Category Archives: Theology & Culture

A Millennial Pastor with a Blog

The first church I served out of seminary was a small open country church, literally on a quarter section of farmland just 25 minutes outside of my hometown Edmonton. In my first week, a couple of knowledgeable members of the congregation took me on a tour of the 6 acres of land that the church sat on. The church and parsonage on one end and of course the cemetery on the other. As we walked to the cemetery in order to meet some of the “older” folks of the congregation, one of the members told me about how he remembered when electric lights came to the countryside. [All of sudden it wasn’t just blackness when you looked outside of the farm house at night, you could see your neighbours.] The other member told about how her parents would heat rocks in the wood stove in order to put them under their feet in the horse drawn sleigh, which they rode to church in winter. 

And there I was making notes of all this on my iPhone, of course.

For 3 years this community frozen in time loved this weird kid pastor from the city who liked to be emailed and texted rather than called, even though the same phone line rang in both the church and parsonage. 

But during those years, there was always something of a disconnect that I just couldn’t put my finger on. And it really wasn’t until I started ministry at my 3rd church two provinces away in Manitoba that I started to figure things out.

I like to call my first summer here in 2013, the summer of millennials. The first of us had just turned 30, the world was about to discover we existed. Rachel Held Evans a blogger you may have read, wrote a piece for CNN called, “Why Millennials are Leaving the Church.” And all of a sudden we were everywhere. 

Everywhere but church that is. 

If you look around mainline denominations these days, particularly in Canada it is pretty rare to see millennials in church, let alone as pastors. In fact, here in Manitoba there are only two millennials serving Lutherans churches – my wife and I. 

Yet…getting the youth back seems to be of a chief concern for many churches these days. And by youth, we mean people under the age of 50. 

Being a millennial serving a church desperate for young people to come back has been a weird and mind-boggling experience. 

My wife often likes to say that while we graduated from seminary ready for the church of today, no one got the church ready for us. Churches want millennials in the pews, but aren’t exactly sure of what to do with a millennial in the pulpit. 

Still with the arrival of millennials and the the generational lens it provided, I finally began to understand what wasn’t connecting between me and the people I had been serving. My experience of faith, and in particular church, was fundamentally different than that of the mostly older generation of people in the congregation. I do not remember the glory days of bursting full Sunday Schools, regular potlucks that could feed the 5000, churches being built on every street corner and pews full of families with 4.2 kids and a stay at home mother with time to volunteer. Nor am I grieving the loss of this church… The church that I know and grew up in and love and am called to serve has always been aging, shrinking and struggling to pay the bills. 

The churches that I have served so far in my time in ministry have been primarily ones centred around different generational cultures than my own. The frames through which the world is seen, and the references and images used to make meaning are not mine. So ministry has been a constant exercise in commuting to another culture, often resulting in feeling like an alien in a foreign land. Nadia Bolz-Weber, another blogger and pastor you may know, calls this a cultural commute. 

Every time someone makes reference to leave it to Beaver or Hogan’s Heroes, or Beattlemania or where they were when JFK was assisinated, all I have is a blank stare to offer in return. Still, I have had to go and look up all these references, so that I can speak in the cultural language of the people I serve. But the commute isn’t always a two way street and when in a sermon I reference a meme from twitter or a scene from an episode of The Walking Dead, I can hear the crickets chirping in the background. 

And so to begin thinking through what it means to be a millennial serving different generations, I started a blog. The Millennial Pastor – An iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church. I never expected anyone to read it, it was just a place to organize my thoughts and experiences. 4 and half years, and over 500,000 visitors later, I am starting to sense that I may have hit a chord with some people. My experience pastoring declining, grieving churches and doing so as a millennial is resonating with the experience of others out there. I am still regularly surprised when people who aren’t my parishioners or my mom tell me that they are reading my blog. 

That being said, I don’t think my blog is about figuring out the answers or offering solutions to the struggles we face as church. Rather, I think of the exiles in Babylon with the prophet Ezekiel. He preached about the destruction of the temple for 5 years before it finally sank in. And it is taking the church some time to accept where we are now, rather than looking back to where we used to be. 

The thing is, along with the message that we are where we are, is also the reminder that God is with us now as much as before. And in fact, the church we are now just might be the church God is calling us to be. Because it is the church we are now and the church that God is calling us to become, that will be church for the next and future generations.

Now I just need to keep repeating that for 5 years and it might sink in. 

*This is the manuscript of presentation I gave at an ecumenical continuing education event on May 9, 2018 in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

 

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Clinging to the Ghosts of the Past

Luke 24:36b-48

Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. (Read the whole passage)

Today it is the still the day of the Resurrection. Even though this is the third Sunday in the season of Easter, in keeping with the tradition of the church we treat this whole 50 day season as one great day of celebration. And so we go back once again to the day the resurrection, and we hear a similar story to last week’s story of Thomas… yet, this time it is Luke who tells it to us. 

It is situation that can be pretty hard to identify with. We may know the Easter story and believe that we encounter the risen Christ here in this place each time we gather for worship, but how many of us have witnessed the death of a close friend and teacher, only to have that person show up in our house a few days later? Don’t answer that…

Jesus’ moment with the disciples today comes as the third such moment where the disciples struggled to understand their encounter with the risen Christ. First it is Peter who runs to check the empty tomb, after the women from their group report back that the tomb is empty. And Jesus walks with other disciples on the road to Emmaus, who cannot see who they are walking with until he breaks bread with them. 

And now, with all the disciples in one place, Jesus shows up again. 

But of course, the group thinks he a ghost. 

And so Jesus goes through elaborate ancient tests to demonstrate that he isn’t a ghost. He shows them his hands and feet, invites the disciples to touch him, to see that he walks on the ground and doesn’t float in the air like a ghost. And he eats a meal with them, because ghosts don’t eat, people do.

Yet, the disciples still don’t understand what is going on. 

They are stuck, they are stuck back on Good Friday, back in Holy Week, back in the wildness of Galilee, back on all those dusty roads, small town synagogues, back among the crowds of people clamouring for a piece of Jesus. 

It us more than seeing Jesus as a ghost, they are clinging to the past. They still have not moved on from what once was, from the way things were, from the pre-crucifixion Jesus that they knew and loved. 

They are holding onto the ghost of what was before because they are afraid to move on. Peter was more than willing to run out into the world when he thought Jesus was dead, but once he found an empty tomb, he and the others are hiding in fear. 

They hide because it is easier to hold on to the ghosts of the past then to begin new life with new purpose. And so when Jesus shows up, they would almost rather that Jesus were a ghost than risen from the dead. 

The disciples are not much different than we are. 

Like the disciples, we too cling to the ghosts of our past. 

As our country continues to feel the pain and loss, the grief for the lives lost outside of Tisdale Saskatchewan a week ago Friday, we might have some insight into what it means to be in a mental and emotional state that can’t quite get past what has taken place. Because we know what it is to be driving on rural highways. Because we know what it is to send our kids, our loved ones, out into the world that we know is unsafe, where accidents happen everyday.

And so we we grieve and pray, we wear jerseys and put hockey sticks on porches. We cling to one another searching for hope and peace, much like those disciples after the tragedy that they had encountered. 

Yet,  ghost our pasts come in many forms not always rooted in grief and loss. They may have to  do with church, and with our memories of the past and wanting things to be like they were. To bring the young people back or perhaps really to ourselves the young people that we remember sitting in the pews. 

But the ghosts of our past can also be personal. We might cling to relationships that ended long ago, to times in our lives that we wish never ended, to jobs we once held, to youth we once enjoyed, to eras that we once understood. 

The ghosts come in many shapes and sizes, and the desire to cling to them is not anything but a normal human response to grief, loss and even change.

Yet, we know that refusing to accept change will not work. Staying stuck in the past, clinging to things as they once were, holding onto the ghosts of what once was, in the end, is impossible. 

Because the more stuck and unwilling to move on we become, the more like the ghosts we cling to we become… Like the disciples who found the tomb of Jesus empty, their response was to hide away from the world in a tomb of their own making. A tomb where they could stay at Good Friday, cling to the Jesus they once knew refusing to imagine to new life, the new Jesus that they sense is coming. 

And again, Jesus comes into their midst offering peace. 

Peace to the troubled hearts of the disciples. Peace to those who are stuck in the tense conflict of holding onto a past that is slipping away. 

Peace to our troubled hearts, peace to our grieving world, peace to those unable to let go. 

But Jesus doesn’t end with Peace. 

Once Jesus shows the disciples that clinging to ghosts is not possible, he takes things a step further. 

And all of a sudden the Easter moment, the resurrection moment extends beyond the empty tomb of Jesus and reaches into his hide away of the disciples. 

Jesus begins to transform these stuck and hopeless disciples clinging to a ghost of the past. 

“Everything you know, everything you believe in” Jesus says, “From Moses, to the prophets, to the psalms” or in other words the whole Hebrew bible, “has been fulfilled.”

And Jesus opens their minds, Jesus begins to transform these disciples giving them a new understanding and a new experience of their world. 

Everything that they thought they knew about God, about religion, about meaning and purpose in the world has been changed. The Messiah’s death on a cross and resurrection from an empty tomb changes everything. Everything moment in the story of God’s people that has come before has been leading to this moment… to this Easter moment. 

To this moment of the disciples’ Easter, to this moment of our Easter. 

“You are witnesses of these things.”

A witness is more than someone who saw something or experienced something. 

A witness is someone with a story. 

A witness is someone with a story to tell. 

Jesus transforms the disciples, transforms the world, transforms us. Jesus brings us into God’s story. Into God’s story of new life, new life given for the sake of the world, new life found in empty tombs where there should only be death. 

By making us witnesses of the Messiah, by making us witnesses to this story of God bringing new life into the world… we are given new life, we are given new meaning and purpose. 

Everything we thought we knew, everything we thought we understood has been changed by Messiah, by the death and resurrection of Jesus. 

And every week, every Sunday, every Easter morning, Jesus reminds us of this again. Jesus reminds us that that ghosts we cling to will not root us in past, and we no longer will be stuck. 

Jesus has made us witnesses. People tied inextricably to the story of God. People whose purpose is to tell that story to world. 

And Jesus continues to make us witnesses in the word of God that is proclaimed here, in the holy waters that we are washed and claimed in, and in the bread and wine, body and blood of Christ that we share together. Jesus makes us resurrection people, free from the ghosts and the past and given a story to tell. 

Today, Jesus says to us,

I have made you witnesses to resurrection and new life. 

Thomas, Fake News and Resurrection

John 20:19-31

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” (Read the whole passage)

It has been a week since we released the alleluias from their captivity, since we gathered around the story of the empty tomb and pronounced that Christ is Risen, Christ is Risen Indeed! Easter has come after a long time spent in the wilderness of Lent, after a Holy week where we did holy things like wave palm branches, share in the eucharist and lament at the foot of the cross.

And even though we are now a week into the Easter seaason, we a reminded today of that first Easter day…. the whole 50 days of Easter have been long held up as one great day of celebration of the resurrection.

So we go back to day one, we hear a story from that first Easter day. And it is a familiar one.

Thomas… We always get Thomas on the second Sunday in Easter.

There must be something about this story that we hear it every year.

It begins on the day of the resurrection, the disciples have heard the news of the empty tomb so they are naturally hiding away in fear. To give them the benefit of the doubt, they did watch their teacher and master be executed by the state and now three days later to hear that he has risen from the dead. This probably seems like too much to handle.

So while they are hiding away, Jesus shows up in their midst. He offers them peace… peace after of the chaos of the previous week. He then blesses them and sends them out, reminding them of the mission that he had been preparing them for.

But Thomas wasn’t there.

Perhaps he wasn’t afraid like the others, or maybe he drew the short straw and was sent to the grocery store for some milk.

Regardless, when Thomas returns he hears the news, the story from the others. Jesus has appeared to them. The rumours are true, Jesus has risen from the dead.

But Thomas will not believe.

So often we portray Thomas as some kind of skeptic… almost scientist like. Thomas the crime scene investigator who needs some evidence, some DNA to put under a microscope, some unassailable proof that Jesus is indeed alive. But those are 20th century concerns… not 1st century ones. And in some ways our 21st century world has moved much closer to the Thomas’s 1st century one.

Thomas lived in a world much like ours. Political leaders or dictators ruled cruelly and with fuzzy relationships to the truth. People were desperate for hope, for salvation, for quick fixes. Jesus wasn’t the only healer and miracle worker around. They were a dime a dozen, messiahs on every street corner collecting followers with promises of salvation, promises of revolution, promises of a better life. And most were fake news.

Thomas had heard the crazy stories before, his world was full of them. He knew what fake news sounded like, stories or conspiracies or promises too good to be true.

And after the week that he had just lived through, one where his beloved teacher and friend Jesus had been crucified because of fake news, because of false claims brought against him by the religious authorities and mobs, because of the heartless Romans who knew very well that the charges were false yet executed him anyways… because of all the events of the previous week…. this news that Jesus was alive was probably too much to deal with.

Thomas wasn’t a scientist or crime scene investigator. He was a hurting human being. Someone who was too wounded and grief filled to get his hopes up again for story that was too good to be true.

Because what if he did believe that Jesus was risen from the dead and it turned out to be another false hope…

We have been living in Thomas’s world for a while now. Despite all our technological advancements and progress, we find ourselves in a society where truth and facts are largely irrelevant. Fake news is everywhere. Just the other day I saw a news story about a group of people in the United States who believe that mass shootings are conspiracies. Fuelled by internet conspiracies, this group travels around the country to confront the families of victims of mass shootings… to tell them that their loved ones were not killed and probably never existed in the first place.

Horrific

Of course, not all fake news is so extreme.

A recent survey of Canadians and their perception of climate change revealed that one third don’t believe that human beings have contributed to climate change, and only about half believe that addressing climate change should be a government priority.

And who among us hasn’t received a spam email from a Nigerian prince offering to give pass on a fortune to us.

Christianity isn’t immune from those who peddle fake news or false hope either. Turn on the tv and find any number of prosperity gospel preachers offering miracles, health and wealth all for a modest contribution to their ministry.

We know what Thomas’s world was like, we know that we cannot trust every story we hear out there. We know what it is like for those in power to twist the truth for their advantage, we know what it is like for those who lead our world to lie to us.

It is easy to see that Thomas might be distrustful of a story that seems too good to be true.

And we also know what it is like to have a lot invested in Jesus, to have all our hope and all our faith in the Christ.

Especially having just come through Holy Week ourselves, having been gathering together week after week proclaiming the importance of this story of Jesus’ resurrection… we too know the heartbreak that would come if it turned out to be just fake news.

That heartbreak is exactly what Thomas is guarding himself against. He knows that he just wouldn’t be able to handle getting his hopes up, only to have them crushed all over again.

So when Jesus shows up again, he does so to give Thomas exactly what he needs. Just as he came and stood among the disciples, he comes and stands before Thomas.

And both times, Jesus does something that is so opposite of how our world would choose to spread the news of someone back from the dead.

Jesus begins with peace.

So often Fake News declares, “Look at me!” “Be surprised!” “Be enraged!”

Yet Jesus speaks, “Peace.”

Peace, so that the disciples can see their Risen Lord.
Peace, so that Jesus can break through Thomas’s guarded heart.
Peace, to calm our troubled hearts that need to know Jesus.

And then Jesus offers Thomas his hands and his side.

It is easy to think that it is holes that are important for Thomas to see. The holes in Jesus hands and the holes in Jesus’ side.

But it is the hands that have shared bread with Thomas for years that reach out.
It is the body that has walked and sat and slept next to Thomas that is offered.
It is the flesh of the one whom Thomas loves and follows who breaks through to Thomas’s guarded heart.

Thomas wasn’t looking for evidence of crucifixion and death, Thomas needed to see that Jesus was alive.

And that is what Jesus gives him.

And is what Jesus gives us.

Because Jesus does the same for us. Jesus continually breaks into our fake news world offering peace and life.

Peace to our troubled hearts.
Peace so that we can be calmed down in order to hear God’s promise given to us.
Peace so that we see.

Jesus breaks through to us, through all the stories and people of our world that we are suspicious of, that we know are too good to be true, that we cannot unguard our hearts for.

And Jesus reaches out to us in the hands that share peace with us,
the hands that place the bread and wine into our outstretched hands,
the hands that welcome us here.

And Jesus offers his side,
his body given to us in the bodies of our brothers and sisters
who sing and praise and pray next to us,
the bodies who come to table and receive next to us,
the body of Christ that we eat and share,
the body of Christ that we become.

Jesus has been breaking into our world over and over again, from the empty tomb, to the upper room, to the waters of font, to the table of the Lord.
Jesus breaks through to us in order that our guarded hearts might know Peace.
Jesus break through in order that we see the Christ, God in flesh.

God in wounded flesh, Risen from the dead.

Hearing the Holy Week story anew… again.

GOSPEL: Mark 14:1–15:47 (Read the whole passion text here)

 

Today, we enter into Holy Week.

We step out of the wilderness into the chaos.

Don’t mistake the palms for some kind of party or excuse to celebrate. This is the tension filled moment of at the beginning of a thriller. Every detail, every action, every face in the story should be sign that things are not as they seem. This coronation moment on the road in the Holy City will not last, the crowds will not see the one riding a donkey as a king who will save for much longer.

Humanity puts Christ on the throne today…. a human throne of power.

But the throne at the end of the week, the throne of suffering and death is where Christ will end up is the opposite moment of today.

Today, we begin the story. The story we have told so many times, the story that has been imprinted on our foreheads in baptism, the story that our bodies take in when we eat of the bread and drink of the cup… this story is one that we cannot help but tell. A story told each Sunday in the words of scripture, in our worship, in our gathering as a community.

And yet, this week, this passion week, this holy week, the story is told anew. The story of Christ’s passion and crucifixion is told as though we have not heard it before. It is told in old and ancient ways to new ears.

It is new because we still need salvation from sin and death, it is new because God continues to come into our world saving us from sin and death.

No, we do not relive the story, and Christ is not nailed to cross again and again… yet we continually die to sin. We die each day, deaths in a million small ways, the deaths of failures and brokenness, deaths because of the things we have done to ourselves and others, and the things others do to us.

The story is new because we keep experiencing death in this world.

But the story is also new because of what God is doing with us.

God keeps showing us the empty tomb. God keeps pulling up and out of the waters, breathing new air, a new spirit, a new life into our lungs.

The story is new because even with all the death in the world around us, God is meeting and confronting all those millions of ways we die. And God promising us resurrection, God is pulling us up out of the tomb.

The story is new, because God is making us new.

God is making us new creations in the risen one, in the Christ whose exit from the grave becomes our way out too.

So let us begin this week anew, this passion week, the holy week. Let us hear the story that we know so well as if it is new.

Because it is new.

Because God is making us new… again.

On Being a Millennial Pastor – Leaders who don’t remember the glory days

“You give us hope for the future.”

The first time I heard those words, I was 23 years old and in seminary. A group of us had travelled 7 hours, from the prairies to the mountains, to attend a study conference for pastors and other church professionals. We were a group of 20 and 30 somethings, all Masters of Divinity students already having bachelor’s degrees and work experience, but compared to the average age of pastors in the mainline, we may as well have been teenagers. So we probably seemed like a group of disruptive students crashing a conference for older folks.

But instead of being grumpy with us or giving us glares (as church folk can sometimes be guilty of doing with young noise makers), we were heartily welcomed by our future colleagues. Our relative energy and enthusiasm seemed to bring them some life and excitement.

And that is when it started happening. Sometimes one or more elder colleagues would sidle up to us and say things like, “You all give me hope for the church’s future” or “You make me feel better about the future.”

“Millennials” weren’t a thing back then, but our age cohort was perhaps the first to be obviously missing from the church. We weren’t the first generation to stop attending, that was the Boomers, our parents, who led the mass exodus. But rather, we were the first to be noticeably absent. The first generation to have mostly never been there at all. And so when a bunch of Gen Xers and Millennials showed up at seminary together around the same time, it was out of the ordinary. We were a cohort of young leaders who had been the kids in our home churches who were leading youth groups, playing in worship bands, serving on church councils, attending campus ministry while at school, working as bible camp counsellors and even camp directors. Our parents had bucked the trend of the Boomer exodus, and brought us to church where we had been encouraged to lead. We had to lead because we were all there was of our age cohort.

The “You give us hope” comment became a pretty regular occurrence in seminary and after… but I always had the sinking suspicion that the church wasn’t quite ready to hand over the reigns to the next generation.

Whether it was the resistance of boomers to converting the seminary newspaper from a paper publication to an online blog format, or later on to a hesitation let young pastors serve in positions of leadership in the church, a constant comment I heard from seminary classmates in their first few years of ministry was,

“We were trained and prepared to serve in this church, but no one got this church ready for us.”

After ordination, when I began serving in my first call, I couldn’t help but notice something that seemed to be below the surface of wherever I went in the church. Not just my congregation, but the ones of neighbouring colleagues, and larger church ministries, and coming from church leadership. It took me a while to put my finger on it.

And then as I had yet another conversation with colleagues or parishioners or other church folk lamenting the absence of young people, the decline of attendance and giving, and the general sad state of the present church… it dawned on me.

These people are grieving. 

As soon as I could see it, it was like puling back the veil and seeing the weight being carried by nearly everyone around me. Everyone of a certain age that is.

The glory days were gone. The days when pews were full, Sunday Schools bursting at the seams, programs well attended, giving was enough to pay the bills and increasing, when every family had 4.2 kids and a housewife who would devote volunteer time to the church, or keep the house in check while her husband did. Those days were over.

But it wasn’t just that those days were over, it was the intense desire to bring them back. Churches, pastors, leaders who could remember those days seemed to be universally bound and determined to somehow bring that glory back. Get the young people back, get the families back, fill the pews, resurrect the Sunday Schools, meet and exceed the budgets.

My problem, as a young pastor was, I wasn’t grieving the glory days with most people around me. I wasn’t grieving them because I don’t remember them.

Even though now I have almost a decade of experience under my belt, I am still a young pastor by mainline standards.

And it has always been tension the church that most people around me are grieving, and the one that I have always known and loved. The church that God called me to seminary and to be a pastor to serve.

The church has always been filled with grey hair in my memory. Sunday School has always been pretty sparsely attended, youth groups have never been more than a handful of kids, budgets have always been hard to meet, and there are rarely times when it is hard to find an entire pew to yourself in worship.

This is only version of the church I know… and it is the one I am called to serve.

I also suspect it is the church God is calling us to be. 

While it is has been difficult for the congregations I serve to have a leader who isn’t longing for the glory days as they are, it has also been good for me and them. It has been hard and taken time, but eventually we have started looking forward rather than looking back. We have begun to listen to where God is calling us now and where God is calling us to go.

God’s mission hasn’t changed, just the vehicle isn’t as fancy as it once was. The Gospel is is still preached, sacraments still administered, the Body of Christ is still present… even in churches whose glory days are over.

And I think that this is the cross roads that many churches and denominations find themselves at these days. Will the memory of the glory days keep us looking backwards? Will we admit that our desire to bring the young people back, might actually be us saying that we want to be young again?

The synod (read: diocese/jurisdiction/area) in which I serve is about to elect a new Bishop. For the past few months we have been asked to discern what kind of Bishop the synod needs, and to do that discernment in congregations and other synod ministries. This discernment process here has got me thinking about leadership, and about what kind of leaders the church will need going forward. What will a declining Christianity need in order to begin moving faithfully into the future?

And the answer I keep coming back to is that the church in North America will need leaders who can let go of the glory days. Maybe even leaders who don’t remember the glory days. Leaders who can see the church as it is now, rather than what it used to be.

As my generation, Gen X and Millennial pastors and clergy, steps into more and more leadership positions in the church, letting go of the glory days becomes inevitable. We simply don’t remember them.

Because we are the ones who showed up to seminary full of energy, called to serve a church in decline.

The church for us has always been full of grey haired faithful and committed people.
The church has always been small close-knit Sunday Schools and youth groups.
The church has always been struggling to meet budgets by searching for creative solutions.
And the church has always had room in the pews for more people to come.

It will not be easy to get over the grief that is lingering below the surface, and it will be easy to see the solutions to what the church is currently lacking by going back to a time when we remember abundance.

But the church cannot go backwards. And God doesn’t call us into the past, God calls us into the future.

So perhaps it is time for the church to let leaders who cannot remember the glory days, but who only know the present, guide the way into the future.

Perhaps “You give us hope for the future” needs to become:

“You give us hope now.”

Into the Lenten Wilderness

John 11:1-45

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”(Read the whole passage)

Last week we witnessed a Transfiguration moment, the Blind man having his sight restored. It was like the revelation on the mountaintop, eyes were opened to see the world, and see God, in a new way.

But by Wednesday, the euphoria of transfiguration was over. And we descended to the ashes, to the signs of decay and death around us, the evidence that sin and suffering still hold much sway in our world.

And now we begin Lent.

Lent always begins with wilderness. Usually we hear the story of Jesus’ temptation. After Jesus’ baptism, the spirit takes Jesus into the wilderness in order to be tempted. This begins Jesus’ ministry in Matthew, Mark and Luke. But as we explore John this year, through the narrative lectionary, we hear a story that normally comes at the end of Lent, a story that foreshadows Holy Week, a story of death and resurrection.

But with all of Lent still laying before us, there is still a long way until we are ready for Holy Week. We are just entering the wilderness.

So we hear this familiar story of Lazarus with different ears.

The wilderness experiences throughout this story are varied and different, yet they are all about the experience of being vulnerable and exposed. The wilderness is a place where safety and comfort is taken away, it is a place of wandering, a place of isolation.

The wilderness begins with news of Lazarus illness. He is in a wilderness that we all know, the wilderness of suffering. Suffering which leads to death. We have all seen this story before, whether it is a friend or family member. A life threatening illness strikes, yet there is hope for a cure. But the treatments don’t work, the prayers seem to be unheard and death is inevitable. A common wilderness experience.

Mary and Martha are helpless care givers for their brother, and his death brings them into a wilderness of grief. Martha’s a frantic and searching grief, Mary’s an overwhelming and debilitating grief.

Martha meets Jesus on road, she wants answers, she wants to point the finger, she is lashing out. Her grief is a wild and untamed wilderness experience, a roller coaster of emotion.

Mary also meets Jesus on the road, but her grief is different. She collapses at Jesus feet. She is crushed and falling, falling deeper and deeper into despair.

The disciples are also in a wilderness of sorts… they are lost and confused about Jesus’ actions. They have seen Jesus heal and care for strangers, yet here he is delaying to care for a beloved friend.

And finally Jesus, just like the stories of his temptation, is also in the wilderness. This time the temptation is again there, the temptation to rush in and save the day, to use his power to avoid all the pain and suffering of his friends and disciples.

As we enter in Lent, this year bouncing from vignette to vignette, hearing these examples of different wilderness journeys, we can recognize ourselves. We have been there too, we have all been tossed out into the wilderness in just the same ways.

We have been in the wilderness of grief and loss. We have been there in the midst of broken relationships, in the midst of addiction, in the midst of job loss or difficult times making ends meet. We have been through wildernesses of illness and disease.

And we all know that our world and society creates wildernesses of suffering and isolation because of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, class, and whatever other arbitrary divisions and categories for people we create.

And it isn’t just individuals who wander in the wilderness.

This week an entire nation is once again wandering in a wilderness of gun violence, after 17 people were killed in a Florida high school.

And of course, many churches find themselves in wildernesses of decline, wondering about the future, wondering how to keep on with fewer resources and few people to carry the load.

With all these wilderness experiences around us, it may seems strange to practice one as the church… to create one that begins Ash Wednesday and ends on Good Friday.

Yet, we rehearse this Lenten wilderness journey year after year because avoiding the realities of life will not help… we can only pretend everything is okay for so long.

Rather, as the body of Christ, we practice going through the wildness year after year so that we learn how to navigate them when we encounter them in life. We practice so that we know how to make it through. We practice so that we can see the other side…

But even then, there is a deeper message that the Lenten wilderness gives us…

In the wilderness, God finds and gathers us.

As Jesus waits to go to his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus, he does so knowing that his purpose is not to heal people and make them feel better. Jesus has come to announcing the Kingdom of God coming near… and that rushing to make any suffering just go away does not really deal with the true issues of our world.

And so when Jesus finally goes to Bethany, he brings his confused disciples with him. He brings them so that they see that aren’t just wandering around with a gifted healer. Jesus has called them to follow a deeper purpose… to take up their crosses and find new life.

On the way, Jesus stops to collect Martha. He promises her even in her frantic grief that he is the resurrection and the life.

And then he collects Mary, and with her, he simply weeps, he comes along side her in her despair to let her know that she is not alone.

And finally, he comes to Lazarus. Lazarus who has entered into the last wilderness waiting for us all… the wilderness of death.

And here standing in front of the tomb, is not the end of wilderness, not the escape. But rather the farthest out, most vulnerable, most isolating moment of any wilderness journey.

Jesus has gathered Mary, Martha, Lazarus and his disciples as the moment when all hope is lost, when nothing makes sense, when safety, security and healing cannot be imagine.

Surely, the disciples couldn’t have been more confused than when Jesus commands the stone to be rolled away.

Surely, Mary couldn’t have been born the thought of seeing the body of her dead brother once again.

Surely, Martha couldn’t be expected to believe that Jesus was the resurrection and the life in this moment.

Surely, Lazarus couldn’t have been anything but dead, since it had been four days.

Surely, Jesus couldn’t have waited this long to heal Lazarus.

“Lazarus, come out!” Jesus commands.

Who but Jesus could know that the wilderness leads to this place?

It is not the escape or exit from a wilderness journey. Rather, this moment, this Lenten moment at the tomb is the revelation that all the things we think give us safety and security, the things that may protect us and prevent us harm are all but illusory.

We practice Lent year after year because the wilderness is life. It is where we always are.

And it is where Jesus gathers us up. Lost and alone and vulnerable to a world of sin and suffering, Jesus comes and gathers us up.

Jesus comes and gathers up and brings us to the cross and to the grave, to the very places where sin, suffering and death seem to have won and Jesus declares their power over. Jesus declares that the Kingdom of God has come near to us, here and now.

Because in the face of confusion, suffering, grief and death, in the face of human sin, brokenness, failures and faults, in the face of more mass shootings and the inexorable power of decline…. what else is there but to be gathered around Word, Water, Bread and Wine.

When there is nothing else for us,

Jesus gathers us around Wilderness words like, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Jesus gathers us around water that washes our dead bodies, heals us of our suffering, and unbinds from our sin.

Jesus gathers us around a table of bread and wine, a table that sits next to an empty tomb and has room for all.

Jesus gathers in the wilderness because the wilderness is where we are, and so the wilderness is where God will give live to the world.

The wilderness is where God gathers us around new life.

Could decline be a good thing for Christianity?

You might have figured this out already, but I write a fair bit about the decline of Christianity in North American. And by decline I mean the aging and shrinking membership of churches as people drift away from church membership and attendance.

I talk about it, preach about it, and I blog about it here.

I have been a pastor for nearly a decade, but I am still just young enough to be considered a millennial. Millennials, of course, being the generation much lamented as the ones who stopped going to church (here is a secret: it was our parents who started the exodus).

As churches and denominations experience the effects of decline, both in terms of fewer members and smaller budgets, there has been a lot of hand-wringing and lamenting and finger-pointing and worrying. There has been conflict about who is to blame, experts are brought in to teach churches how to “bring people back.”

Often the habit of those still committed to upholding congregations and denominations is to try to diagnose the reasons that people have stopped coming and churches are shrinking. The Lord’s Prayer no longer being said in public schools, Sunday shopping, sports on Sundays, etc… As if just changing one of those things send people back into church in droves. We long for the magic bullet fix that will turn the church back into what we remember it being… something that was never as great in actuality as it was in memory.

Decline is very scary for churches today. It is the thing that makes us wonder where all the young people went, that makes us tired and want to pass on responsibilities to someone else, it can quite frankly make us feel depressed every time we walk into big mostly empty sanctuaries with just a few bodies dotting the pews for worship.

Yet, I wonder if we have ever considered whether or not decline is actually a bad thing for us.

Could the decline of Christianity in North America even be a good thing?

We often imagine, describe and speak about decline in unhelpful ways. We buy into the notion that more is always better. We think of churches like companies who if they aren’t growing, taking in more people and more revenue, are dying.

But churches aren’t companies trying to survive in a downturned market. Churches are more like living creatures. And when living creatures only take in more and more and more it is not healthy. In fact, we know that never-ending growth for a living creature will lead to death.

Instead, living creatures need moderation and balance. When we have too much of something we need to cut back in order to be healthy.

The decline that we have been experiencing lately just might be God putting us on a diet. God is calling us to cut back, in order to be healthy, in order that we might live.

Just step back for moment and consider all that the things that need to be true about the church if decline is truly bad and limitless growth is good.

It means that the Gospel is nothing more than a numbers game, a tool to increase attendance and revenue.

It means that the Kingdom of God is retreating from the world as we shrink, and that God can only do as much as we are able to provide the money and people to do.

It means that real ministry is about attraction, sales, and consumerism because the goal is to get more people through the doors, rather than sending more disciples out.

It means that if we could reverse the decline we lament, the church would become a virus growing until everything is consumed by it, all people and all resources.

If these things are not true, is it possible that decline might be a good thing? 

If decline is a call to give up the excess, the things that don’t help us live but weigh us down… what is it that we are being called to give up?

The churches in the area I serve in are dealing with this question in concrete ways by working towards 5 congregations being served by 1.5 pastors.

But to get there we had to sort out the difference between important things and essentials. There are a lot of important things that we had to let go of. We had to let go of the hurts and failures of the past, the much beloved traditions and expectations that feel so central to our identity as churches. We had to sacrifice comfort and security for the sake of ministry, and for the sake of our brothers and sisters in faith.

And in coming to what was essential, we had to ask what were the things that God called us to do that made us church… things that we had to do no matter how big or small, rich or poor we are. Surprise, surprise, it turned out the be the same stuff that Martin Luther and the reformers said was essential to being church. The same stuff that Jesus commanded us to do – Word and Sacrament ministry. And while we would not be able to do a lot of the important things that churches are used to doing (programs, events, committees, traditions, expectations), we discovered that we could make sure that everyone had the essentials.

As we have taken the first steps towards a paired down focus on the essentials, on Word and Sacrament ministry, it has been surprising how good it is for us. It is like eating healthy food and doing exercises for a church, focusing on the stuff that we need to keep doing in order to still be Church.

And we are still figuring out what to do with this new smaller, leaner Body (of Christ) it clear that a lot of churches and denominations in North America just might benefit from decline as much be hurt by it. 

No, we will not be the churches we once were. Not everyone will come back, not every fall supper, craft sale, dinner theatre production, scout troupe, curling bonspiel can be resurrection. Maybe not even every Sunday School or women’s group or men’s breakfast. We cannot go backwards, we cannot return to what we once were.

Because it was unsustainable. Memories of full churches with lots going on, and more people and finances than we knew what to do with could be described in others ways. Full and growing can also mean bloated and gaining weight. Filled to the brim can also mean burdened.

God just may be calling us to let go and cut back on the stuff that no longer works, stuff that we struggled to find volunteers for, that we tire ourselves trying to maintain, that we wish there were others to take over for us.

God just may be telling us to stop. 

To stop relying on social pressure or favourable shopping hours to bring people to church, but instead let the Holy Spirit call people to faith.

To stop seeing church membership as an act of citizenship, but instead a practice of faith.

To stop focusing our energy and time on maintaining budgets, facilities, membership roles, committees, programs and local traditions, but instead let the disciplines of Word and Sacrament ministry govern our communities. To let the rhythms and patterns of the liturgy and church year show us where to spend our time and energy.

To stop trying to do everything for all people, but instead refocus ourselves on the Gospel – the story of Christ’s saving death and resurrection.

The longer church declines and more we try to go backwards… the clearer it becomes that God is getting us ready for the future. But first God is shedding us of our old selves, cutting back on the things that once worked for us, but now weigh us down and keep us from moving forward.

Decline isn’t a bad thing. It is a diet, a diet so that the church can be healthy again.