Arrive in Jerusalem

I arrived in the Tel Aviv Airport at 4:05 p.m. after having a difficult time flying on Delta.  But my luggage made it with me, and so I am good to go.   Barry Vaughn met up with me at the taxi stand and so we shared a sherroot with 8 other people.  We didn’t arrive at St. Andrews Scottish Hospice until 6:40 p.m. Allan Rabbinowitz and Tzippi Moss were supposed to meet me at 6:45, so I quick got my key stowed my luggage and came down stairs.  Tzippi was a couple of minutes late, so I have time to take some pictures at twilight of the walls of the Old City as seen from the Hospice.  We are very close to the Old City, and we only had to walk 6 blocks to meet Allan at the Joy Restaurant.  He had been guiding an American Actor who stars on the television series the Good Wife.

I wanted to take Allan and Tzippi to the Joy Restaurant, not only because it is good, but the old Round Table ICE Group celebrated Jeffrey Ballon’s 65th 

birthday at the Joy Restaurant.  Our dinner brought back wonderful memories of Jeffrey, and Allan and Tzippi wanted to know about the trip last summer to Bangladesh and India – Tzippi wants to visit India.  Also Allan has guided a group that included Ed Hurley one of our Birmingham 8 Group, when he was attending a  program at Tantur.  Tomorrow our Birmingham Group will be having lunch or dinner at Tantur.

Allan says that Israel has had a cool wet spring and early summer.  When I returned to the Hospice, Ed, Steve and Ray were sitting out on the roof outside of our room.  It is a beautiful night, but chilly – maybe 67 degrees.  I wish I had a jacket.  I need desperately to get to bed.


Followers of the Way

Currently in the United States demographers divide our population into five generations. There is the Greatest Generation, people born before 1928, who fought and won World War II, and then came home and birthed the Baby Boom generation. There is the Silent Generation, people born between 1928 and 1945, who were children during the Great Depression and World War II. They are sometimes portrayed as traditionalists who subscribe to the conventional norms of society. They came of age during the conformism of the1950’s. The Baby Boomers who were born between 1945 and 1965 came of age in the turbulent years of the 1960’s and were non-conformist in contrast to the Silent Generation. The boomers are the group getting ready to retire, who are likely to bankrupt Social Security and Medicare. The next demographic bubble, Generation X, was born between 1965 and 1980. Gen X’ers are depicted as entrepreneurial, and more socially conventional and religiously conservative than Baby Boomers. Sometimes Gen Xer’s are referred to as the Baby Bust generation, because there was a dip in births following the introduction of the birth control pill. The Millennial Generation, born between 1980 and 2000 is the first generation to come of age in the new millennium. They are highly social, and more technologically connected than any generation before them. They are also the least connected to institutional religion of any group.

Seven in 10 Protestants among the Millennials of both evangelical and mainline denominations, who reported going to church regularly in high school said they had dropped out by age 23. Only 13% of Millennials report religion or spirituality is important in their lives. They are especially resistant to traditional church doctrine. Among the principal complaints of young people who have dropped out of church is that church members are perceived as judgmental, hypocritical and insincere. In research for an upcoming book, unChristian, the Barna Research Group director David Kinnaman found that Christians in their 20s are “significantly less likely to believe a person’s faith in God is meant to be developed by involvement in a local church. And the Barna study asserts this life stage of spiritual disengagement is not going to fade away.”

The Millennial Generation poses a major challenge to churches of all denominations. But I believe churches that concentrate on following in the way of Jesus, rather than trying to teach orthodox doctrine, or the right things to believe about Jesus, have an opportunity to connect with this newest generation of young people. Harvey Cox anticipated the challenge of the Millennials, when he wrote his book The Future of Faith.

What does the future hold for religion, and Christianity in particular? At the beginning of the new millennium three qualities mark the world’s spiritual profile, all tracing trajectories that will reach into the coming decades. The first is the unanticipated resurgence of religion in both public and private life around the globe. The second is that fundamentalism, the bane of the twentieth century, is dying. But the third and most important, though often unnoticed, is a profound change in the elemental nature of religiousness.

As Christianity moves awkwardly but irreversibly into a new phase in its history, those who are pushing into this frontier often look to the earliest period of the church’s history. There are striking similarities between the earliest church and the emerging faith of the new millennium. Creeds did not exist then; they are fading in importance now. Hierarchies had not yet appeared then, they are wobbling today. Spirituality as a way of life, or guiding compass is supplanting doctrines as the definition of the faith. Living the way of Jesus, rather than believing the right things about Jesus is the future of Christian Faith. How we live our lives and treat other people, love God and love your neighbor is more important than the traditional creeds or statements of faith of the established churches.

I believe the shift from a focus on doctrines and belief statements to faith as a way of life is good news for United Church. We are non-doctrinal. There is nothing you have to say you believe to belong here. No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. We also say on our website: your personal faith is respected. You are encouraged to seek your own understanding of the Bible. Science and faith are not mutually exclusive. And you are encouraged to live your faith by helping others. These are all important core values that should help us in connecting with the Millennial Generation.

There are some special challenges, however, in trying to connect with the Millennials. Conventional wisdom in the past claimed that when young people marry, have children and settle down, they will come back to church. Not necessarily so with this generation. While Millennials claim that a good marriage and being a good parent are more important than financial or career success, these young people are not rushing to the altar. Only 21% of Millennials are married now in contrast to 42% of the generations before them at the same age. Now they may all suddenly decide to get married in droves, but we should remember that only a little over 50% of this generation grew up with both original parents in the home. Another startling statistic is that over one third of women age 18 to 29 who have given birth have been married. And since teen pregnancy among the poor and minorities has dropped, this means that a large number of middle class young women are choosing to have children without being married.

Single parenthood is a difficult and lonely road, but given the maturity level of many twenty something males, and the postponement of marriage by this generation, the choices of these young women to forge ahead as single parents can be understandable. We may have to alter our image of nice young couples coming back to church to populate our Sunday School, and instead offer a non-judgmental reaching out to this population as a real ministry.

I am reminded of the story about when a young minister was still single, he preached a sermon he entitled, “Rules for Raising Children.” After he got married and had children of his own, he changed the title of the sermon to “Suggestions for Raising Children.” When his children got to be teenagers, he stopped preaching on the subject altogether.

Another potential ministry directed to the Millennial Generation is suggested by the fact that at the moment, 37% of 18- to 29-year-olds are unemployed or out of the workforce, the highest share among this age group in more than three decades. Unemployment will be a significant source of frustration and further postponement of marriage and beginning a family for the Millennial Generation.

It’s not what we believe about Jesus that counts it is our commitment to follow in the way of Jesus that constitutes living faith. We should remember that the very earliest Christians were not called Christians, they were called “followers of the way.” Matthew 7: 12 So whatever you wish that people would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.

13 “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.

14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few. . .

21 “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

And the great challenge of following the way of Jesus, rather than simply claiming to believe things about Jesus is that Jesus asks us to do some pretty radical things. Give to the poor. Don’t let your left hand know what the right hand is giving. Care for the widow, the orphan and welcome the stranger, the alien. Forgive your enemies. Turn the other cheek. Welcome everyone to the table of fellowship. The way of Jesus is radical and difficult. It would be so much easier to pray the prayer and sign the pledge on page 6 of the “Four Spiritual Laws” booklet. As Jesus said, do not follow me unless you are willing to first sit down and count the cost, for the way of Jesus is the way of the cross.

Young people are seeking authenticity, role models who will walk the walk and not just talk the talk. They would really like to experience a community of faith that embraces the way of Jesus. I believe potentially United Church can connect with these young people. We have to let them know we are here. We have to welcome them in ways they can understand and to which they can relate. We have to authentically walk with them the Way of Christ.

Fruit of the Spirit

The Monday Bible Study group and the Diaconate have begun reading a book by Phillip Cary entitled:  Good News for Anxious Christians 10 Practical Things You Don’t Have to Do.  In chapter one the author talks about “spiritual formation.”  And by the way Jim Norris will be teaching a class in spiritual formation beginning the second Thursday in August, and running for four to six weeks. Spiritual formation is an answer to the question, how is the human heart formed by the spirit to follow in the way of Christ?   Paul identified nine virtues that result from Christian devotional practice, the fruits of the spirit — Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control.  So what are the devotional disciplines that shape a heart where the fruits of the spirit abide?

The first devotional discipline that opens us to the spirit is prayer — regular intentional prayer.  Not a lick and promise whenever we’re in trouble.  But regular disciplined daily prayer that leads us into deeper relationship with God.  This week I ran across a minister’s prayer.  Oh Lord, “May the members of my congregation be as free with their money as they are with their advice, and may their minds be open as their mouths.”

Of course, a major portion of our prayer time has to be devoted to listening — quiet, devoted listening, not to all of the voices inside our own heads, but listening to the silence, “be still and know that I am God.”

If you need a model for organizing your prayer time, a number of years ago Bill Viall found the Prayer Wheel in a diabetes management magazine.  It was developed by a physician, a psychiatrist who found that if he could help patients to pray, they reduced their stress levels and their overall mental and physical health improved.  So once again I have printed some copies of the Prayer Wheel, and they are available outside the sanctuary.

We are preparing for Robert to visit us come the end of July in time for Vacation Bible School in August, and that reminds me of a story about prayer.  There were two little brothers who were visiting Grandma. They were about to go to bed, but before they slept they prayed. The older boy started to pray. He prayed about the day he had and about everything he had done. The younger boy then started to pray, he prayed much louder than his older brother, and he prayed for a bicycle and toys, and when he finished the older brother asked him “Why are you praying so loud? God isn’t deaf” and the younger boy responded and said,  “Yea but Grandma is.”

The discipline of prayer flows into the practice of meditation.  And on the subject of meditation we can acknowledge many of us are plagued by a whole troop of drunken monkeys that continually agitate our consciousness, when we try to be still.  There are some aids to meditation, guided meditations, mantras, but ultimately we just have to discipline ourselves through practice.

Another meditative practice is the singing of spiritual songs.  Paul recommends this discipline in his letter to the Colossians 3:16  “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”  Songs are stored in a different part of our brains than prose.  I have known people who lost the ability to speak after a stroke, but they could still sing.  Having a repertoire of spiritual songs can be a powerful force in shaping our affections.  If you were to suffer a stroke, and you couldn’t speak, would you rather be able to sing, “Morning Has Broken,” or “a Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall?”

Another powerful discipline in spiritual formation is Bible Study.  Engaging with the scriptures gives us input from outside of ourselves in forming our relationship with Christ.  When we do not enter into regular Bible Study, then the devices and desire of our own hearts take over and inevitably lead us astray.  We begin to form images of Christ that look like ourselves in our best moments, the fair haired blue eyed cocker spaniel Jesus, rather than the Jesus who was a revolutionary First Century Country Rabbi.  If we continually approach God as if we are the smartest person in the room, well remember God is God and we are not, and inevitably we are not as smart as we think we are.  Here at United Church we have a Monday afternoon Bible Study, a Thursday evening Bible Study, and a Sunday morning Bible Study.  Starting this Fall we will also begin an on-line Bible Study, where people can jump in and participate at any time.  And our Bible Study leads into the Sunday morning sermons, and the lessons used by our children’s Sunday School.  So I believe the opportunity for Bible Study will be available, if we take a few minutes from our busy schedules to connect with the scriptures.

Another discipline that can help to open us up to ideas and images beyond ourselves is devotional reading.  The women’s fellowship orders the daily devotional called “These Days.”  It is available in Fellowship Hall. Another devotional booklet published in Nashville is the Upper Room.  The United Church of Christ has an online daily devotional to which you can subscribe, by going to:  Opening ourselves up to a daily spiritual reminder can help us become more God centered, rather than self-centered.

Journaling is another spiritual discipline that can help us to recognize God’s movement in our lives.  Years ago people wrote in their diaries.  The importance of journaling is it encourages us to conduct a daily review.  I remember the Birmingham 8’s meeting with the Roman Catholic theologian Thomas Groom in Boston.  When we asked him about how he connects with the divine he reported:  “I do a Jesuit thing.  At the end of the day, I go back and look for the God moments.  I have yet to find a day that I couldn’t find at least three God moments.”  I think that is what journaling can help us to find, the trajectory of the God moments in our lives.  Sometimes they aren’t obvious on a daily basis, but when we go back and re-read our journal entries over several months time we can begin to connect the dots between the God moments, and we can perceive the trajectory of God’s presence in our lives.  People have been journaling for centuries, by keeping a diary.  A diary can be a powerful spiritual discipline.  I have some home grown materials for organizing spiritual journaling based upon the Lord’s Prayer, if you are interested.

Group study and prayer is another tool in spiritual formation.  How can we discern the difference between the devices and desires of our own hearts and God working in our lives?  Ask some good spiritual friends.  A couple of weeks ago I shared with you some really good advice from a counselor in group therapy.  She said, “if one person tells you, that you are a horse, they’re crazy.  If two people tell you, that you are a horse, well maybe you’d better think about it.  And if three people tell you, that you are a horse, you’d better get the saddle and bridle.  Group study and prayer open up the possibility that good friends might be able to share with us the truth we don’t want to hear.  And as much as it can hurt, truth is a gift that is essential in the formation of a loving heart that follows Jesus.

Still another spiritual discipline in our spiritual formation is almsgiving – charity, regularly practiced.  God does indeed love a cheerful giver, and we develop a generous heart by regular giving.  We can pray about generosity, we can read stewardship devotionals, we can sing:  “take my life and let it be, consecrated Lord to thee, take my moments and my days, let them flow in ceaseless praise.”  But to actually embrace generosity, we have to give.  And for those of us who are stingy, and I am first among them, we only begin to loosen up our spirits by sacrificing some of our own consumption and giving to others.

The final spiritual discipline I want to mention is worship and communion.  Many churches have approached worship attendance as an obligation and a duty.  For years it was a mortal sin in the Roman Catholic Church if you missed Mass.  Worship is not an obligation, or a duty, it is a gift.  Worship is time when we gather to pray with and for a community of spiritual friends, who have covenanted to pray with and for us.  And when we gather in the name of Jesus, we become the Body of Christ, “wherever two or three are gathered in my name,” I am in the midst of them.  And when Jesus is in the midst of us, synergy begins to happen.  The power of God becomes available in ways that we can only describe as mysterious.  When God is in the midst of us our energy is multiplied.  Rather than 5 + 5 equaling 10, 5 x 5 equals 25.  In the communion we experience that mystery of becoming the Body of Christ, so we can be sent into the world to make a difference, to free the oppressed, to feed the hungry, to comfort the afflicted, to spread the love of Christ.

We don’t have to use all of these spiritual disciplines.  The good news is we can pick and choose what works for us.  But as we grow in our spiritual maturity through practiced devotion the fruits of the spirit will dwell in our hearts.  And the fruit is:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Living Our Way Into the Body of Christ

The Corinthians were a naughty church.  Paul had founded the congregation on his first missionary tour through Greece.   He spent 18 months living there with two trusted Jewish Christians Aquila and Pricilla, with whom he worked as a tent maker.  The City of Corinth was prosperous, cosmopolitan and open to most any kind of vice.  Many different Asian mystery religions and bizarre cults with unusual worship and even exotic sexual practices flourished there.  Paul’s converts were a very diverse and raucous crowd, sort of like United Church.

After 18 months of missionary work Paul felt he had the Corinthian congregation pretty well established, so he continued on his way to found other churches.  But almost as soon as he left town, his naughty Corinthians began forming factions within the community around various congregational leaders:  “I belong to Apollos,” “I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Cephas,” just three of several cliques that developed within the life of the church.

Writing from Ephesus, Paul admonished his naughty Corinthians.   He told them to get over themselves, put away pride and seek the unity of the Body.  I Corinthians 12: 12  For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.

13  For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

14  For the body does not consist of one member but of many.

15  If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.

We should remember that becoming the Body of Christ is not easy.  We are human.  We have egos.  Our jealousies and envies get in the way.  We want what we want, and we are reluctant to defer to the needs of others.

They claim there is no fight like a church fight.  One of my friends in seminary, John Stendahl was a Lutheran back in the days before the merger of the Lutheran Church in America and the American Lutheran Church.  The Lutheran Church in America was primarily Swedish and the American Lutherans were a combination of Germans and Norwegians.  One time John asked an old Norwegian church leader, why they had chosen to unite with the Germans, rather than the Swedes.  The Norwegians are fairly puritanical like the Swedes, while the Germans, drink, smoke and gamble.  The Norwegian church leader explained, “The sins of the Germans, we can forgive, the sins of the Swedes, never.” 

I’m also reminded of the story of a man who was rescued from a deserted island, and his rescuers found three huts there.  So they asked him why he had built three huts.  “Well,” he began, “that’s my house, and that’s my church.”

“So what’s the third hut,” he was asked?

“Oh, that’s the church I used to attend.”

Conflict and churches are endemic.  An article in Leadership Journal reports that almost all churches experience conflict, and that fully 20% of all churches at any one time are experiencing conflict.  And despite the old joke about arguing over the color of the church carpet, 85% of all conflicts are about control issues.  And this may surprise you, the smaller the congregation the more likely they are to experience conflict.

One of the issues Paul addressed in his Letter to the Corinthians was the manner in which they were sharing the Lord’s Supper.  In the early days of the church rather than a bread cube and a sip of wine or grape juice, the followers of Jesus remembered their Lord by sharing a potluck supper, where they broke bread and passed the cup, generous portions of food.  The wealthier members of the church in Corinth would assemble at the supper hour bringing their picnic baskets and covered dishes, and they would begin the ritual meal sharing what they had brought.   The less affluent members of the church, the slaves and servants, who had to serve dinner to their masters and then clean up, would come to the Lord’s Table after most of the food was eaten, and they could only share in the crumbs and scraps of the potluck.  A ceremonial piece of bread and a sip of wine would be saved for them, but they were missing out of the larger feast enjoyed by the more affluent members of the community, who could come early.

As followers of Jesus we are called upon to live our way into becoming the Body of Christ.  Following Jesus means embracing our diversity as a source of strength.  Building up the Body of Christ by honoring and sharing gifts.   Romans 12:4  For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function,

5  so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.

6  Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith;

7  if service, in our serving; he who teaches, in his teaching;

8  he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who contributes, in liberality; he who gives aid, with zeal; he who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.

Finally, following Jesus means honestly acknowledging conflict and working through our differences.  “Ephesians 4:  25  Therefore, putting away falsehood, let everyone speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.

26  Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger. 31  Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice, 32  and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

If it is true that 85% of church conflicts are over issues of power and control, then we all need to hear our scripture and take it to heart:  I Corinthians 13: 4  Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful;

5  it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;

6  it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.

7  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Becoming the Body of Christ is a tall order, and sometimes we’re tempted to cry out, “Jesus you ask too much of us.”  And Jesus says, “sacrifice your self-centered egotistical selves, and I will give you hearts centered in God, centered in love.  And that is why Jesus welcomes us to his banquet table.  Come, take, eat, drink, remember, become my Body through self-sacrificing love.  Follow me by loving others.  At this table we are welcomed and reminded of our call to become the children of God we are meant to be.  No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.