Sunday, January 27, 2013

Of "Nones" and "Balds"

Our daughter recently went from having a long hair style to a very short style and as her dad I have the totally unbiased opinion that it is super cute!  I was, however, unaware before the hair cut that the new style would require a whole different set of hair care products than it did when it was long.  My ignorance may be due to the fact that I’m old, bald and male.  The fact that I’m old, bald, male and a pastor may help to explain what happened next. 

I wondered what would folks in the hair care industry do if they suddenly realized there was a rapidly growing number of their customer base who were embracing baldness?  What would they do about a rapidly growing population of “balds”?  Would they meet, talk, study and write books about how they might change the formulas of their shampoos, conditioners, gels and mousses so that the “balds” would come back and be customers again?  They might, but speaking as a “bald” I have to say I would never even know if they did.  The fact is that we “balds” simply pay NO attention to anything the hair care industry says or does.  They could create the best product for the follicle challenged and it would never even make it onto my radar screen.

With that in mind I began to think about the “nones,” those folks who willingly, without shame or cultural hesitation clam “none” as their religious affiliation. Could the same be true here?  Often in the Church it seems as if we have a vision that the “nones” are actually out there watching us; eagerly hoping and longing for the day that we’ll “get it right” at which point they will all rush into (hopefully our) church.  I think the reality is very different.  Even if we managed to hit on some perfect, mythical combination of worship style, theology and political bent, the truth is the “nones” would simply never know.  The reality is they are not watching us.  “Nones” are “nones” not because they have yet to find what they are looking for in a religious organization.  “Nones” are “nones” because they aren’t even looking for a religious organization and honestly can’t imagine a reason to start. 

I am certain that if a group of “balds” really became a serious market segment, the hair care industry wouldn’t just rework their formulas and wait to see if the “balds” noticed.  They would rework their formulas and then go to where the “balds” were and make sure they knew there was something the hair care industry had to offer that they just couldn’t live without!  

There is no doubt that in much of the church we need to rework our formula but we can’t stop there.  If we hope to connect with the “nones,” we will need to leave the comfort of our churches and get out into the world and live in the places that the “nones” call home rather than live (or actually slowly die) holed up in our church buildings.  We will need to show them, much more than tell them the Gospel message and wait for them to realize for themselves that we do indeed have something that they simply can’t live without!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Wedding at Cana

In 1912 my grandfather was 19 years old and, like many others he had decided to leave his home and head to America.  I'm sure he was looking for new opportunities but I think he was also looking to relieve his family of the burden of a teen aged appetite in very difficult times.  When he left home he had two things.  A steamer trunk had "Joseph Gustafson" written on it and a ticket for passage to America on which was written "RMS Titanic."

For some reason, now lost to history, my grandfather literally missed the boat.  There is only a story in the family as to what happened that made him miss the boat, but its a good story.  The story is that somewhere between the small, central Swedish town of Laxo and England where the Titanic left for its maiden and final voyage, he met a girl.  To add some extra spice to the story that girl was not my grandmother, but she delayed him long enough to miss the Titanic.  He had plans, but his plans got changed.

In John's gospel, more than in any of the others you get the sense that Jesus is following a very careful plan.  From the beginning where Jesus knows under which tree his next disciple will be sitting to the end of the gospel where, from the cross, Jesus says, "I am thirsty" not because he's thirsty, but in order to fulfill Scripture.  He said that because it was part of the plan.  The sense that there is a very firm, strong plan runs throughout John's gospel except at the wedding in Cana.  Jesus came to that wedding with his disciples and his mother.  Weddings in those days weren't just Saturday afternoon affairs; they were parties that went on for a long time and running out of wine wasn't just a bummer either, it would have been devestating to the family, perhaps labeling them as the "ran out of wine" couple for the rest of their lives.  Mary obviously knew this and knew that Jesus had the power to make a difference.  The trouble is that this was not part of the plan but Mary didn't care.  So she did what every mom does to every son at some point in his life... she told him to change his plans.

Remember, in John's gospel there was a plan but Jesus' plan wasn't like my plans.  Jesus' plans were for the salvation of all of creation.  My plans are to have lunch today at some place I haven't thought about yet.  It's a relatively small thing to change my plans for lunch today.  It's an incredible thing to change Jesus' plans for all of creation.  And that is the first thing this story has to tell us today.  That Jesus will set aside his plans to come to our need, no matter how important his plans may be and no matter how trivial our problems might be, Jesus will be there for us no matter what.  Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest wrote about his discovery of this idea when he said,  "My whole life, I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted until I discovered that my interruptions are my work."

The second thing this story is telling us is in how Jesus met the needs of the wedding couple.  They had run out of wine and Jesus had some very important plans.  He could have simply called up a box of Earnest and Julio, slapped a band-aid on the problem and returned to his plan for saving all of creation. But that's not what Jesus did.  Instead, he looked around and saw those containers holding between 160 and 180 gallons of water and transformed all of it into wine.  He didn't do just enough to get by.  He didn't just slap a band-aid on their problem.  He met their needs with an overwhelming abundance... a 600 to 900 bottle abundance.

The third thing this story has to say to us today is also in how Jesus met the needs of this wedding couple.  The story tells us that it was the middle of the party.  The guests had moved past the part of the party where their taste buds still functioned.  They were now into the part of the celebration where the taste of the wine was much less important than its lubricating qualities.  With that in mind, Jesus could have easily just transformed the water into Mad Dog or Thunderbird and everyone would have been fine, but that's not what he did.  He transformed that water into the very best that could be made.

He set aside his important plans, he met their needs with generosity and abundance and he gave them the very best.  If I was smart I'd wrap this up with a nice little literary bow and we'd all have a nice warm feeling about Jesus.  But I'm not that smart and as I thought more and more about this story I thought about those containers of water.  Each one held between 160 and 240 pounds of water and it occurred to me that this story is trying to tell us one more thing.  Each of us is basically a container that holds between 160 and 240 pounds of water as well and this story is also challenging us to make ourselves available to be transformed by Christ so that we might become the abundant and very best help to the people around us who are in need.

On the night the Titanic hit that iceberg there were all kinds of reactions... denial, panic, worry and more.  As time went by and people began to realize that the ship was really sinking people made their way to the lifeboats.  Among those people was a very elderly couple.  The older woman was placed in a lifeboat but when she realized the man she had lived with for the vast majority of her life would be left behind, she decided that she would stay behind with him and allow someone younger take her place.  In that moment, she allowed herself to be transformed from a simple container of water into the exact thing that met the needs of a fellow passenger with incredible generosity and with the very best she had to offer.  Another story of this kind of transformation happened with members of the orchestra. Understanding that there were only lifeboats for about half the passengers the decided to set up their instruments on deck and play music for those who would be left behind with them.  They allowed themselves to be transformed from simple containers of water into something that was incredibly generous and was the very best they had to offer to those around them in need.

Loving God, open our eyes to see the needs of the people all around us.  Give us the courage to make ourselves available to be transformed by the power of Christ into the precise, generous and perfect gifts that are needed most.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Faith in Three Dimensions

In a recent post on a Facebook page for Lutheran clergy, someone asked a question that basically boiled down to, "Is there anything that Christians across the board can agree with?"  A few early attempts to find something that might be seen as Christian common ground were quickly met with comments that there was someone, somewhere who disagreed and then related that group's beliefs.  Those comments were often met with highly technical, scholarly responses (often quoting the Augsburg Confessions or Luther's Works complete with reference and page number) that looked to prove why the other group was wrong in their thinking.  What happened on that page is something I think happens not just in Lutheran circles but across the board in our Western culture.  When we start talking (and especially when we start arguing) about faith, we often fall back to the refuge of our brains.  

Certainly when we talk about faith there is a dimension of that discussion that needs to be centered in our brains.  But all too often that is the only dimension we consider and as a consequence we end up missing out on the considerably richer remainder of what it means to be faithful.  

"Head faith" creates check lists, doctrines and ideas to which we are challenged to endorse or condemn.  While head faith creates a firmer language for discussing challenging concepts, it often falls short when it comes to making a visible difference in the way we live our lives.  That doesn't make head faith "bad" it simply points out that it isn't all there is when it comes to faith.  

"Heart faith", while not big on precision language, instead focuses on relational aspects of faith and metaphor rather than precise "factual" data.  When Scripture talks about God as our Rock or as a Mighty Fortress it is calling us to a faith that is not an agreement with a concept but rather a radical trust in God; that we will be taken care of, both in the short term and in the long term.  Just as a child who feels secure in their home is more likely to be a happier child, the Christian who has a radical trust in God's care for them will also be a better person in the world.  Heart faith also has an aspect that calls us to a loyalty which shows itself in the world when we live our lives in the Jesus way.  When Scripture talks about adultery it isn't most often talking about sex, it is talking about living a life in a way different than the way God calls us to live.  

The last dimension of faith that often gets lost in our culture is a "hand faith" which shows itself in the way we physically interact with the world around us.  When we see the world as Jesus did; as generous, loving and full of grace we naturally live for more than meeting our own needs. We live first for the other, confident that we are recipients of God's unconditional love and grace. On the other hand when we view the world as hostile or out to get us we tend to circle the wagons and care only for ourselves, seeing others in the world as a threat instead of as part of God's generous gift to our lives.  

As our world changes around us fewer people are finding the head-only kind of faith compelling enough to get them to attend worship.  The battles over doctrine seem to repel more than they attract.  Perhaps by rediscovering the other dimensions of faith we can both partake in a richer faith for ourselves and show a richer faith to the world around us.