Monthly Archives: August 2013

Church Buildings or Museums? Pilgrims or Tourists?

Our church buildings are becoming museums of Christianity containing the relics of the Christian religion as it was once was but is no more!  By the end of the present century, if present trends revealed to us by writers such as Diana Butler Bass and Phyllis Tickle concerning “emergent-Christianity” are valid, most of our church buildings may have only historical value.

I remember in 1994, not too long after the fall of the Soviet Union, standing in the Cathedral of St. Isaac in St. Petersburg, Russia.   I was not there to worship and seek God as a pilgrim.   I was there as a tourist to “see the sights”.

St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the largest of many cathedrals in the city of St. Petersburg  built by Tsar Peter the Great, was built by order of Tsar Alexander I in the years 1818-1858.   It took 40 years to construct this magnificent building.   It’s massive dome is covered with pure gold.  Inside it is all marble with beautiful columns covered in lapis lazule so perfectly it looks like the columns are solid lapis lazuli.   Outside, the building is constructed of stone with 112 red granite columns with Corinthian capitals— each column hewn and erected as a single block.

St. Isaac’s is a beautiful museum for an earlier Christian Orthodox religion.  But today it is a museum.    Services are held only in one small part of this awesome building—a small chapel.   The rest of the visitors, who come each year by the thousands, are tourists who come to see this magnificent structure.   As tourists, they come and see and admire the building—-they do not come as pilgrims seeking God.    Then they leave—never to return in most cases because they have seen the building.

As a pastor, I have experienced this same phenomenon in many churches I have served who lovingly construct and care for their beautiful building, and then do not have the money to spend for ministry and outreach. Many of these church buildings that once housed many are rapidly becoming   huge well-cared-for museum of the Christian religion with a small enough number of members that a small chapel would suffice for their worship services.

Those who come to these churches come to admire their beauty ((as Idid St. Isaac’s) but they are not seeking to find God in the building.   They come as “tourists” to see the beautiful stained glass windows, to sit in soft, cushioned seats in the beautiful sanctuary and  listen to the organ (an instrument they feel is already a relic of the past), to sing hymns (many that were written in the words of and for an era long past their experience).    These “tourists” (we sometimes call them “Visitors”) come and admire and enjoy it all and then they are gone.   Few return.  They’ve seen it!   They’ve heard it!  But these folks are still pilgrims in search of a God to be revealed to them who can make a difference in their lives and the lives of others—-a God whom they can serve; a God that cares about humankind.

They look at these beautiful church buildings and often wonder if the money spent on them and organs and sound equipment, etc. might better be spent in helping the needy and the poor.

Richard Rohr, in his book “A Lever and a Place to Stand” writes:  “when our windows have too much self–conscious dressing hanging on them, you often never see beyond the window itself.   Much of “high church” is still back in the days of the book of Leviticus, written by the priests in love with ‘smells and bells’, and too preoccupied with the sanctuary instead of the world and the people God is suffering with.”  (p. 51)

You see, most Christians who claim to follow Jesus, have not learned that to be His disciple is not about beautiful  buildings, its not about rituals in those buildings—-its about loving relationships with fellow humans and with God out in the world where the pain and the suffering and the brokeness is.   It is about serving the people as Rohr puts it that “God is suffering with.”

A recent church I served as interim pastor developed a wonderful program to feed the needy a full meal every Friday.   They developed a food pantry for times in between and a clothing closet where items of used clothing were made available.    They were following in the steps of Jesus.    Then, just months after I left, they ended this program for the homeless and needy because a few feared for their safety and the safety of their beautiful church building.   The church board in an emergency meeting voted to close the program immediately before the next Friday, with no warning and no imput from many of the volunteers who worked in the program.

Now all this church needs to do is join with far too many other churchs in hanging out a new sign.   The sign should read:   CHURCH MUSEUM—NOW OPEN!

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‘Till I’m Too Old to Die Young…

There is an old country-wester song called “Too Old to Die Young” that says:  “Please don’t let the cold wind blow, till I’m too old to die young!”

Being 77 years old, I am more and more appreciative of that phrase because I have entered a new phase of life that is both scary and yet satisfying.

Fransciscan Friar, Richard Rohr, describes  two phases of life in his book “Falling Upward.”   His thesis is that you only enter the second phase of life when you suffer some tragedy in your life such as the death of a mate, a divorce, a job loss.  The first phase is occupied with striving to build a reputation, an identity, a career, etc.   It is something we try to do for ourselves..   The second Phase is much different.     For me, the second phase began with the death of my wife of 54 years, Dorene, suddenly and within a week.      For the first time in my life I felt I had no control over events.  I could only turn to God and cry out:   “Help me, I can’t go through this alone!”    Each time I cried out  a peace came upon me and I knew that God heard me and responded and that I was God’s child and He would get me through this “dark valley.”   I can testify that He did and I am now on the other side of the valley, back in the sunlight, but changed forever by the experience!

This second  phase of life is both scary and satisfyingscary because I am much more aware of my mortality.   The inexorable effects of living 77 years  remind me that my body is mortal.   The stresses and strains of living multiply  as we live longer and we realize that our bodies just can’t perform what we’d like them to do anymore.   For example, on a recent trip to visit my son and daughter-in-law in Rochester, NY, we went to Niagara Falls and I found myself—the father who took care of my son for many years—now being taken care of by my son.   On the visit to Niagara Falls it was not me carrying my son,  as I did often when he was young, but now it was him pushing me in a wheelchair so I could experience a ride on the Maid of the Mists boat at the Falls.   But it was satisfying in that I have lived “to see my children grow and see what they become” as the song goes.   Both of my children are kind, caring, responsible human beings who express their love for me, their mother,  and my present wife in unmistakable ways.    Truly, I think  that my children are the crowning achievement of my life, although I have achieved much.   Not that my wife and I did not make a lot of mistakes in raising them, but we always loved them and tried to be there for them, and now what we did is coming back to me in great measure!

So, this second phase of life is scary, but it is also very satisfying.   Richard Rohr, in his book Immortal Diamond says that our “true self” emerges in this second phase.   The first phase is occupied, of necessity, with building ourfalse self”, which is our identity that we create for ourselves, our reputation, inherently needy and fragile, our careers, etc.  It is the self that changes and dies.  The “false self” is not bad or even “false” as much as it is passing and self-built based on our constant striving.     On the other hand, our “true self” is who we really are as a child of God, created in his image, immortall; it is our souls, our absolute identity as a child of God.   The many things that bothered the “false self” are no longer our concerns.  There is no need to compete, no need to strive,  but we are free to live and let live according to God’s plan.   I feel at peace with God and his creation and feel a contentment that has not been mine as I was  striving to build the “false self” of my identity.

I am thankful every day that “the cold wind” of death has not blown on me “until I’m too old to die young!

Taking a Week Off

I am in Rochester, NY visiting my son.   I’m working on a post for next week as I’m home Aug. 20.    I am going to be writing my next post about getting old and the life changes that take place.   I am becoming an expert on old age,  as you will see from my “About me”.   Stay tuned—I appreciate all of my readers.    I’ll be back with a post next week.   Pastor Jim

Which Side of the Road?

About a month ago, the Sunday Hutchinson News front page headline (June 30, 2013) read:  “One Door Closes, Another Door Opens.”   The article reported that the Bread and Cup Ministry to homeless and needy had been closed when First Christian Church Hutchinson refused, with only 5 days notice, to allow further use of their building for the outreach ministry the church had started one and a half years ago.

That Bread and Cup ministry not only provided a dinner for from 60-100 hungry, homeless and needy Hutchinson residents every Friday, but also maintained an emergency food pantry and a used clothing room.  It also gave laundry vouchers to homeless persons.

The door that opened when First Christian Church closed their door was at The Hub.   There, the volunteers from First Christian, Park Place Christian Church, First Church of the Nazarene,  and several other churches reopened the Bread and Cup on July 19.

Sadly, I now hear that the building The Hub rented has been sold and the new owners will not allow the ministry to continue at that location.   At present the volunteers can find no new location that will accept the ministry.   So unless the churches and pastors in Hutchinson step up to do the ministry Jesus called them to do for the poor, this program will die after about one and a half years of service to Jesus the Christ—for as you “do it to the least of my brothers”, Jesus said, “you do it to me.”

I hope all churches and their pastors will contemplate a passage in their New Testaments from the Gospel of Luke—Luke 10:25-37.  In summary, in this passage Jesus gives to a questioner what he feels is the greatest commandment:  “You shall love the Lord Your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.”  When the questioner asks “who is my neighbor?”, Jesus answers with the parable of a Jewish man on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem who is robbed and beaten and left for dead.   Jesus tells how a priest and a Levite, who served in the temple, walk by him on the other side of the road and leave him to die.   He then describes how a Samaritan, a race despised by the Jews, stops and binds up the beaten Jewish man’s wounds, puts him on his donkey and takes him to the nearest inn and leaves money to take care of the wounded man with the innkeeper.   Jesus asks “who was the neighbor?” and the answer is of course the Samaritan.

Shame on you , pastors; and shame on you who call yourselves followers of Jesus if this Bread and Cup program dies while you “walk by on the other side of the road.”   It is my prayer that there are “Good Samaritans” among you who will pick up the burden of this ministry to the poor and needy children of God, and nourish it and care for it in the name of the God you serve!

The question for you is:   Which side of the road are you on?

When People Have Faces….

Recently I was told the story of a dog who was left alone at home all the time while his owners worked.   They never played with or petted the dog.   One day the owners came home and the dog had completely ripped up a recently purchased $1500 sofa.   The owners decided the dog had to go!  Before taking the dog to the animal shelter they called a relative they  knew who loved dogs and offered the dog to his family.   Somewhat reluctantly the relative  took it and the dog became a part of their family—their children played with it, the adults petted and loved it.  It never destroyed another piece of furniture!   Why not?   Because  the family showed it love and attention every day!

People are not so different from dogs in this respect.   All of us need to be shown love and attention.  I remember youth in my high school classes that were obviously neglected by their parents—one of them told me they saw me more in a day than they did their parents and I only saw them 1 hour a day!!.    Many of these youth, at home, were only given attention  when they got into trouble—and so they did so on a regular basis.   In my classes they were often belligerent,  destructive of school property,  were continuously causing trouble because the only way they knew how to get any “strokes” (attention)  was by being a problem.   Even though it was negative attention, it was at least attention!

Thomas Harris, in his book, I’m OK, You’re OK tells of babies left alone and abandoned at a hospital by their parents.   If the nurses did not have the time or take time to hold them and play with them and love them, the babies would die—not from any apparent physical cause, but from lack of human touch, affection and attention.

All of this is so true of our life today.   As our population expands more and more and we are more and more urbanized, we feel more and more isolated.  We are “attention deprived”.  We all need these “strokes” that others give us.   All of us may have experienced the loneliness of being in the middle of a huge crowd and not seeing any familiar faces feeling  a sense of isolation and fear. We fear that if something happened to us, no one would care.    I know I certainly have had this feeling of just being  “another face in the crowd.”

This is  the problem that those who are poor, homeless, outcasts,  or prisoners face.     They have no faces for most of the rest of us and therefore we tend to fear them and keep separate from them and anticipate they will be destructive  and harm us.

One of the lessons I learned at our Bread and Cup Ministry that served 60-100 meals every Friday to homeless and needy in Hutchinson, Kansas, was that when I interacted with these people, when I knew their names, when they shared their life stories and concerns with me around the table, I no longer feared them.   I had put a face on them where before they were just a faceless stereotype.  

There are so many people in our crowded world who  don’t have faces or names—they’re “muslims”, “terrorists”, “bums”, “rich”, “poor”,  “fat cats” “Democrats”, “Republicans”,” liberals”, “conservatives”, “activists”—and I could go on and on.   We avoid putting a face on them by  referrring to them in this way.  But when people have faces and we see their unique, individual, God-given uniqueness, we are able to share our common humanity and learn not to fear but to love them.   Only when they have faces!!  I became not just a “pastor” to my “Bread and Cup” people, , but I became “Pastor Jim”.   They came to our wedding when I married the lady who began the Bread and Cup Ministry and some brought cards or small gifts they really couldn’t afford!    They were and are our friends whom wecan talk with and be touched and loved and touch them and love them and share their hurts and fears and aspirations.   Only when they have faces!

Jesus said:   “Love your enemies, do good for those who hate you“.   He was on to a great secret:

The antidote for hatred is love.

The antidote for fear and alienation is found in putting a face on people and loving them as God’s children, even though they may be unlovely and unloving.

Until we learn this and practice it in our daily lives we will live in the fear that most of our nation and world is living in at the present time!