Tuesday, December 27, 2011

What does membership mean?

In his famous book, Bowling Alone, author Robert Putnam notes the substantial decline of membership in a whole host of clubs, nonprofit organizations, and civic groups in the last 20 years. As we anticipate the beginning of a new year and our upcoming Annual Meeting on Sunday, January 29, it is worth asking: What does membership at St. Edward's mean? What is expected of us as members, if anything? Even the concept of a volunteer organization such as the church might cause some people to bristle at the notion of any expectations whatsoever. Yet as has been demonstrated repeatedly, a growing church does have expectations of those who choose to be its members. Not surprisingly, I believe that membership expectations at St. Edward's mirror our four-fold mission: Welcome all. Worship fully. Witness to God's grace. Walk the way of Christ. Let me explain.

Welcome all.

Part of who we are as members of St. Edward's includes welcoming each and every person, regardless of their faith journey (or lack thereof), political affiliation, or theological opinion. As such, the first expectation of our members is that they will actively seek out newcomers, welcome them to St. Edward's, and facilitate their participation in our worship service or other event. We are always to be on the lookout for another one of God's guests that passes through our doors.

Worship fully.

While it is probably obvious, one of the basic expectations of a member of St. Edward's is that he or she will attend and actively participate in our worship service each week, unless prevented from doing so by illness or other overriding obligation (work-related travel, etc...). Churches are often criticized with the indictment: "They just want my money!" Well, while we're perfectly happy to receive your financial support (see below), what we most want is your participation, not your pledge.

Witness to God's grace.

If you've ever been to an airport, you've seen the signs that say: "If you see something, say something!" One of the expectations that we have for our members is that they will be sensitive to God's work in the world--directly, through them, and through others--and that they will find ways to say something about what they've seen or experienced in this area. Part of this response is to pledge financial support to St. Edward's as a tangible reminder and indicator that God is working in and through the church to accomplish God's mission on earth. In short, we have to put our money where our mouth is! If we believe that the church is God's instrument for the reconciliation of the world, it follows that it both needs and deserves our support.

Walk the way of Christ.

The early followers of Jesus Christ were simply called "The Way." This was a reflection of Jesus' saying "I am the way, the truth, and the life." (John 14:6, NASB) It was also an indicator that to follow Jesus means to be on a pilgrimage, a spiritual path. As members of St. Edward's, and therefore followers of Jesus, it is expected that our service to God does not end at the church door, but that we "seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves" (as our Baptismal Covenant says). In practice, what that means is that every member of St. Edward's is expected to identify and participate in both activities that enhance their spiritual lives and service opportunities that help others. As we do this, we are well aware that we will always fall short of what God has in mind for us, yet as St. Paul writes, we "press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 3:14, NASB)

Hopefully the above gives you some encouragement, perhaps some challenge, and perhaps a new resolve to make your membership in St. Edward's even more meaningful in 2012. See you Sunday!

Monday, December 19, 2011

To what is God trying to give birth?

I've been thinking over the Gospel lesson for this past Sunday. Several weeks ago, I participated in a "new expressions of church" conference call in which the question was asked: "How are you helping to give birth to something God is doing?" or something like that.

As I was mulling over that, I was directed to the following YouTube video, considering what it would be like if Joseph was on Facebook at the time of Jesus' birth:

As somewhat funny as this is, it also points to the fact that what God was bringing into the world was not something that was even thought of, and was fraught with danger. With two-thousand years of hindsight, we believe Mary was given the greatest gift of all--the opportunity to be theotokos, the "god-bearer." Mary's recorded reaction reinforces that belief, to a point. It also reminds us that even God's gifts come with some associated responsiblities.

2012 will be a year in which we discern what God is bringing into being, or giving birth to, and what we can do to help that process along, to "mid-wife" that process, as it were. While as a man I've never been pregnant, as a father I know the profound changes having children can make in one's life. The birth process is messy, painful, sometimes complex, involves considerable work (that's why they call it "labor"), and generally requires a group of people to help things along. And that's just birth! Actually raising a child requires a whole new set of skills, another group of people (remember "It Takes A Village"), and a long-term viewpoint.

As we celebrate the anniversary of the birth of Jesus, may we be inspired to look for signs of new life and new birth in our own lives and at St. Edward's as well and prepare ourselves to mid-wife and guide that new life that God has for us.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What are we expecting?

The Gospel for this past Sunday invites us to take a second look at John the Baptist, after our first look the week before. As attractive as John was to the crowds that flocked to be baptized, he truly puzzled the authorities of the day:
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, "I am not the Messiah." And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" He answered, "No." Then they said to him, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" He said, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, `Make straight the way of the Lord,'" as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, "Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?" John answered them, "I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal." This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
Who are you and why are you doing what you are doing? That was the big question to which the authorities needed an answer. They needed to to identify John, classify him, and verify his credentials before they could figure out how he fit into their very carefully constructed world.

But that was the problem--John didn't fit into their very carefully constructed world. Jesus would be even less of a fit. As an aside, I find it interesting that we don't have any record of Jesus baptizing anyone--even though, as the Messiah, he presumably was "authorized" to do so. But just as John's baptizing was a scandal to the authorities of the day, Jesus' teaching and healing were scandalous to the authorities. It seems as if God doesn't have much respect for religious authority when God is doing something new. As one of the designated "religious authorities" of today, that often gives me pause!

One of the biological facts of our lives is that we generally see what we expect to see. We unconsciously screen out things that do not conform to our expectations. Whether we're driving down the street and looking at a landscape we've seen hundreds of times before, experiencing a worship service we've experienced many times, or solving a problem similar to others we've solved in the past, our mind automatically screens out the unusual and fills in the gaps with previous experiences. We naturally classify things to avoid being overwhelmed with stimuli.

Advent is the season of expectation. We wait in expectation of the anniversary of our Lord's first coming at Christmas and in expectation of Christ's second coming. But just as John and Jesus were not at all who people expected them to be and did not do what people expected them to do, we need to keep an open mind about what what Jesus coming anew into our lives might mean. Perhaps our expectation of Christmas is simply another holiday, hopefully with family and friends, with a few tastefully chosen gifts in the bargain as well. But, as the Grinch who Stole Christmas found out, Christmas doesn't come from a store. The challenge for us is to put aside our expectations and instead expectantly ask a different question:

What could God be up to this year?