body of Christ, how can we deny the importance of this work?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Remember the Call

"He went out again to the shore of the lake; and all the people came to him, and he taught them. As he was walking on he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus, sitting by the customs house, and he said to him, 'Follow me'. And he got up and followed him. " Mark 2:13-14.

Surely more words were exchanged between Jesus and Levi. If not, Jesus must have exuded magnetism beyond human understanding. Sometimes I wish I could have heard all the conversation that didn't make it into scripture. Levi was trusting this man with his life. Where was he going to lead him? What lay in his future? What unknown mission would he be drawn into doing by this man Jesus? Levi was being called into the uncertainty of discipleship, but somehow he trusted that it would be good, it would be important. The call was into a new life of faith, believing that God would provide, guide and answer enough of his questions to keep him moving forward.

In the past week I have heard stories of fear, anxiety and anger on the part of leaders in 3 geographically distant churches. These leaders were all reacting to faithful decisions made by others. Decisions that called for looking forward with hope, patience and belief that God would uphold and guide these congregations forward. Decisions that called for people to trust their leaders and the power of the Holy Spirit to renew, restore and empower for good. But that takes courage. That takes remembering that faith is the act of moving into the unknown with the certainty that God is present. That takes remembering the call of Christ on each of our lives to be disciples who can work to turn over disturbing emotions to God before they immobilize and disrupt our congregations. As we approach Holy Week, let us remember the call to the cross that Christ followed. The sacrifices he made in order that we could be forgiven. Then as leaders, let's model that forgiveness and move on. Our congregations expect and deserve no less from us.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Rev. Patrick Gahan at Wardens and Vestry

Patrick's 45 minute presentation is available on DVD by calling Julie Heath at 713.520.6444 or e-mailing jheath@epicenter.org. Cost is $10 to cover copying, s&h. We are currently reformatting the presentation to add to this blog and YouTube.
Both video and podcast (audio) of Bishop Andy Doyle's presentations are available on his blog.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Unconventional Missionary

Sometimes the stunningly obvious ways that God works in this world are mind boggling. When I witness these occurrences I am most grateful to know how intimately God interacts in our lives, directing and connecting and manifesting his love and purposes for us. I just got off the phone with Terri, my beautiful, blond and petite daughter in law who happens to be an electrical engineer. She was on her way back from her third trip to Honduras where she spent 10 days training some university students in building and installing photovoltaic power (solar) systems. Terri was a part of the team from Sonlight Power Ministries, a Christian outreach group which has the mission to install solar power in schools, churches and clinics without electricity in third world countries. Terri is passionate about this work, feeling it is a call from God, a wonderful expression of her ability and her desire to serve the under-served because, as she says, "I do this because Jesus loves these people and I can give of myself to make a huge difference in their lives. The looks on the children's faces when we turn lights on is worth it all."

It is a joy for me to watch Terri's spirit soar as she goes about this unconventional missionary work. And it all started with losing her engineering job with a major consumer product company during the recession last year. After she was laid off she got on the internet and sent emails to people and places she didn't know seeking information about solar power opportunities. Up popped a message from a total stranger leading her to a seminar being given in a church 80 miles away about installing solar power systems in third world countries. Terri went to the meeting and her life took a dramatic turn. She met the engineer teaching the seminar and told him he had her "dream job". This engineer's name was Walt Ruggeman and he was intrigued by Terri's desire to learn more. Within weeks he was advising Terri via international emails on her solar battery master's degree project. He connected Terri with Sonlight Power Ministries (www.sonlightpower.org) and from that day forward her unconventional missionary work began in earnest. This gracious, generous man who did not need to take a special interest in Terri , opened doors for her that have changed the direction of her life. This gentleman who modeled a servant leader's life which impacted thousands around the world by bringing light into their lives, died on January 15 during the earthquake in Haiti. His body has not been recovered.

It makes me wonder, what if Terri had not been laid off? What if emails from strangers had not been written? What if Terri had not driven all those miles to go to an unfamiliar church to hear a person she knew nothing about? The power of God to continue his work in the world is awesome and mysterious. Even the work of unconventional missionaries.

Monday, March 8, 2010

It Takes An Act of God

Richard Rohr says:
"There is a difference between change and transformation. Change happens when something old dies and something new begins. Transformation is when I change in the process of outer change. I am told that planned change is even more trouiblesome to the ego than unplanned change. The ego wants to find a way to avoid changing if at all possible. God usually has to demand it of us. In fact, we call them 'acts of God' and they more often elicit inner transformation than anything we or others can control. If anybody at all is asking us to change, be it our partner, Congress, the church, the neighborhood association, every form of ego control and resistance will come out in legions to accuse, defined, and oppose. One wonders how we can effect change at all, when no one wants to be transformed."

I don't have to remind you of the dramatic changes that are happening in our culture and church right now. The rapid development of technology has hit us all personally and corporately and demanded that we pay attention. We have been forced to adapt or become an anachronism. With few exceptions, our congregations are so far behind in the manner they communicate that the entire institution is at risk of being seen as a dinosaur. Talk about defense and opposition! My congregational work has revealed to me an amazing lack of urgency to work on our front line communication modes. I think we have a deep sense of complacency in the church because we are satisfied with the status quo. And if we aren't satisfied, we don't value the need to change enough to muster up the energy or resources to do something about it. We are too secure with the familiar, we like who is already inside. To be missionary we must go out. This is not an option. Jesus left us with final words before he ascended into heaven, "Go therefore, make disciples of all nations...". Can our mandate be any clearer?

The Episcopal Church is getting much better at God's commandment for us to love our neighbor. There are more efforts to reach out with the love of Christ, touching human need and seeking social justice then I have ever witnessed in my lifetime in this church. This work never ends, we can always do more and we seem to have the will to do it. However, we have to quit making excuses, we have to become uncomfortable, we have to stretch our personal barriers to get on with Jesus' commission to go out. This will take transformation. This will take personal 'acts of God' because this work is so difficult for us as Episcopalians. Forget the excuses, denial, and rehash of what we are doing well so our leadership egos can feel okay. Our graying congregations tell us otherwise. Transformation is in order. I am personally praying for an 'act of God' to transform my spirit so that my eyes will be opened to the people that God places in my life everyday. So I will no longer use any excuse not to invite them into life of the church. For it is in the coming together, the prayers and breaking of bread that the Holy Spirit can easily be made manifest. The church needs both change and transformation. Our complacency must die in order that a new missionary spirit be born. Faithful leaders are charged with the responsibility to move us out of our denial and comfort. Let's pray for personal 'acts of God' to empower us with the courage to be leaders with hearts for mission.