Tag Archives: church life

‘Tis the Season

No, not that one (although our local Hobby Lobby’s Christmas aisles were already in full effect in August).

If you’re involved in the leadership of a church or have attended church for more than a year or two, you know the season to which I am referring is “Pledge Campaign Season.” This year I’ve refused to call it “Stewardship Season.” My reasoning is simple: stewardship–that is, the care of the resources with which we’ve been entrusted–is a year-round responsibility. To set it aside four to six weeks a year as a “special season” doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. So let’s just call it what it is: a pledge campaign. Yes, we discuss sharing our time and talents–and we need these gifts every bit as much as we do money (in some cases even more so)–still, everyone knows the primary focus of most annual church pledge campaigns is money. And to me, that’s OK.

See, many church boards are tasked with, among other things, developing an operating budget. These teams are also tasked with the fund development necessary to finance that operating budget. Conducting a pledge campaign gives these teams an idea of how much of that funding will come from members and friends of their communities of faith, how much of that funding will come from other sources such as fundraisers and building use fees, and how much of our budget is “faith-based.” That is, while we don’t have funding for everything in our budget, we’re going to step out on faith and budget for as much of it as is reasonable; knowing that we may have to make adjustments along the way.

Yes, I know there are churches who focus on money way too much. I also know there are people who push the whole “God loves a cheerful giver” and “God will give a hundred times more to you when you give to God–just test God and see!” (didn’t Jesus say something about not testing the Lord your God in the New Testament?). I am not, however, focusing on those extreme–and yes, intellectually and spiritually insulting–instances in this post. I’m focusing on the everyday realities of what it means to be part of a community of faith.

For me, conducting an annual pledge campaign simply makes sense. It is part of what it means to be in community. If we want a community to be there for us, we do what we can to be there for the community–and that includes being there financially as we are able to do so. If we are supportive of the mission and vision of a particular community and want to help it live out that mission and vision, we support that community with our gifts of time and financial support as we are able to do so. For a first century example of living in community, just read Acts 2:42-47. Yes, I know our culture and times are different from those of the first century. Still, I think at least one message we can take from that passage is: mutual support in a community setting–it’s a good thing!

For me, supporting our communities of faith is not about securing God’s love and favor both in this life and the next life (concepts we cannot empirically prove, anyway). Nor is it about securing the favor of our pastors and other church leadership. It’s not even about paying the pastor’s salary (said the pastor with fear and trembling who is in the middle of his church’s annual pledge campaign). 🙂

In my opinion, supporting our communities of faith is primarily about losing our lives. And if you happen to be a Jesus fan, he taught that it is in losing our lives that we actually find ourselves–not heaven, not earthly rewards–we find ourselves. And it is when we find ourselves that we can begin again to move forward in ways that reflect the light, love and peace of our highest selves. Call it “the holy Spirit,” the “Divine Inner Light,” whatever you choose.

So whatever community you support, why not love, live and give on the edge–why not risk “losing your life” in service somehow. You just might be pleasantly surprised at what you find.

Blessings on your journeys!

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Tea Light Theology

While greeting people at church following a recent Sunday service, I noticed a congregant standing just off to the side of the middle aisle. He was staring at me quite intently, and the look on his face was not pleasant. When I waved a greeting to him, he motioned for me to join him. I finished greeting the people in line then moved to join him.

During my five second journey I was doing what many pastors probably do in these situations—I was rewinding through the service and reflection as fast as I could. The music seemed fine. I preached on Mark 1:12-13, which is Mark’s version of Jesus’ wilderness experience. I interpreted the beasts, angels and even Satan metaphorically, encouraging people to consider Jesus’ experience as our own–dealing with our own beasts and accusers (“The Accuser” is one meaning for “Satan”)–as well as being willing to accept love and care from the angels in our lives. So, nothing too outrageous.

He asked me to walk with him to the front of the sanctuary, where he pointed to the three candles on our communion table.  For a little background information, we don’t burn scented candles at our church. We melt them down a bit then place unscented tea lights inside. As it turns out, I learned from our congregant that it was possible for people to see one of the tea lights, and to him that visual was just “cheap and tacky.” He then went on to say when he invited a close friend to attend service with him, the friend replied, “I’m not going to go sit and stare at that tea light!”

Huh?!?

I knew the friend he mentioned; so I wondered to myself where that comment came from, especially since this person had not been to church for a few months. Both men have attended our church for years long before I arrived; and both men have come and gone throughout those years. Still, I just found it amazing that a person would stop coming to church because they could see a tea light sitting in a candle. Over the years I’ve heard many reasons why people stopped attending church; tea light visuals, however, was a new one.

I thanked our congregant for his input, and then watched as he turned and walked away without saying “Goodbye.” I was sincere in my appreciation, too. He made a good point about the tea light being visually distracting from the other two candles, and it is an easy fix; in fact, it’s already done–although I doubt anyone will notice. And yes, I know the deeper issue isn’t really about the tea light at all, but most likely it is about something else going on in these congregants’ lives. For example, these guys enjoy very traditional worship; and we haven’t had very traditional worship service formats for almost three years now. So perhaps the tea light episode is their way of saying they don’t like the changes. And yes, I’ve offered to listen to and speak with both men in the past years. So far, nothing. And that’s OK, too. Forced conversation usually isn’t all that helpful, anyway.

What does bother me about this episode, however, is it represents for me so much of what is troubling about churches today. In his book, The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus, pastor and author Robin Meyers makes this statement: “Here’s the problem: most of what people argue about in the church doesn’t matter.”

Don’t get me wrong; I think its important to closely consider and plan things like music, lighting (tea or otherwise), sermon presentation, order of services, etc. For me, at least part of the reason we attend church is to learn more about how to live, love and be–both as individuals and as a community. We come together to learn more about how to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with the God of our understanding. We come together to learn more about how to love the God of our understanding, our neighbors and ourselves. These are  important reasons to gather; and too many distractions and too much fragmentation during our times together doesn’t help  anyone do anything–but complain, that is. At the same time, when we get too hung up on the aesthetics of church–on “tea light theology,” if you will–we are introducing just as much fragmentation and distraction into our communities of faith as when we totally ignore these things.

Who knows? Maybe we practice tea light theology because its easier to do than actually going out and following the teachings of Jesus.

To be honest, I don’t think God really cares how we sing or recite the Lord’s Prayer, or even if we sing or recite it at all. I don’t think God cares if we use candles, tea lights, disco balls or no light at all. I don’t think God cares how many times a year we observe communion, or even if we observe it at all. I don’t think God cares what color our sanctuaries are, or if we even have buildings. I don’t think it matters at all to God whether I wear robes, clerical collars or a t-shirt. Feel free to add as many items to this list as you want, too. These are the concerns of tea light theology–and they are threatening to drain the church of any legitimate voice we have left in this world.

Remember, justice, mercy and love are at the center of most of the world’s religions–not colors, music, lighting and fabrics. It also doesn’t matter if we’re Christian, Unitarian Universalist, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Humanist, a combination of these traditions and more–whatever. I agree with Robin Meyers when he says, “It’s time to start auditing one another’s classes.” Denomination/Assocication/Religious identity and unity are great–just not at the cost of working together to practice justice, mercy and love.

And what if we can learn to practice justice, mercy and love, and still have great music, lighting, color and fabric choices? Sure! Why not?

Let’s just try to keep our priorities in order, OK?

Blessings on your journeys!