Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Proud to be a UCCer

John Thomas, the President of the UCC, wrote a brilliant mini-history of the United Church of Christ. I found it by checking out the UCC's blog over at i.ucc.org. He also wrote to remind us that, in his opinion, "it is better to be a divided church who stands for something than be a united church that stands for nothing." As the UCC is gearing up to celebrate our 50th Anniversary of the merger of the Congregational Christian Church and the Evangelical and Reform Churches, Thomas writes about that history as well as about what the UCC has stood for, both historically and more recently.

I would encourage you to go pour yourself a cup of coffee, take off your shoes, and scoot up to your monitor for a wonderful and encouraging read. It'll be one of those things that may make you say to yourself when you're finished, "Gee, that was really inspiring; I am really proud to be a UCCer."

Monday, November 27, 2006

Advent 1 is Coming Up

Beginning next Sunday, we will begin our new season of the liturgical year with the observance of Advent 1. Last Sunday, November 26 finalized the end of our past liturgical year culminating with the celebration of Christ the King Sunday. Next week we begin all over again the story of Jesus as both our Savior and the Christ.

Did you know that when we follow the Revised Common Lectionary that if we remain true to its Scriptural suggestions, we will preach and read through the Bible every 3 years? This is why many churches and denominations use the lectionary: to help educate our church members and help them become biblically literate.

Another way we help you to learn the Bible is to observe the various cycles in the church year. You will know when we are in a different cycle by the color of the altar and pastoral vestments. On Sundays, we have certain colors displayed on the altar, the pulpit, and the lectionary stand. And, you will notice that I wear a particular colored stole that usually matches the colors you see elsewhere. Each color represents a different cycle.

Here are those colors. There is blue, which is a new color for the season of Advent (although many folks still use the color purple), Purple for the season of Lent, White for Easter and special occasions in which we celebrate weddings or Christ the King Sunday. The color red for Palm Sunday, the Passion of Christ, the day of Pentecost and for special occasions in which God either comes down in a dramatic way or for denominational occasions such as an ordination. We use the color green for the season of Pentecost and for Ordinary Time (the time between Pentecost and towards the end of the liturgical year when nothing fancy is going on. We use the color black for Ash Wednesday (not all UCCers celebrate Ash Wednesday but we do) and Good Friday.

As we enter the season of Advent, you will notice something different all through the 4 Sundays in Advent. We will be doing something different in the services and I will speak more about that next week after we have observed the Lord's Supper. And, during the Lord's Supper we'll be doing so in a unique way that we observed last month when we sang the liturgical responses rather than only reading them as we normally do.

I am looking forward to the season of Advent and beginning again the joy of experiencing the Christian journey of faith with you.

Another Conversation about Branding

In a continuing conversation many of us are having at church, the idea of branding our church has been a recurrent theme. Having now established our identity missional statement, we now move forward in communicating that statement in our ministry activities. The idea, of course, is to use the statement as a way to 'stay the course' in our pursuit of finding ways to reach out to church-seekers and also as a way to 'remind us all' why we are here.

In such a conversation, branding becomes an underlying theme. And with branding, we should keep asking ourselves: Who do people think we are? Are we remaining true to who we say we are? And while these are thoughtful and good questions to keep asking ourselves, we also need to be careful when asking these questions. In our desire to remain true to our identity, is it possible to lose the ability and elasticity to change when necessary?

In a post written about the struggles with brand marketing that Starbucks Coffee is having, one writer talks about the dangers of branding without entirely chucking the entire concept. Go over and read the post and let us ask ourselves how branding can help us without being tied to it.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Results of the Identity Survey

The Good News Team (GNT) has done it! After examining and reading all of the responses to the congregation questionnaire, they have determined the answers to the questions: Who are We? Why are We Here? and Who is Our Neighbor?

Here is the summary statement of those three questions:

We are a loving, open-minded, caring, dedicated church on a journey to learn, laugh, discover, grow, worship, and praise God together. We invite anyone who needs help on life's journey to experience our hospitality.

As many of you know, the GNT has been working diligently with these questions in order for them to ensure that when we advertise ourselves to our various communities, we are who we say we are. This idea stems from the understanding of the philosophies of branding and marketing.

When it comes to branding and marketing, we are not negating the power and authority of the Gospel, rather we are distinguishing ourselves for the benefit of our prospective member. In this way, we hope that a prospective member will have an understanding of our identity and will be able to make an informed decision as to whether or not their gifts and talents will make a good fit with us. Given that there are many churches that a prospective member may choose to attend, branding and marketing our church as honestly and sincerely as possible will help grow our church accordingly.

When you see a member of the Good News Team, be sure and thank them for the dedication and hard work.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Nervous Pastors

I would like to offer a special thanks to my friend Paul who directed me to a post from Mark Driscoll regarding his protective guidelines for a pastor. Driscoll, a post-emergent pastor, wrote his post in response to the Ted Haggard mess and writes to warn all other pastor's to be careful to protect themselves from sexual temptation. Go here to read Driscoll's list. You'll need to scroll down a page.

His list is both frightening, kinda freaky, and yet, clear that we all need to be careful when it comes to temptation. Admittedly, I was aghast at how he looks at women, as if they are all seductive vixens. And, blaming Haggard's wife for Haggard's fall is one example of how scapegoating only serves to strengthen an argument from the person talking about it and has next to nothing to do with the real issue of the person or thing that person is referencing.

Okay, so all that aside, take a look at Driscoll's Safeguards and let me know what you think.

What the Bleep?

Last night, we had around 30 folks to watch the movie, 'What the Bleep Do We Know?' The movie, part existentialism, part spirituality, part quantum physics, sought to help us ask ourselves questions about who we are and why we are here.

The movie elicited some interesting responses. On the whole, most folks fell into the categories of either they liked it or they didn't.

I enjoyed the movie because it opened up to us an awareness of the power of our thought-processes and how we can become stuck in our addictive emotional behaviors. I also enjoyed the way in which the ideas of interconnectivity were explored.

Unfortunately, I had forgotten about a couple of racy scenes used to explain the power of sex when it comes to the receptive proteins in our brain. There was a couple of times that I was embarrassed for some of the parents who had brought their pre-teen kids to the movie. Actually, I was horrified. The parents forgave me- but I can only imagine the conversations those parents had when they got home.

All in all though, the movie was thought-provoking for many.

Our next movie will be showing The DaVinci Code. We'll probably be viewing it in January with a discussion and food/refreshments to follow.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Contemplating a New Sacrament

Last week at the Fosdick Convocation, I had an epiphany--well, sort of. Maybe it was more of a lightbulb flashing brightly above my head. I had listened to one of the lectures about the parable of the Sheep and the Goats. The parable goes like this, it is from the Book of Matthew:

Matthew 25:31-46

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'

"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'

"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'

"They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'

"He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'

"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."


Hearing this parable and the subsequent sermon, my mind found itself wandering over to the Roman Catholics who teach in transubstantiation, the blessing that turns the bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ during their Holy Communion. "This is my body..." they say and mean quite literally. I remember asking a priest friend of mine why they take Jesus' words so literally when it was "obviously" a symbolic act. My priest friend said, "Bo, Jesus said, 'This IS my body,' I don't see why you think that is symbolic."

My conversation with my priest friend happened almost a decade ago and I was thinking about that when I read and heard the parable of the Sheep and the Goats when Jesus said, "In as much as you do it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you do it to me." How much more, I thought, could Jesus' words be more real and non-symbolic that reading this parable.

As a pastor in the United Church of Christ, we do not believe in transubstantiation during the communion celebration but many of us do believe in a real presence. Borrowing heavily from the Lutherans, we see a mystery occur when God is present during the communion celebration. But our ancestors of the faith certainly believed communion meant something much more and made it one of the sacraments of the church.

At the Council of Trent, back in 1545, a conversation and decisions were made limiting what the Church would allow as its Sacraments. Prior to that meeting, there were many sacraments. Worrying that putting too much faith into a sacrament might negate the grace involved, the Catholic Church decided that there would only be 7 of them: Baptism, Confirmation, Penance, The Eucharist, Extreme Unction, Orders (the call of the clergy), and Matrimony.

Most Protestant Churches, however, have rejected all but two: baptism and Holy Communion (the Eurcharist). The idea is that in these two situations, it can be proved that they were used by Jesus and the early church aside from later church validation.

Understanding the sacraments and their history can be a tedious study--one that I plan to engage at great length. But in spite of all that has been considered a sacrament, I am surprised that one element has been missing from the entire history for its consideration: the Sacrament for the Poor (and the poor in Spirit). How come? Obviously the care of the poor, the lonely, the imprisoned, the naked and the homeless was of primary concern for Jesus. And we know the early church took this very seriously too. How come our identity as Christians has not been tied to this most important and defining characteristic that Jesus identified as essential to the life of the Christian?

One argument may lie in the challenge that if the care of the poor is considered a 'work of faith' then what about grace? I have read about this and would love to link you to a story of it but the linking functions with blogger is down at the moment. I'll post a link in a few days.

But it is arguments such as this that highlight a point: sometimes we get so concerned with theology that we miss the point altogether. It is one thing to hold care of the poor as an important task of the church--it is something else entirely when we say that the care for the poor defines a Christian. If we say the latter, surely we run into theological conundrums-- and yet, how can we miss Jesus' point-blank declaration that if we don't care for the poor, we 1) don't care for him, and 2) we'll go to hell. You can't get any clearer than that.

My personal opinion about Jesus and the church isn't necessarily a neat one. Jesus was often frustrated with the pious and devoutly religious and I wonder if he had intended for the early church to become so rigid in their theology. I think the theology of Paul is a lot more complicated than what Jesus had in mind. Paul seems concerned that our understanding of God fit into a nice and neat systematic theology textbook--whereas Jesus was more concerned with how we live out our faith. Often, Jesus called those who put theology above Christian practice hypocrites. And yet, Jesus obviously meant for the church to survive and thrive.

Where did we go wrong?

In the coming weeks, I will be writing my thoughts about sacraments and a radical idea to make and create a Sacrament to the Poor (to also include the poor in Spirit). I am currently in talks with my Conference Minister in Baltimore as well as a friend who works as a Worship Team member in the Cleveland office, the home of our denomination. Considering how to move forward with this consideration will include many conversations--here, in the pulpit, and elsewhere.

I invite you, dear reader, to join with me on this journey. Let us talk, ask, and get acquainted with our faith tradition--and see if in this way, we might ask ourselves that reoccuring question that each new member of the UCC is encouraged to do: to reinterpret what in means to be a Christian in this and every generation.