Nothing Surprises me Anymore

hellfireSo this morning I got back to the office to catch the tail end of a funeral that was happening at our church because we have a larger space than the funeral home. Even though I thought it would be long over before I returned to the church from a meeting, I caught the last 10 minutes of the hour and 45 minute long affair.

Now before going further, I will say that I grew up in Lutheran church that ran the gamut from high church Norwegian Lutherans (our family), to low church pietist types, to fundamentalist missionary types, to charismatic speaking in tongues types, to social justice advocates, to not-too-sure-if-Jesus-was-a-rea- guy-types. We all managed to get along (most of the time), in a way that showed, to some degree, the diversity of the Kingdom of God. Growing up I heard some flakey stuff about giving your heart to Jesus, choosing to have faith, and even some pretty wonky spiritual warfare ideas. Along side was traditional Christ Alone, Grace Alone, Faith Alone Gospel. The kind of stoic yet firmly Lutheran saw that “we are saved by grace and not by works” (and not by choosing Jesus as our Lord and Saviour).

Jesus chooses us. That was always clear to me.

And yes, I know that there are Hellfire and Brimstone preachers our there. I know that you can find lots of “Turn or burn” stuff on the internet or on TV.

But to walk into MY church (it isn’t really mine, but I can pretend) and hear someone in my pulpit (again not really mine) telling people that if “You don’t choose the right path, there is a lake of fire waiting for you” was surreal to say the least. I have never actually heard some one say those words from a pulpit, and especially not my pulpit. I mean absolutely never ever. Not. In. My. Pulpit.

It sucks that you can’t be ready for these moments. God doesn’t email a memo ahead of time. And it super sucks to have too much integrity (or cowardice) to make the scene that this kind of stuff deserves.

So there I was, in jeans, sketchers and black clergy shirt — no tab in, and all I could muster was my best death stare from the back doors of the sanctuary, and the most imperceptible of head shakes as I listened to some guy tell 200 people that they better choose Jesus or get punted into the inferno. If the preacher/eulogizer/random guy talking at a funeral saw me, he probably didn’t know why the under dressed young adult was squinting at him from the back of the church.

The worst part was that every inch of my being wanted to liturgically body check the guy out of the chancel and apologize for this kind of nonsense being preached in MY Church and MY pulpit.

The worst part was that I felt ashamed that all the people were present wear being subjected to BAD NEWS in the midst of their grief while in the place where I had been called to the public job of preaching GOOD NEWS.

The worst part was having the clearest admission we can muster as a society, present in the building with us — a dead body — and there was no one to boldly declare, that in the face of death, God is making all of us alive, even this person who is dead, right here in front of us. Like really alive. Not just spiritually or in memory. To actually say that there is real, tangible, unimaginable Life. And God is doing it.

That was the worst part. Having a funeral in MY house (yes I know it is God’s house), the greatest opportunity to preach the resurrection as pastor (even better than Easter), and witnessing someone turn that opportunity into a shameful and bullying attempt at evangelism. That was the worst.

I still don’t know what to make of what happened, and I still have no idea what to do next time. But I do know that the longer I am a pastor, the less surprised I am by what I see.

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Old and New: Thinking about the world differently

St. Peter Lutheran Church - Old BuildingSometimes I wonder if I am thinking about the world differently than most people.

There is a rhetoric going around our world and in our churches that sounds much the same.

In the world it is that inequality is growing, people are not as well off as they once were.

For churches, it is that we are shrinking, losing members and people are forgetting about us.

These statements accurately describe our current situations. Yet, what I find interesting is how most people then predict where we are going to end up.

In the world, the prediction seems to be things are getting worse, inequality will grow. The rich will get richer and the poor poorer.

In the church, the prediction is that churches will just shrink forever. And eventually all the “old folks” will die.

And this is where I think I might see things differently. 100 years churches were not really taking off. Sure many were being started, but people didn’t attend every week. There was farming to be done, weather to contend with, distances to travel. And then the world wars came and following in the 1950’s church attendance exploded, people started flocking to the institution.

In Canada and US two decades ago, real estate was touted as a safe financial bet. Pay of your mortgage and you will have saved money while the value of your house rose. And in the US the housing market collapsed, leaving people with home values much lower than their mortgage debts. We are on the cusp of a slow correction in Canada, where prices will drop after reaching all time highs.

But what I find interesting is that very few people saw it coming. Everyone thought the future would just continue on in the same direction indefinitely. Churches will shrink, houses will continue to gain value.

Just as home prices are about to fall (sales are way down nationally), the church will likely slow its shrinking. But we can’t see it. All we can predict is more of the same, despite all the evidence of history telling us that our world more patterned and rhythmic, and less stuck in ever spiralling trends.

What does this means for us Lutherans? I think it means something pretty simple: Most of us have no idea why people started drifting away from church. We point to all sorts of reasons, but in the end we really don’t know.

Well, the same will happen the other way. I could be wrong, but I think, maybe I even have a gut feeling, that people will just start drifting back.

And we will have no idea why.

And I am pretty sure that is the way God wants to keep it.

I am a pastor and I don’t care.

pastoral_careI have been reading Will Willimon lately, not his books, but his blog. I am the product of the tech generation I guess. This recent post struck me.

It is definitely worth a read, but here is a quote:

Four decades later as bishop I saw too many of my fellow clergy allow congregational-caregiving and maintenance to trump other more important acts of ministry like truth-telling and mission leadership. Lacking the theological resources to resist the relentless cloying of self-centered congregations, these tired pastors breathlessly dashed about offering their parishioners undisciplined compassion rather than sharp biblical truth.

North American parishes are in a bad neighborhood for care-giving. Most of our people (at least those we are willing to include in mainline churches) solve biblically legitimate need (food, clothing, housing) with their check books. Now, in the little free time they have for religion, they seek a purpose-driven life, deeper spirituality, reason to get out of bed in the morning, or inner well-being – matters of unconcern to Jesus. In this narcissistic environment, the gospel is presented as a technique, a vaguely spiritual response to free-floating, ill-defined omnivorous human desire.

Willimon is writing in an American context and my sense is that we are farther a long this process up here in Canada. We were living this 20 years ago and now the need for change and the need for purpose is much clearer to most bishops, pastors and congregations… I think… I really hope it is.

4 years ago this week, I walked across the convocation stage at seminary and completed my degree. So now I am at the point of roughly equal seminary experience to parish experience. In four years, I have served 3 congregations. One smaller rural family church, one large multi staff corporate church and now a medium pastoral/program size parish. All three have had different strengths, different challenges, different experiences. But I keep coming across evidence of this “caring for me and my family” system. I read it in policies and minutes, I hear stories from parishioners and see it in the attitudes of and systems put in place by predecessors. Our church has been running on the Pastor-as-caregiver model for a while now. Heaven forbid the pastor may want to help congregations grow as disciples, that would be infringing on their individualism. I cannot say whether this situation came about at the demand of parishioners or it was a way of being church imposed by leadership, clergy in particular. But it is not working anymore.

And in 4 years of running into the evidence, it is becoming frustrating. What are we, if we are not a community that is proclaiming gospel in word and action (specifically word and sacrament)? What are we if we are not boldly announcing God’s work in the world and among us? What are if we are not at one time admitting our place in the in-ward turned selfishness of the human condition while declaring that God is redeeming and transforming all of that into a new creation? A big group therapy club and community service club.

Well… that is not what I signed up for. I am a Lutheran Pastor and I don’t care. That is to say, I am not here to care my people into heaven, and I am certainly not here to reduce to the Gospel to therapy or moralisms. On the days when I get it right, I hope that I am telling people about Jesus, and witnessing to the people and things that God cares about.

And by the grace of God, for 4 years, the people I have served have been patient enough to come along with me. Most of the time.