Jim Loomis

Experiences, Observations, Opinions

Archive for the category “Religion”

WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL ABOUT LENT ANYWAY?

Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent

Lent….the time of year before Easter for personal reflection, prayer, and repentance.
Although, I’m not sure that I really have anything that I need to repent of.

Well….truth be told, I was not the most pleasant person to be around in 2015.
But last year I was really very congenial.

BINGO

Still…..there were those few times when I disciplined my 10 year-old son pretty harshly.
But he deserved it. He had it coming to him.

BINGO

Okay.…so I got really upset with my boss for acting like a jerk, and making us all look like fools in front of the CEO.
But I bit my tongue and never showed my anger.

BINGO

And those Presidential candidates….what a lousy choice we were given!
But I didn’t “TWEET” any derogatory comments about them, and I didn’t “LIKE” or “SHARE” or “COMMENT” on any Facebook posts that portrayed them as idiots, which they really were. I was very restrained, and I refused to fall into the mud being slung around.

BINGO

You know….I thought that Easter was all about forgiveness being freely given by God, especially for those of us who try to act like Christians.

So, what’s the point of all this repentance stuff?

WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL ABOUT LENT ANYWAY?

BINGO

WOW….Five in a row.  BINGO!  What did I win?

Oh shoot….another trip to the confessional booth.

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GOD IN A BOX

On Christmas Eve (this Saturday), after four weeks of expectant waiting called Advent, Christians around the world will celebrate the birth of Jesus.

I imagine that at the moment of his birth, Jesus’s mother Mary must have felt what I experienced in the delivery room when my children were born — a profound, indescribable change in your very being.

A newborn child breaking into your life, fragile, helpless, totally dependent,
yet powerful beyond imagination,
powerful enough to change your life, your dreams, your purpose….forever!

A glimpse at the mystery of the divine.

And yet…

“It is not over,
this birthing.
There are always newer skies
into which God can throw stars.

When we begin to think
that we can predict the Advent of God,
that we can box the Christ
in a stable in Bethlehem,

that’s just the time
that God will be born
in a place we can’t imagine
and won’t believe.

Those who wait for God
watch with their hearts and not their eyes,
listening, always listening
for angel words.” (1)

This Christmas let’s not do what so many religions do, what so many people do, what I am prone to do. Let’s not put God in a box and leave no room for the mystery of the divine. Let’s not deceive ourselves, believing that this is the final “birth” of God. The creator, sustainer, and redeemer of all that we know, and that which we can never know, is certainly much larger than a baby born some 2000 years ago in a barn in a backwater town, sleeping in a box meant to feed cattle. Let’s watch and listen with our hearts, not only with our eyes and our Scriptures.

Divinity, however little of it that we can comprehend, is powerful beyond our wildest imagination!

(1) This poem, written by Ann Weems and copied from a booklet of Advent devotionals compiled in 2103 by Portage (MI) Chapel Hill United Methodist Church, is from “Alive Now,” a publication of The Upper Room®, Inc., P.O. Box 340004, Nashville, TN 37203-0004.

O come, O come, Emmanuel ???

O come, O come, Emmanuel ???

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7xtpJ4Q_Q-4

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, O come, Emmanuel (literally “God with us.”)

This familiar hymn is sung nearly every Sunday during the Christian season of Advent, the four weeks of waiting prior to the celebration of Jesus’s birth. The hymn is based on the prophecy of the birth of a boy to be named Emmanuel, who will carry the government on his shoulders, as recorded in the Old Testament book of Isiah. According to the New Testament Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the prophecy was fulfilled when Jesus was born. The words of the prophecy are familiar to most of us from George Frideric Handel’s magnificent oratorio, Messiah.

However, in the context of the Book of Isaiah, the first verse of this hymn refers to a national leader, one who will free the pre-Christian Hebrew nation from their captivity. It is only in some of the later verses that the hymn could be inferred to point to an Emmanuel that will save us from hell and ensure our entry into heaven. It is this meaning which gives rise to the use of the hymn by the Christian church during the season of Advent.

O come new leader that we hold so dear.
And free us from our ills and all our fears.
Discouraged? YES! But soon we will be blessed.
You’ll fight for us; you told us you know best.
Rejoice; Give thanks; our lonely wait is o’re.
You have arrived upon our careworn shore.

My rewrite of the first verse of the hymn is my interpretation of how I think many of us view our soon-to-be 45th President, Donald J. Trump. It seems to me that many are so enamored with Mr. Trump that they see him as the “savior” of America, the person who will set us free from all of the problems that he proclaimed during the campaign. President-elect Trump claims that we are (in essence) in bondage to other nations, nations whom he says are taking advantage of us. He has promised to take decisive action to undo the international entanglements that he believes the US is caught in, and to dismantle or dramatically change the governmental programs that so many find onerous. Therefore my rewrite of the lyrics could be words of hope for those who support Mr. Trump, the kind of leader that the ancient Hebrews longed for.

But my alternate words might be read as sarcasm by those who disagree with our President-elect’s understanding of America’s current programs, policies, and foreign alliances. For those who are looking for a different kind of “savior,” my words and their juxtaposition of current politics with ancient theology could be seen as blatantly irreverent, although they are not meant to be so.

ADVENT

O come, O come, Emmanuel.
O come, O come, be with us God ???

The answer to that question depends on which Emmanuel you are looking for, and which Emmanuel you are expecting.

– a leader who promises to reclaim our national pride and fight against our foes, both domestic and foreign,

– or a spiritual leader who champions inclusion, peace, and forgiveness as Jesus did,

– or perhaps both,

– or perhaps neither.

Prayer for the election

I share this prayer with you written by Sr. Joan Chittister, as posted today by the Sisters of the Congregation of St. Joseph.

“Give us, O God, leaders whose hearts are large enough to match the breadth of our souls, and give us souls strong enough to follow leaders of vision and wisdom. In seeking a leader, let us seek more than development for ourselves – though development we hope for – more than security for our own land – though security we need – more than satisfaction for our own wants – though many things we desire.

Give us the hearts to choose the leader who will work with other leaders to bring safety to the whole world. Give us a government that provides for the advancement of this country without taking resources from others to achieve it.

Give us insight enough ourselves to choose leaders who can tell strength from powers, growth from greed, leadership from dominance, and real greatness from the trappings of grandiosity.

We trust you, great God, to open our hearts to learn from those to whom you speak in different tongues and to respect the life and words of those whom you entrusted the good of other parts of this planet.

We beg you, great God, give us the vision as a people to know where global leadership truly lies, to pursue it diligently, to require it to protect human rights for everyone, everywhere.

We ask these things with minds open to your word and hearts that trust in your eternal care.

Amen!”
– Joan Chittister, OSB

World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation

Today is the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. On this day Roman Catholic Pontiff Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew jointly issued prophetic letters urging all people of every faith to pray for and to take action to care for the Earth, the only home that we have been given. How gratifying it is to have these two Christian leaders, whose churches have been split for a thousand years, come together to call our attention to the effects of our misuse of the Earth, and to call us to prayer and action for its sustainability. The text of their letters is here.

Earlier this year I wrote extensively about the effects of global warming (Reflections on the American Christian Church).  I called on the prophetic church to engage in the sort of action taken by Pope Francis in his Laudato Si’ encyclical, and the continued action that these two Christian leaders have shown again today.  I urge all of us to follow their lead.

VCI APPROVED

This evening our congregation voted by a large majority to accept the Vital Church Initiative report and accompanying “prescriptions.”  Now the process of implementing these “prescriptions” begins.  This will require many changes, and a large helping of grace, as “sacred cows” are jettisoned, and new forms of ministry are developed.  The next year will be very interesting!

VCI: Yes or No?

After reading all of the books that our VCI travel and home teams read and studied, after considering our VCI Consultation Team’s report and their “prescriptions,” after attending three town hall meetings, and after talking with many others, I have come to some conclusions about the VCI plan prescribed for us at Chapel Hill.

First of all, there are some concerns that I simply don’t understand. For example, I personally feel the “spiritual poverty” that is identified as a concern. But I have a hard time wrapping my mind around that impression, or adequately describing what it is. I also have some doubts about the prescriptions for that concern, namely small group involvement. In the past I have experienced the strong spiritual growth that comes from being part of a small group. But, as was mentioned in one of the town hall meetings, Chapel Hill has tried small groups many times, and they are hard to organize and maintain. We will need to exert a concerted effort to order to make this prescription happen. We will need to think of and organize small groups in ways that we haven’t done before.

The VCI Consultation Team told us that an intentional plan for worship and hospitality provides the greatest opportunity to invite people to become disciples of Jesus Christ. The Team said things about our worship services that were tough for me to hear. But if I only look at the concern and the prescription from my point of view, I miss the point. To summarize the prescription, the goal is to plan multi-sensory, worship experiences that connect people with God in ways that are applicable to daily life, to identify target audiences for each worship experience, to determine the best presentation style of worship for each target audience, and to explore an ideal schedule of multiple worship experiences for spreading the Gospel. Yes, it’s about my need for a meaningful worship experience, but it’s mostly about other folks out there. It’s about how to reach them at their point of need. But it’s not about everybody. It’s about a “target audience.” This will force us to redefine who we are trying to reach, and will sharpen our evangelism techniques. This will require me to take a deep breath, and to learn to be comfortable with some aspects of worship that I’m not used to. But then, I guess that it’s not all about me.

Some of the concerns and prescriptions are obvious and easy to measure. We all know that our property and buildings need to be maintained and that there needs to be a plan to deal with our debt. The steps outlined by the VCI plan are challenging, but pretty straight-forward.

The prescription that our staff will “exhibit the five characteristics…(of) high trust, skill in addressing conflict, a shared commitment, mutual accountability, and a focus on results” is beyond my ability to consider. I simply have no knowledge of the inner dynamics of our staff’s working relationships with each other.

I firmly believe that our governance structure needs to be changed, and have for some time. This will be hard work, and I could help make it happen. I have the skills to do so, but it would not be rewarding for me. We need to let people do this who will have to stretch themselves in order to accomplish this prescription.

For a while now I have been concerned about our leadership develop process. I had given some thought as to how I could work to improve that process. The VCI Consultation team also identified this need, but expanded it far beyond my original conception. Improving this process is something that I think I can contribute to. I can’t do it alone, but with other dedicated people, and with divine guidance, I think that I can help fulfill this prescription. It will be a big stretch for me, but it will enhance my “spiritual richness.” This is where I need to put my efforts.

Some members of the Leadership Team referred to these prescriptions as a “culture change” and a “paradigm shift.” If we look beyond the concerns and prescriptions that we personally don’t like or don’t understand, and if we look at all of them as a whole, they indeed represent a major “paradigm shift” in how we perceive our congregation and our ministry. In the town hall meetings that I attended, the question of whether something that we do now will have to be changed or will need to be eliminated was often raised. Someone asked, “Will there be ‘wreckage’ if we implement these prescriptions?” My answer to these questions is emphatically YES. We need to sharpen our focus on who we are, how we grow each other spiritually, who we are trying to reach outside of our doors, and how we are being called to do that. Paradigm shifts always require letting go of some of the old in order to embrace the new. There will be fallout, and there will be “wreckage.” Hopefully we can gracefully minimize the pain that many of us will feel as a result of this. But we will be better for it, and our ministry will be more effective if we work to fulfill these prescriptions.

It was also asked if any other congregations have successfully done what we are being called to do. YES; and not only in the US. There is an excellent example in our northernmost UMC congregation that has incorporated into their ministry all of the prescriptions that we have been given. I encourage you to read about it in the latest edition of our UMC “Interpreter” magazine. UMC Vital Church

Our Leadership Team asked themselves, “Can we do this?” NO, we cannot do this – BY OURSELVES. But I have seen it done when Christian disciples step out in faith, not quite knowing how to make happen what God is calling them to do, yet believing and trusting that God will lead them on the journey and will help them find the resolve and the resources to make it happen.

Probably very few of us fully embrace all of these prescriptions. None of us has the time or ability to devote our full effort to all of them. But, keeping the overall goal in mind, each of us can the find the one prescription that will challenge us beyond our capability, and we can focus our efforts there. And…we can actively support those who are helping us to achieve the other objectives.

For these reasons, despite some of the misgivings that I have, I will cast an unconditional YES vote at our Charge Conference meeting this Thursday, June 2 at 7:00 p.m.

EXAMINING OUR PRESCRIPTIONS

In my last post (May 3) I suggested ways in which we could determine if we should adopt Chapel Hill’s Vital Church Initiatives’ prescriptions.  My suggestions had to do with how much we could do by ourselves versus how much we would need God’s intervention to complete the prescriptions. But I did not address another critical component of the decision making process.

In only talking about the fulfillment of the prescriptions, by default I assumed that the concerns identified by the VCI Consultation Team were correct. In fact, their concerns (or diagnoses, if you will) may or may not be correct.

The facts that the Consultation Team examined are hard to refute. To take one example, they noted that, “Many staff and leaders could not articulate a faith journey.” This was one indicator that was used to determine that we are “spiritually poor,” which was the first concern that the Consultation Team identified. Based on the concern that we are “spiritually poor,” the Team prescribed a series of activities all focused on “a concerted small group ministry.”

In the town hall meeting that I attended last week, there was a lot of discussion about our previous attempts to have small groups and how difficult they are to organize and maintain. Our discussion was about the prescription. But we did not discuss or question the validity of the concern that we are “spiritually poor,” or how the facts that were noted led the Consultation Team to make that diagnosis.

To continue with this example, the fact that, “Many staff and leaders could not articulate a faith journey,” may not indicate that we are “spiritually poor.” Perhaps those staff members and leaders live out the rich results of their faith journey each day. Perhaps they are not “spiritually poor,” but are simply not good articulators, much like Moses. The fact that they could not articulate their faith journey does not necessarily mean that our congregation is “spiritually poor.” It might, but it might not.

As a medical patient, most of us would not agree to a course of chemotherapy unless we agreed with the doctor’s diagnosis of cancer. Even then, many of us would ask what the facts are (the lab tests, the CT scans, etc.) that led to the diagnosis of cancer, especially if we had not noted any symptoms of illness.

Before we consider if the “prescription” is worth pursuing, we must first agree that the concern is accurate. In our town hall meeting I heard some of our members question the concern of “spiritually poverty” in stunned disbelief. I did not hear anybody question whether the facts used to identify our “spiritually poverty” accurately led to that concern.

I am not casting judgement on the accuracy of the Consultation Team’s conclusions. They may be right. In fact, for most of the concerns identified I think that they are. But before we consider whether or not we should accept and then implement their prescriptions, we first need to:

  • determine if the facts that they have identified are true,
  • determine if those facts accurately lead to the concerns identified by the Consultation Team,
  • decide if we will take ownership of the concerns; do we agree that these are problem areas that need to be fixed, and only then,
  • determine if their prescriptions will effectively remedy the concerns that they identified.

If we only consider the prescriptions without first examining these prior fundamental questions, we are wasting our time. We will give up our efforts long before we fully complete the prescriptions. This would be no different than the medical patient who will discontinue chemotherapy, thus avoiding the difficult changes and suffering that comes with that form of treatment, unless he or she fully agrees with the diagnosis and seriousness of the cancer.

Let’s broaden our discussion at our next two town hall meetings.

Vital Church Initiative Prescriptions

On Sunday, May 1 the on-line Upper Room devotional quoted Exodus 3:16-18, which reads in part,  “Go and get Israel’s elders together and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me.’ The Lord said, ‘I’ve been paying close attention to you…I’ve decided to take you away…to a land full of milk and honey.’”

On that same Sunday we received our long-awaited Vital Church Initiatives Report (Portage Chapel Hill’s Consultation Report) report and prescriptions designed to make Chapel Hill an even more vital Church. To summarize (in my words), the prescriptions call us to:

  1. Implement intentional faith development groups.
  2. Focus and realign our congregation’s governance structure.
  3. Plan and implement a deliberate leadership develop program.
  4. Establish a $1.2 million fund raising campaign to pay for needed repairs and upgrades to our facility, and to pay off our balloon mortgage which is due in three years.
  5. Evaluate and reformat our worship offerings.

Over the next month we will have the opportunity to attend town hall meetings to discuss these prescriptions and discern whether they are what God is calling us to do. On June 2 we will meet to adopt them in whole, or to reject them and continue with our present ministry programming.

In the most recent post on this blog I told the story of an inmate who preferred the safety of his jail cell over the new life that he was being offered. I think that this story offers a perfect analogy for considering these prescriptions.

If you respond to these prescriptions with a, “Ho-hum,” then we should vote them down.

If you react by saying, “Well, yes, I’ve known that we should be doing these things, but we just haven’t gotten around to them,” then we need to ask ourselves why we haven’t gotten around to them. If it takes coaching from VCI to prod us to do these things, then perhaps we should proceed with the VCI plan. But I think that that would be a poor reason for voting to accept these prescriptions, and a waste of our district’s time, money, and VCI expertise. We simply need to decide to do those things that we have been putting off, that we know we should do, and that we are able to do by ourselves. And then we should do them.

If our reaction to these prescriptions is, “Hmm…this sounds a bit challenging, but with some hard work I think that we can do this,” then I might be tempted to take a few steps outside of that jail cell to test the waters. I’m not sure how I would vote, but I know that I would not be very excited about following through on the prescriptions. I can do hard work, but it isn’t always very inspiring.

However, if I want to run, not walk, back into that cell and slam the door behind me, and if I say to myself, “You’ve got to be kidding me. There’s absolutely no way we can do this. Only God can do this!” then most definitely I will vote to implement these prescriptions. I need to have my faith tested, and to be challenged to let God use me for the “transformation of the world” in ways that I absolutely cannot do by myself. If only God can pull off these prescriptions, well then, isn’t that what a spiritually rich, Vital Church is all about?

Exodus 3:16-17, “The Lord said, ‘I’ve been paying close attention to you… (and) I have decided to take you away…’”

Do we follow, or do we stay captive, as the writer of Exodus was referring to?

What do you think?

* An update of progress made as of November 20, 2016 toward completion of the Vital Church Prescriptions for Chapel Hill can be found at http://www.pchum.org/vitalchurch

EASTER’S PROMISE and the VITAL CHURCH INITIATIVE

We are in that time of year in the Christian church called the Easter Season, the time between Easter and Pentecost. This is the time of year in which we remember and celebrate the gift of life and freedom that God has given us.

During the Easter Season some years ago, I watched a short, live drama during the worship service one Sunday morning. A man was sitting on a bench inside a small jail cell reading an old magazine when the jailer arrive with a large ring of keys and unlocked the cell door. He announced, “You have been pardoned. You are free to go.” With that, he left the cell door open and walked away. A few moments later the man’s sister excitedly arrived to take him home. He looked stunned and perplexed, but with her encouragement, he tentatively stepped a pace or two outside of his cell. She eagerly urged him to come with her, but he remained frozen in his tracks, unsure of what to do. Finally, he silently walked back into his cell, sat down, and picked up the old magazine to read again for the umpteenth time. The familiarity and security of his cell was more powerful than the new life that he was being offered.

For the past year our congregation has been involved in the Vital Church Initiative (VCI) process. We are now arriving at a crossroads in that process. Our VCI teams have spent a year studying and meeting with teams from other congregations that are also going through the VCI process. Our staff members have submitted numerous reports about our congregation. We have gathered input from community leaders and average people on the street. Many of us have completed a survey about our effectiveness in carrying out our vision to “be a transforming community of faith.” Pastor Barry and our Leadership Team will meet with the VCI staff this next weekend to offer their perceptions about how we are doing at Chapel Hill. Likewise, all members of the congregation are invited to meet with the VCI staff this Saturday, April 30, from 10:00 to 3:00. Lunch is included, and childcare will be provided as needed. You can sign up here.

This coming Sunday, after evaluating all of the input, our VCI consultants will offer us five “prescriptions” designed to make our congregation more vital and relevant to our community. This is a critical juncture in our congregation’s history. In the next month we will hold several town hall meetings so that we can discuss and consider these “prescriptions.” On June 2 we will vote to proceed to implement them, or to continue on our present path. If we proceed, the VCI staff will provide us with a coach for the next year to work with us, to guide us, and to encourage us on this new journey of faith and ministry.

Still, our current ministry is good. What we do, we do well. We are comfortable with it. It’s a bit like the dilemma that faced the prisoner. Do we embrace the new, not knowing for sure where it will take us, or do we continue with the familiarity and safety that our present ministry provides?

The La Fevre Quartet sing the powerful Easter song, “Jesus Saves.” You can listen to it at this link: Jesus Saves. A repeated refrain in the song is,

“Freedom’s calling; chains are falling;
hope is dawning bright and true.
Day is breaking; night is quaking;
God is making all things new!”

I wonder what new things God is planning for Chapel Hill.

I look forward to finding out what our upcoming Vital Church Initiative “prescriptions” will be. But, like the prisoner, I might not recognize the falling chains that hold me back from fully embracing new possibilities. There is a chance that I won’t want to see the new day breaking. I may be tempted to stick with my familiar way of doing ministry.

But I hope that I will take the leap of faith to see what new things God will make through those of us here at Chapel Hill.

How about you?

Reflections on the American Christian Church: Challenges and Opportunities

Over the past year and a half I have written a lengthy paper on my views of the American Christian Church.  I discuss:

1) the decline of the church,

2) what I see to be the primary issue that the church needs to address in the next ten to twenty years (the impact of the tools of the Information Age, how those tools are used by the church, and how those tools call into question the very doctrines of the church itself), and

3) the most relevant problem facing the world that the American church should confront (global warming).

I include a series of short articles dealing with day-to-day operational matters of the church.  I conclude with several suggestions and recommendations in order for the church to deal with the concerns that I raise.

The paper can be accessed at: Reflections on the American Christian Church: Challenges and Opportunities.

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