24 October 2011

A word on division in the church

I haven't typically used this space to post things like newsletter articles and sermons.  However, I've had a few people tell me how much they appreciated my newsletter article for October, so I thought I might go ahead and share it.  Maybe some of it will be controversial to some of you theologically minded folks, but I welcome any discussion it might spark.  I'm curious to know what other people's standards are for "unity" in the church.  Anyway, here's what I wrote:

There’s something that’s been troubling me lately. Actually, it’s been troubling me for the last 2 years or so. Much has been written and talked about the decisions of the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly regarding sexuality and ordination. This article is not about those decisions or whether we should agree or disagree with them. Instead, what has bothered me since 2009 is the decision of various leaders, members, and congregations to cut giving or leave the ELCA entirely as a reaction to these decisions. While many of these actions took place soon after the decisions of 2009, the voices of division and discord continue in our denomination.
These actions are disturbing to me because they reflect a wider trend in our current culture. Our society seems to be more and more divided on more and more issues. Our political leaders are failing to act. Strong ideological rhetoric rules the day on both ends of the spectrum. Civil discourse and compromise seem to be rare commodities in so many places in our lives. Even as we gain the ability to be more closely connected through the power of social networking, we seem to be growing farther and farther apart. Rather than work through our disagreements, attempting to live together as fellow citizens and human beings, we often simply cut ties with the other and go our separate ways. We retreat to the safety of our own buildings, our own parties, our own homes, our own friends, our own websites, all while lobbing judgmental and self-righteous rhetoric against the other side.
This is something that we’re all guilty of at various times and places in our lives. It can work itself out in our homes, our workplaces, our schools, our government, or any other public place. However, it saddens me that this same spirit of division has taken root and flourishes in various places within the ELCA. It shouldn’t be so. The church is meant to be different from the rest of our lives. The church is special, not because it’s where all the good, perfect, and holy people are, but because it’s a place where everyone is welcome, no matter what your race, gender, political ideology, wealth, social status, and yes, sexual orientation. It is the one place where divisions should end and unity in Christ rules the day. To claim otherwise by dividing ourselves from one another is not only disheartening; it is a direct assault on the sacraments that are central to our faith and practice.
First, it is an affront to the baptismal promises that bind us together. When we were washed in the waters of baptism and “sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever,” we were bound to Christ and to one another with a bond that cannot be broken. Leaving a congregation or the ELCA is a false division. It denies the Spirit of adoption that has claimed us all and holds us together as brothers and sisters in Christ. At its worst, it could be interpreted as blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the one sin that Jesus says is unforgiveable. When we dismiss one another, we deny the Spirit’s power in baptism to overcome our sinfulness and unite us as the one body of Christ.
Second, it robs us of the powerful witness that is given when we share table fellowship with one another in the sacrament of Holy Communion. There is nothing more compelling in our broken and divided world today than the welcome Christ gives all people to his banquet table. Rich, poor, young, old, men, women, Republicans, Democrats, gay, straight, all races, sinners all of us, are welcome to receive mercy and pardon through the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is why the most profound words we say to each other are “the body and blood of Christ, given and shed for you.” It is humbling and powerful to stand in front of the congregation, to see each of you come forward, and to know how deeply Christ means those words for each of you. It is the one place I still see in our world where divisions truly cease and all are welcome on equal footing, no one greater than the other. If, then, we truly mean those words for one another, for every person that comes to Christ’s table, how can we go and divide ourselves as if they’re not true? What more do we need to unite us than the body and blood of Christ? I cannot tell you how sad it is to me that we are robbing ourselves of the chance to provide this witness to the world by deciding that these sideline issues are more powerful than the uniting power of Christ’s own body and blood.
I pray that these divisions will cease and that we can resume working together for the sake of the gospel. Rather than give in to the evil desire for division and discord, let us witness to the power of our unity in Christ. Let us have the courage to proclaim that, while we may deeply disagree with one another on certain issues, we are still united by the Holy Spirit through our baptism into Christ and by the power of his body and blood, given and shed for all people. There is no greater witness we can provide to our world today than to show how people of vastly differing opinions and backgrounds can live and worship together, united by a power that is greater than all false divisions: the power of the cross of Christ.
In Christ,
Pastor Bryant

So, what do you think?  The issue of sin in the church is a difficult one.  I wrote this from an ideological standpoint, but I understand that the way we live this out practically is full of compromises.  For instance, I don't want psychologically unstable and violent individuals endangering the safety of the congregation.  There may be instances when individuals would not be welcome to attend worship.  I wouldn't let every person on the street teach Sunday School.  However, as a basic stance of my faith, I need to look on my fellow sinners through the eyes of Christ, offering them mercy and pardon.  Like I said, I can understand a need to hold certain people at a distance for the sake of safety.  What's troubling is that we aren't dividing the church in order to protect ourselves from danger or violence.  Instead, we're dividing ourselves to protect some false sense of holiness and purity.  The only holiness we have is Christ's holiness, not our own.  Again, I feel like we're robbing ourselves of a huge opportunity to witness to the power of our faith precisely when the world needs to see examples of unity the most.

19 October 2011

Communicatio idiomatum

So I spent a good chunk of last week at the Southwestern Minnesota Synod's Fall Theological Conference, which is a fancy way of saying that the pastors and leaders in our area got together for a few days to hear some presentations, learn some things, share some ideas, and generally experience what we like to call "collegiality" (that's a fancy way of saying we work together, support one another, and try to get along).  Anyway, the theme of this year's conference was "Ecclesia," which is a fancy way of saying "Christian church."  We heard a couple of speakers who, in a lot of fancy ways, talked about how we might re-imagine what it means to be the Christian church in a post-modern, 21st century, post-Christendom, emergenty kind of way (that's a fancy way of saying we don't know who we are, the church as we know it is fading out of existence, so we probably need to do things differently).  There were plenty of great ideas thrown around and there was lively conversation and it was generally a good thing, in a Lutheran, theological, conferency kind of way.

On the other hand, I can't tell you how weird this sort of thing is.  I found myself wondering what people looking in from the outside would think of our Fall Theological Conference on the subject of "Ecclesia."  The theological language we use must be bizarre in and of itself, if not indecipherable (that's a fancy way of saying you can't understand it).  At some point, I wanted to walk out of the room, find one of the staff members of the conference center we were at and ask them, "What do you think about all this?  What do you think the church is?  Can you understand any of what we're talking about?  Do you think any of it matters?"  I really think I would have learned more from that conversation than I did from parts of the conference itself (as great as it was).

I guess these things are especially strange to me as a young pastor because I'm on the inside now, but I also remember what it's like to be on the outside of leadership in the church.  I remember looking at pastors sitting around tables talking and thinking, "Wow!  They're so much smarter than me!  They must be having great conversations!"  The truth is, we're not, and we're not.  (Ok, that's too harsh, but you get my point about putting pastors on a pedestal, right?)  Pastors are people who happen to have (presumably) learned a lot about the Bible and theology so that we can preach, lead worship, preside at Holy Communion, etc.  That doesn't make us better than anyone else or smarter than anyone else.  Some of the best theologians I've ever met are people who spend a lot of time behind the wheel of a tractor or truck, in front of a classroom, in a nursing home room, at home with young children, or behind a desk.  They're some of the best theologians because they take the Christian faith and interpret it in everyday language that's meaningful to them.  That's something pastors struggle to do because we're encumbered by all kinds of theological language and ideas that are generally confusing (even to us at times, which is why we have to think and talk about them a LOT).  We also are hindered by the fact that we generally spend our time sitting in church offices, in meetings, visiting church members, and doing other churchy things.  In other words, we, because it's our job, tend to focus on the church.  Unfortunately, that makes it somewhat difficult to focus know...the world.  That is, unless we make a conscious effort to get out of our churches and engage the world as pastors, not as our mild-mannered alter egos that go grocery shopping and other normal, everyday things, but as honest to goodness pastors.

Like the pastor that I am, I'm starting to ramble on too long, so I should wrap this up.  I basically wanted to say that I've sensed for a long time a disconnect between pastors and lay people in our church, and I don't think it's helpful.  I love theological conferences and learning new things, but it doesn't do a bit of good if it can't be communicated in ways that actually matter to people.  I get the sense that some pastors love these conferences because it gives them a chance to be among their peers and have the kinds of deep and thoughtful conversations that they long for.  (Or, as a pastor once told me, "If I had enough money, I never would have left seminary.")  I understand that, to a point, but then I just want to say, "Enough already! Let's get out of here and try having these conversations with other people!"  Let's get back into the world to keep trying to convey the message of Christianity in a way that's engaging, experiential, and meaningful.  I'm pretty sure that's what this whole "communicatio idiomatum" thing is about (that's a fancy way of saying the human and divine interact in the person of Jesus Christ so that we can be drawn closer to God in him).  However, I worry sometimes that our theological language, as wonderful as it is, obscures Christ more than it serves him.  This isn't meant to be critical of our pastors and theologians.  It's more like a warning against intellectualism, or worse, gnosticism (a fancy way of saying you're saved by your special knowledge of Christ instead of Christ himself)....myself included.  Having said that, I think I'll go up to the bakery and see what a few of my favorite theologians are talking about...

Required running content: this was all a fancy way of saying I think we as pastors and theologians do a great job of talking about running but often fail to lace up our shoes (or just run without them :-)