Friday, March 31, 2017

How to Feed a Church Family

One of my major failings as an Adventist is that I don't have a standard potluck dish.  Yes, I know it's horrible.  I do bring the same thing to potluck every time, but I don't make it--Stouffer's does, and I deliver it in its frozen, microwavable package to the kitchen in the morning, and don't think about it again.*

I am a fan of potlucks even though I am not that useful in the church kitchen.  There was an era when I used to hang out in the kitchen, but it was so that I could chat with my friends who were doing the actual work. We had a church that served potluck every week, so there would always be somewhere to invite guests.  I remember one week, when the food was scarce, watching as a friend pulled items from the pantry and had to invent a new dish to use them together.  I was so impressed. I insisted he needed to have a cooking show called, "The Desperate Gourmet," and we'd feature his new dish as "Potluck Surprise." I don't think he was as entertained as I was, but his food turned out well.

I on the other hand made potluck history in that church by bringing the first ever liquid brownies. Apparently, I pulled them from the oven too soon on Friday night, and we had a meeting to go to that evening, so I didn't check them.  The top looked fine.  And it still looked fine until the moment the faithful potluck people cut into it, and discovered it was runny under the surface.

And that's one of the things I like best about potlucks--they're funny.  We may as well admit it--it's funny that we can set down our pan of gluten-free oat burgers next to the pan of gluten steaks. Or that we can use our special egg-free mayonnaise to mix up the filling for our deviled eggs (and, some places, we have to call them "angel eggs" instead, since they're in church).  It's funny that a dish made of mostly whipped cream and mandarin oranges gets to hang out with the salads, or that dessert might be half the volume of the table.

It's funny.  But it's not bad. Because we're eating together.  Yes, I know we could be healthier, but that's not the point. And I'm not sure I would enjoy eating in the church that took very public pains to make it healthy. Because, and this is the point--it was never really about the food.

We don't eat together because we're hungry.  We aren't looking for food.  We're looking for glue. A church is a collection of wildly different people--different incomes and educations, different histories, different opinions, even different reasons for being there.  We meet together one day a week, when we sit in the same room and listen to the same person talk.  And that isn't a relationship. We need something else, or the people we sit next to won't really be our church family.  And church will just be a very inconvenient and time-consuming way to hear ideas.

If God is love, and we are made in his image, then it stands to reason that we need relationships as much as we need words, in order to understand him.  And so, beautiful and inadequate to the task, we have the Fellowship Meal.**  It offers us two gifts, small though they are, to begin building our relationships.

The first gift is time.  Food makes us stay in the building longer.  It takes time to send a room full of people past the food tables, serve them beverages, clean up after them.  And since we're standing in line together, or sitting at the same table, we might as well talk.  Time is a gift.  There will never be enough of it, but the Fellowship Meal has forced us to share some of it with one another.

The second gift is comfort. If we're honest, whether we're eating in public or private, food is about more than nutrition. You know this instinctively if you've ever been served "refreshments" after a long children's school concert.  There is an emotional weight to food,as dieters can attest. The act of eating together brings us into a shared emotional space.

So today I want to honor the potluck, and those who make it happen.  It isn't a flashy thing, to time the casseroles and wash the dishes, but the men and women who create the potluck are creating church, just as much as those who run the worship service. Their labor helps us to know one another as real people, and not just sharers of the same ideas.

And as for the food, keep bringing it.  Pick up a frozen entree, or wring out the pantry and whip up a Potluck Surprise.  And if the brownies turn out runny, don't let it keep you away.  Come, and eat together.  Because it never was about the food. It's about the church.

*One of my favorite parts of this arrangement is that I don't have to remember to pick up my dish afterward.  

**This term sounds better than potluck, but it has another advantage as well.  If you use this title, your invited guests are less likely to think they need to bring food, thus saving you from having to explain why their food won't work, even though it might be just as healthy as what's on the table.

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Progressive Church, the Peculiar People, and the Beast

I remember the question vividly, "How would you describe a progressive church?"  I was sitting in an interview with a church in Boise.  It wasn't my interview, so I wasn't supposed to answer the question.  But the answer was burning in my brain, so I took a turn when Jim was done.

What is a progressive church?  My answer was this--it's one that lives in its own time and place.  The church board to whom we were speaking seemed to like the answer, but as I sit back and think of it now, I don't like it. Being progressive ought to mean pushing ahead, anticipating the future.  But in church, it means simply not falling behind. Or at least, not too far.

And progressive isn't a favorite word for Christians trying to be a "peculiar people," I know.  Ever since Paul started talking to us about not loving "the world" because it was going to pass away, Christians have had the joy of debating just what we should call "the world" so we can spurn it. New music, new fashions, new entertainment, are all easy targets.  But of course, the problem here is that we end up snubbing them in favor of old music, old books, old fashion. And we have to pretend that these things weren't new once, and targets themselves.

Today, I am writing in praise of progressive churches. I love them. I feel moved by worship music with a beat. I feel at home when some worshipers are in heels, and some are in jeans. And I can best relate to a sermon that feels like a conversation.   I won't pretend that it's a virtue to be in touch with one's own time--liking the music, wearing the clothing, understanding the pop culture. But let's be honest--there's no virtue in being out of touch, either.

And there is a usefulness in knowing the language of modern culture. People put their souls in their songs and stories. The way we speak and dress are our self-expression. If we want people to hear what we say, we have to know the language first. The modern world might not have the answers for its own pressing questions, but if we don't know what the questions are, neither will we.   Jesus cannot be the answer until you know what you are answering.

I went to see the new "Beauty and the Beast" this week.  It's a beautifully made movie, and in spite of the dancing cutlery and singing candlesticks, it really has a serious idea at its center, spoken at the end of the opening scene.  "Beauty," the narrator intones, "lies within."  The petted prince who will become the Beast is obsessed with beauty, but he's also clearly jaded with it. He's focused on externals, and they're letting him down.  There are two ideas I'm left to chew on:

The first is that Disney is right.  We watch the movie because we know from experience that externals can't make us happy.  We want something more.  Christians have known this for centuries.  And yet, in this century, thousands of people will pay Disney money to tell them that.  Why are they better at saying it than we are? And, since we have so many more important messages to share with the world, shouldn't we learn how to speak the language they're listening to?

Or we can go the other way.  We can decided that storytelling and imagination are no good because Disney has already claimed them.   We can work very hard to not sound like the music people are already listening to, so they can see we're different. We can take pains to not look like the people they live and work with.  We can take the concept of being "a peculiar people" and run with it as far as it will go. But it seems to me that we will have missed the point.  We will be just as obsessed with externals as Disney's ill-fated prince. That's the second idea.  If our gospel is bound up in externals, we can expect as much joy as the Beast.

So I'm going to live in my own time and place.  I will confess that, although I am a citizen of heaven, I am a native of this country, this century.  I know its language, and I want to speak it.  Because Jesus is the answer, and I want to say it effectively.  In the end, a church that has something to say to its own world, and talks in a language they can hear, might just be peculiar enough.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Adventist Dog

So we got a dog.  It's been over a month now, so I guess it's time to accept the fact that it is "working out" and we're going to keep him.  It would be too much trauma to give the poor thing to someone else now that we taught the unfortunate beast to answer to "Groot." Yeah, the name was my idea.  I guess I'm weird, but so is this dog.

He's a lab, so he's a chewer.  And he swallows.  It's as much work finding him things that are safe to chew as it is catching and taking away the things that aren't safe.  And when he chews the hands off the Barbie dolls (and spits them out, so the kids find them later), it's an entirely different risk to his safety.  

His interests include people, anything that moves, the outdoors, dead things, and poop. We got him from the Humane Society, aged young-enough-to-act-like-a-puppy-but-old-enough-to-be-already-enormous. Because we're smart like that. Oh, and last of all, he's an escape artist.  So while it is entirely unsafe to leave him in the house, garage or shop when we have to be gone (because he always finds things to destroy), it is impossible to confine him in the yard.

And so what is his redeeming feature?  Just one, and it's enough.  He's a dog.  

It's completely irrational, how much I love the shape of his doggy nose, or the expressions he makes with those arched "eyebrows" over his brown eyes. They exude sincerity. Looking into them, you know that he cannot tell a lie. (He can chew down the cherry tree, but he'll fess up about it later.)  I grumble, and I growl, and a few minutes later I am scratching him behind the ears gushing to him about how much I love him. 

I used to get up in the morning and take him outside to pee because I was afraid of having to clean up the mess if I didn't.  Now?  I am so over that fear--been there, done that, can do it any time I need to.  But I get up and take him outside because I don't want him to uncomfortable or anxious. 

 It makes no sense.  The mutt doesn't even do any work.  He costs money, he has no sense of personal space, and he drools. But I love him.  It doesn't have to make sense.  It's love.

And that is what makes him a genuine, orthodox, Adventist dog.  Besides the fact that he doesn't eat pork (mostly because he hasn't found any dead in the woods behind the house yet).  It's because he's a sermon illustration.  He reminds me what love is.

This is love.  It exists for its own sake--it isn't earned, it isn't deserved, and it doesn't make sense. It has nothing to do with the benefits I get (or don't) in return. It has nothing to do with his merits. 

As I kiss my smelly dog, and try not to think about what he rolled it to get that smell, there is a new depth in the words "God so loved the world." God loves us, just because he loves us.  You don't deserve love--well, probably you do, but that's not the point.  Love is not a by-product of deserving.  It exists for its own sake.  God doesn't need a reason to love you.  He just does.

God loved us enough to come join us--to become one of us, and deal with the smelliest stuff we have to offer.  And he didn't do it because we're going to earn our keep, or because we're so obedient, or because of what we have or haven't rolled in.  He loves us because we are humans, and because he is God.  

"And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God."        Ephesians 3:18, 19, NLT

Friday, March 10, 2017

Jesus is Round, and How to Avoid It (or, How to Read a Story)

I knew there was a problem the day I learned that Jesus is round.  Yes, you read that right.  It was a popular preacher speaking on the manna as a symbol of Christ. Fair enough, since Jesus himself made the comparison.  The trouble came when he started listing characteristics of the manna and turning them into spiritual lessons.  The manna was pure, Jesus is pure, he said. The manna came from heaven, Jesus came from heaven. The manna was round, the perfect shape . . . I don't know the rest of the sentence.  I couldn't listen anymore over the dissonance in my brain.  Never mind that the Bible doesn't say what shape the manna was, nor does it pick a "perfect" shape, all I could hear in my head was "Jesus is round--(because he's perfect)." (?!)  And the ladies around me just nodded.

How did this happen? Well, sometimes the temptation to have something new and deep-sounding to say can get the better of one, I guess.  That, and some people should probably not wander from their sermon notes.

But I believe that there's more--that when it comes to the Bible, we are so inundated with theology and metaphor, that we forget how to read stories as stories.  Normal, smart people open a Bible, and forget to see what's in front of us because we're too busy thinking spiritually. We grow up, and get educated, we learn to think critically--to observe, to analyse, to question.  But we get the idea that it's unfaithful to do these things when we read scripture.  So instead, we allegorize, and moralize. And then we wonder how Jesus got to be round.

So here is a reminder, how to read a story.  I love stories, and I actually know something about them.   I wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember, so I study stories--how they are put together, how they flow, what unspoken "rules" they follow.  There are some, you know.

And they aren't just followed in fiction.  When history is told for a purpose, it becomes story.  After all, there are lots of ways to tell about the same event.  How you tell it makes your story, and the Bible writers had to make that choice when they recorded their world.

Boiled down to its simplest form, a story must have 3 elements--Character, Conflict, and Conclusion. In fiction, you might say Resolution, but in real life, sometimes the problem isn't really resolved, (think Jonah, and much of the book of Judges).  Put another way, every story has a Person, a Problem, and an Ending.  I know this is all laughably obvious, but that's why it's so powerful to cut through the fog of symbols and sermonizing.

 So let's look at the elements:

1. Character--Whose story is this?  Important note--it isn't your story.  I know it's a common devotional technique to picture yourself in the Bible story, but if you do that first, you're going to distort the story. Because events always mean something different based on who they're happening to. In fact, if we were making a story up, all the good instructors would tell us to worry about the character before the plot.*  Of course, Bible stories are pretty spare on details about the characters, but we can find clues from their settings (is this a farmer, a widow, a foreigner, tender of figs, washed-up prophet, etc?), and from their reactions (anger, unquestioning acceptance, running away, babbling, whipping out a sword). Until we get a picture of the who, we can't really understand what's happening to them, and what it means. We sidestep a lot of heresy if we remember God deals with distinctive people in distinctive ways.

2. Conflict--What's the problem? Every story is about conflict--inner conflict, interpersonal conflict, physical conflict, barriers, obstacles, problems. Maybe the enemy is the Philistine army, or maybe it's the Red Sea. But there is no story without conflict. So if you don't see the character's problem, look harder. Our hero wants or needs something, and here is this, sitting in their path. You can learn a lot about a choice someone makes when you see the forces acting on them. You can understand why God deals differently with one person than another.  This is also helpful when reading letters and instructions in the Bible.  Even a letter is a part of the story.**  What problem is the writer addressing? Why would this law be useful to Israel?  Before you follow an example or apply an idea to yourself, you need to see if it's meant to solve your problem.

3. Conclusion--How does it end?  Of course history, real life, doesn't have an end point. So the author had to choose a place to say the story is over.  Why here?  Is the conflict solved, or is it only changed into a new problem? Has the situation been changed, or has the character? Was the temple built, the rich man converted, the army escaped? The character may have tackled the obstacle and passed it, or she may have only succumbed to the new reality. When we really understand the person and their problem, we can understand what the ending means. This story might not tell you what to do or what not to do. Instead it might tell you how people work, or how God feels about them.

And that's a story. It probably doesn't sound as cool as an allegory of modern spiritual problems. It doesn't come out in a pre-packaged sermon.  But it has the advantage of being an account of real events happening to real people.  And as a basis for understanding reality, reality is a nice place to start.

*If you can't tell who's story it is, try looking at the verbs--who gets the active verbs?
**Boring articles refer to this as the "context."

Friday, March 3, 2017

The Other Adventist Marriage

When I first met Jim, I thought he was a bit awkward, with an outdated haircut (he claims it was still in style) and open manners.  He thought I was ditsy, jumping out of a still-moving car to (loudly) greet a friend.  We worked together that summer, in a youth program selling books door to door.  I was impressed, as I got to know him, with his depth and moral courage.  He claims he liked my legs--oh, and my kindness.

I thought I knew, at 18, what I believed about Christian marriage.  I believed that I believed in some level of male leadership in the home, that there would be some earth-shaking decisions someday that couldn't be made without a tie-breaking vote.  I believed it, not because it made any sense to me, but because someone told me that's what the Bible texts meant.

At our wedding, four years later, the word "obey" did not appear in our vows.  We got married, and despite what we thought we believed, we went about marriage like a partnership.  Like every other functional marriage we knew, we discussed, we negotiated, and we compromised.  And we never came across that proverbial choice that needed one person to overrule the other.

We did, however, meet a couple who practiced true headship.  They are good people, but I was bewildered the day we ate dinner at their house.  The conversation wandered into a topic on which they must have disagreed.  The wife began to say something, and the husband interrupted. She started to protest, and he gave her a look, and she stopped abruptly and looked down.  Somehow, the awkward conversation recovered.  I realized then that it was that, and not the tie-breaker-vote model that was true male headship.  They were a loving couple, raising healthy children.  But they weren't a marriage that mine was ever going to resemble.

By the time we'd been married 15 years, I was ready to admit I don't believe in any form of fundamental and eternal male headship.  It was when the debate on women's ordination pushed me to deal with the texts, in defense of equality in the church.  I've come to the conclusion that neither Peter nor Paul, talking to persecuted first-century Christians in a hostile world where men and women were legally unequal, were not giving an eternal principle of male superiority.  Rather, the fact that they tell women to keep to their socially appointed roles, in the same manner as they advise slaves, probably means these women realized what the gospel meant for their freedom.  Now that I live in a modern world, in a country that claims we are all "created equal," I don't feel obligated to give some sort of homage to first-century caste systems. 

I married a man who wanted a partner to tackle life with, not a dependent to lead and manage.  And I feel bad for that other man--the one who has to carry the burden of ruling his whole household, all alone. When the crying children, and the massive bills, and the unmanageable schedules hit, how lonely it must be not to share the task with someone who can shoulder the responsibility as a equal. 

And I understand how attractive the thought is of a strong male leader. Jim is a strong leader. But I am his partner, not his follower, and I don't have to be subordinate to make him strong. Because I know now what I believe about Christian marriage.

I believe that two people can work together without one needing to be in charge of the other. I believe that the greatest intimacy, the truest one-ness, happens between people who meet as equals. And I believe a bond of love, and not of rank, best displays the image of God.

This is the other Adventist marriage. Because at the end of the day, I also believe in him—the guy with less hair than the day we met, but the same moral courage. I trust him. And he trusts me. Long live marriage.