So, I'm not supposed to preach something simply generic. I can't recycle and cut down a previous message. Not that I could really do that anyway.
But, I am preparing a message for next Sunday, a particularly relevant reading to Christians for the last 2,000 years, and preserved for teaching through the lectionary:
He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ He said to them, ‘When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.’
And he said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.” And he answers from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.” I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’
To say this reading from the 11th chapter of Luke is familiar would be an understatement. The Lord's Prayer and following parable are both iconic passages in the Christian faith.
As I break this down for my congregation, I feel convicted that it's an important passage to dwell on together with my peers heading into Licensed Local Pastor territory. But what do we need to learn from Christ here?
Discipline and persistence in prayer?
Directness and simplicity in prayer?
The familial relationship that Christ is us to in giving us permission to call God "Father" as he does?
Yes, all of these things are important.
But also there's the contrast that the Lord is drawing between the hospitality of humans and God. A human being, even in Jewish society with it's strict code of hospitality, might tend to not open the door. The Lord is not saying here that God won't open the door and listen to our needs - but that God will open that door so much quicker than a person would.
Even so, we're called to be persistent in our prayers. Are all pastors persistent in their prayers? I would say no. It's time to change that.
But on the flip side, while the Lord seems to be more clear in this parable than many others, what if Jesus is trying to say something different to us with the neighbor knocking at the door? What if the person at the door is, in fact, God, and we're the ones that are too busy with the stuff of life to let God in?
To take things bigger - are our churches to busy with stuff that we call ministry to let the Lord in?
Discipline. Simplicity. Persistence.
Ask. Seek. Knock.
It had to be the funniest occurrence of passive-aggressive note leaving I've ever witnessed.
Upon (maybe) leaving work and walking to my car, I passed this car windshield and did a double-take. I not-so-subtly took out my phone to document the awesomeness.
I stood back from the car, and for sure this person was parked in four spaces. Will they be more careful in the future? I hope so. This is the kind of thing I dream of doing myself. I mean, what if we went through on Sunday morning and put fake parking tickets on the windshields of all of the members who take up the visitor parking? Too much? I dunno.
I just felt this was too good not to share. Parking lot hospitality has been a sometimes topic here at liturgynerd.com, and I think this is a great example of a church parking situation that could use a little work.
I can say with honesty here as well, that this was not my car.
Just in case you were wondering.
There's a lot to be said for dwelling and praying upon specific passages of prayer, but there's also a lot to be said about reading it quickly as well. Reading the Word in three to five chapters per night can really give one a sense of the narrative of the Bible. Sure, there's the occasional monotonous evening (Deuteronomic case laws, anyone?), but on the whole I've found it exciting to read the Word this way.
As we've gone through this, there are certain passages that hit an emotional note with me as we read and struggle through the story of our ancient Israelite brothers and sisters. But for me, as for many, the story of Moses stands above the rest. This passage comes from the end of Moses' journey:
Then Moses hiked up from the Moabite plains to Mount Nebo, the peak of the Pisgah slope, which faces Jericho. The LORD showed him the whole land: the Gilead region as far as Dan's territory; all the parts belonging to Naphtali along with the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, as well as the entirety of Judah as far as the Mediterranean Sea; also the arid southern plain, and the plain - including the Jericho Valley, Palm City - as far as Zoar.
Then the Lord said to Moses: "This is the Land that I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob when I promised 'I will give it to your descendants.' I have shown it to you with your own eyes; however, you will not cross over into it." Then Moses, the LORD's servant, died - right there in the land of Moab, according to the LORD's command. The LORD buried him in a valley in Moabite country across from Beth-peor. Even now, no one knows where Moses' grave is. Moses was 120 years old when he died. His eyesight wasn't impaired, and his vigor hadn't diminished a bit.
Back down in the Moabite plains, the Israelites mourned Moses' death for thirty days. At that point, the time for weeping and for mourning Moses was over. Joshua, Nun's son, was filled with wisdom because Moses had placed his hands on him. So the Israelites listened to Joshua, and they did exactly what the LORD commanded Moses.
Deuteronomy 34:1-9 [CEB]
Can you imagine this? 120 years old, and Moses was still going strong, still pouring out his all in the name of the Lord as for his nation of Israel. For the Lord, he became leader of his people - its priest (along with Aaron, to be sure), its judge, its jury, its advocate, its general. He never rested.
The heart-wrenching part, is that through one moment of weakness in drawing forth the water from the stone his way (and not the Lord's), he wasn't to set foot in the Promised Land. And yet, even though he knew that, he lead his people.
I'll say that again ... He knew he wasn't to set foot in the Promised Land, and still he lead is people to it.
When we speak of the kenosis of Christ, we most often look at this passage from Paul's letter to the Phillipians:
Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:So what is this kenosis? In our Christian terms, we're speaking of Christ's self-emptying (kenotic) love. Not only did he come to earth in human form, but on the way out of his earthly existence - at his death - he emptied his Spirit out onto us.
Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Philippians 2:5-8 [CEB]
But where as the King of Kings was a young adult when he poured out his love on to all of us for the redemption of the world, Moses was at an age when most people take a seat. Actually he was more than twice the age of someone who takes early retirement.
Which begs the question, when do we get to stop moving for the Lord? When do we get to sit down and rest? When do we get to stop pouring ourselves out for the good of the Kingdom? When do we get to sit back and back-seat drive for the sake of tradition?
Reading the story of Moses makes me ever thankful for the ones who have gone ahead of me and have pulled me a long with them. I give thanks to God for the ones full of the Lord's wisdom who lay their hands on me as if I'm Joshua, anointing me to get the people moving onward. It makes me thankful for my grandparents and parents who've never taken a break from serving the Lord. I give grateful thanks and praise for those members of my choirs and bands who won't quit after decades of faithful service. I pray for the many pastors I've had that have blessed me with their mentoring spirits.
Our associate pastor, a grandma (though you'd never know it to look at her), came to lay the Word on us in worship wearing her running suit, proclaiming the Gospel - "I'm not too tired to run for Jesus!" That's the word I want to pass on to our struggling UMC congregations. And I want to ask, "Are you struggling because you've forgotten that we're called to pour ourselves out again and again for the Lord? Have you forgotten that we were given the Spirit of the Lord to pass on, not to keep for ourselves?"
When we empty ourselves out into others for the Glory of the Lord, the Lord will fill us up again. And again. And again.
It's a sign of driving down multiple lanes. Sometimes even three lanes simultaneously. It's a sign of changing lanes without a turn signal, while I occupy the very space being turned into. It's a sign that I'm going to be tailgated in the fast lane, and also a sign that that I may have to drive 20 mph under the speed limit in the fast lane - and those two things also may occur simultaneously.
In the parking lot, it's a sign that you can take up as many parking spaces as humanly possible. It also may be a sign that I'll never ever get to park my own car, as that symbol means you'll wait for ever in the parking lot traffic lane for that sweet spot that that family of five is about to vacate. Here, you may or may not use your turn signal - but probably not until I'm too close to you to get around you.
The Jesus Fish (or Ichthys, if you want to get technical) is an ancient symbol of Christian believers, that also makes a fantastic sticker for the car, where everybody can let everybody else know that they believe in Jesus. Showing your faith on your vehicle is not the problem here - it's showing your faith and then driving without care for others that is.
Just think about it ... Christ calls us to live like Christ all of the time ... That means maybe not driving like a Jesus Fish bumper sticker gives you a free pass to drive like a (fill in the blank). So if you have a Christian symbol on your car, maybe you should think about how you drive.
Have you ever thought about how Jesus would drive? He probably wouldn't drive at all. He'd probably take the bus. More people to talk to that way. And he could avoid the Christians driving like maniacs.
Drive now in peace.
Mighty gates:I've been thinking a lot about open doors lately ... and not the philosophical ones that we UMCers claim are open. I'm thinking of the actual, physical doors that open up to bring the people into our Narthexes and Sanctuaries.
lift up your heads!
Ancient doors: rise up high!
So the glorious king can enter!
Psalm 24:7, CEB
My wife has taken on the responsibility of co-chairing our new hospitality team, and if you've been following along with me the last few months, you know that hospitality is a frequent subject of mine. I wrote about some of the issues of my faith family here, and then again here. I am so excited to see her taking on this vital ministry of the church to help oversee how we welcome the strangers in our community and guide them along the path to making them part of our faith family. It's a large undertaking, but it's exciting because the team is starting from scratch for the most part. We've had some things in place, but now their team is working hard and debating their way toward a real layout for the hospitality system this community needs.
But there's one starting place where we're having to be the most critical right off the bat - and that's the aforementioned front door. For a visiting family, our new guests, the hardest step they'll make is actually parking in the parking lot and getting out of the car. It's daunting. Imagine you're a visitor for a moment - that first step is crazy hard. So it behooves us as faith communities to be there to greet our guests from the second they arrive on our campuses - and yes, the parking lot is absolutely where the campus begins. But the next crucial place, a hospitality choke point, is the front door.
Do you have somebody on your hospitality team there to open doors and let people in? Seriously ... do you?
I often get the front door report from my wife at lunch after church. Like many clergy/ministry spouses (husbands, too) my wife is a single parent on Sunday morning. After I leave at the crack of dawn on Sunday morning, she's all on her own. Feeding the dog, feeding our boy. Getting everybody out the door in time at least get a little bit settled in the Sanctuary before the celebration of worship begins. And, I tell you what, she does a great job. Her service of choice is at 9am, and it's no small feat for any parent in my book to make it to worship that early and have it all together.
But I'm always shocked to hear her tell me that no one opened the front door of the church for her, which wouldn't be so bad, except that the Narthex is always full of people before worship.
So there she is, 9-month old in hand with a diaper bag and a purse - and most of the time she has to open a door for herself to come in. There is in fact only one greeter who ever opens the door for her, and if he's not there, she's on her own.
It just makes me wonder - she's not an anonymous guest in our midst. She's the wife of the worship pastor. If she doesn't get the door opened for her, what happens to the guests? She's prayfully tackling the issue as I write, and not just for her - for the community we serve together.
Psalm 24 is one of our great scriptures of the Advent season. It's a call to get ready for the glorious king, the powerful one, who's coming to bring heaven down to us. I'm not saying that my son is the king of the church or anything, but didn't Christ say something like, "When you serve the 'least of these', you serve me?"
What you see here is every dish in our house - DIRTY. Under normal circumstances, this would probably get my wife a tad worked up. I'm often given a hard time when I 'use every dish in the house' to make dinner. And though I can be guilty of that, at least dinner is usually awesome! Well, most of the time it is. But really, nobody in my house complains when being served a meal they didn't have to make.
The mess above, though, is due to a great Labor Day weekend party at our house. Our house was full of family (it was my dad's birthday the day before) as well as a few ministry friends that needed some good food and fellowship. We grilled out, ate well, and played with our baby; our boy, in all of his crawling-awesomeness was the real star of the day - not my grilled chicken fajitas.
Appetizers, main courses, and desserts all led to every plate in our house (literally) getting dirty, as well as a great deal of cups, silverware, and most of our cooking and serving vessels and utensils. All comprising 2-and-a-half loads for our dishwasher, not including all of the things we scrubbed by hand. We had to clean off every counter top, table, the bar, the sinks, the grill, and, and, and ...
As my wife and I took stock of the apparent devastation, we just hugged and gave thanks that we had such a rich life - full of wonderful people, and a place where we could gather them all up. Then we did the dishes together.
A couple of weeks ago, I heard a pastor say, "If it isn't messy afterwards, ministry probably didn't happen." It's rung true for me lately. What if we measured our ministry by the messiness it creates? Messiness shows signs of life, and when we offer true hospitality to our family, friends, and neighbors, messes come along with the people.
What if we measured a successful service by the scrap pieces of paper on the floor, or the candle wax on the pews and seats after Christmas Eve worship? What if we measured the success of a church supper by the dirty dishes it created? What if a church mission was measured by the supplies needed to get God's work done? We often lament during winter at the amount of cough drop wrappers my choir leaves behind in the loft on Sunday, and while I urge them to clean up after themselves, the loft is only dirty because people are there serving.
What if we even invited more of a mess? What if we decided that it was ok for (gasp) coffee cups to come into our sanctuaries? And what child keeps things clean? I mean, even our infant can't help but make a mess every minute he's awake.
Where can you invite a little more messiness into your faith community? Or, what do you consider to be the signs of successful ministry and fellowship?
And it was at the bank.
I know ... the bank.
But I'm not kidding. We were on the road, but needed to get some cash out to stock our cash envelopes. So we weren't at our usual Chase Bank branch. We were a little early in our plans for the day, so we decided to just jump in. Even on a busy day, I find it never takes too long at Chase.
I grab a withdrawal slip, fill it out, and get in line behind another lady. Immediately one of the three tellers (who was busy) greeted me and asked if I was having a nice day. It didn't at all take away from her current work, and seemed very genuine.
While I was waiting in line one of the tellers called out to a customer who had just walked in the door she recognized as a regular at the branch.
The lady ahead of me moved forward to be served, and the receptionist stepped over to ask what I was there for ... I replied that I was there for a withdrawal, and she checked to make sure that I had everything filled out alright. I did, so she moved on to help the person behind me.
Seeing a line forming, one of the bank managers stepped out from his desk to greet customers as well, including me.
I stepped up to my teller, and he immediately asked how I was doing today, before taking my information. It was just small talk conversation, not particularly meaningful, but I truly felt like an important customer. The teller broke down my withdrawal exactly as I asked, and I was out of there with a smile on my face.
The whole time though, I'm thinking, "Who's training these people?"
All the folks working at this bank branch had a spirit of hospitality about them. It felt completely genuine. I know it's their job to be hospitable, but how many places have you been to, where you're supposed to get good customer service, you actually get it? Not many in my experience.
As a first time visitor to this bank, I know that if I was close by, it would be our bank.
Are our churches offering hospitality that makes folks want to come right back? When you walk into a church building for a first time are you greeted by everybody? That would be a #dreamumc.
Much like this bank branch, at the church it is everyone's responsibility to offer hospitality, it's not a job for someone. Greet somebody new on Sunday morning. You might make their day, and show them a little bit more Jesus.
Where was the best hospitality experience you've had? The worst?
"As soon as an organization begins to exist more for insiders than outsiders, it begins to die."
Bishop Robert Schnase, Episcopal Address to the #SCJ12
Ever heard of a church described as a country club? Ever heard of a tithe referred to as dues? Ever been a guest at a church and just handed a bulletin by an usher without a greeting? Ever walked in and out of a church on Sunday morning without a word spoken to you?
I've heard something of the kind at every church I've served in ... All wonderful, wonderful, communities. But, we always have big things to work on.
Unfortunately, this description of the church experience is starting to typify what is observed in established churches nation-wide - not just in the UMC. I think it begins when priority is put on maintaining disciples over making them. And by maintaining disciples, I also mean maintaining antiquated systems, styles of worship, and being prideful about what 'we' used to be in our respective communities. Our established churches start to be less about growth and creativity and more about comfort and predictability. It starts to be more about who's inside, and less about who's outside. Which is contrary to everything Christ's radical, revolutionary ministry was about.
Bishop Schnase also laid on the Jurisdictional conference some new statistics on demographics in the UMC - the median age of United Methodists is nearing 60, while the median age of the population is in the mid-30s. As somebody who's 30 at the moment, that's pretty scary. But, also inspires me to do God's work.
The last I heard, in the North Texas Conference of the UMC, there are around 16 new church starts up and running right now, with many others nation wide. But, there are 300 other established churches in the NTC, some growing, many who are not. Our new church starts don't always flourish, but when they have a clear mission field and the means to meet needs, they do. Established churches, however, have what should be a leg up on any church start - a building, a known presence, members. But it's often that these things are the ones that can sink the ship.
We love our building, why change it?
We have a great reputation in this town, why do anything different?
I've been a member here all of my life, isn't our worship great the way it is?
I think that we can agree that a universal sign of a healthy church congregation is that it grows. The purpose of the church is that ... to grow. Growth requires doing the work for those outside the church just as much, if not more, than work for the people already inside.
At the same time, however, we do need to do the work of maintaining the ministries of the disciples we are creating. Growing churches grow because of the connectional ministries they foster: small group and mission ministries. It's important to have strong, dynamic worship that meets the needs of the established member and the person coming off of the street for the first time. But accountability groups in bible study and Sunday school will keep them coming back as well.
The first step to fixing any problem is to admit that there is one. Bishop Schnase laid one out for us. It's time to have honest conversation on the age gap in our churches. Clearly young people, and families, are on the outside. How do we get them in? How do those of us attending and serving at established churches get them to start getting radical like new church starts? It's hard to meet the needs of everyone in any given community, but we all need Jesus, so let's make sure at least we're offering that - and the revolutionary ministry that comes with it.
Have you ever been in a Walmart parking lot on a Saturday? I don't recommend it. My wife and I do all we can to avoid going to Walmart on Saturday, because I'm convinced that Walmart, in general, brings out the worst in humanity. Our pursuit of low-low prices turns us all into villains.
Finding a spot is usually the first adventure. My favorite is the drive down the lane that's halted by the car in front of you waiting on the mom who's loading up the world and her five kids by herself. The space is close to the entrance, so it's worth the wait - for the car in front of you. Unfortunately, there's no room to go around this car because it's a one-way lane. Sweet. I'll just hang out with my own crying baby for a bit. Greatness.
Then there's the awesome spot right near the front of the parking lot. You drive up on it, thinking how lucky you are that this sweet spot is open - only to find it's reserved for the police. Bummer.
My personal strategy for parking at Walmart is to park in a lane that point out of the lot. So I can make the quickest escape possible. I don't mind parking a little further out and walking a little further.
Then I'm walking to the entrance, negotiating rude traffic along the way. My favorite part is crossing that lane that runs in front of the store, in between the parking spaces and the store itself. How many of you have nearly been run over crossing this river of chaos? The people trying to run over you are looking for the perfect space themselves, and shoot, they don't have time to wait for pedestrians. I mean, somebody might take the most amazing spot in the world before they get there! Nevermind that in a few minutes they'll be in the same spot you are with the expectation that traffic will wait for them to cross.
Our Christian hospitality should start in the parking lot. I've had some amazing greeting experiences in parking lots at larger churches, with attendants guiding me along in my car to the closest available space, to outside greeters ready to tell me where to go. I've been treated as a beloved child of God from the moment I turned my car into the church driveway. Especially when dealing with guests, our church parking lots make an important first impression. It can set the tone for a the whole morning of worship for visitor and member alike.
It can be a really sensitive subject for more established churches, but we just love to designate parking spaces. Maybe it's for an honored member of the community. Maybe it's for the clergy. Maybe we auctioned of a parking space at a youth fundraiser. But we often put up signs in choice and wonderful places and label them for exclusive use.
And let's just get this out of the way ... The best spaces are handicap reserved. And that's how it should be. Texas law requires there to be at least 1 space for every 25 parking spaces to be reserved for handicap use, and they usually must be the closest spaces to any main entrance with plenty of space around those spaces for loading and unloading. It's how it should be, but we need to acknowledge that right off the bat, front-row parking for guests is at a premium.
Churches with more seniors in attendance often have designated walking-impaired parking in spaces close to the entrance as well. My current and previous churches have these special spaces. The need can be understandable ... But it's not like they're a legally necessary thing. Often if you stand at the door, you'll see people parking there that are perfectly able to run a marathon. But they were late for worship, and it was the nearest space.
A little further out from the three previous categories of special parking spaces there are finally a few spaces reserved for our guests. Sure, they're painted brightly, but in the zoo of other designated places, these few reserved spaces are hard to find. Sometimes members park there too. A guest doesn't know that ... But we members of the community do. All a guest knows is that they need to drive on.
But maybe worse is when those special, designated, spaces are empty. All they say to a guest is, "Sorry, these just aren't for you."
At the church I served in Louisiana, there were two designated parking spaces for clergy. They were in front of the church office, not directly in front of the sanctuary entrance. But they were in the main parking lot that wasn't very big. Every Sunday morning, my pastors would arrive early and put bags over the signs for their spots and then park as far out in the lot as possible before our early service. The team that came in after them pulled up the signs altogether and got rid of them. They made me proud to serve with them and showed me an example of what a servant leader does for the flock. It was a small showing of hospitality, but you never know who's going to show up on Sunday morning and first impressions always matter.
If we're thinking more like visitors, we'll think more about the impressions we're trying to make. The signs we put up in our parking lots show preferences. When my wife and I were expecting, we loved going to Babies"R"Us, because of their parking reserved for expectant moms. We love going to Ikea because of the small parking lot set apart for families.
How has your church taken the steps to show Christ's love in the parking lot? What does your parking lot say about your faith community? How do we feel about designated parking spaces? Leave a comment!
But like I said, I serve with a church full of wonderful people, we just need a system to help grow things. About two months ago I wrote a plan to start from, knowing that we're starting from scratch. I kind of went out on a limb here, as this is involvement of a different level from me. What I wrote is nowhere near rocket science ... A church's hospitality should go without saying. This is a working document for our church, but I'm throwing out to the universe to see what other churches are doing right now!