Sunday Mornin’ Worship as an Idol

One of my favorite songs is “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” I can’t tell you how true that first verse of the song has been for me in time past. The song goes on to share with us a day in the life of someone that does not include the inside of a church on Sunday. This person narrates their life and what they see as they walk off a hangover and try to shake that alone feeling brought on by it being Sunday morning.

Since about Easter 2002 I have attended Sunday worship almost every weekend. After a quick calculation there have been over 500 Sundays this last decade. I may have missed about 100 of them. So, in the lamb’s book of life I probably got a “B.” I am cool with a “B.” That’s passing, right?

My point is that I have been to and lead a lot of Sunday Worship. In my role as a minister I have been part of many special worship services as well. I have worshipped in foreign countries, delivered impromptu sermons on top of half build damns, and broken bread and celebrated the Table in the dark with grape juice and a stale bread roll.

I am also a huge fan of beautiful liturgy that is fabulously performed by well-practiced presiders and liturgists. I love the beauty and pageantry of rite and ritual that connects yesterday, today, and tomorrow. I was trained by the late, great Reverend Dr. Stanley Robertson Hall to be an innovator as I stood on the shoulders of those saints that came before me. It was impressed upon me that beauty matters in worship. Beauty matters in worship, as it is a reminder of the goodness of God.

It seems ever since I have become part of church leadership there have been conversations in conference rooms everywhere about how to get younger folks in to the pews of the church. This conversation has reached beyond city, State, denomination, and congregational size. This conversation “how to get youth in to the pews”, is at the root and desire of so many in the church.

Contemporary worship, removal of pews, evening service times, and a tiding up or liberation of orthodoxy have all been offered as solutions to this dilemma. I personally have spent years trying to “reframe” the question of “How do we get young folks in the pews?” to “How do we connect and build relationships with young folks?” There have been wonderful success stories about congregations letting go and supporting younger leaders as they set out to be the church in today’s context.

These faith communities become beacons in the night to others that hunger for change. Unfortunately, I have seen more horror stories of congregations holding on to power and hope that the church of yesterday will indeed return and desperately act to get young folks in to church roles in the same fashion tires are rotated on a car.

For me the tire rotation church model is ugly. There is no beauty for me in car maintenance. I am not in denial that maintenance of ones vehicle is not important. It is. Just ask those that call up Click and Clack every week.

I am not in to being treated like a part on a car. I want to be engaged as a part of the car. I want shared importance. I want my gifts to be realized and share them with my community. I want worship to engage me and feed me. I want worship that reflects the value I find in Gods fearfully and wonderfully made world.

In most of the 400 or so Sunday worship service I have attended in the last decade I have not felt engaged on any level. In fact, I attended most of them as an obligation to someone or something. I am not saying I have been left with a massive void in the wake of Sunday worship. I am saying that Sunday worship does not speak to me. That is the honest truth. I am a minster and have lead worship in a spiritually dry way.

In my experience the conversations about connecting, growing, or being in relationship with young folks is varied and dynamic. There is one idol that has always been held on to, Sunday worship. We dare not give up Sunday worship as a church. Without Sunday worship we would all stagger around the streets Sunday morning, shaking off hangovers and wearing dirty shirts.

I wonder if Sunday morning worship has not become an idol too big to succeed. I know a lot of folks will push back on me and I fully expect that. I am at a point n my faith that I am willing to let it all go. I am willing to let go of Sunday worship as a defining part of my Christianity.

Imagine a church that gathers as a flash mob in public and performs acts of celebration, mourning, joy, service, and organized for these events in our homes and in public space. We are transparent, welcoming, collaborative, diverse, and decentralized. It is everything the church seems to not be these days. But this idea will never work in a system that delivers highest praise to a static geography of Sunday worship.

Too many Millennials and Gen Xers work erratic schedules or are engaged in the community in other ways that demand their attention. The church has insisted that in order to belong to the Body one must at the very least show up on Sunday and a few other staggered events on the church grounds. When will the church, the gospel, the Christ be liberated in to the fluid moving of the Spirit we witness at Pentecost in Acts?

I am ready and willing to let go of the idol of Sunday worship. I am ready for a new truth, a truth that shall set me free. As one of my favorite artists Fritz Scholder famously said, It ain’t ugly if it’s the truth.” And the truth is, it’s time for a new beauty to arrive.

Liberation in A Massage Parlor

This morning I went with my wife to get a massage as part of her last days of her twenties. She will turn thirty tomorrow. It was not one of those couple’s massages. I am not against those, it is just I wanted my wife to have her own thing.

We went to a national chain and were greeted with a marvelous deal. We endured the mild pressure tactics to supersize our experience with momentary and fleeting deals. It was almost like being on Deal or No Deal. We managed to escape in to the calmly lit relaxation waiting room. There were comfy sofas and a large plasma TV acting like a digital fish tank full of exotic fish.

My wife is called back first and than me. I go back to my room and take off my shoes and t-shirt. I lay on my stomach and the massage begins. My masseuse engages in a bit of small talk. “How are you today?” “Is this your first massage?” “What do you do for a living?”

I answered the first two questions honestly and with no haste. I wavered on the third. I thought do I really want her to know what I do? I weighed my options and calculated the risk and answered. I answered, “I am a minister.” I was fully hoping that would shut down all conversation and I could get in to the relaxing part of the massage.

It got quiet after my response. A couple of minutes passed by and I hear her say, “May I ask you a question.” If you know me you know I love to talk to people. I rarely turn down a conversation. Better yet meeting new people and holding court is my favorite pastime. So without hesitation I respond, “Sure. Go ahead.”

She asks me, “What do you think about Revelation? Are we in the end times?” BAM! I was floored by her question. So long relaxing moment. Hello, Mr. Lecture. I asked her if she wanted my opinion, beliefs, or what the church taught about it? She said, “I guess I want your opinion.”

I shared with her my past engagement of Revelation as a Conservative, Fundamentalist, Evangelical, and Charismatic Christian and how I literally interpreted scripture and sought to live it out militantly. Back then Revelation scared me and fashioned me in to a sin counting zealot responsible for everyone’s sins and had to “save” as many folks as I could to do right by God.

Then I told her how I see Revelation now. A book that describes a particular moment in time describing the horrors of Nero and the hoped destruction that would befall him and the empire he represented. I no longer felt responsible for everyone’s sin. Rather, I held on to the idea of corporate sin and worked to fight injustice and build relationships with a diversity of people.

She was sort of taken back by my answer. She inquired as to what sort of religion I practiced. I told her I was Christian, like her. She did not care for that much. She started in with an Apologetics trajectory. It brought me back to those days when I argued for people’s souls, wrapped with my Sword (my Bible), and cloaked in the unrelenting truth of God. I tensed up.

She shared with me her story. She had lived a tough life and found peace and salvation in Jesus. She left her spouse in Las Vegas to return to Oklahoma and that peace that God was calling her to.

I listened to her seeking to affirm her. She weaved in to her story solid truths and started to pick what I shared with her apart. She then blatantly offered I am not sure what you believe but I know it’s not the Christianity that I follow.

I tried to counter with, “There is room for many ways of being faithful in my understanding of God.” Then I offered up the story of the blind men and the elephant. The blind men focusing on their particular experience with the elephant in their declaration of what an elephant is. They were unaware that they all shared a particular glimpse base in their particular experience with the elephant that when shared together offered the vision of the whole. She would have nothing to do with it. She rejected my story as sounding Buddhist. She was Christian and not letting the devil tempt her with that sinful knowledge.

I lay there quiet, trying to relax. She struggled with words but she maintained the massage. She seemed to channel her frustration in to the knots on my back. I was not hurting; it actually was a good massage.

I remained quiet, determined to enjoy the waning portion of this experience. I was quiet for sometime and hoped she would be too. She returned to Revelation and what she thought about it. She expressed her desire to one day be a missionary and go to the “Third World” to save folks for Jesus. I did not want to challenge her paradigm any more. I just listened.

She went on for about ten minutes. I lay there and listened, trying to fill my peace. As I did I noticed in her words courage and a sense of daring. She and I were really saying the same thing but could not agree on the definitions, let alone the parameters of conversation. I would offer something and she would counter me with her perspective, unable to hear what I was saying.

I did the same to her. I heard the Conservative, Fundamentalist, Evangelical, Charismatic Christian buzzwords and I shut down. I was not really listening to her. I was trying to figure out how to “fix” her. I pitied her and her backwards, folky ways and beliefs. I thought myself to be better than here, more educated. I felt as if I was beyond this poor, simple woman’s capability to understand who God really is.

I really started to listen and not figure out a way to change her. As I listened this time her words sounded much like Gustavo Gutiérrez. She did not say the words “preferential option for the poor” but she spoke of it in her experiences and hopes for herself in the hyperpatriarcal religious world she was in. Her words begged for liberation. Her hopes called for justice.

I listened to her and when there was a silence I asked her if she liked to read. She said she did and was always looing for a good book to read. I told her about Gustavo Gutiérrez and my favorite book of his “The God of Life.” I gave her a quick synopsis of it and tried to relate what she had been saying to what I felt the book was speak to. She did not say a word.

The hour had passed my knots were sufficiently undone. Her “healing hands” had blessed me with health. I put on my shoes and t-shirt and proceeded to leave. She stopped me with a pen and asked me to spell the name of the book I spoke of and the name of the author. She wrote it down on the prescription she was supposed to give to me for the front desk.

We settled our debt and left. I sort of chuckled when my wife asked me if it was relaxing. I told her my masseuse and I talked theology the entire time. My wife smiled and said, “Only you would go to get a massage and turn it in to an opportunity to talk about God.” Yup, I learn a lot about God from everyone I met.

Death is Art: The Church needs a mess of artists.

I have had a hunch for the last ten years or so that something has been going on in the church. I remember the early post Y2K era. I was spoon-feeding my faith on church hopping. I was on a mission to fins a church home.

I went to mega churches, house churches, mainline denominational churches, non-denominational churches, and once went to a Messianic Temple that meet in a strip mall. I went to a lot of churches.

I was like an addict searching for a fix. Only my drug was Jesus H. Christ. My gear included a well worn NIV Bible, a hunger for the Word, and some clouded ideas of a faith beyond my fading evangelical norms.

I wore costumes to these various churches. I took out all of my piercings and covered my tattoos with a new GAP button-down shirt and a pair of chinos the first time I went to the Presbyterian Church that eventually became my church home. I raided Barry Manilow’s closet as I sported a look to numerous churches in hopes to be accepted and loved.

I can say with the benefit of hindsight that I was accepted in most places. I would be greeted and introduced to who ever had some kind of connection to prison or recovery ministries. Unfortunately, for that person I was not in recovery or have I ever been to prison. I once saw a film about Naval Aviators but that does not make me a sailor.

My point is my physical presence somehow challenged the folks that were already there at the church. The church I ended up hanging my hat at loved me. The pastor did all they could to reach out to me and shepherd me to health. The congregation loved on me very much. I fondly remember them and the relationships I was blessed to forge.

There were some strange folks that had no idea how to engage me. It was no different than my real life strangeness that hung on my family tree. Not everyone can have a moped-riding cousin with a jacket that has elastic bands that hold a twelve-pack! We are just lucky like that.

This church was the first time as an adult I was able to engage in a healthy way the church as a family, with all its bumps and bruises. I still long for that church and those people where my faith was refined and I first awakened to this hunch I am talking about.

There was a sense of adventure and daring. This church was heavily invested in the youth around it. Youth played a heavy role in the life of the church. I would say that the congregation was entirely oriented around the youth that lived in the community and hung out at the church.

The budget reflected its commitment to the youth and to the future church. There was never a difficulty in finding volunteers to cook meals, chaperon events, or mentor the faith of the youth at the church. As part of the staff there I was supported well. I got affirmation and love t-from the oversight committee all the time.

I accepted this as the norm and expected that this is how the church must operate. If the church wanted to bear witness to the Kingdom of God it would need to stay serious about investing its resources to the youth. This was proven time and time again in my time there.

Then I became a missionary and went to seminary. I talked shop for a few years. I volunteered here and there. I even helped plant a church my senior year in seminary. I interned at a couple small rural churches in Central Oklahoma. I got exposed to realities that differed from my almost Pollyanna vision of the church I encountered in Los Angeles.

That hunch awakened and I realized I was not alone in that hunch. The church wanted me to be a leader. The church wanted “us” to come in, bring our friends, marry and have families, and take over the beautiful churches that they had built. There was only one problem, when we came we were not all that welcomed. Well, we were welcomed but we were not invited to be a part of the church as much as we were expected to come in and replace the aging cogs of church with our new, youthful, spirited cogs and do the work of the church.

When that happened we left. Not just laity but clergy has left. We do not have the energy to continue to serve two masters. We do not have the ability to work two full time jobs. We are being asked to maintain the church of yesterday as we plant the seeds, nurture the seeds, and harvest the seeds of tomorrow.

This does not describe all the churches out there. It does describe enough situations out there that I pray we as the church pays it mind. That hunch I have had for the last decade is real. The church is killing itself. The church has been slowly asphyxiating itself on the traditions of the past.

As we struggle and seek that answer to fix the decline of the mainline church we have forgot to invest in the leaders, the people of the church of tomorrow. I know there are programs that offer education and support to some that may equip them to do great ministry. I love these programs. I am not sure it is enough.

What would happen if we focused on digital first? What would happen if we focused all of our resources towards the next generation of faith?

We are operating out of fear of provision and serving a church that has little chance in reaching out in to the great digital divide. We focus on maintaining and supporting the systems we have in place. “If we do X we will lose donors.” I have bad news those donors will die and be lost and when they are who will stand in the gap?

My hunch is that the church that shall exist in the future will be small, socially active, intentional, intimate, low-cost, and have little overhead. I am sure there will be churches that will not look like this. I think there will always be a place for big ass churches. I am sure that new growth will not emerge until the old passes on and fertilizes the seeds they have planted. I pray the Reforming Church does not forget the Always Reforming part and death is part of that reforming.

Belhar Confession & My Racist Posture

I have been thinking a lot about what I believe. Mostly so I can hide from my convictions and not have to face that I am a wolf in Christian clothing. For all intensive purposes, I have no right to be in ministry.

I hold so many biases that you could start a black market economy from my prejudices and misgivings of people. I clam to be a pretty open fellow. The more I question this idea that more I realize that I am a messed up mucky muck kind of guy.

In early June, Mere and I moved to Old Louisville, in an area that has a large African-American population. Our building has ten apartments and two are occupied by Caucasian families [us included] and two are vacant. Sixty percent of our building is occupied by African-Americans. This is very different to me.

I grew up in largely Hispanic/Latino/a, Asian, and Caucasian context. I had very little exposure to African-American. Elementary school I had not African-American friends. In middle school a few African-American friends. None of which came to my house nor did they live in my neighborhood. In high school I had maybe ten close friends that where Africa-American. I played football with them and spent quite a bit of time with them.

I never went to there homes. I never entered their neighborhoods. I never entered their world. It was always on my terms, my space. I was at advantage in the relationship.

College, university, and seminary I had a sparse encounter with Africa-Americans. It may have a lot to do with the institutions I attended. They were largely Anglo funded and fueled, geared towards Anglo institutions.

I would not have called myself racist at all as all of the above transpired, say for a short stint in a bad situation and poor choices on my part as the company I kept. I kept my nose clean. I made sure what I thought was never used to impact a situation or event. I made sure to seek out quality friends and meet quotas so that I could not be accused of racism. I jogged on in life blissfully unaware that I am a much larger part of the problem that I imagined.

I arrive here in June with my new bride, my new life, my new chance at life. We rent an apartment sight unseen in a neighborhood we know nothing about outside of the research I did on crime of the internet. We arrive excited and ready to forge ahead and claim of stake in the American dream.

Only one snag…we live in a totally foreign context from what wither of us are used to. We arrive here in this building. We are surrounded by booming hip hop, tricked out cars with giant ass rims, and a sea of black faces.

I lived in Kenya for a year and am used to black faces. Again, I was in the African context but it was on my terms and folks there have a little bit of residue of the colonial system. My life changes but it was for the better. In Kenya I was part of a terrible legacy, but I was blessed by it. I was hungry often, but I never went hungry. I knew I was going to go home. There was an end date insight for the misery I witnessed. I focused on that and it made it bearable.

With all of this “difference” surrounding me here I begin to question my reactions. Would I feel safer if all of the music, clothing, language, and stuff were coming from a white mouth? Yes. I would feel safer. Would I look at this neighborhood as a sub-par place if it was not filled with African-Americans? Yes I would. If I saw a sea of faces that looked like me I would feel safer. I would not look over my shoulder at night.

We attend church on the other side of the highway. It is in a nice area, teeming with white faces. We like to cross the river in to Indiana to shop, because it is filled with white, suburbanite faces. We had dinner on Bardstown Road Monday. We loved it very much. We joked that we would love to live in this area and not in the ghetto. Why? Because, it had a sea of young, white faces with privilege scribbled across their foreheads. This is a judgment call on my part. I write this convicted and afraid.

So I write this realizing that my every move is routed in classism, racism, sexism, and elitism. I am so part of the problem it hurts.

I do not want to hold preconceived notions of how and why people rooted in non-relationship. Where is Christ in this?

I do not want to shun responsibility to diversity and inclusion because I an uncomfortable in this place. Where is Gods love in this?

I do not want to stay where I am mentally and emotionally because I am scared shitless to trust God. Where is my faith in this?

I do not want to be a part of the problem because I do not want to rock the boat or speak out or answer the call on my life. Where is the Courage to Be in this?

Folks I am a master of stereotypes. A swindler of goodness and mercy. I am a hypocrite in sheep’s clothing. I want to change. In response to Pastor Jin Kim’s riveting sermon at GA and his convicting call to the denomination at Church Unbound I want to apologize for the atrocities I have committed. Not just the ones I am personally accountable for. More so for the things I remained quite about and stood by as others raped cultures and maimed communities in the name of progress and righteousness.

Please forgive me. God forgive me. I pray it does not stop. A half-ass apology on a blog is not the place to end. I want to be a part of a diverse and real community here in Old Louisville. I want to walk with and serve everyone. I want to be challenged and shaped by the struggles of others as my heart moves in theirs. I want to be near God. God present in the hurting, poor, and broken.

The Specials have this great song “Racist Friend.” One of the lines is, “If you have a racist friend. Now is the time for your friendship to end.” The friend part ends but we must wrestle to stay in relationship with each other.

The denomination is looking in to the Belhar Confession. A document created in oppression seeking reconciliation. I read this with hope. A hope that we can truly live this document out.

I am going to explore this document here in relationship to my struggle with my condition. I pray it is fruitful for me and for you.