Welcome to Big Old Goofy World . . . a place where I can share my thoughts, hopes, and dreams about this rock that we live on and call home.

Monday, April 13, 2015

“The Age of Rocks”

There was a conversation the other day.  It was about the “church” as we (mainliners) know it is aging.  It was about the people in the pews being older, grayer, and fewer than it used to be.  Once the church was known for being the Rock of Ages, and now it is known as the “age of rocks”.  We are now AARP-approved!

On a Sunday morning a member of the church was sharing how wonderful it was that her grandson was able to spend a week with her and even come to church.  As wonderful as that experience was, the young man—twelve years of age, was ready to get back to home.  His reason?  Too many old people.  After the member had shared this, I looked out on the congregation and remarked, “I don’t know what he is talking about!”  But, the fact is, even the congregation I serve is getting old.

I image that there is a lot of debate as to why the “church” is getting old and aged . . . shifts in theology . . . the usual hypocrisy . . . wanting more entertainment . . . differences in generational needs and wants . . . money . . . time.  All the usual arguments.  I doubt if I have anything to add to the debate.  Everyone seems to have an opinion, but the bottom line is that we are not the “church” of our grandparents . . . we are our grandparents!   The average age in the denomination that I serve of the people sitting in the pews on a Sunday morning is 61 years old!

Yeppers, we are getting old.  Yet, we fight like hell to hang onto what we know and feel comfortable with.  We don’t like change.  We don’t like evolution of faith.  We don’t like reformation.  We don’t like anything that is going to make us have to change . . . we cling tightly to those famous seven last words of the “church”: “We never done it that way before!”  In the meantime we grow older and fewer between.  There has been a fifty percent decline in major denominations (mainline, again) in the past few decades.  Among the denominations of the mainline the average age is a little better than my denomination . . . the average is 60 years old.  Membership is granted to those who reach the age of 50 into the American Association of Retired Persons . . . it is a badge of oldness . . . of being old.  With such criteria, the “church” is viewed as being old in our society today.

So, what is the solution?  How do we get the “church” to be younger . . . especially on Sunday morning?

One suggestion is that the “church” needs a youth movement . . . that the “church” needs to get more young people to come and be the “church”.  Seems logical . . . the more young people added into the congregation of the aged, the younger the average becomes.  Simple mathematics . . . but, it doesn’t work.  It doesn’t work because the aged “church” is not inviting the young people to come as they are; no, they are being sneaky and hoping to convert them into themselves.  The aged “church” will not change to fit the youth, but will work to change the youth to fit them . . . to shape them into their image.  Always have, always will.  A push for youth will never work . . . even if the “church” is willing to change a few things—like adding a band, singing lots or praise hymns, and throwing in a coffee bar . . . no, just as fast as the young people come in the front door, the old people head out the back door.

I’m not sure a push for a youth movement will work.  That baloney about the children of the “church” are the future of the “church” is all wrong . . . the children and youth and young adults are the “church” today.  Today is the only place we can begin.

We begin with dialogue.  We sit, listen, and know.  Seems like a pretty ancient spiritual practice, but it is still true today.  We have to be willing to sit with others—no matter what their age might be . . .  listen to one another . . . listen to ourselves . . . listen to God and God’s Spirit . . . and, really get to know one another.  Discover what we believe, what moves us, what our likes and dislikes are, what we dream about, what we wish for others, what we think the call of God is upon each of our lives.  This is where we must begin.  Even God told us to “be still and know me.”  We have to do that with others if we are ever going to discover what it really means to be “church” . . . sit, listen, and know.

Of course, we have never done that before in the “church”.  It sounds a little new-fangled and leaning towards the liberal side.  Means that we might have to actually change the way that things are done.  All of which is pretty scary.  None of us likes to do scary stuff.  Yet, the solution of “sit, listen, and know” is as old as faith . . . is very biblical . . . and, is what Jesus told us to do in the first place.  We cannot allow fear to hold us hostage where we are at.  If we do . . . well, if we do, we will find out what the end result of getting old is all about—we die.

I might be getting old (at least that is the impression the AARP wants to sell), but I do not relish the end result—death.  Not in life, and not in the “church”.  The solution to creating the “church” as the family of God—a diverse mix of everyone—is not to keep creating new-fangled programs; it is in being still, talking to one another, and allowing God’s Spirit to move us to be one.  Yeah, I might be getting old . . . but don’t let my looks deceive you.  Jesus is alive, well, and willing to show us the way . . . but, first he asks us to sit, listen, and know.  If we do this, the old will become new.

“Look at all Those Stories!”

The other day the wife had an appointment with the granddaughters at the local bookstore in the big city . . . it was for the weekly children’s story time.  It is an especially big hit with the two-and-a-half year old granddaughter who loves stories . . . plus, let’s be honest, the cookie afterwards.  As the wife was entering into the children’s section of the bookstore the two-and-a-half year old spotted her, threw her arms up and wide, proclaiming in a loud voice: “Nana!  Look at all of these stories!”

Of course my granddaughter is a Wobegon kid . . . above average . . . and, she continues to amaze me with her innocent wisdom about the world that revolves around her . . . especially in a bookstore.  In her words she revealed something that few of us ever think about . . . those hundreds, thousands, and maybe millions of stories found in all of those books.  Until the wife shared the story, I had never really given much thought about what all those books represented . . . but, she is right.  She was surrounded by stories and by her enthusiasm I am certain she was game to hear each and every one.

The world is filled with stories . . . everyone has a story to tell.  There are stories all around us . . . we are surrounded by stories.  And, everyone loves a good story.  I know that I do.

But, there is problem.  It has been said that we have lost the stories, lost the storytellers, and the art of storytelling.  I know that I have said this over the years . . . lamented the idea that stories and storytelling were dead.  There seems to be plenty of evidence to support this idea about the death of stories and storytelling.  Long before there was any form of technology, people and families gathered around the fire to listen to stories . . . it was in the storytelling that tradition, history, and life lessons were passed on to each generation.  Eventually the fire was replaced by the radio as the place to gather to hear stories . . . radio was a wonderful substitute for the fire as it provided entertainment, stories, history, and life lessons . . . plus, music (which can be stories set to music).  But then came movies and television, there were less words and more images used to tell the stories . . . it was storytelling with a different medium . . . and, granted, there have been some wonderful stories shared through the medium of movies and television.  Now it has progressed to even more technological forms of sharing stories . . . Facebook, Instagram, Twitter . . . just to name a few.  Stories are being told in single images and 44-word tweets.  It is not the storytelling of our grandparents or great-grandparents . . . gone are the fires and the radios.  Storytelling is gone . . . replaced with what?  Social media?

Well, the stories are still out there.  There are still people out there telling stories.  As they say, there is more than one way to skin a cat . . . and, there is more than one way to tell a story.  I imagine that technology has only added another dimension to the art of storytelling.  I have seen some wonderful stories told through the gift of technology from people of all ages . . . no words spoken, images shared, a powerful message given.  As my granddaughter said, “. . . look at all these stories!”  The stories are out there . . . all around us . . . so, why do we think that the art of storytelling and storytellers are dead?

As I said earlier, I used to believe that . . . but, not any more.  I know that the stories are still out there.  I know that there are storytellers.  They are all around us like the air we breathe.  The problem is not with a lack of stories or storytellers; no, it is in the fact that we have forgotten how to listen.  We have forgotten how to listen and we long for the intimacy that we once had when we gathered around the fire to hear stories.

Think about it.  There is not a whole lot of intimacy . . . a whole lot of human touch . . . when we sit in a movie theater or our living rooms watching a movie in darkness . . . when we plug in our headphones and listen to music by ourselves . . . we shove our faces to our computer screens and cruise the Internet through all that social media that is supposed to bring us closer.  It is not the same as sitting in front of a fire or grandpa’s chair to hear a story . . . there is no human touch . . . no intimacy.  This lack of intimacy is becoming a problem in our advancing technological age . . . we miss the human touch.

Yet, good old fashion storytelling is making a comeback . . . even in this technological age.  I give to you three examples. 

First example: National Public Radio (NPR).  National Public Radio is more popular now than it has ever been thanks to the fact that it has brought back the art of storytelling.  National Public Radio has made its mark and created its audience through the sharing of stories . . . even their news is shared in simple storytelling.  Among the most popular programs on NPR are All Things Considered, Story Corps, and Prairie Home Companion—the only place you can hear the masterful Garrison Keillor share his stories of Lake Wobegon.

Which brings me to the second example: Story Corps.  Story Corps is a nonprofit organization that began in 2003.  It goes across the country interviewing people, recording them, and putting their stories on CDs for the participants to keep . . . and, they also preserve the stories at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress for future generations.  So far they have recorded 50,000 stories from 90,000 people.  These stories are broadcasted on a weekly basis on National Public Radio.  It is one of the world’s largest oral history/story projects ever.

And, the third example: TED.  TED’s motto is “ideas worth spreading.”  TED began in 1984 as a conference where technology, entertainment and design converged . . . but, now it covers all topics from science to business global issues . . . you name it, TED has covered it.  It is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks or stories . . . and, they now do it in over 100 languages.  What has started out as a single conference has now spread to hundreds of conferences all over the world.  Even in Montana there are at least five or six TED events a year . . . even two are scheduled for the big city down the road.  All of them sold out.  But, that is the great thing about TED . . . they are all video recorded, put on their website, and shared.  They get millions of hits on their site every year.

I think that this proves that people are longing for stories . . . that they are willing to learn how to listen once again.  I think that people are yearning to tell their stories . . . to share their stories . . . shoot, how many millions of bloggers are there?  Story Corps puts their purpose as being: “To provide people of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share and preserve the stories of our lives . . . to remind everyone of our shared humanity. . . to strengthen and build connections between people . . . to teach the value of listening . . . to weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters.”

I echo my granddaughter’s proclamation: “. . . look at all these stories!”  They are all around us.  Everyone has a story to share . . . a story to tell.  It is what makes us human . . . it is what brings us together.  The problem is not that we have lost the stories or the storytellers, but we have forgotten how to listen.

Everyone has a story.


Friday, April 3, 2015

Reflections on a Good Friday

“Greater love has no one than this:
to lay down one's life for one's friends.”
(John 15:13, NIV)

I have a hard time with Good Friday.  I cannot buy into sanctification through the blood of another . . . that Jesus, hanging on a cross, gives to me new life and new hope . . . that through his actions he wiped the slate clean for me and everyone else . . . that through his blood I am cleansed, redeemed, and made fully acceptable in the eyes of God.  Too often that seems to be the general understanding of Good Friday . . . and, I cannot buy into it.  I cannot buy into it because it is too simplistic and misses the whole point of Jesus’ teachings and life.

To believe this is to take the easy way out.

Now I might be too simplistic in my understanding or interpretation of the whole “gospel” message as shared by Jesus . . . but, I cannot embrace sanctification through the blood of Jesus.  I cannot buy into it because I believe that the crucifixion was not the end result, but the example . . . “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”   In reading the gospels one sometimes gets the feeling that the people chosen to be disciples were dolts . . . not the sharpest knives in the drawer . . . because they were constantly misunderstanding what Jesus was attempting to teach and show them.  In the end, being crucified on a cross . . . laying down one’s life for others . . . becomes the ultimate demonstration of all that he was attempting to teach and show the disciples.  Jesus put his love one the line to show the disciples that to love means going the whole distance for another . . . even to the point of death.  But, as I have stated, this might be too simplistic of an understanding.

"A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another,” said Jesus (John 13:34, NIV) . . . even to the point of giving up one’s life for another.  These words were spoken in that last meal that Jesus had with his disciples.  What was to unfold in the next twenty-four hours was a demonstration of how far love should go for another . . . an example of the ultimate love for another.   Jesus is not calling for us to step up and take our place on a cross . . . no, Jesus is asking us to love one another as he has loved us, even to the point of laying down our lives for others.  The crucifixion is the supreme example of that love in action . . . Jesus was teaching us until the end.

Again, I am sure that this is too simplistic of an understanding . . . one that my fellow clergy will tear apart and declare me to be a heretic.  Yet, I cannot believe or embrace that it is through the blood that I am saved.  No, I believe that it is the same for me as it was for Jesus . . . it is in the acceptance of wanting to love . . . to love God completely . . . to love others . . . as I love myself and have been loved.  Jesus calls us to love . . . not to the cross.  The cross serves as a visual picture that asks us whether or not we get it.  An outward expression of an inward decision that each of us must make if we are truly to be followers of Jesus.

Sadly, we haven’t gotten it yet.

On this Good Friday . . . as I reflect upon its significance in my own life . . . I weep.  I weep at the foot of the cross because we . . . as God’s children . . . still have not gotten it.  There are still wars.  There are still those who do not have enough to live life in its simplest terms.  There are those who are still hungry . . . dying of starvation in a world that could easily feed all the masses.  There is still meanness and violence towards others.  There is still prejudice.  There are still those who are lonely and lost . . . those who are searching and desiring connection whether it is with others or some higher power.  There are those who are sitting on the outside looking in . . . longing to be acknowledged and welcomed into the circle.  There are those who cannot hear the cries of those who are oppressed . . . those who are persecuted.  It does not take much to look around and see that the world in which we live is having a difficult time understanding and embracing the idea of “love”.
One of the popular sayings among the churches that makes up the denomination that I belong to is: “All are welcome.”  That statement is especially prevalent when it comes to the Lord’s Table where it is emphasized that everyone . . . all . . . are welcomed at the table of Jesus.  The saying is so popular that many of the congregations within the denomination post it on their signs, put it on their publications, and announce it every Sunday morning when Holy Communion is served . . . all are welcome.  It is a great concept . . . that all are welcomed.  When practiced it is an excellent demonstration of inclusive love . . . welcoming love . . . of hospitality.  Yet, I wonder: do we really believe it?  Do we really live it?

Well, in all honesty . . . sometimes we get it right, sometimes we get it wrong, and most of the time we wallow somewhere between to the two.  Because of this I am constantly challenging the congregation I serve . . . a congregation that has embraced the motto of “all are welcome” . . . to really wrestle with what this means.  It means that everyone . . . every stinking, conceivable person . . . has a place at the table and a place in the lives of each of them.  If they are good enough for Jesus, then they should be good enough for the congregation.  Easier said than done.

It is not easy to love.

It is easier to believe that Jesus stepped up and willingly sacrificed himself so that I do not have to worry about it . . . that he spilt his blood so that I wouldn’t have to.  I cannot buy into that belief because I do not think that is what Jesus taught and lived.  What he taught and lived was love . . . an unbelievable, awesome, embracing, and inclusive love that drew everyone in . . . to show us the way.  To show us the way to the Kingdom of God.  Jesus never thought of that kingdom of being “pie in the sky” . . . no, it was a “kingdom” that was possible now in the present moment . . . if people believed, embraced, and lived love as he loved.

But, we don’t get it.

Because we don’t get it we go through the same “song and dance” every year . . . with every generation.  We nail Jesus to the cross and run to the tomb.  What did the angel say?  The angel said that he wasn’t there . . . and, he’s not!  Jesus is not in the tomb.  He is alive.  He is living.  He is living in us . . . and, we become the embodiment of Jesus in the world in which we live because we can love.  That is the message of Easter . . . Jesus lives because we love. 

I am not alone in having a difficult time with Good Friday.  My experience as a pastor in a local congregation is that it is one of the poorest attended services because people just don’t want to deal with the richness of what the day represents in the spiritual journey.  Even though I have a hard time with Good Friday, I appreciate what it represents, what it makes me think about.  It gives me hope . . . not because I am sanctified by the blood, but that I have witnessed the greatest act of love . . . the willingness of another to lay down his life for another.  It gives me hope that I, too, can learn to love in such a way . . . that the world may one day do so also.

Someday . . . we all just might get it.  In the meantime all we can do is reflect . . . and, hope.