Saturday, February 24, 2007

Do We Serve the Church or God?

A while ago I came across a mailing from Cokesbury, the United Methodist publishing house, in our church post office box. It was a promotion for resource materials for pastors. Someone had conducted a survey of clergy and found that they were most interested in, “equipping members for service in the church.”

Immediately I thought: Yikes. Ouch. Wrong. I tossed it directly in the recycling.

It seems to me that ministry is about helping people to connect with God, providing a time and place to experience God, in a pew, at a bedside, through a meal, and more. Ministry is about empowering people to respond to God’s love in whatever way God calls them to use their gifts, resources and lives.

I don’t believe ministry is about equipping people to serve the church. Serving God, yes; carrying out church chores, no. We’ve demonstrated this in the congregation I serve and a member of by not filling slots on committees and programs. There are lots of zeros and blanks on our yearly denominational forms that attempt to quantify ministries. We don’t look good on paper, but that doesn’t mean we’re not alive in the spirit. We encourage people to say yes only to the activities of the church that bring us closer to God, closer to community. Right now one-third of our worshippers are knitting and crocheting hats for orphans at a particular orphanage in Swaziland, founded by a friend of one of our members. Women with a 45 year age range between them, some who’ve never worked with yarn before, are using their creativity to make one-of-a-kind caps for children they will never meet and they’re doing it with JOY!

In my early twenties I lived in Gilroy. There I encountered God and joined the United Methodist Church. Soon after I began to teach Sunday School. There was an older man, Eldon Nichols, whose ministry to the church was to make and present handcrafted wooden candleholders to each new Sunday school teacher. I cherished that gift. It was an affirmation of my contribution to the life of the community. I put those candlesticks on our table, and used them often. When I lit the candles I remembered Eldon, the church who trusted me and entrusted me with teaching, the children I was teaching, and the light that was coming into my life through my new encounters with Scripture and seven year olds.

I imagine that when Eldon died, the candlestick tradition went with him. To recruit someone else to takeover that ministry, would be to remove it from the realm of an outpouring from Eldon’s gifts and joy, and turn it into a church job, which someone needed to fulfill.

I have been thinking about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness this week, Satan saying, “If you’re so great, then do this,” and Jesus refuses those blatant exercises of power and finally says, “Away with you.” The church can be a tempter too, “If you love God, then you’ll do this and this and this for the church.” If, at the thought of particular requests, you find your stomach gnawing on itself or joy being drained from your bones, shout, “Drudgery be gone!”

There is so much ministry that needs to be done in this hungry and hurting world. None of us can do it all, so why not choose those things that bring us closer to God and to one another? Why not say yes to those things that reveal as Frederick Buechner says, our true calling, the place where our “deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”?

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Jesus of the People

In 1999, the National Catholic Reporter ran the “Jesus 2000 competition,” looking for a portrayal of Christ for the new millennium. From nearly 1,700 entries from around the world, Sister Wendy Beckett, an art expert, author and television personality, selected “Jesus of the People.”

In the words of Sister Wendy, “This is a haunting image of a peasant Jesus––dark, thick-lipped, looking out on us with ineffable dignity, with sadness but with confidence. Over His white robe, He draws the darkness of our lack of love, holding it to Himself, prepared to transform all sorrows if we will let Him.”

Through her painting, “Jesus of the People,” Janet McKenzie invites us each to explore who Jesus is and was. We are all part of “the people.” “Jesus” is part of us, and we are part of him in an ongoing, ever-changing relationship.

I met God when I was 23. I was washing my hair, when the quality of the water changed. It was a baptism, a wet and dripping, scalp soaking, water swirling at my ankles baptism. In that moment, God offered the thing I needed most and didn’t even know I’d been missing––unconditional love.

Even with that experience, I had no idea who Jesus was. I’d seen him when I was a kid––A painted ceramic grown up, hanging from a wood frame, larger than life, skinnier than anyone ought to be, clad in a diaper, with a wreath of thorny sticks on his head, blood dripping down his face.

I heard about him when I was in college from obnoxious young men who stood on the Quad, reading passages from the Bible in thunderous voices and shouting, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?”

It wasn’t until I began attending Gilroy United Methodist Church that I met Jesus in a real way. That came after God came to me; after I’d accepted God’s grace. God’s love came with no strings attached, no conditions that I must follow. I chose the Methodists because they got to me after God did!

Since then, through worship, study, and prayer, Jesus became a personification of grace in my life. He’s a mainstay in my subconscious, appearing in dreams, including one where, dressed in a yellow squall hat and slicker (just like the Gorton’s fish sticks man), he saved me from kidney disease and pneumonia that threatened to suck me into Hell.

I write to encounter Jesus. I have been Bible people: the Samaritan woman talking theology with Jesus at the well, Zaccheus the tax collector observing Jesus from his perch in a tree, and Jesus’ mother, Mary, trying to understand his death on the Cross. I have imagined Jesus’ words to me, the way he would redirect my desires and challenge my understanding.

Jesus allows me to teach and preach with him, invites me to heal and be healed, to suffer, to grow, and to be resurrected alongside him. He is a paradox, a mystery, someone and something I can’t fully comprehend. In the Bible he is the storyteller, and the subject of stories. He is a man who walked the earth long ago, and a presence within men and women who walk the earth today. He was born human with a divinity so bright it summoned the world to take notice. His death was brutally inhuman with divine repercussions that shook the world and changed it permanently. He became a savior to millions who came thousands of years after his resurrection, ministering to a world he caught only the smallest glimpse of, yet had an amazing understanding of.

Through Jesus, we are all allowed to be fully human, and to express fully the divine within us. Somehow his spirit is alive in us. By telling his stories, we can honor the gifts Jesus gave to the world during his earthly ministry. By telling the stories of how God has changed us and how we experience this “Jesus of the People” we can allow the Christ spark to keep igniting the world.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Rock for Hard Places

Inspired by Isaiah 43:1-4 from The Message by Eugene Peterson

God O God, I thank you for your doggedness, for your sniff ‘em out and round ‘em up determination, for your vigilance, for your watchfulness.

Like an astronomer, you scan the sky for a star that hasn’t been named, hasn’t been claimed, and on discovery shout to the world, “This one is mine.”

You believed in Israel, and in me, when we didn’t know ourselves, when we were a people enslaved and ensnared, when worshipping you had been bred out of our bones. Thank you for paying such a price for us, for being willing to wreck havoc in the world.

When we’ve hit a dead end, when we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place with no way out; you are there with us. Solid, firm, forever. Our rock for hard places.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

God on the Glacier

This writing about God and creation is tricky stuff. How can I describe walking on the Mendenhall Glacier? Outfitted in snowsuit, helmet, gloves, boots and crampons, miniscule against the enormity of the Juneau ice field, traveling between razor sharp walls of ice striated blue. It felt right to be dwarfed in this alien world, home to only an ice flea, a pollen and one fungus. How can I tell you that I felt surrounded by God that afternoon, that I couldn’t stop smiling, that every five seconds I turned to my husband and said, “This is incredible” or “This is amazing”?

I’m used to writing about smaller things, more concrete things. McDonald’s Big Mac’s, my VIP’s waitress uniform, the Glide’er Inn and Stegen’s Garage on PCH where I grew up. My writing instructor calls it status detail and it's my strength.

But how do you do that with God? I made the mistake of describing my first awareness of God, looking at the mountain ridges in Big Bear to Crayola crayons with their shades of green and triangle points rising in rows from the box. It read hokey, and cutesy, and too too. You can’t capture God in status detail even in a 64 pack.

When I have felt God, it hasn’t been benign as a coloring page to post on the fridge. It’s been a hand sliding down my throat, constricting my heart, God invading, permeating awareness, marking me, leaving a scar, something to stroke absent mindedly after the recovery, the ridge on my skin, the line across my rib, raised and pocked at the edges. Something that throbs when it rains, something that aches, causes me to hobble when I first get up.

That’s what writing about God should do––threaten to knock us out of place. I pray for the words.