mainestewards

December 12, 2014

Where Do You Go to Church?

Filed under: Congregational Development,Leadership — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 7:56 pm

Last week I fell into conversation with a new acquaintance around plans for her upcoming wedding. After talking about dates (June) and dresses (She has one.), I asked about her venue.

“I’m getting married at Church of the Good Shepherd.”

(My face is blank.)

“You know….the big Catholic Church on East Kemper Road.

(Still puzzled.)

Suddenly I blurted, “Oh! Is that the one around the curve from the big grocery store? It has ball fields and a walking path around it?”

She lit up, “Yes! That’s the one! I grew up in that church. That’s where my family goes. That’s where we’re getting married!”

I suspect this sort of disconnect is fairly common: I knew exactly what church she meant. I drive past it frequently and have a vivid impression of it as an active, inter-generational community. But I don’t know its name, nor do I have any real connection to it beyond that drive-by impression.

This leads me to wonder, in turn, how many of those “Seekers who don’t know they’re seeking” experience a similar disconnect. We may think of ourselves as members of St. Swithins, but it’s far more likely that our communities think of us as “the church next to the park,” or “the church with the pre-school,” or “the stone church on the corner.”

How might embracing our identity in the community shape our approach to invitation? How would we position our welcome differently if we looked at mission and ministry from the outside in? Could a shift in perspective soften the threshold and make our doors a bit more open?

Try this: In the comment box below, tell your fellow readers where you go to church, without using the church’s name.

As you think about congregational development, ask your congregation to do this exercise with you—not just leadership groups, but everyone, newcomers and long-standing members alike. The responses will serve as wonderful starting points for engaging invitation, building on strength, and understanding the context in which we worship, serve, and celebrate.

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October 20, 2013

Something (B)old, Something New

Filed under: Congregational Development,Financial Commitment,Leadership,Lectionary — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 3:23 pm

Whenever I talk about the gift of prophecy, someone inevitably walks up to me later and says, “So, let’s hear a prophecy.”

So let me begin by dispelling a myth: prophets are not fortune tellers. They are not oracles. They are not soothsayers or magicians. Prophets hear the word of the God and speak truth to power. Prophets speak bluntly in the court of public opinion. Prophets say out loud what everyone else is thinking.

It’s no surprise, then, that prophecy is the spiritual gift that no one wants. Prophets may be summoned for an audience with the king, but they are rarely invited to the after-party. They aren’t known for their extensive social networks. In fact, if scripture is to be believed, their lives are a constant stream of insult, misery, and rejection.

For quite a few weeks Jeremiah has been trying to tell us about new beginnings, about opportunity in what appears to be defeat, about looking at things in a bold and creative light.

Back in September when God told Jeremiah to go down to the potter’s house, he saw the potter at the wheel and watched as he formed the clay into something lovely, yet imperfect. He saw the potter mash the clay back into a lump, wet it a little, and try again.

My first reaction to this scene was, “What?! But the rainbow…the promise…God wasn’t going to do that again!” Yet as I reflected on this reading, I came to understand that while it was true that God had promised he would never destroy creation again, God never ruled out the possibility of a do-over.

In mashing up the clay and beginning again, the potter does not destroy the clay. The potter reuses the same clay, reshaping and redirecting the material at hand through new beginning.

This is a wonderful metaphor for our congregations facing decline, whether the “clay” of ministry resources available for renewal comes from within the bounds of the congregation or, increasingly, through regional ministry partnerships. But because this is a lengthy processes, it will inevitably overlap with at least one cycle of annual financial commitment. The prophets who serve on our planning teams will worry that members will opt not to pledge this year because they aren’t sure what’s going on, or they don’t trust the process, or they’re confused about the future. People may be hearing rumors, or may just assume that the church is going to close.

How can we, as leaders, keep everyone on board?

Jeremiah has some suggestions.

First, it’s OK to be angry. Jeremiah is very clear that we do have the option of not liking what we hear. We can eat all the sour grapes we want. Grief and anger are a normal part of adaptive change. Through our baptism we live as stewards of one another’s hopes and dreams, fears and worries. So if a members needs to set their teeth on edge for a while, we must assure them that they will be met with the love, the compassion, and the prayers of the congregation.

The second option Jeremiah offers is to go “all in.” Jeremiah challenges the people of Israel to move from an external covenant confined to a tabernacle, and move toward an internal covenant that lives within their being, a covenant that is part of who they are. Jeremiah challenges us likewise to move toward being the people of god in a new way, grounded in the baptismal covenant that lives within our being, always present as part of who we are.

In calling the people of Israel to a new covenant, there is one option that Jeremiah explicitly takes off the table: We’re not going to sit and do nothing. We’re not going to ride it out, wait for the crisis to pass so we can get back to where we were.

No. Jeremiah is very clear that above all, the people of Israel—and by extension, we—are called to live in the now. Through baptism, the Great I Am—the god whose very name is the present tense—calls us to radical relevance in mission and ministry.

That is Jeremiah’s call to each and all of us, not just to our diocesan leaders, or clergy, or vestry, or planning committee. In the coming weeks many of us will be invited to make a pledge in support of our congregations—in support of the congregation that is, the congregation of the here and now.

I encourage all members of every congregation not to think of letter and pledge card that you receive as merely a request for money. Think of it as an invitation to partnership in the radical relevance of mission and ministry. The future is a work in progress. The present calls us to make offerings of prayer, of effort, and of dedication; offerings brought forth from the first fruits of our life and labor, in the name of the one whose covenant is written on our hearts.

Amen

October 11, 2013

Here and Now

Filed under: Congregational Development,Leadership,Lectionary,Social Gospel — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 10:05 am

Wherever you are, be there. Peter Jennings

So often in my work with congregational leaders I hear a longing for the way things used to be. This longing is not simply for the financial stability of the past, though that is certainly a component, but for the ways of a by-gone era—a time of identity, of security, of assurance; a time that seemed to have an infinite future, grounded in recognized and predictable social patterns.

Though today’s congregations can hardly claim the overt hostilities known to the exiles in Jeremiah’s day, the less tangible enemies of indifference and perceived irrelevance can be just as formidable.

While the false prophets trade on feel-good predictions, assurances that it will all be over soon, and easy answers for making it all OK, Jeremiah speaks a raw truth of presence: The Lord has put you here. The Lord has put you now. The Great I Am, the God whose very name is in the present tense, wants you to be the light in this darkness, the unfailing strength in this chaos, the place of refuge in this storm.

Jeremiah speaks for a God who calls us not to radical hospitality, but to radical relevance. Jeremiah tells us bluntly to stop treating our Episcopal identity, our baptism, our commitment to felt-need ministry as constraints, but rather to understand them as the very “roots and wings” which allow us to thrive.

Does doing church in a new way throw out history? Does moving the frontline abandon the matriarchs and patriarchs who brought us to this moment? Does radical relevance mean caving in to popular culture? Heavens no!

Jeremiah never tells the Israelites, “Stop being so Jewish; tone it down and you’ll get on better.” Instead he tells them to live life to the fullest in this place where they happen to be: Get married. Have babies. Buy a house. Settle in and get used to one another. Make it work and watch what happens.

OK, so maybe that’s not the exact approach that we are likely to take with our communities, but you get the point.

It’s a point worth getting. It’s a question worth taking to the next vestry retreat, the next planning meeting, the next women’s fellowship or youth weekend: How do we answer the call to radical relevance? How do we live as The Church of the Here and Now?

September 10, 2013

Sinners and Saints

Filed under: Children and Families,Congregational Development,Leadership,Social Gospel — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 9:57 am

Every once in a while I sit down to write, to reflect on something that has spoken to me, and discover that the source does not want to be quoted, but rather shared. So it is this week with Sunday’s broadcast of On Being.

Nadia Bolz-Weber on Seeing the Underside and Seeing God: Tattoos, Tradition, and Grace

She’s the tattooed, Lutheran pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, a church where a chocolate fountain, a blessing of the bicycles, and serious liturgy come together. She’s a face of the Emerging Church — redefining what church is, with deep reverence for tradition.

I found this hour to be deeply moving, funny, provocative, and refreshing. She talks openly about wrestling with her own sense of mission and ministry when the wrong kind of newcomers started showing up in church, and how her congregation opened her eyes to new dimensions of welcome and community. She has the best Good Friday line I’ve ever heard. And in her fierce commitment to liturgy and tradition I found the balance I needed in my understanding of the emerging church.

But here’s my favorite moment of all: Forget the notion that God doesn’t give us more than we can bear. That’s Western individualism run amok. The truth is, God doesn’t give any one of us more than the community that upholds us can bear together.

Give yourself a 51-minute gift at http://www.onbeing.org/program/nadia-bolz-weber-on-seeing-the-underside-and-seeing-god-tattoos-tradition-and-grace/5896#sthash.zfW0GJZW.dpuf. I would love to hear your own reflections and talk more in the comments area below about how her words resonate with you.

June 29, 2013

Risky Business

Filed under: Congregational Development,Leadership,Lectionary,Time and Talent — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 2:40 pm

What more does Elijah want?!

Just the other week he was moaning that he was the last of the prophets of Israel…the last of his kind…the end of an era. Who was left to speak the truth of the goodness of Lord to the people? Who would challenge power and authority with the eternal truths of a God so great as ours? What would happen after he was gone?

When he meets Elisha, when he finds the one whom God would favor with the gift of prophesy, he’s absolutely thrilled—he throws his cloak over Elisha, symbolizing that he would be the chosen one. But then Elijah seems to pull back. Elisha becomes a servant rather than a student; his commitment is tested at every turn.

And when Elisha does reveal his discernment of vocation, does Elijah embrace him? Does he express joy and gladness at seeing his own vocation pass into capable hands? NO! He builds in yet more conditions, yet another test. And in the end, even Elisha doesn’t know if he’s “passed” until he strikes the water with Elijah’s mantle.

Does anyone else feel incredibly frustrated by all of this? Does anybody else want to shout, “Come on Elijah, mentor the kid! You need to raise up the one who will come after you. Your work needs continuity. Give the guy a chance.”

But if I step back and really look at it, I see Elijah as incredibly human. I suspect that if we are honest with ourselves, we can all relate to that sense of worry about our life’s work, our community involvement, or some aspect of our baptism. I don’t blame Elijah for sending mixed signals: It’s hard to think about “when I’m not able to do it anymore.”

I can tell you honestly that in my ministry with congregations, the one thing that I hear even more often than “Where will the money come from?” is “Where can we find new people? How can we raise up new leaders? On whom can we throw the mantles of our baptism?”

And so in this morning’s reading from Second Kings, I hear a reminder that part of our own spiritual discipline must be the discipleship of others who might assume our mantles.[i]  By taking joy in mentoring others in the faith, we make one of our most precious offerings: The offering of invitation.

So let’s look at what we can learn from Elijah and Elisha.

First, where do we even find people who would be open to a deeper life in Christ?

Those who study congregational development tell us that most Seekers do not know that they are seeking. Think about that: Most Seekers do not know that they are seeking. That makes them a little hard to reach, don’t you think?

Elijah would completely understand this conundrum. It’s not like Elisha just walked up and said, “I’m thinking about becoming a prophet of YHWH. Do you have any thoughts on how I go about that?” No! Elisha was out plowing his field, minding his own business, when Elijah ran up and threw his mantle on him. That’s exactly the risk that we are called to take when we talk about “doing church differently.” It’s hard. It’s awkward. It feels funny. I’m sure to an on-looker Elijah looked like a nut case. And we know that Elisha was completely caught off guard—“At least let me tie up some loose ends at home! I need to let my parents know I’m leaving!”

But they both took the risk…one reached out and took a chance on a possible apprentice…the other allowed himself to be surprised by joy…and we live today as heirs to the history they shaped.

Second is the invitation itself. We don’t run around throwing cloaks over people any more. Such grand gestures are not particularly suited to “the way Episcopalians behave.” But invitation is nonetheless a powerful—and intimate—offering.

In her book Christianity Beyond Religion, Diana Butler Bass tells the story of being invited to join the Altar Guild of her local parish.[ii] They asked her because they knew she liked to arrange flowers.

Instead of saying yes or no, she asked, “Why?” Here’s what transpired, in Butler Bass’s own words:

“Because I’ve been doing it for thirty-five years,” (the woman) said impatiently, “And I’m really tired. It is time for someone else to do it instead.”

Not exactly an appealing invitation. I turned the offer down.

I suspect that the woman had a rich faith life. I always wondered what might have happened if she had answered the question this way:

You know, I’ve been serving on the altar guild for thirty-five years. Every Sunday, I awake before dawn and come down here to the church. It is so quiet. I come into the building and unlock the sacristy. I open the drawers and take out that altar cloths and laces, so beautifully embroidered with all the colors of the seasons. I unfold them, iron them, and drape them on the altar. Then I go to the closet and take out the silver, making sure it is cleaned and polished. I pour water and wine. While I set the table for the Lord’s Supper, I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to set the table for Jesus and his friends. I’ve meditated on what it must have been like to be there with him. I’ve considered what it will be like when we eat with him in heaven. And I’ve learned a thing or two about service and beauty and community. You know, I’d like to share that with you. I’d like you to learn that too.

I know I would have responded, “Sign me up!”

Invitation is a powerful—and intimate—connection. Offered from a place of faith and discipleship, it invokes the Holy Spirit and strengthens the fabric of community across all that would divide us in time and space.

It is in that presence of the Holy Spirit that we find our third lesson from Elijah’s example.

Of course Elijah knew that Elisha would be his successor. He also knew that the moment of clarity and affirmation was not his to give. Elisha had to claim his mantle. YHWH had to bestow the gift.

And yet, I have to believe that Elijah smiled as we was caught up in the whirlwind. I have to believe that over the roar of chariots and horses of fire his heart was glad when Elisha cried out. I have to believe that Elijah was at peace as his life’s work passed into Elisha’s hands.

So let’s take the risk. Let’s find those people who least expect to be called. Let’s invited them into the joy of discipleship through our baptismal lives. I have to believe that our hearts—and theirs—will be glad.

Let us pray:

Beckoning God,
as you moved in the lives of Elijah and Elisha,
move in our lives,
inviting us to journey to unknown territory,
to listen for your voice,
and to speak your prophetic word
in a world that does not want to hear.
Empowered by your Spirit,
grant us the courage we need
to journey, trust, listen, speak,
and accept your commission
to be your faithful servant people.[iii]

Amen.


[i] Mitchell, Carrie N. In Bartlett, David and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p. 176.

[ii] Butler Bass, Diana. Christianity Beyond Religion. Harper One, 2012. p. 153

June 13, 2013

Flat-Out Mission

Have you met Flat Stanley[i]? If there’s an early elementary student within your orbit, you’ve probably been asked to include Stanley in a family event, take him on vacation, or share in one of his adventures…and take lots of photos along the way. For those of us who have not had the pleasure of his company, here’s a little background:

He’s a perfectly normal boy until one morning he wakes up flat. After his parents peel the incriminating bulletin board off of him, Stanley must adjust to life as a pancake. Ending up four feet tall, a foot wide, and half-an-inch thick, Stanley discovers that being flat is not only novel (he can slip under cracks), but also exciting. He is mailed off to California in a large envelope; he can be flown like a huge kite; and one night, disguised as a shepherdess, he hides in a painting in the art museum and foils some thieves.[ii]

Earlier this week I found out that in the Diocese of Texas, Flat Andy (a cutout of Bishop Andy Doyle) travels with members of Christ Church Cathedral, helping them stay in touch with one another over the summer. This sparked an idea: How could Flat Saints help our congregations engage in mission and ministry, get to know one another better, improve communication, and bring a little fun to our lives?

How might Flat Patrons bring to life what Wayne Scwaab describes as “member mission”:

We know about “congregational missions” at church or under the church’s “banner.”  Beyond church, the other kind of mission work begins. “Member missions” are what church members do daily on their own at home, at work, in their communities, in the wider world, during their leisure, and for their spiritual health, as well as what they do in their church’s life and its outreach. Since the members go everywhere in the world each day, what they do can have far greater impact on the world than what they do together as church.

We share in God’s mission by what we do and by what we say. We draw on our church life and each other for the support, the guidance, and the power we need to do God’s work.[iii]

So here’s what I’m imagining as a mash-up of Flat Stanley and Member Mission:

Provide each member of your congregation with a cutout of your parish’s patron saint on a piece of cardstock—and be sure to put a printable pdf of same on your website for seasonal members, others who might want to participate, and fellow lay leaders who might want to steal the idea. Encourage people to include Flat Patron in their baptismal lives and make provisions to share and celebrate their ministries in real time on a church bulletin board and a photo gallery on your congregation’s web site. For something like a youth mission trip, your Flat Patron could even tweet the highlights of the day!

It might take a little a time for people to warm up to the idea that “the stuff I just do because I do it” is in fact ministry. But once it catches on, once people start to look at their every day lives through a baptismal lens, I predict that Flat Patron will be very busy.

Before you know it, Flat Mary will join the Little League team for ice cream. Flat John will be sewing Quilts for Valor while Flat Andrew poses for a picture outside the local prison. Flat Ambrose will tweet from the finish line of the walk for mental health awareness and Flat James will share his week as a camp counselor.

As we continuously discover and rediscover our baptisms, we will get to know one another in our Monday-through-Saturday dimensions, enriching the fabric of our Sunday communion. Newcomers will have a user-friendly way of getting to know the life of the congregation and make connections with individual members. (Be sure to include Flat Patron in your newcomer welcome packet—it’s a meaningful invitation and a great ice breaker!)

So is anybody up for trying it? So far I’ve only thought it through on the congregational level, but how much fun would it be to gather up a slide show for diocesan convention showing the incredible breadth of member mission among all our congregations? How cool would it be for a confirmation class to use this as a vehicle for engaging the vows they are preparing to make in their own voice? How might a regional fellowship that meets only a few times a year use their own Flat Saint to stay in touch, or to catch up when they reconvene?

The possibilities are endless—I can’t wait to hear your stories!


[i] Brown, Jeff. Flat Stanley: His Original Adventure. Harper Collins (reprint edition), 2009.

[ii] Amazon.com, Flat Stanley: His Original Adventure

[iii] Membermission.org

June 5, 2013

Word Gets Around

Filed under: Congregational Development,Financial Commitment,Leadership,Lectionary,Social Gospel — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 11:48 am

This week’s readings present two very similar scenes—Jesus comes upon a burial procession. The deceased is the only son of a widow, leaving her among the most vulnerable in her society. Like Elijah, Jesus calls upon God to revive the son, and returns him to his mother.

As he does in so many of the familiar Gospel stories, Jesus extends the words of the prophet that would have been familiar to those around him.

But there is one key difference: In the reading from Kings, we know a great deal about the widow, her son, and her relationship with Elijah. We know that there is a long history of faith and trust between them. In fact, the raising of the widow’s son is the third in a quick succession of events that give us a sense of the big picture: First, having spoken truth to power, Elijah found himself on the run. When hiding out and letting big scary birds bring him food proved to be unsustainable, God gave him Plan B: Walk straight into Jezebel’s home town and introduce yourself to a random widow. Trust me; it’s fine. And things are, indeed, fine…for a while. But then the son dies. Now Elijah is stuck: The widow trusted him and his god, choosing Elijah’s words over what would likely have been her own trust in Baal. And where did it get them? She ends up just as vulnerable as she was when the reading began. Elijah needed this miracle as much for his own credibility as she needed it to ensure her social and economic safety.

In the Gospel reading, however, we don’t know anything about the widow, or about the son, or about any prior encounters they might have had with Jesus. We are permitted to assume that the widow has done nothing to “earn” Jesus’ favor. Jesus doesn’t owe her a good turn, nor does he have anything at stake. He simply “looks on her with compassion.” And in addressing the immediate grief of her loss, he also meets the deeper need of her circumstances. Jesus  models mercy and justice.

….and word gets around.

As Jesus’ ministry spreads, people hear of him; they are drawn to him. And they come not just because his miracles of feeding and healing meet a practical need, but because he feeds a deeper hunger, heals a more profound kind of hurt.

I believe that in these passages from Kings and from the ministry of Jesus, we are offered a model for our congregations and our communities in our lives together.

In this long green season, the visions we develop for mission and ministry that will later be expressed as a budget proposal will probably not include raising the dead and returning them to their families. It is likely, however, that such vision will call each of us to look more deeply into our own baptismal ministries.

It will call us to bring fresh energy and resources to renewing ourselves as a community that proclaims by word and example the Good New of God in Christ; seeks and serves Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves; and strives for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being….

It will call us to find the joy in giving, offering a proportional gift or tithe as a symbol of God’s abundance in our lives…

It will call us to see our congregation as a place where people look with compassion not just on one another, but on those beyond our walls, beyond our community, and even beyond our understanding….

…and word will get around.

People who may be more inclined to place their trust in other things, or who may know themselves to be vaguely seeking something that they can’t quite put their finger on will see that we don’t just worship on the surface of our Sunday morning lives. Word will get around that we gather in a place where deeper hungers are fed and more profound hurts are healed. Word will get around We follow Jesus’ example, building on Elijah’s model of speaking mercy to those who grieve and restoring justice to the most vulnerable.

Word will get around.

Thanks be to God. Alleluia, Alleluia!

May 21, 2013

Carrying the News

Filed under: Leadership,Lectionary,Social Gospel — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 1:00 am

Poet Laureate Billy Collins writes:

It has been calculated that each copy of the Gutenberg Bible required the skins of 300 sheep.

I can see them

squeezed into the holding pen

behind the stone building

where the printing press is  housed.

All of them squirming around

to find a little room

and looking so much alike

it would be nearly impossible to count them.

And there is no telling which one of them

will carry the news

that the Lord is a Shepherd,

one of the few things

they already know.

I am drawn to this poem certainly because of its imagery, but more so because it compels me to think about the nature of God as we approach this Trinity Sunday, and to consider my response as one who loves and seeks to serve the Lord.

In the readings from Isaiah and from Revelation, we have this incredible imagery of the God of splendor, the Holy One seated on the throne, worthy of unending praise. I love this image of the magnificent God that I was taught to worship as a child. I learned to read from the United Methodist hymnal. And I still know by heart so many of those “big hymns” that we sing to the immortal, invisible, God only wise.

How might we respond to this image of God in our lives?

This is where I start to get a little silly and let my mind wander into the world of the poem.

If sheep were a little smarter, a little higher order, would some be eager? “Ooh! Ooh! Print it on me! I want one of the good pages.” How many of them—how many of us—would be like Isaiah: humbled by our acknowledgement of sin and eager to carry the Word of the Lord among the people?

But sheep are rather docile, so maybe another response would be “yeah, whatever, I’ll take a page.” Though I do not doubt for a moment that the revelation to John was a deeply spiritual experience for him, there is a part of me that sees something rather passive in his role—dutifully recording the vision he is given, then mailing it out in seven directions and letting the readers take it from there. I’m ashamed to admit that there have certainly been times when I’ve settled for delivering a message when I could have witnessed to the Word in my life.

The poet reminds us, however, that the Lord is a Shepherd, and that the sheep are secure in knowing this. And it is from that image that I find the example of the disciples to be the most comfortable, and indeed the most compelling, response.

I like the disciples. They give me hope. The Gospels aren’t particularly kind to them and Jesus himself gets impatient with their lack of understanding on a fairly regular basis. Sometimes when I read the Gospels I can’t help but think, “Bless their hearts, they’re just not very bright.”

But they do have one thing that gets me excited—they are the ones called to be the messengers and witnesses of the triune God we worship and celebrate this day.

As practicing Jews, the disciples were of course familiar with God the Father, maker of heaven and earth. They were faithful companions of his only son our Lord. And as we heard last week, it was through them that the Holy Spirit revealed itself on the Day of Pentecost.

It was only when all three pieces of the puzzle came together in their experience of the one true and living God that they really understood how they were called to be in the world. It was only then that they became the apostles whose teaching and fellowship we commit to continuing in our baptismal covenant, in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers.

And don’t you love the way this comes full circle?

When we proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, when we seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves…isn’t that just another way of saying, with the prophet Isaiah, “Here am I, send me?”

When we commit to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being, aren’t we too sharing a vision of a new heaven and a new earth, as surely as John saw all things new in the revelation on Patmos?

There’s no telling which one of us will carry the news that the Lord is a Shepherd. That’s not ours to decide, or even to know. It is for us to decide, however, that we will embrace the call to discipleship—discipleship infused with the fullness of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

Amen

May 9, 2013

Heaven Can Wait

“I wish I could go to heaven. I don’t want to die; I just want to see what it’s like and then come back. I wish people could go to heaven without dying.”

The good news was that my five-year-old didn’t want to die. The more urgent concern was that her mother had to think of a response.

“Well, you know Sweetie, there are stories in the Bible about people who went to heaven without their bodies dying in the way that we think of dying. It’s called ascending.”

Really? Now we’re on to something. How does one go about it? Could Charles Branson add this to his long-range plan for Virgin Galactic? We know the bishop; could she help?

“But it’s pretty rare. In the whole history of people we only know of three who have done it. Remember when I told you that after he was on the cross, Jesus died for three days, and then he came back and spent some time with his friends, comforting them and helping them know what to do next? Well, when he was done with that part he ascended.”

Of course she wanted to know who the other two were. (Why do I talk myself into these corners?) Elijah for sure. Who was the third? Moses? Possibly—all we know was that his body was never found. Or was it Enoch? I don’t remember…and her attention span has expired anyway.

So many years later, this conversation stays with me. I revisit it on this Ascension Day to ask, If I could go to heaven without dying and then come back, would I want to?

Remember Plato’s allegory of the cave? A small family group has lived their entire lives in a primitive cave, their backs to opening so that all they can see are the shadows of things, playing on the back wall of the cave like a puppet show from the street above.

What would happen if they were to leave the cave. What would it be like for them to discover that everything they know about the world is but shadow? And once they had discovered the light and color and vibrancy of the real world, could they be content going back into the cave? Having seen face-to-face, could they settle for a mirror dimly?

Which brings me back to the question: If I could go to heaven without dying and then come back, would I want to?

Could I stand to just for a moment join my voice with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, singing and proclaiming the glory of God’s name, then return to the life I love?

I’ve decided on “no.” I prefer to be a steward of the here and now, to delight in all that is, seen and unseen. Our pleasure in what God has created, our discernment of how God would have us be in this time and in this place, are calls to stewardship as surely as our commitment to tithe or our practice of the baptismal vows. God delights in the joy I take in my family, in exploring new places, discovery the little nooks and crannies of the Earth. God wants me to love every minute of this life, to use my talents as a good and faithful servant.

I live into the assurance that the life of the world to come will come…in due time.

Today, heaven can wait.

May 3, 2013

Seeking, Finding, and Being Found

Filed under: Congregational Development,Leadership,Lectionary,Social Gospel — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 9:57 pm

Acts 16: 9-15

I was sitting at the breakfast table on the first Sunday morning of my first trip to South Africa. It was a gorgeous summer day, just between the summer solstice and Christmas. Lots of fresh air and sunlight. Out of nowhere came the most unearthly sound. A high, strong, human sound. I had never heard, or even imagined, such a sound before.

It was a modern-day Lydia, making her way up the street toward the park where she would meet with the women who gathered there to sing, to pray, and to worship God. As she walked, her ululating came not from the back of her throat, but from the depth of her soul.

Ululating is a deep tradition among African women. Physiologically, men can ululate, but culturally it belongs to the women. It is brought forth in times of deep emotion—joy and sorrow, grief and celebration, despair and fulfillment. In his memoir[i], Nelson Mandela talks at length about the Rivonia Trial and the 1964 court ruling that ultimately sent him to Robbin Island. At the moment when he was led from the courtroom following the verdict, he writes simply, “and in the gallery, the women ululated.” It was that sound beyond words that he carried with him into the unknown.

On this particular Sunday, however, my Lydia ululated for joy and in fellowship.

In those days it was still common for household workers to live on-site, a carry-over from their apartheid days when restricted travel made it impractical to go home at the end of a day. And so as she made her way up the street, women would come out from the various houses to join her. My in-laws happen to live almost at the top of the street, very close to the park. By the time I heard them, it was a party…and they were just getting started.

We meet a very different Lydia in the gathering by the river, just outside the gates of Philippi. This Lydia is not merely a businesswoman, but a dealer in purple cloth. Her trade is with the wealthy and the ruling classes. She has connections. She is the head of her own household, accustomed to being in charge and to getting her way.

Yet for all her success, she can’t quite shake that inner sense that something is missing. She can’t put her finger on it exactly; the only thing she can name is the yearning. Even though she has an established worship life, she remains a Seeker.

Like most Seekers, Lydia didn’t actually know what she was looking for. She could not have described it, but she knew it when she heard it. Her response was one of faith—in worship and in the baptism of her entire household—as well as one of radical stewardship. The Seeker was found by her Lord, and on hearing the Word she went all in…in all that she did…with all that she had.

But there’s another story of radical response to the word of the Lord in this reading: Paul took a pretty bold step outside his comfort zone, don’t you think?

Working from little more than a vision, and a sketchy one at that, Paul pulled up stakes, made some fairly complicated travel arrangements into a completely unknown part of the world, and pretty much trusted that things would make sense when he got there. And even when he got there, he still wasn’t “there”! No—he had to leave the safety of the city gates and go to a place where he suspected their might be a gathering place for prayer and worship.

But he went. He kept going until he found that place where he was called to be.

All of this begs some pretty uncomfortable questions for us, the 118th generation to live into the covenant of Holy Baptism in a time when the media would have us believe that faith is fading, that churches are in decline, that we may as well cut our losses.

Yet, as we all know, there’s always another way to look at statistics.

In this case, if half of our neighbors consider themselves to be spiritual, but only 18% name their faith as important to them and a slightly smaller15% value the time they spend in worship…it’s safe to say that we know a lot of Lydias.

So the question becomes, how will we engage our own radical stewardship of the Gospel?

How will we open our hearts to listen…and to say yes to transformation and renewal?

How will we step outside our comfort zones? How far are we willing to go to reach the Seekers in our midst?

How will our congregations, with their deep heritage of living into the Gospel in the daily life and work of their members, move from the defensive posture of scarcity to the invitational attitude of discernment and faith, creating a vision of vitality as a faith community?

These are not easy questions. They don’t have easy answers. Nevertheless, I do not doubt that when we get there, God’s people will be glad…and sing for joy…joy beyond words.

Let us pray:

Gracious God,
through a vision you sent forth Paul to preach the gospel
and called the women to the place of prayer on the Sabbath.
Grant that we may be like Paul
and be found like Lydia,
our hearts responsive to your word
and open to go where you lead us. Amen.[ii]


[i] Mandela, Nelson. A Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. Abacus Publishing, 1995.

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