Sunday, October 29, 2006

Reading report

Anyone paying attention to the list of "What’s in My Bookbag" to the left of this post would think that either a) I am a very slow reader or b) I’m too lazy to update the list on a regular basis. Either option contains some truth. It’s not so much that I read individual pages slowly, but I do tend to read individual books slowly because I don’t read enough pages on any given day to make good progress in all of the books (and magazines) vying for my attention. And I don’t take time to update the list.

Nevertheless, I have actually read two books in the past two weeks. One was on loan from a library and needed to be completed and returned – Embracing Grace: A Gospel for All of Us by Scot McKnight; the other one I found abandoned in my daughter’s room – Messy Spirituality by Michael Yaconelli.

These books have similarities. In fact, McKnight references Yaconelli’s book in his, along with several other of my favorite authors. Much of my reading is in books from the "emergent church" community, placing Christianity in a postmodern setting.

So why do I keep reading authors who are quoting each other and saying similar things? Why saturate myself with such writing? The answer is "balance".

Many of my core beliefs are out of step with those of the community in which I live and worship. When I choke on theology that is being fed to me by people around me, there are few if any who comprehend the difficulty I have in swallowing what is being said. I’m left feeling isolated and lonely. That’s where the books come in. They give me another faith community where voices of authority affirm what I discover in the Word of God and those discoveries are fleshed out with articulate words. It’s not the same as having a local church, however.

On one side, I have people who truly care about me and will come see me in the hospital and show me love but who teach and preach Christianity in ways that offend me. On the other side, I have people who write books that speak to where I am theologically, but who don’t know that I exist and certainly don’t want to hear about my hospital stay.

In the natural balance of things, the people who care about me and with whom I interact face to face have more influence in what they say. Their words easily get under my skin and stir up my defenses. It takes frequent, almost daily, exposure to the writing of people who never enter my world to offset half an hour a couple of times a week of listening to a flesh-and-blood person speak words that drive me crazy.

If I can dig in deep enough, I can fully identify with people like McKnight and Yaconelli and view local voices as merely providing a quaint glimpse into a fading religious culture. Reading the Bible helps. That’s primarily what put me out of step with the fading culture in the first place.

How grateful I am for those who write the books I read. And for those who discover those books and recommend them to me, including the people at And for the resources to get them off my recommended reading list and into my bookbag. I am blessed.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

High School Class Reunion

I settled in an area 260 miles from my home town when I graduated from college. That’s far enough to not get back often but close enough to be able to make it to special events such as a high school class reunion every five years. Saturday was our sixth such reunion.

I always look forward to the reunions. I want to go back to the dynamics that left me so intimidated and insecure as a teenager and show off the superior social skills I’ve developed over the years. No longer will I be an awkward outsider looking in, longing to be part of the 'in' group. I’m not that socially inept teenager my classmates once knew and dismissed as not worth their notice. I’ve made many friends over the years and am generally comfortable in group settings.

Saturday brought an interesting revelation to me. I’m still on the outside in that group. So much has changed and yet nothing has changed. Those who were obviously developing good social skills all those years ago have continued to develop them. They make the effort required to interact with me for a few moments, chatting with someone whom they’ve never known well and haven’t missed over the years. I wasn’t part of their world then; I’m still not part of their world. They didn’t notice me then; we have few shared memories to discuss now. But they demonstrate their own social skills by taking time to chat with me.

Those who didn’t bother to interact with people they didn’t find interesting all those years ago still find me dull and uninteresting today. They know almost nothing about me as a person and have no interest in getting to know me. They’re not sure why I’m there. After all, I have no part in their favorite memories. They characterize me as a person with little depth. I was 'smart', always messing up the 'curve'. They remember having my father as their 8th-grade math teacher. They don’t remember if I was in a particular class with them. I was just the smart teacher’s kid.

There are exceptions. I have two friends from high school who have gone to extraordinary lengths to keep in touch with me through the years. We get together every year or two. They interact much more often with each other and could easily give up on including me in their activities. What a blessing that they make the effort to contact me. They were at the reunion and it’s always wonderful to see them.

Then there are those whom I don’t remember well who have turned out to be people I could get to know and like given the opportunity. They seem content to interact outside the 'in' group.

How does that group so easily take me back to the old dynamics? I want to talk about myself rather than about them, to prove that I’m a person of value, that there’s more to who and what I am than 'smart', that 'smart' doesn’t even come close to capturing the essence of my being. That compulsion to prove myself worthy of their notice, of course, only makes things worse. I’m back to being the kid who knows all the answers on the test but has no social skills and isn’t worthy of their time.

Back home today, reentering the central time zone allowed us to be only a little late for an afternoon church picnic. I was back on home territory: catching up on the weekend’s events, reporting on our trip, making a note of an appointment for tomorrow afternoon, agreeing to drop off something for someone, hearing good news, greeting people and being greeted, balancing listening with talking, enjoying the group dynamics, My group. People I value and by whom I am valued.

It turns out that being 'in' or 'out' isn’t simply a matter of having good social skills. My classmates decided long ago who was interesting and who was not. The 'not' group is made up of people very much like those with whom I spend all my days. An Amish man whose name I didn’t recognize despite having gone to school with him for eight years found a point of connection with me and provided one of the most interesting exchanges of the day. And, of course, I never tire of interacting with the two friends who keep pulling me back into their company. They are true friends. (They also happen to be 'smart'.)

It’s time to change my expectations for class reunions and focus on those outside the inner circle, the interesting people I never knew who share some of my earliest memories. Even if they never see me as anything beyond 'smart', I can enjoy getting to know them and catching up on their lives every five years as we grow old together. The 'in' crowd always could party quite well without me and still can. It’s time to get to know the rest of the group.

Or maybe it’s time to put the past behind me and enjoy the many interesting people whose paths cross mine every day without having to drive 260 miles.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

On prayer

It turns out that a lot of Americans pray. People who never step into a church or practice intentional religion admit to praying. (I don’t have statistics to support these statements. You’ll have to take my word for it that someone has done the research and the results do indeed reveal widespread prayer.) People believe in the power of prayer.

So if I reveal to you that I’m a closet pray-er* will you want to hang around with me and tell me about your problems so I can pray for you? Will you be part of my church if we tell you that we’ll pray for you and your friends and family?

I participated in a church survey a while back. We were given a series of statements and asked to indicate our level of agreement with each statement, ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”. One of the statements was, “Prayer works.”

I left it blank. Works for what? If prayer is speaking to God (the dictionary definition), how do we decide whether it works or not? Does speaking to your boss work? To your parents? To your friends? Does talking, in general, work? If we were asked any of those questions, we would seek clarification. Or at least I would. Speaking to my boss doesn’t generally work for getting my dog fed. Nor does speaking to my friends get me an appointment with my dentist. However, speaking to my boss can help me prioritize my work, and speaking the right kinds of words to my friends helps maintain my relationship with them. Speaking is part of communication (along with listening), and communication does accomplish much. Does that mean that “talking works”?

What was the thinking behind the survey question? What were they really asking? What does it look like when “prayer works”? Were the surveyors assuming that our speaking to God consists primarily of a series of petitions? In that case, I guess that prayer works when our petitions are granted. So does prayer work? If every petition voiced in prayer were granted, there would be much less sickness and pain and death around us. Is there anyone who hasn’t prayed for someone to live and been disappointed when death came? Or that the diagnosis not show cancer and it did? If success in prayer means getting whatever we ask for and being able to create a smooth path for ourselves and everyone we care about, I would have to say that I strongly disagree with the statement “prayer works”.

Does that mean that I don’t believe in the power of prayer? You might decide that based on the above statement. And I wouldn’t debate with you. Although there may be rare exceptions, I’m pretty sure that most of the time, prayer won’t help you win the lottery. Prayer doesn’t work for that.

Still, I pray. Does prayer work? Yes. It works for what I hope to accomplish by praying, which has nothing to do with physical healing, smooth paths, and winning numbers. I pray because I’m changed by prayer and it’s my only hope for making a difference in the lives of those around me. I pray because I have more questions than answers and asking God those questions gives me insights that I would never have on my own. (Which generally lead to more questions.)

You may not want me to pray for you (although if you’re someone I know, there’s a good chance you’ve been in my prayers already). I’m not likely to ask God to give you smooth sailing and to remove every obstacle in your path. After all, it’s the tough times that help us to grow.** I’m as likely to ask God to grant you strength to endure the pain that has come your way as to ask that He take away the pain. I will pray that you find blessing in the thorns, that you reach the point where you can look back on the tough times and say, “It was intended as evil, but it all worked out for good.”*** I will pray that God will draw up close to you and allow you to sense His calming presence in the midst of the storms you face. I might even mention to our heavenly Father that it seems that you could use some clear skies now and then, although I would probably stop short of actually requesting a break in the storm.

I wonder. Would you be disappointed if I prayed for you that way?

Loose Bible connections for anyone who is interested.
* Matthew 6:6
** Romans 5:3-4
*** Genesis 50:20

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Church – homogenous or diverse

I read an interesting report in the October issue of Christianity Today. (I’m far, far behind on my reading and CT shows up with 154 pages for their 50th anniversary issue!) It seems Willow Creek Community Church has discontinued their “church-within-a-church” for 20-somethings. Attendance had dropped from 2,000 to around 350. Apparently, a program that attracts so few people is considered non-sustainable by Willow Creek standards. Ironically, there are few congregations around here with that many in their entire congregation and most have far less, but that’s not what I want to talk about.

The problem, according to the report, was that the group was isolated from the rest of the congregation. Among other results of this isolation, when young adults outgrew that group they found it difficult to make the transition into the larger congregation. Also, some of the elements that were distinctive to the young adult ministry were adopted by the church as a whole, lessening the need for having a separate group.

I find it depressing to imagine being part of a large church group that includes no one outside a 10-year age span – no children to amuse me, no one from my parents’ generation to put an arm around my shoulders, no teenagers with their boundless enthusiasm and energy. I think I can understand why this format didn’t last at Willow Creek.

I’m reminded of my “It’s not about you” post from a few months ago. I commented that the church is ALL about the people of whom it is composed. Tightening the age-span of those people enables the church to make it all about that one demographic rather than finding ways to minister to a more diverse group. I’m not sure that’s a positive thing. Rather, when we plan for and accommodate diversity, including age diversity, it broadens the horizons of all involved. Young people can find mentors and positive examples among the older adults. They can find places of service using the skills that they have at a particular time and place in their lives. I much prefer the picture of the church as family - children, teens, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins from Duluth, etc - to that of a college dormitory.

I’m glad that Willow Creek tried this “church-within-a-church” concept and someone reported the results. It increases my commitment to championing ministry designed for people of all ages. It’s all about the children and the senior adults and the young adults and the teenagers. It’s all about the old-timers and the newbies, those who know the ropes and those who don’t. They’re all part of the family and each needs to be given full consideration. There’s a place for activities that appeal to one grouping within the church more than others, but there’s also great value in making sure there’s something for everyone in the large family gatherings and that those gatherings occur frequently. Family is not just for those fortunate enough to be born into one that stays together for a lifetime.