Friday, July 22, 2011

Who We Are

Well, I missed an opportunity today.

Someone asked, "What kind of church is this?"

It's a fair question, sure enough. But I immediately went into defining over and against, who we are not, describing why and how we're not like some other Christian groups.

And I'm just tired of it--the "negative" or defensive approach to defining who we are. I just finished reading a book* about this "heaven and hell" theology that has defined American Christianity for centuries, how it's just part of the fabric of society and has crept into teaching and preaching when we don't really mean it (some DO really mean it, but some of us don't believe it).

I really, really like having so many denominations. Sure, it can be tricky to navigate around so many ideas and hopes and dreams and interpretations, with proper respect, language, and finesse. But I am glad there are so many ways to get to God, because I think more people can get to God. But I, for one, haven't done a great job of highlighting the way I prefer. Traditional, progressive, mainline Protestantism doesn't get much attention, yet here we are with something very positive and life-giving to offer.

So, the result of this missed opportunity today is my elevator speech. I've been thinking about it for years, literally years--what's my brief answer to the question, what would I tell someone about why this is important, in the time it takes to ride up an elevator?

We are a progressive community that focuses on God's love for all people and how we partner to do God's work in God's world.

That's it, for now. Not defensive, not full of theological jargon, not an attempt at full conversion--just a simple, positive statement that hopefully will provoke further conversation.

What's yours?

*the book is A Christianity Worth Believing by Doug Pagitt. Pretty good read.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Bible Study: Matthew 15 & 16

As we read through the gospel of Matthew this summer, I am noticing the movement of Jesus and the disciples: they are in the country, in the city, on the road, in the synagogue, outside, inside, at the sea, on the sea. Jesus is covering a lot of territory and crossing a lot of borders, in terms of geography, theology, tradition, and ethnicity.

Here in chapter 15 Jesus' ministry and purpose are expanding. In his conversation with the Pharisees and scribes (15:1-20)he expands the purpose of an old tradition and the understanding of a commandment. In the confrontation with the Canaanite woman (15:21-28) his own purpose is expanded, as she challenges him to include Gentiles in the vision of the kingdom of God. His healing ministry expands through a new crowd of people, and seven loaves of bread expand to feed more than four thousand people.

Q: how have you seen God expanding, at work in the world? Why is it hard to see, why do we miss it so often, when we believe it is true?

In chapter 16 the flow seems to reverse, as Jesus begins to focus his teaching, at least to his disciples, on finer points. "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" he asks in verse 13. The disciples have watched all this healing and feeding and arguing about the law, all things that define Jesus; so what does it mean, he wants to know. How are they processing this ministry in which they are taking part? "Who do YOU say that I am?" This is the "elevator speech"--how do we talk about our faith as a response to a question? How will the disciples respond when they are asked, or attacked, about following Jesus? The rest of the chapter becomes a warning about difficulties ahead, including Jesus' own arrest and death. It's time to have an answer ready.

Focusing on a detail at the expense of the expansive story of God's love can be very dangerous, and has been used for destruction, war, and abuse. Yet Jesus asks a basic question, that needs a basic answer, and the answer will likely be different for each person. A faithful answer, I believe, is based on an understanding of and love of the larger story. Our "elevator speech" is not a simplistic reduction of what God is up to, but rather a starting point for a larger conversation.

Q: Who do YOU, reader, say that Jesus is? Why do you say that? DO you say that (have you told anybody)?

Q: What does Jesus mean by taking up a cross to follow him (16:24)? How have you done this in your life? Was it worth it?

Reading through Matthew is starting to feel a bit like following Billy, from The Family Circus cartoon, to the mailbox. But we've learned a lot along the way, both what to do and what not to do. Jesus, the way, is showing us the way.