Posts Tagged ‘risk’

This is part of a series of posts on the ways in which the structures of the church can inhibit all the people of a community of faith from fully expressing their ministry. Although congregations that are anxious about their future often try putting in place a new structure, thinking that that will solve their problems, it is important to note that changing the structures alone will not solve a church’s problems. Structures that no longer function well are often a sign of deeper issues that need to be addressed. As Christendom fades, the structures that fit Christendom stop serving the mission of the church. It is helpful to understand the underlying assumptions and dynamics that structures serve.

It is basic to the gospel that we are saved by the grace of God. God welcomes us into covenant relationship even when we have nothing to bring. It also true that the condition in which we enter into a life of faith is not the place where we are meant to end up. The scriptures assume that the local church is the primary learning environment for growing into maturity in Christ.  As each person is equipped and exercises his or her gifts and vocation, the whole community of faith is built up and comes alive. The gifts [Christ] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” ( Ephesians 4: 11-13, NRSV)

We are meant to grow into Christ, into deeper expressions of God’s grace, into mature expressions of faith. The Holy Spirit’s work is life-transforming as it disrupts the status quo and pushes the church out of its comfort zones. The work in the world that Christ entrusts to his people is tough, demanding work. It challenges each person to stretch beyond what she or he is at the present time. It challenges each person to mature in faith.

As the saying goes, “God loves us just as we are. God loves us too much to leave us that way.” Living into the grace of God, being a disciple of Jesus, joining God’s mission of compassion and reconciliation in the world — none of this comes naturally. The currency of Christian community is love in the midst of human brokenness. Maturing in faith is deeply relational. It involves learning to love, forgiving and being forgiven, and struggling to continue loving after being hurt. It requires honesty and vulnerability.
On several occasions, in Paul’s letters to young churches, he laments that the community of faith has stalled in its spiritual growth:

By this time you ought to be teachers yourselves, yet here I find you need someone to sit down with you and go over the basics on God again, starting from square one—baby’s milk, when you should have been on solid food long ago! Milk is for beginners, inexperienced in God’s ways; solid food is for the mature, who have some practice in telling right from wrong.

So come on, let’s leave the preschool finger-painting exercises on Christ and get on with the grand work of art. Grow up in Christ.  (Hebrews 5:12-6:3, The Message)

There are many reasons why people fail to mature in faith. The governing structure of the church can hinder the spiritual growth of disciples.

Maturity includes the capacity to make decisions and to take responsibility for the consequences of those decisions. Unfortunately, the church is often structured in such a way that only a few people participate in ministry and mission decisions of a congregation. For instance, the most common governing structure for congregations in the United Church of Canada is hierarchical. Only a small percentage of the congregation is needed to run the church. When most of the authority in a congregation rests in a few people, and when the decision-making for the most important issues is done by the few on behalf of everyone else, most people in a congregation are thereby reduced to being ‘volunteers’ or onlookers. They do not sense much responsibility for the decisions made by others. “Their faith, having no sphere for its growth and development lies dormant” ( Roland Allen, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1962), chapter 8).  The baptized often feel little need to move more deeply into faith and hope.

In the long-term, this leaves many people of the congregation feeling inadequate in their faith. They do not feel confident in their ability to live the Christian life, either within the church structures or in their life in the world. They doubt their competence to share their faith with others. The hierarchical governance structures can mean they are not placed in situations where they get to face these feelings of inadequacy.

In addition, the decision-making process in many United Church of Canada congregations is extremely cumbersome. Permission-giving requires several layers of approval and long delays. The cumbersome decision-making processes aim at ensuring that the activities of the church are done successfully. Fearing failure and disorder, the system puts measures into place to protect itself against a loss of control. The congregation is not encouraged or permitted to risk bold ventures in faith. As a result, it becomes difficult for a congregation to remain flexible enough to respond to fresh leading from the Spirit. The system becomes tame and timid. Its decisions become passive and reactive rather than creative and innovative.

It is as people are pushed beyond what they are already capable of doing  that they are forced to learn to depend more deeply upon God’s grace. As they find themselves in situations where their own strength is not enough, they are driven to praying deeper prayers. A community that expects to experience and acknowledge failure also finds that it needs to cultivate the challenging Christian practices of being forgiven and forgiving and beginning again.

Sadly, when people who are looking for fullness of life and daring adventure don’t find it in the church, they go elsewhere. The church then not only misses out on the energy and new life that comes through those who are willing to take bold risks. The church also is deprived of those persons who would encourage the whole congregation to be more bold and courageous in following the leading of the Holy Spirit.


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A sermon based on John 1: 43 -51

A young journalist was sitting at a bar, feeling quite sorry for himself. “Nobody understands me, “ he lamented to the man on the stool next to him. His new friend asked, “Do you mean that there is nobody at all, not one human being, not a single, solitary person who understand you?” That’s right,” said the reporter. “Not a one.”
“You are a lucky man,” his bar companion told him. “Have you noticed how miserable I am?”

No, the journalist had not noticed because he had been too busy feeling sorry for himself.
“Yes,” said his friend,” I am just about the miserable-ext person on two legs.”
“Wy’s that? asked the journalist.

“Because there are two people in this world who understand me. They don’t understand me completely, but they understand me well enough. It’s awful being understood by one person but being understood by two is almost unbearable. If they understood me completely, the embarrassment would probably kill me.”

The journalist went on to write a newspaper column reflecting on the ways we defend ourselves against people understanding us too well. We don’t want them to see the confusion or the chaos that threaten to unsettle us. We don’t want them to know the fears and doubts that trouble the clam exterior we show to others. Much of the time we cover up who we really are. It works, of course, to help us function most of the time. It also leaves us feeling lonely, alone in the world. More than that, it is hard on our souls, which thrive only in the atmosphere of truth.  (Russell Baker, “We can all use a little misunderstanding”, source unknown)

Do you have someone who understands you? Do you have someone in your life who knows the real you? Is there someone who understands the joys and fears, and the deep longings that drive you to act the way you do? Not completely perhaps, but well enough? does that make you miserable because you cannot get away with anything? Or, do you experience it as a great and precious gift?

The gospels tell us stories of Jesus encountering people, seeing them for who they really were, and telling them the truth about their lives. For some of them, Jesus’ words are a great gift. They bring out what is best in them. They grow strong and courageous; they become generous and compassionate. For some people, Jesus tells them more truth than they want to hear. Jesus truth-telling exposes their hypocrisy or deceit, their manipulations and their abuses of power. Some of them eventually kill him for it.

Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story about a group of people who were on a religious retreat. The leader asked them to think of someone who represented Christ in their lives. Then, they were to spend some time sharing with the group who those people were. Near the end of the sharing time, one woman stood up and said, “I had to think about that one. I kept thinking, ‘Who is it who told me the truth about myself so clearly that I wanted to kill him for it?’” (Truth to Tell)

In today’s gospel story, Jesus is gathering a community of people who hear the truth he speaks to them as good news. It is received as a great treasure. He invites Andrew and Simon to “come and see”; then, he finds Philip who finds Nathanael. Philip says, “We have been looking for someone who will save us. We have found him: Jesus, son of Joseph of Nazareth.”

Nathanael is more than a little skeptical. Jesus was not what he thought God’s salvation would look like: a carpenter’s son from a no-account town like Nazareth? Philip does not argue with Nathanael. He does not try to prove to him that Jesus is the Messiah. He just says, “Come and see.”

While Nathanael is still making his way toward Jesus, Jesus says, “Look, here is a true Israelite. Here is someone who is a wrestler-with-God. Here is someone in whom there is no deceit.” Nathanael is surprised by what Jesus saw in him, “How do you know me?” Jesus replies, “I saw you sitting under the fig tree.”

“Sitting under the fig tree” was an old saying used to describe someone who was genuinely searching for God’s truth and God’s salvation. You are “sitting under the fig tree” when you see a world being corrupted by evil and greed and violence and hatred and you say, “Surely another world is possible”. You are “sitting under the fig tree” when you are no longer content merely to skim along the surface of your life and you decide, instead, to find your place in God’s plan for the world. You are “sitting under the fig tree” when you search for wisdom and courage to navigate a faithful path through difficult and ambiguous choices; when you dare to speak your truth even when people want you to remain quiet and complacent.

Jesus sees you sitting there long before you are even aware of him. Long before you start searching for him, he has already been looking for you. He knows your questions, your doubts, your uncertainties, and the things you try to hid. “I can work with that,” he says. “Come, follow me. Follow me and you will find that your life is lived on holy ground. You are living at the intersection between who you really are and what God is doing in and through you.”

There is a great deal of interest these days in ‘the self’. You are told in countless ways that you need to get to know your self more clearly and ore deeply. Only as you do so will you will maximize your potential, develop your gifts, meet your needs and follow your dreams.

There is a healthy self-awareness: an awareness of your inner life helps you function better in the world. But, ultimately, the self is too small an environment in which any human being can flourish. It is not the kind of environment where your soul can deepen and grow and mature. You and I are made to love. We are made for community with other selves. The self cannot be itself, fully itself, unless it is in relationship: relationship with others and, most decisively, relationship with God.

The self is your soul with God left out. Focus only on your ‘self’, without reference to who God is and what God is doing in your life, and you are leaving out the most important part of who you are. The most decisive thing about your life is not who you are or what you are doing. The most decisive action in your life is what God is doing in you and through you. What most defines who you is who God says you are.

Jesus invites you out of the cramped world of the self and sets you into the large world of God’s grace. There is always more going on that any of us realizes. God acts in ways that are often invisible and unexpected. Yet, at every moment, you are immersed in the presence and the action of God. The God who is creating and saving and blessing and transforming you and the world, is permeating all of your life with God’s beauty and grace and love. You are standing on holy ground.

Early Christian theologians sometimes described the relationship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as a great and wonderful dance of perfect love. Each of us is untied to join the dance, and to add our moves to it. As you join the dance, you become more fully yourself than you could ever be apart from God.

Faith is not a journey of self-discovery as much as it is a journey of God-discovery. Faith is learning to pay attention to God; opening yourself to God; getting in on what God is king. It is a journey of learning to live beyond yourself because you are being drawn into God’s great and holy work in the world. Faith makes you more than you could ever be on your own. “Follow me,” says Jesus”, Let him teach you the steps you need to know to join in the dance: patience and love, truth and forgiveness, goodness and beauty, hope and courage, joy and celebration.

There will be times when the dance feels odd. You will be moving in ways that feel strange. How do you being? You continue what God has already begun in you. You risk: risk trusting as much of your self as you can to as much of God as you know. Then, let the Spirit draw you into the divine dance of love.

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This is the eighth in a series of posts about the differences between a pastoral and a missional church.  The phrase ‘from pastoral to missional’ came from Harold Percy, who was one of the first people to articulate for me the shift I was experiencing in congregations.

I have come across a few different ways of describing the differences between the two models of church. Somewhere in the past, I picked up a chart in which Harold Percy compares the attitudes and expectations in the two models. These posts will work through that chart of comparisons and give some explanation of what I think the differences imply for the way a mainline congregation operates.

The seventh difference is expressed this way:

Leadership style in a pastoral church is primarily managerial, aimed at keeping everything running smoothly.

In a missional church, leadership style is primarily transformational, casting a vision of what can be, and marching off the map to make the vision real.

It was Einstein, I believe, who first said that insanity is ‘doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results’.These days, if the leadership of a congregation assumes that its task is to manage the church well, it will probably find itself not only extremely frustrated, but also feeling like it is operating in the midst of insanity. The culture in which North American churches operate has shifted so radically, that the goal of ‘managing the church well’ no longer produces the desired results.

I am not advocating that congregations be poorly managed; it is just that ‘managing’ is no longer what is needed. In a time of what Alan Roxburgh calls ‘discontinuous change’, the kind of leadership required must be flexible, agile, able to act creatively.

Part of the challenge for those who are in leadership in a congregation is that many of them are in their positions because they value having things well managed. They want meetings that are orderly and that ‘get things done’ in an efficient manner, resulting in clear decisions and ‘action items’ that lead to successful programmes and projects.

Chances are they are not very comfortable with the kind of process that equips the congregation to respond to a culture in transition. That kind of process is messy. It expects that there will be failures. It takes people into risky new territory where they do not have the experience needed to remain ‘in control’.

Years ago, I heard someone say that churches need to create a space for the crazy, risk-taking kinds of leaders that are in their midst. Give them permission to go off and try out some of their crazy ideas. See what ones work. Don’t shut them down when some things fail. Instead, what churches tend to do is to drive them away or impose so many rules and requirements on them that any new life they generate is stifled.

One thing we know from the scriptures, wherever the Holy Spirit is at work bringing new life, things will be out of our control. That doesn’t mean they are out of control. It just means that God is in control — which often looks very different from what we are comfortable with.

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“Blessings along the Way: Heaven”

A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett at Central United Church, Sarnia, Ontario on September 23, 2012. 

Scriptures: 2 Corinthians 5: 14-21John 3: 1-16

What  comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘heaven’? What is ‘heaven’ like? Where is ‘heaven’? Do you remember when people used to talk of heaven as being above us and hell as being beneath the earth somewhere?

Some of our ideas about heaven come from hymns or popular songs:

“Do Lord, O do Lord, O do remember me. . . I’ve got a home in glory land that outshines the sun . . . way beyond the blue”. Heaven is out ahead of us, ‘way beyond the blue’. We are on a journey towards it in time. It is a place we go to when we die.

Think of the songs “Some glad morning, when my life is o’er, I’ll fly away . . .”  and “When the roll is called up yonder . . .” Heaven is some place to fly up to at the end of life.

Ideas about heaven, and the metaphors people use to talk about it, shift over time. When you are in the gospel of John, heaven is not up ahead of you. It is not a place you will reach some time in the future. It is not a place above the earth where God lives, looking down upon the earth. In John’s gospel, heaven is not some place that we go to at all. In John’s gospel, heaven comes to us. Heaven is coming toward us from the future that God has already prepared.  (Tom Long, “Heaven Comes to Us,” The Christian Century, April 25, 2011)

In that future, the powers of death and the forces of evil have been destroyed by Jesus’ death and resurrection. There is no more death, no more suffering, no more sorrow “for the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21: 1-4). All creation flourishes, including human beings. Everyone experiences the glory of God in all its fullness. However, that future is not just in ‘the world to come’ — in the future. It is already breaking in to this world, here and now. We don’t go to heaven; heaven comes toward us in the world; the ‘age to come’ moves towards us in this age.

Usually, we do not perceive it, but this ‘world to come’, this ‘life of the eternal age’ (John 3:16) is present already in this world that is passing away. Even though we do not usually perceive its presence, we do sometimes get a glimpse of it. In this morning’s gospel story, a man named Nicodemus perceived the presence of God’s future in Jesus of Nazareth.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee. He was a religion scholar of the Jewish scriptures, the Torah. The Pharisees often studied the Torah at night when there were fewer distractions than in the day. One night, instead of studying the Torah and seeking God there, Nicodemus sought out Jesus (Patricia Farris,Late Night Seminar”). “Rabbi,” he said, “we all know you are a teacher straight from God. No one could do all the God-pointing, God-revealing acts you do if God weren’t in on it.” (The Message)

Jesus had been performing miracles and Nicodemus had seen in them signs of God’s future breaking in to this world. He wanted to know more. Jesus said, “You can’t know more unless you’re born from above.” Nicodemus replies, “That’s crazy talk, Jesus. I have no idea what you’re saying.”

It is rather reassuring, isn’t it? Here is a Bible expert, someone who is a leader in the religious community, and he does not get what Jesus is talking about. Sometimes it is nice to know that you’re in good company when you’re confused by what Jesus says. Someone once said, “If, when you’re reading the Bible, you’re not confused at least half the time, then you’re simply not paying attention.”

Jesus says, “There are two worlds — two creations. There is this world into which you were born the first time. This is the world you see and hear and smell and touch and taste. It is the world where you live and walk, where you work and party, where you raise your children and grow old and die. There is another world as well — a new creation that God is making. God is alive and active in the world, invading this world with God’s love and mercy and grace. God is making God’s future present here and now. You need a different set of senses to perceive it. These are senses that the Holy Spirit of God gives you as you let God’s Spirit into your life.

Jesus asked Nicodemus to open his eyes and heart to another dimension, another creation, that was hovering just beyond sight, just beyond hearing. Nicodemus was still confused and asked, “How can this be?” Sometimes we are ready to see God’s new creation breaking in to this world. Sometimes we are not. Still, it is there waiting for us to wake up to God’s actions in our lives and to enter into them. When we do, our life is never the same again.

Jesus says, “You don’t get to know God’s new creation the way you usually get to know the old creation.”  When you want to know something about this world, you gather information about it. If you want to know about a chair, you look at it. You touch it. You sit on it. You lift it. You may go to the internet and research about chairs: how they’re made, how styles change over the years, what makes for a good chair when you are sitting at a desk for long periods of time. You can become an expert on chairs.

However, you cannot know God’s new creation by gathering information about it. You know, perceive, and become aware of, God’s new creation by entering into it. You get to know who God is and what God is doing in the world the way you get to know another person. Gathering information about that person will only take you so far. You get to know another person by participating in a relationship with him or her. You talk together, both listening and speaking. You risk a bit of yourself to that person, letting them know what is important to you, what has hurt you, what gives you joy. You both give and take. You makes mistakes. You forgive and are forgiven. The more you trust them, the better you get to know them. You enter more deeply into their life. The longer you stick with the relationship, the more your life is shaped by them.

It is the same with God. In Christ and through the Holy Spirit, God is active in the world, shaping a new creation in our midst, but you cannot perceive it from the outside. If you want to see, hear, taste, touch the presence of God, you have to risk yourself. You have to commit yourself. It is not just a matter of letting God into your life. It is also a matter of allowing God’s Holy Spirit pull you, push you, steer you, propel you, into God’s life. You allow yourself to get caught up in whatever it is that God is up to.

It can be scary because ours is a wildly creative and uncontrollable God. Jesus says, “Come, follow me and you had better be ready for surprises because the Spirit blows where it will. You do not know where it comes from or where it is going. Just trust me: we’ll take you deeper and deeper into the love and the grace and the goodness of God.”

The Holy Spirit is present here, offering new life and hope to all. You don’t make only one decision to trust yourself to the Spirit of God. You make it each step along the way. you decide whether to trust Christ with the next challenge you face. You decide whether to take the next step deeper into the wild love of God.

“Come, follow me,” says Jesus. Will you risk it?

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