Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Rethink Church: Questions in a Living Sanctuary

In the United Methodist Church the phrase, “rethink church” has been branded on everything from t-shirts and hats to Conferences and conversations.  But if we are honest, when it comes right down to it, rethinking anything is easer to put on thousands of sweatshop-free t-shirts than it is to actually do.   Change and the fear of loss that comes with it invites us to hold on tight, and if we are not careful, we can love something (even our faith community) to death.  

If you will allow me to embellish on a church growth legend, imagine a consultant working with an aging congregation. He found they were brave enough to recognize they were missing out on the diversity of voices from other generations but not brave enough to make change.  
Frustrated he asked, “How many of you love your Grandchildren?”  Hands shot up! 
 “How many of you,” he continued, “love your grandchildren so much you would give them money if you new it made a difference in their wellbeing?”  Hands waved for attention and ladies started pulling photo books from their handbags to show off beautiful babies.  
“How many of you would give even your own life for your grandchildren?”  Hands stood at attention with the intensity one might expect of navy seals being briefed for a mission.  
Then he asked, “Now how many of you would be open to adding new music in worship if it meant, your grandchildren would feel at home and find space for their spiritual exploration?”  The forest of hands started to shrink.

Change is never simple for a faith community.  I think in part because it challenges us to the core of who we are, and we take it as criticism rather than recognition that evolution is a part of life.  It is seeded all around us, healthy elements of creation evolve; they find new ways to give life into the world, or they struggle to exist in changing climates.

At First United Methodist Church Omaha we are exploring church in a new way.  This is not because we are dying, but because we are growing.  It is an adventure to see how the space shapes and reshapes our experience.  It is born out of the notion that evolution nudges us to change the DNA of our space and structures.  So with care and courage, we have opened the Urban Abbey.  An Abbey, originally a French Monastery, is a space for covenant relationship, for books, for food, for prayer and for wrestling with questions.  We are exploring what this new space, that is part non-profit coffee shop and part books store does to shape community.  I dream that it is a living sanctuary, active all week long, as refuge to folks who need space to study, reflect and worship, as safe space for folks brave enough to wrestle with questions and as creative space to inspire us to love the diversity of who we are.  I dream that neighbors and friends will help us explore what that means to be an Urban Abbey.  What are your dreams?  What can we make possible when we dream all together?

Rev. Debra McKnight

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Joker and the Psalmist: Bless the Lord, Oh my soul.

On a recent Friday morning, I sat down with my tea and laptop at home to review my sermon draft. My text was Psalm 103, a sacred song of David, which proclaims, “Bless the Lord, Oh my soul; and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name!”
Turning on the “Today Show,” however, I became aware that they would not offer their typical craft and cooking segments.  Perhaps your Friday morning routine also was interrupted by the news: of a young man with 6,000 rounds of legally purchased ammunition and multiple firearms  unleashing pain inside a movie theater crowded with people.
News of people scrambling amid smoke and rushing the doors in a rain of bullets can force us to imagine ourselves and our loved ones in such chaos. And I thought, how can we possibly proclaim this Psalm, “Bless the Lord, Oh my soul”?  The morning did not feel like a blessing.
As the media grasped for details and the numbers of victims changed, a press conference invited clarity.  The chief of police wept on national television. The Mayor said this is an isolated incident and reminded us all that it is safe to go to the movies.
Isolated?  Those in Aurora were not the only victims that day. An average of nearly 270 people a day fall victim to gun violence in our nation.  A shooting — or two, three or four — seems to occur every night in Omaha. We recall our own mayor speaking after the massacre at Von Maur. The Aurora attack doesn’t seem so isolated when we remember the violence at high schools, college campuses and even a grocery store plaza in Tucson, all places where gunmen have unleashed pain on crowds of people.  
And the Psalmist cries out, “Bless the Lord, Oh my soul.”  
It doesn’t seem so isolated when you consider the fabric of our culture resurgent with Batman —  and Spiderman, the Avengers and the X-Men: heroes who sometimes have to do bad things for a good reason in stories woven from violence. Today’s Batman is not the one of old-time comic books and reruns, punctuated with words of “Boom!” and “Ka-Pow!” In today’s movies we see every punch land and every explosive detail. 
The Psalmist still proclaims “Bless the Lord.”
No, it doesn’t seem so isolated when you realize that every death-dealing instrument in Aurora was a legal purchase, that there is little distinction made between a weapon made to hunt animals and one made to hunt people. The gunman didn’t even have to look another human in the eye to purchase 6,000 rounds of ammunition.  No, it doesn’t seem so isolated when you consider the extraordinary rate at which Americans turn guns on themselves, their family members, their friends, their enemies and even compete strangers; we are world record holders in gun violence when compared with 22 of the wealthiest nations in the world.  It is astounding that the only law that might have limited his ability to buy automatic weapons, that might have set parameters on the type of the ammunition he could purchase was allowed to expire in 2004.

 “Bless the Lord, Oh my soul.”
The only isolated element appears to be the young man, calling himself the Joker, who quietly slipped through the holes in our social fabric. Our “safety net” is increasingly torn by over-tasked school systems with at-risk young people, poverty that makes violence seem like a viable choice, and lack of access to mental health care.
In the aftermath of that Friday morning in Colorado, one preacher said faith would have saved the day, and invited people to give their lives to Christ. He could have — but did not — talk about Jesus as a model of non-violent resistance. 
Even Christianity has a confusing history of violence. Jesus may have died resisting injustice and domination, but Christians have marched in crusades, sanctified genocide and even set parameters for just how much domestic violence is acceptable. 
How are we to sing “Bless the Lord, Oh my Soul” when violence has been part of our faith? How can people who advocate for change have faith when they face well-funded Goliaths such as the NRA (National Rifle Association)?
Then it occurred to me: Maybe that is the point.
Psalm 103 is attributed to David. Whether it rose from his lips, or the Hebrew people remarkably attributed it to him, we can feel David’s presence in singing “Bless the Lord, Oh my soul.”
David knew the best and worst of life. He faced his Goliath. He knew despair. He struggled to save his own life, and felt the grief of losing companions like Jonathan to violence. He knew the heartbreak of his own children acting with violence toward one another, and yet he sings “Bless the Lord, Oh my soul.”  
He made huge mistakes, overstepped his authority and was seduced by power. He took the wife of another man while sending him to die in war. And yet, David knew about redemption. He lived in sacred covenant with God, no matter the mistakes or missteps.  David was not perfect but knew God’s promise of relationship anyway. David sang of the nature of God, “who redeems your life from the Pit.”  The pit was a lifeless space and even in those depressive depths, David sang confidant that God breaths life in to the most difficult spaces.  David sang of God’s healing, God’s grace and God’s steadfast love that shows mercy rather than nursing anger.  
David knew that faith does not insulate people from the realities of the world. Rather, faith ignites them for living in the world. Faith ignited David to face the hard times, and inspired the Hebrew community to do the same.  
These are the Psalms Jesus grew up singing.  He celebrated Psalms of a God who heals and he acted to bring healing.  He touched the untouchable, raised-up the bent over woman and he brought care to people on the margins.  He sang songs of a God who forgives and he ate with people labeled sinners.  He spent time with friends and disciples who constantly miss the mark but he never sent them away.  He sang songs of a God who loves, so he loved.  His faith did not protect him from the world it ignited him to live differently in the world. 
This Psalm celebrates God’s nature.  God acts, and I think it challenges us to act as well. May we have the courage to face our Goliath's. May we have grace in the difficult conversations.  And may we have the courage to live with every fiber of our being as a blessing into the world. May we live as people of steadfast love.
“Bless the Lord, Oh my soul.”  

Rev. Debra McKnight
Urban Abbey and First United Methodist Church Omaha