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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Life-Changing Words

When I was in my first year of university I read a sermon by theologian Paul Tillich entitled “You Are Accepted.”
Paul Tillich

“Sometimes … a wave of light breaks into our darkness and it is as though a voice were saying, ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for that name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.’ If that happens to us, we experience grace.”  (Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, 162)

Forty years ago, these words changed my life. When I read them, it was as if the scales fell from my eyes and I could see. In a flash, the Christian message that I had been hearing since childhood all made sense. It was grace, all grace. Whatever I had done, whatever I had failed to do made no difference to God’s love for me.  These words, and Paul’s Letter to the Romans on which they are based, set me free. I’ve been living out that change ever since.
Sometimes we hear something that radically changes our perspective and causes us to see everything in a new light.

I had a similar experience, not quite as intense, but still significant, reading words by Peter
Peter Drucker
Drucker, the legendary business management guru. Drucker writes about the difference between profit-making businesses and not-for-profit organizations, including churches. (He calls them “social sector” organizations.)

Both kinds of organizations produce things. A business’s products, he says, are whatever goods and services it makes that it sells to customers to generate profits.

But what is the “product” of a not-for-profit? A church? Drucker’s answer:  “Transformed individuals.” The “product” of not-for-profit organizations is the change that they bring about in people’s lives.

This completely altered the way I looked at the church and my role as a minister. It is so deeply ingrained to think of church as producing religious or spiritual “goods and services” (programs, activities, services) that we provide to “customers” in order to keep them satisfied. (If you don’t agree, try suggesting that you stop providing some of your church’s most treasured goods and services, and see what the reaction is.)

But Drucker helped me see that our job is not to produce goods and services that people consume. And our measure of success is not how much our customers are willing to “pay” for them (with their money and participation) or how happy they are.

Our task, our mission, is to bring about change in people’s lives – the change promised by the Gospel.
Now, not everybody wants to be changed.  People may want things to be different, but they don’t want to change themselves. Often, in fact, they look to the church to enable them to stay just the way they are. In effect, they see the church’s role as sheltering them from the need to change.

And some people have a pre-packaged idea of what “being changed” means. I’ve met charismatics, for instance, who believe that a real Christian is someone who has been baptized in the Spirit and received the gift of tongues. If that hasn’t happened, it means you haven’t changed. You’re still the same old sinner.

But there’s room for a much more diverse and open understanding of what a changed individual might be. We see people being changed in our churches all the time. The lonely find belonging. The angry find the ability to forgive. The guilt-ridden find the ability to be forgiven. The prejudiced find understanding. The confused find a purpose.  The fearful find peace. The discouraged find hope. These changes are transformative.

The shift that needs to occur is for churches to begin putting transformed lives ahead of programs run, money raised, bums in seats, peace and tranquillity as the metrics of success. Granted, they’re harder to measure, but when it happens, the change unmistakable.

Our mission is to see people’s lives changed by the life-changing message of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Peace Be With You

Most churches agree that they should reach out into the community beyond their church. But how do you do that? What does it look like? Where do you start?

Easy to say. Hard to do.

We might find some guidance in Luke 10: 1-11. Jesus sends seventy of his followers out to the towns and villages to announce the presence of the Kingdom in preparation for Jesus’ arrival. This passage is about meeting people where they are, not where we are. It’s about going out, not waiting for people to come in. It’s about receiving hospitality from our culture, not just giving hospitality. It’s about travelling light, not weighed down with all sorts of “baggage.” It’s about offering the peace of the Gospel and not worrying about whether people will accept it or not. It’s about believing that God is already active in people’s lives, and the church needs to catch up to what God is doing.

For that reason, many think it’s an important text for the church to understand and follow today.  
Jesus told his followers, “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ If
anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.” (Luke 10:5-6)
I wonder – what would it mean for us today to say “Peace to this house”?

In Hebrew and Arabic, “Peace be with you” -- Shalom aleichem, Salaam aleikum – is an everyday greeting, like “Hello, how are you” is for us.  “Passing the peace” in church can be just a ritualized way of saying “Good morning.”

But something tells me Jesus had more in mind here than just a polite greeting when he told his followers to go out with an offer of peace. It is really an invitation to be open to the powerful presence of God. They were not "just words" but words that conveyed the reality of God's peace. 

But again – How are we to imagine what that might look like for us today? Surely, we’re not going to literally knock on people’s doors, invite ourselves in and say “Peace be on this house.” 

I got a little glimpse of what might be involved today in saying “Peace to this house” through a conversation that I witnessed several years ago when I was waiting to have laser surgery on my eyes.

I got my first pair of glasses when I was 8 and my first pair of contact lenses when I was 18. After 35 years, my contacts were starting to bother me and I hate wearing glasses, so I decided to go for corrective laser surgery.

The clinic I went to was a bit of an assembly line. The day I went there about 20 patients waiting for cataract or laser surgery in one afternoon. We were all given blue hair nets and stretchy covers for our shoes, and we were herded  into a room to wait our turn.

The tension in the room was pretty high. After all, we were about to have sharp things stuck in our eyes.

No one was saying much. We were all looking down at our blue booties. Then one older lady said to a younger woman sitting beside her, “So, dear, what do you do? Are you in school?”

The young woman was a little taken aback. “Uh, no,” she replied. “I work.”

“Oh, and where do you work? At a store?”

“No, I own my own business.”

“Really? Good for you. You’re so young. What kind of business is it?”

“Well, actually, I own a tattoo parlour.”

Without missing a beat, the older lady said, “That is so interesting.” And then she asked a number of questions. Where is it? How many employees do you have? Who’s minding the shop today while you’re here? How do people decide what tattoo to get? What are the most popular? Are there any that you won’t do?

Before long, the blanket of anxiety in the room had lifted, there was laughter and several people were merrily chatting with their neighbors.

This conversation has stuck in my mind for many years. It seems to me a model of how to connect with people we meet. My guess is that the older woman was a church-goer. She had that church lady vibe about her – in the best way – a kind of unselfconscious openness and friendliness. But she wasn’t there with any kind of church agenda. She was simply offering no-strings-attached friendship to a much younger woman with whom she probably had very little in common.

I’ve reflected on what she did that we could learn from.

First, she took a risk. How did she know that the younger woman wouldn’t tell her to mind her own business? She didn’t know. But she initiated a conversation anyway. I thought that took courage.

Second, she took a genuine interest in the younger woman’s life – a life I’m sure she couldn’t imagine. She met her where she was. It might sound like she was prying, but really she wasn’t.

Third, she didn’t judge. She didn’t say, “Why in the world would someone get a tattoo” or, “I think tattoos are so ugly.” She invited her to share something of her world.

I don’t really know what the tattoo parlour woman was feeling at the time, or if she even remembers the conversation, but it seemed to me to be an act of genuine kindness.

Church people often express terror at the prospect of talking to someone they don’t know. What if I say the wrong thing? What if they reject me? What if seems like I’m being pushy?

This lady at the eye clinic demonstrated that it’s possible to simply invite someone into a place where they can share something about themselves, and that we can receive that sharing with grace and generosity. That’s how relationships begin and it’s through relationships that faith, hope and love are shared.

There is always the risk that our offer will be rejected.  In which case, says Jesus, you move on. But in these days of so much loneliness and isolation, it’s much more likely that offer of peace will be accepted.

This gave me a little insight into what I think Jesus meant when he told his followers to say “Peace be to this house.”  And a clue that might guide us as we seek to be the church today.