Love Not Fear

What would it be like to turn toward God's love, and away from fear, even fear of Hell?

[I preached this sermon at Nortminster Presbyterian Church in Slidell/Pearl River, Louisiana on May 1, 2016.]

Do You Want to Be Made Well?

Text: John 5:1-18

No one heard his cries.

At least, that’s what he thought.

The Bible doesn’t speak his name, but we’re going to talk a lot about him, so let’s call him Reginald, because I’m pretty sure that’s not his real name.

For 38 years (38 years!), Reginald lay helpless, as the world went by day by day.

Even Job, with all his troubles, had friends who came by and tried to help, clueless as they were.

Not so with Reginald: No friends, no mercy, no help.

No hope.

He lay by the pool whose name in Hebrew and Aramaic means “house of mercy” or “house of grace”, and also “house of shame” or “house of disgrace.”

I imagine Reginald felt lots of shame and disgrace. People who feel less than whole often feel ashamed and disgraced.

I don’t think Reginald felt much mercy or grace.

At least, not until Jesus turned turned the world upside down for him.

*******

If you’re like me, maybe you remember more to this story. In fact (a little bit of trivia here), you might notice that there is no John 5:4 in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, or many other Bible versions.

The missing bit (which spills into part of verse 3), tells a story about how an angel would stir up the waters in the pool from time to time, and whichever sick person won the race to get into the pool first would get healed.

The editors of many newer Bibles leave the story out because it’s just not found in the oldest versions of the Gospel of John. It seems that hundreds of years after the gospel was first put on paper some scribe or priest or monk somewhere decided he needed an explanation for what was going on with the water, and just added one in.

It turns out, there was a good reason why lots of sick people would have made their way to the Pool of Bethesda, and it had nothing to do with angels -- at least not the kind of angels with wings.

*******

The Greeks had a god named Asclepius. (I practiced saying that name.) He was the god of medicine. In the old myths Asclepius could cure people of practically anything.

It was even said that, at least for a while, Asclepius had gone around bringing people back from the dead.

Then Hades, the Greek god of the underworld, complained (jerk!). He was afraid it would get lonely in Hell.

So Zeus, the king of the Greek gods, made Asclepius cut it out.

But anyway, Asclepius had a number of real, honest-to-the-real-God human followers called “therapeutae” (for men) or “therapeutrides” (for women). (I practiced saying those words too…) It meant “someone who heals.” The word “therapy” comes from the same Greek word. The therapeutae and therapeutrides, as followers of Asclepius, were committed to medicine and healing. And, it turns out, they were actually pretty good at it, considering the times.

There was a complex with  a couple of baths in some natural caves just north of Jerusalem. At least one of these baths was dedicated to Asclepius, managed by his therapeutae and therapeutrides. It was near the Sheep Gate, near the Temple of the true God, a gate handy for bringing in sheep for sacrifice. Part of the complex was a pool with four colonnades, separated in the middle by another one. A pool called Beth-zatha or Bethesda.

If you were sick in the time of Jesus, you could do much worse than look for help at this pool. There were people there who might be willing and able to help you.

Angels, of a sort.

Only there are some people whom the angels often seem to ignore:

  • People who are sick and have no way to get care,
  • People who are starving,
  • People who are homeless,
  • People who are addicted  to drugs like alcohol,
  • People who yearn to end their life.

Reginald, kind of the patron saint of the therapeutically ignored, lies there on his mat year after year, sick, friendless, and helpless at the pool of grace and disgrace.

Jesus walks up to this man and asks, “Do you want to be made well?”

Reginald does not answer the question directly. He doesn’t say, “yes.” In fact, he seems to me to be a little confused. He just starts telling Jesus his life story.

Now, in the Gospel of John, it's actually kind of unusual for someone to ask a simple question and get a simple answer. Still, this question (“Do you want to be made well?”) is odd, even for John.

While Jesus heals something like 30 or 40 people in the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), this is the only time he ever uses that phrase. “Do you want to be made well?”

It must have been confusing to hear an obviously Jewish man ask a question like that in this pagan place so near to the Jerusalem temple. And Jesus asked it on the Sabbath, a day Jews dedicated to rest and study, a day where work like healing was, for the most part, forbidden.

Reginald must have thought this might be some kind of test or trap. So he doesn’t say “yes” or “no”. He tells Jesus who he is, or, at least, who he thinks he is: a man defined by 38 years of sickness and rejection.

And Jesus says, “No, that’s not who you are.”

Except not in those words. He says, “Rise, take up your mat, and walk.”

With Christ’s words and God’s healing, the world Reginald was in, the world where he was imprisoned on a mat, sick and pathetic and not worth the attention of anyone, was over. Over. The world was now one where Reginald  was healed, and strong, and a political problem for some of the most important people in Jerusalem, who found him to be a dangerous threat to all that is holy because he’s walking around with a mat on a Sabbath.

And Reginald did nothing to make this happen. Nothing at all. For 38 years, Reginald did nothing because he was sick and alone and powerless, and when Jesus stood over him, Reginald did nothing because he was sick and alone and powerless.

And Jesus healed him anyway.

Although I am far from sick and friendless and poor, I still long for Jesus to ask me, “Do you want to be made well?”

Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes.

There are a hundred parts of me that disappoint me or lessen me or scare me. I’m not stuck on a mat, but I am far from well. I’m still a nerdy weirdo who has a demon on his back continuously shouting in my ear, “You don’t belong here. No one wants you here.” And I am completely helpless to heal myself.

Now, please don’t take this the wrong way, but I think you need healing too. We all do. This is a broken world that breaks people along jagged edges that cut deep. I am broken. You are broken. There’s stuff inside us that we’re carefully hiding ourselves, from the world, even from God.

Reginald, on his mat fumbling out an answer to a simple question that sounded like a trap, is right there with us, except he can’t hide his jagged edges very well. Reginald, sick and helpless and alone, all but hopeless. And even though Reginald sounds kind of whiny and pathetic, and even though Reginald doesn’t really present himself confidently and in the best light as so many people say a man should, and even though Reginald doesn’t say, “Yes, I want to be made well,” Jesus heals him anyway.

“Stand up, take your mat, and walk,” Jesus says.

Jesus heals. Jesus heals.

In that way, Jesus is more like those pagan followers of the Greek god Asclepius than he is like the self-important self-righteous pious religious experts who claim to know God and question his every move.

Jesus heals.

And Jesus is what Asclepius never was: real. The followers of Asclepius could do their best to patch up the wounds, just as we can do, but God in Christ can, and WILL, heal those the angels don’t.

It doesn’t matter if you think you’re incurable, if whatever it is that’s broken in you, whatever it is that’s breaking you, is big and scary and hairy with sharp teeth, Jesus will stand over you and tell you to stand up, take your mat, and walk.

It doesn’t matter if you feel lost and alone, if people call you ugly or strange or creepy or whatever, if people are scared of you. Jesus will stand over you and tell you to stand up, take your mat, and walk.

It doesn’t matter if you disappoint people or if you disappoint yourself. It doesn’t matter if you’ve screwed things up over and over again and you’re so sorry, so terribly sorry. Jesus will stand over you and tell you to stand up, take your mat, and walk.

It doesn’t matter if you ask for healing, or wonder if you really want to be healed, or have given up hope and don’t even want to bother anymore, Jesus will stand over you and tell you to stand up, take your mat, and walk.

Now, from my point of view, my broken, sinful point of view, I’d just as soon God in Christ would just send the Holy Spirit right now to heal those broken parts of me, and those broken parts of you, and those broken parts of us, right now, right now, and we would stand up, healed and new and free from all that is broken and jagged inside us and we would take our mats, and we would walk as whole, healed people. Now. Right now.

[pause]

Nope. Didn’t happen. But still, I know it will.

I could tell you a story now, about some seemingly miraculous healing. But then I could tell you another one about someone who is still waiting, still lying on whatever passes for a mat to them, or someone who has died waiting for someone to make them well.

I don’t think I can prove to you that the risen Christ will heal you, or me, or anyone. I can’t even prove it to myself.

And yet I know it’s true.

But it’s also true that not everyone wants it to be true.

I remember the TV show M*A*S*H, a show about a mobile surgical hospital in the Korean War. Now and then, one doctor or other would get in trouble for healing an enemy combatant, or even an enemy civilian.

For some, and especially those who feel threatened and insecure, healing should only be taken to a point. And the kind of free, unbidden healing given to people who don’t seem to deserve it -- well, that’s way over the line.

I kind of misled you a bit a while back with the Asclepius story. I said that, when Asclepius started raising people from the dead, and Hades (jerk!) complained, Zeus made him cut it out.

That’s a bit of an understatement. In many versions of the story, Zeus kills Asclepius with a thunderbolt, then throws him up into the stars.

You see, the world appears to work as the Greek myths said it does: healing is often the enemy of power, and must have its limits. A healer who heals everyone must die.

Yet, the gospels tell a different story: Jesus, the healer who can heal everyone, does die, but God IS the healer for the sake of all of us. And God, the dead healer, is raised by God’s power.

It doesn’t bother God that Hell would be emptied.

Yes, this is a broken world, but it will be healed. We are broken, but we will be healed.

And, even more, even while we are all broken, we can be part of the Holy Spirit’s healing.

We can echo the words of Jesus and the pagan healers and ask one another “Do you want to be made well?”

And then we can join with Christ and do what we can to heal the world.

John says something else odd, much later.

When Jesus washes the disciples feet at the last supper, the word for “wash” isn’t the usual one.

It’s the Greek word that meant washing in the baths and pools of the followers of Asclepius, it’s a word that means washing in order to be healed.

When Jesus serves his apostles, washing their feet, when Christ serves us, loving us even to the point of dying for us, he is healing us.

I know we’re not completely healed now.

But we will be.

[The title of the sermon was intentionally chosen to look like a Big Bang Theory episode title.]
The Clothing Catastrophe
Preached at Northminster Presbyterian Church on February 7, 2016
Text: Matthew 21:45 - 22:15
Well, one thing to learn from this story is this: If you receive a wedding invitation, you should NOT kidnap, torture, and straight-up murder the mail man. Such conduct is… frowned upon.

I think there's more to find in this text, but you gotta start somewhere.

Did you ever wonder, though, why these people would react so violently to an invitation to a lavish feast?

Last summer, I got to attend a conference of something called 1001 New Worshipping Communities. (The only way you would not already know that is if we hadn’t spoken much in the last six months.) 1001 is a movement in the Presbyterian church to try to find ways to reach outsiders, outliers, and misfits, and bring them into, well, new worshipping communities.

1001 is not a cookbook for developing new churches. It’s not yet another “church self-help program,” only for new churches. 1001 is a community trying to bring Christ’s love and transformation to folks that the world, and even the church, have ignored, forgotten, and/or excluded.

One of the things we did at the conference was hold a Bible study early each morning, before the keynote and all. The individual members varied from day to day, but there were always about twelve of us. Today’s text was one of the ones we studied. You can probably see why.

The idea of God, or even some random king, inviting people off the streets to a wonderful banquet neatly meshes with the hopes and dreams of a group of people who spend their time, careers, hearts and souls on folks who are ignored, forgotten, and excluded, especially if many of these people have themselves been ignored, forgotten, and excluded. At first glance, this is a story of comfort for us.

At first glance, the king is God and the kingdom of heaven is the way things are supposed to be, and God’s banquet is open to all! (Well, at least all those who don’t kill postal employees, but we’ll leave that for the moment.)

But there's a problem with the ending. You know, the part where the king confronts a man who the king thinks isn’t properly dressed. Keep in mind that this guy was on the streets before the banquet, and will be on the streets after the banquet is over. The king walks up to THIS guy and says, “Friend, how’d you get past the bouncer with those ugly duds?” And when the man is silent, the king has him tied up and thrown out. “Many are called,” the king says, “but few are chosen.”

Never mind that, except for the “tied up” part, the man ends up basically no worse off than when the story started. He was outside before, he’s outside now, and he never really “deserved” to be invited anyway.

Never mind that the clothes might have been given to him by the king and he, for some reason, rejected them.

I can’t help but see myself in this underdressed banquet guest. And I told that to the 1001 Bible study.

You see, literally or metaphorically, I don’t wear clothes well. No one has ever called me a “fashionista.” It doesn’t matter if I bought the clothes myself or if someone else got them for me. I can be presentable, but not fashionable.

Even metaphorically, I just don’t see myself as a guy who Jesus took from T-shirts to tuxedos.  I see myself as just as desperate for God, or some random king, to come and bring me into a banquet as when I was twelve years old in confirmation class.

It’s not that I haven’t changed and grown. God’s grace has worked in me, but the main thing it seems to do is show me how much I need God’s grace, and how many people there are out there who need God’s grace, peace, and mercy as well.

The Bible says many times that it is precisely in weakness, in need, in mourning and spiritual poverty and lack of control, it is precisely HERE that God works, precisely in the places where God seems most absent that God is most present.

So if some god, or some random king, wants to tell me that I, or someone like me, isn’t fit for the banquet because we haven’t properly advanced in our discipleship career track, that we don’t belong at the wedding because we don't wear the grace and love of Jesus Christ fashionably enough, then that random king and I, that god and I, we have a problem.

I can’t believe that God would exclude me or people like me from God’s wedding banquet just because I don’t look like or act like or think like everyone else there.

At this point in the Bible study, I took a breath and wondered if anyone else felt that way.

One of the pastors there said to me, “Look, Tim. You don’t have to worry about this, because it says right here, ‘the man was silent.’ That’s not you.”

He has a point, and not just that I refuse to let go of stuff that troubles me in Bible studies.

Maybe it was the man’s silence, and not his suit, that got him thrown out of the banquet.

Remember, when the king asks the man about his clothes, he starts by calling him “friend.”

Maybe the only thing between this man being a friend of the king, and this man being a dangerous lunatic who needs to be tied up, isn’t what he was wearing, but what he was or wasn’t doing or saying.

What if the man had said that the clothes didn’t fit him? What if he said that no one told him there was a dress code when they dropped an invitation in his lap where he sat begging for crumbs? What if the man answered the king’s question (“How did you get in here?”) with “Well, you invited me.”? What if the man said that he was afraid that if he put on the wedding uniform (sorry, wedding CLOTHES), that he’d not really be HIM anymore, that he’d be nothing other than some nattily dressed nobody, another anonymous face in a spiffy crowd? What if he asked the king if he would prefer if he just shot the wine steward in the face like the king’s other friends did?

And what if someone else had come to the man’s defense? There were people all around him. What if someone else took the man’s part, told the king to stop bullying him? What if someone else risked their own comfort and convenience and security to step outside themselves and stand next to this man, stand WITH this man, even if they themselves didn’t really have any problem with the wedding attire?

How would the parable be different if there was less silence?

The 1001 conference had, like many church conferences, time for workshops and time for small group discussions. While I was waiting for my small group to gather, I saw that one of our number (let’s call her Michelle because I forgot her real name) was so angry she was talking to herself.

“Don’t you just DISMISS someone like… Tell YOU a thing or two… Think you’re so important you can just…”

Before we got to whatever it was we were SUPPOSED to be discussing, we asked Michelle what was wrong. She said she was furious about something that happened in the stewardship workshop.

Now, I’d been to a different session of the stewardship workshop the day before, and I thought it was kind of helpful.

The thing was, at Michelle’s session, a black woman had an objection, but was too shy to voice it. The woman sitting next to her spoke for her. The problem was that the woman could not see herself, a black woman, walking up to a probably white rich man on a golf course and saying, “Please, suh, won’t you hep my poor black community?” like some Gone with the Wind field hand asking a favor from Rhett Butler. It wasn’t as much a question of personal humility as it was a question of cultural humility.

The leader (who is white) said, in essence, that he didn’t know about cultural problems like that and moved on to his next point.

At which point, Michelle, who, as she told it, was sitting across the room, stood up and let the leader have it.

“Don’t you just DISMISS her!” she said. “What kind of way is that to treat her? Where do YOU get off just blowing HER off?”

The workshop leader apologized, said he didn’t mean to brush the woman off, but that he didn’t have experience in that situation, that there were others not present who did, and he would be sure to get them in touch.

Still, Michelle thought he was just brushing off the objection with a few more words, which is why she was still seething an hour or so later.

At the small group gathering, we talked and prayed Michelle down from her fury. We let her know that we understood her outrage, but we helped her see that the leader wasn’t out to dismiss or belittle people.

While we were all talking with Michelle, I started to realize something amazing had happened:
  • Someone had a problem, but couldn’t ask about it.
  • Someone else stood with her and asked the question.
  • Then, somebody ELSE (Michelle) stoop up for the other two,
  • and then WE (the small group)  took time and energy to help Michelle, whom we BARELY knew, deal with her anger.

I do not see that kind of thing happening often enough: people gathering around those in danger of being excluded or dismissed. More often it seems, people (myself included) just stay seated and silent, like all those well-dressed street people at the king’s wedding banquet.

Now, I realize that it’s a standard practice for many to consider any king in a parable of Jesus as representing God. I don’t think that’s true here, though.

I mean, this king is a pretty horrible person, and doesn’t really act like the God revealed in Christ’s death and resurrection. Look at him:
  • He has his minions burn down entire cities because someone in there DARED to treat one of HIS servants badly.
  • He lowers the velvet rope to his banquet to let street people in, and then raises it up again for the offense of improper haberdashery.
  • He goes from “Hello, friend!” to “Goons, get him!” in ten seconds like some bipolar mob boss.
  • He’s apparently so disagreeable that not even his best friends could stand to be together with him for a few hours, even stooping to murder to avoid having to THINK about it.

To be honest, when you look at it, the king looks less like God and more like…

… well …

the Pharisees.

That’s why I’ve included a few extra verses in the reading, before and after the parable. The Pharisees knew that in this set of parables Jesus was talking about them.

The Pharisees were the kings of God’s temple, the ones who decided who were the “insiders” and who were the “outsiders,” who were properly dressed and who weren’t. And while they would invite ordinary people into the temple, they had to act and dress the right way if they were going to stay there.

When Jesus said that this story was what the kingdom of God was like, he wasn’t talking about the way the world ought to be, but the way the world was, the kingdom of God on earth. In today’s world, the church.

These Pharisees who would approach Jesus, who wasn’t wearing the wedding clothes they provided, and challenge him, and when he wouldn’t answer them, tie him up and toss him out like a dangerous maniac.
And, unfortunately, if we are honest, we church folk too often act just like the Pharisees, the king in the story.
We good, pious folk often spend time saying how much we love everybody, just like God does, and then make lists of how “those” people are all screwed up: Those Democrats. Those Republicans. Those young people with their Instagrams and their Snapchats. Those old people with their Matlocks and their Andy Griffiths. You know. Those people.

We talk about acceptance, but what we often mean is acceptance for people who look and think and act more or less like us, who accept the invitations we make or at least wear the wedding clothes we provide.

I think the difference is that we know a little better. We know that Jesus entered the banquet with the street people and not with the king and his entourage. We know that none of us are good enough to sit at the banquet, and none of us should keep others from entering in, or throw people out.  If anything, we should go out, leave the banquet, in order to find them.

There are people all over the world, people all over Louisiana, people all over Slidell and Pearl River who feel weird and stupid, excluded and ignored. They often make good church folk very uncomfortable. Maybe they listen to death metal. Maybe they listen to bluegrass. Maybe they listen to bluegrass versions of death metal. Maybe they are geeks or jocks or accountants or gay, queer in the broadest sense of the word.

Many of them don’t come to church or Sunday school, and they ignore our invitations because they suspect that all we’ll do to them is try to turn them into people that look and sound and think like we do. They believe that we will just comb their hair, shine their shoes, and give them nice Christian wedding clothes, and then, if they don’t fit in or refuse to wear the nice clothes we gave them, throw them out, or politely stop talking with them. Jesus may have eaten with sinners and protected prostitutes and gave traitors leadership positions, but that kind of thing is often seen as unreasonable and irresponsible today.

I know. We’re not that kind of church. We don’t want to be that kind of church. Not Northminster. Not the Presbytery of South Louisiana. Not the PC(USA). But the people outside aren’t  going to believe us if we don’t toss aside our comfort and preferences and start doing something different.

  • To share Christ’s love with these “outsiders”, we’re probably going to have to do something different.
  • To show them that they are valued by God and us beyond how useful they may be, we’re probably going to have to do something different.
  • To let them know that even if they aren’t wearing good Christian wedding clothes, they are still people that Jesus died for, we’re probably going to have to do something different.

I don’t know what that “something different” is. It’s certainly going to take different forms for different people, and sometimes this “something different” might not be led by a professional pastor, or even an ordained elder.

1001 is about trying something different. Maybe just a little different (like a traditional church that reaches a small racial or ethnic group). Maybe a lot different, like standing on a sidewalk, handing out chicken wings and taking the hands of prostitutes and drug addicts and praying with and for them.

There have always been Christians who have wanted to reach out to those misfits, but, too often, their ideas and concerns have been sidelined because they don’t come with a good business plan or a seat or a voice at the leadership table.

I want to talk to people who want to reach out to misfit weirdos who don’t know how to dress, but who are probably going to lead us all into deeper communion with Christ. I hope I’m talking to some of them now.

If there is a community of people you love and want to show them that grace, peace, and mercy are theirs from the triune God, let’s talk. There’s a whole community of folks at 1001 New Worshipping Communities, and even in this presbytery,  who would LOVE to help you reach those people you care about. There’s some money available, but more than that, there are PEOPLE available. And you can start with me.

So to recap the lessons in this parable:

  1. Don’t kidnap and murder postal employees.
  2. If you feel left out or left behind, or if you see someone who feels left out or left behind, say something. Say something to us or say something to them, or say something to us AND them. Even if there’s nothing we can do right now, even if there’s no budget or leadership team, let us know so that we can start praying and working.
  3. Join with us and do something different.

We’re coming to the end of a church season that started on January 6 and finishes up Tuesday night. Church folk call it “Epiphany.” Yats like me call it “Carnival.”

An epiphany is a sudden insight that changes the way one thinks about something. Carnival is a time when all kinds of people gather to celebrate.

Let’s change the way all kinds of people think about Jesus and the church, and at the same time, let’s change the way we think about what it takes to gather all kinds of people together to celebrate.

My Preconceptions

Recently, I spent a week at a conference called Pursued by Grace as a representative of the Presbytery of South Louisiana (PSL).  The conference was part of a Presbyterian Church (USA) initiative called 1001 New Worshipping Communities, which I’ll just call 1001 NWC from here on.

I told people before leaving that, at that time, I really had only vague ideas about what 1001 NWC was or how PSL would fit in, or what I was doing there. My pastor, Rev. Peggy Brown, had recommended me, and PSL agreed to send me. Peggy said she thought my interest in new and creative means of worshiping and serving God would make me a good fit. After some discussions with Rev. John Blewitt, who leads the PSL Congregational Development Committee, I got the idea that PSL had spent so much time and energy recuperating from the hurricanes Katrina and Rita a decade ago, that we had at least somewhat neglected doing new things, and founding new churches, and he thought 1001 NWC is a good initiative for us to embrace.

I do love learning things and I do love creativity (both being creative and seeing creativity in others). However, I’m not a pastor or clerk of a session or a theology professor or even an elder currently serving on a session or a presbytery committee. I imagined that there must have been a pretty long list of people who could have gone to the conference that must have turned it down before they got to me. That was a little discouraging.  On the other hand, someone went through that list and got to me, so that was pretty encouraging.

My understanding of 1001 NWC at the start of the week was that it was some kind of new-church-building program with some creative or at least non-traditional edges. Sort of like the New Beginnings program Northminster and many other existing churches had engaged in, only with new churches instead of established ones.

I read through the website and only got confused. I found none of the wording I expected (something like “1001 NWC puts forth the following steps to creating chartered churches in demographically underserved communities.”), and a lot of amorphous phrases like “taking on varied forms of church for our changing culture”.

My friend Rev. Sue Loper told me the day before I left that 1001 NWC wasn’t so much about setting up new churches, as finding new and faithful ways to serve God. In talking with Sue, I began to suspect that something I and some others at Northminster had done would have fit right in to 1001 NWC, had there been a 1001 NWC at the time. More on that in a bit.

(One note: I knew no one at the conference when it started. I met a lot of people there. I’ve forgotten a bunch of names. I apologize to anyone I fail to name or I name incompletely. Your names are important, but my memory is weak.)

What is 1001 New Worshipping Communities?
(and Why That’s the Wrong Question)


1001 NWC is not just about setting up new churches.

It's actually not really about setting up new churches at all, though that sometimes happens.

1001 NWC is about finding new and creative ways to worship God, which means drawing into active participation in God's kingdom the people on the edges, the people who may not fit in the big stone building with the (often white male) pastor who’s more or less in charge. Sometimes that structure works for a community, sometimes it doesn’t. Structure seems to be a tool for this group, not a goal.

1001 NWC is not just evangelism and it’s not just innovative worship concepts and it’s not just “emergent” church and it’s not just young people (“the future of the church”) and it’s not “branding” at all.

In fact, it’s not really an “it.” It’s a “who.”

As far as I could tell as a newcomer to this initiative, 1001 NWC is people. Like they always said “church” should be: not a building but people.

The people at this conference focussed squarely on serving the people they were ministering to, and the people they were ministering with. They were not particularly interested in committees or buildings or budgets or chains of command, but the individual people. If those other things served the people, they embraced them. If they got in the way, they got them out of the way.

I’m sure there is some kind of leadership structure at 1001 NWC, but it was not apparent at the conference. I have heard that there were or are small grants available for new communities, but I didn’t hear the details, and I wasn’t curious enough over the week to ask about them. In short, the administration and financing of 1001 NWC were much like the foundation of a house: vital to the house’s existence, but not the first thing most people see, and certainly not what the house is about.

1001 NWC is people like a guy named Gad who I met at dinner my first night. Gad, who's originally from Congo, works with a group of immigrants in Atlanta. Not just immigrants from Congo, mind you, but immigrants from Sudan and Nigeria and Congo and Uganda and Nepal and Bangladesh and... Well, I don't remember the other ones he listed off. I noted that they were not all from a single African culture (in fact, some of the countries were in Asia). They draw together not to celebrate their own heritages, but to serve each other. They run a youth group and an after-school program. He talked about how he'd love for someone like me to talk to the kids about science, so that they can expand their concept of what careers are possible. He was concerned that these kids saw only very limited possibilities for their future, and wished they could broaden their horizons. I'd love to take the Slidell High School Tiger Robotics team to see them, so that they could see what amazing possibilities Christ has provided for them even now. (If only they weren’t many hours away…)

1001 NWC is people like the pastor from a church on Long Island who was trying to figure out how to transform his congregation, or the black man from Charleston, South Carolina who I met on the shuttle who talked about how the recent crises there have drawn many churches into working together, or the pastor of the new Hope Presbyterian Church in Orlando, whose church holds to this: “God above all. Kingdom above congregation. People above property. Love above doctrinal precision.”

And 1001 NWC is people like Sarah, who, as I understand it, helps lead the movement’s “coaching” community (more on that later), and who is convinced that I’ve already been part of a new worshipping community and will soon start another one. (She’s much more convinced of the latter than I am.)

Awake and Alive/New Song Worship


I found out from talking with Sue and Sarah and a number of other people that a program I once was part of called Awake and Alive and it's associated New Song Worship would have fit right in as one of the 1001 new worshipping communities, and we would surely have gotten support from these people. Unfortunately, 1001 NWC wasn't even around when we started Awake and Alive/New Song Worship, so time travel is/was/will be required.

For those who don't know what Awake and Alive was (and that includes several people who were in my church - Northminster Presbyterian - at the time), Awake and Alive was a group of us (originally all at Northminster) who met mid-week, intentionally in public (at a coffee shop, then a couple of sandwich places, and finally the mall). We spent a lot of time talking about our lives and thoughts, and the kids would often bring homework to work on and sometimes ask for help on. What we were about, though, wasn’t talking, but doing stuff. Awake and Alive was named after a song by the rock group Skillet. (“Awake and Alive” is also nearly the opposite of “sick and tired.”)

Awake and Alive was never chartered by the session, and, while we were respectful of the session’s responsibilities and authority, we didn’t report to any session committee or the session as a whole. The pastor at the time was invited to join us as anyone else might, but was told that he wouldn’t be in charge. We worked as a pseudo-independent community working to develop our own discipleship and, we hoped, help kindle a fire for Northminster and others.

Awake and Alive was intended to be emergent. Not in the sense of the “emergent church” but in the sense that it would be formed and re-formed by the changing discipleship of its members. It changed as the community changed. I’ve been to SO MANY SERMONS saying how scary change is.  Awake and Alive embraced change. We felt that lack of change was far scarier. Eventually, Awake and Alive died off (though it still lives in my heart) for a number of reasons, but mostly because all things on earth save God’s love and faithfulness are ephemeral, and sometimes, fighting death does more damage than dying.

At Awake and Alive’s best, we met, drew strength and communion from our fellowship, and worked to do stuff like sing Christmas carols at a retirement home, or have a board game afternoon at church, or give out water at a Carnival parade, or wear pajamas to church, or run  New Song Worship, where we hoped to reach out to the misfits and outcasts by crafting worship that was always changing and never either "conventional" or "contemporary."

New Song Worship was lay-lead. As far as I can remember, no pastor ever even attended. We met once a month or so, and each service was different. We weren’t looking for the optimum worship experience; we were looking for new and different ways to praise God. It was play. We did not always use “technology”. We once met outside among luminaries and candles for Pentecost; we ate different kinds of food as the different parts of one service; we once had a service where we listened to a sermon by Martin Luther King; we once had a service where the entire thing, from Call to Worship to Benediction, was done using secular songs that made no explicit mention of God or Christ (save for the first one, “One of Us” by Joan Osborne). (Since we were using the sanctuary for New Song Worship, we did seek permission from the session for this activity.)

The truth is, though, that many people even in our own church didn't understand what Awake and Alive was about, thinking it was just a handful of us telling jokes at the mall. I think that was partly due to my inability at the time to clearly enunciate what Awake and Alive was, and partly due to the fact that Awake and Alive was always joyfully changing. I believe that, if we had been able to access a community like 1001 NWC at the time, we could have better explained ourselves, and perhaps found ways to minister even more broadly.

I wonder how many people in south Louisiana have their own off-center discipleship or worshiping communities, or how many are thinking about it. I would love to be a part of anything that supports these folks and these communities, and shows them how valuable they are.

Vulnerability

One thing that kind of hit me in the face at the conference was how hard this work is. These people are tired and frustrated and often nearly in tears. What they do and are often don't fit into the molds we've made for “church” and “worship.” They don't look for the huge demographic. They go to bars and nightclubs and don't pull out their megaphone. Many of them have been treated like failures or interlopers.


No one, and I mean no one, not even the invited speakers, spent time promoting their own successes. No one, and I mean no one, pretended that they knew all the answers. Everyone was broken and everyone knew that only Christ’s grace was holding them together.

I’ve been to several different national or regional church conferences: the Montreat Youth Conference, the Montreat Worship and Music Conference, and several editions of a now-apparently-defunct Montreat youth leader conference called “The Blaze,” as well as a number of smaller presbytery conferences (mainly for youth ministry). I love youth, youth ministries, and youth ministers, but I’ve never ever ever seen this level of vulnerability and trust, even trust of people like me whom they’ve never met. I can’t begin to tell you how wonderful that is.

And sometimes, just sometimes, wondrous things happen to people who are just doing their best, despite all kinds of difficulties.

At Monday’s worship, Keith Gunter told a story about a young man whose family belonged to a mainline conservative church. I’ll call the young man Mike, since I wasn’t taking notes and I don’t remember his name. Mike was a musician, as I remember it, and Keith had befriended him. Keith heard Mike was playing a gig at a local bar, and Keith went there and watched Mike perform, and drank a beer with him.

The pastor at Mike’s church called Keith. “I understand that you went to such-and-such bar last night to hear Mike, and drank and told jokes with him and his friends.”

“Yes,” Keith said, ready for some kind of trouble.

“Thank you,” the pastor said. “I couldn’t do that or I’d be fired.”

Many of the people at this conference were doing the kinds of ministry that might get other pastors fired. Praise God.

Workshops


I attended three workshops at the conference. John and I had worked out which ones would be of most interest to PSL and myself before I left.

Stewardship


The stewardship workshop wasn’t really what I was expecting.

We began with a Bible study about stewardship. To be honest, that was what I was expecting. Just about every time I’ve ever had serious discussion with someone about stewardship, it started with a Bible study.

After the study, Jon Moore, a representative from the Presbyterian Mission Agency, presented a very interesting slide show. He provided notes, much to my gratitude.

A few of his points, or my notes about his points:

  • The world is awash in money… it is not awash with accessible, transformational ministry experiences.
  • Grants lead to nothing; gifts by individuals lead to subsequent giving.
  • Individuals want to be viscerally involved or find vicarious participation.
  • Donors need ministry as much as ministry needs donors.
  • Commitment by leadership leads to commitment by others.
    • Sacrifice begets passion which begets passion in others
  • We need to show a path to impact.
    • If I give you $1, what do you do with it, and how does that affect the ministry?
  • Giving can often be like grandparenting: Grandparents support and help people that they do not want living with them.

Maybe that last one needs more explanation. As I understand it, the idea is that some people will support a ministry they don’t personally want to work in. For instance, maybe they love what the ministry does, but maybe it means lots of walking, and they have mobility problems. They love the work, but can’t or won’t do it themselves. Jon said that these people can be great resources, much like grandparents are great resources.

My take on all this is that when we’re asking for money and when we’re receiving money, and when we’re giving money, we should focus on the people we are ministering to, and the people are ministering with.

Just like everything else at 1001 NWC.

Starting New Worshipping Communities


This workshop provided a kind of structure and some published resources which might be of use in forming a new worshipping community.

However, as the leader Brian Clark pointed out, the framework has to be very loose. In my words, we’re looking for creativity and responsiveness, and those things love blank pages. But creativity also requires some starting point, and these materials seem to serve as that.

I haven’t read the studies, but I do have a few copies, and I’m told the book is available online.

One thing this workshop really helped me consider was that I really had no idea what I was going home to. In particular, I was unclear whether PSL had an existing structure that I was to be a part of, or whether we were creating something new. Not knowing what my role would be made it difficult for me to place this workshop in context.

I’ve spoken briefly with John after I returned, and I’m going to meet with him and the rest of the presbytery in the near future to try to answer these questions.

I feel no hesitation in e-mailing Brian with more questions once I better understand our situation.

Coaching


This was a huge surprise. I honestly didn’t know anything about “coaching” in this context. Had I been forced to guess, I would have said that coaches were like consultants, similar to the representatives from New Beginnings that visited our church and told us what they saw, and (unlike New Beginnings) what to do to fix it. (New Beginnings intentionally avoids giving solutions, allowing the churches to work out their own.)

In other words, I thought that maybe “coaches” were kind of like church self-help gurus.

I was pleased to find out that “coaching” in this context is nothing like that.

To begin with, the relationship with the coach was largely one-to-one: the leader or pastor to the coach. While the coach might meet with the session or the congregation, the meeting would only be to provide context in helping the leader or pastor.

The point of the coach, as the workshop leaders Danny and Sarah made clear, was to get out of the way and help the leader find his or her own path. They would provide an outsider to listen to and work with the leader, giving an outside perspective, but focusing on helping the leader work out their discipleship themselves.

“Coaching” may be very close to, or even identical with “spiritual direction.” (I’m not familiar with either of these beyond their names, so I have no comment beyond the fact that someone at the workshop who did seem to know “spiritual direction” well indicated that she thought they were very similar.)

The coaching is confidential, and defined by open-ended questions and creating space for the Holy Spirit within the coached.

Coaches cost money: $250 a quarter plus travel if done through the 1001 NWC program. They said that most of the times, presbyteries shoulder the cost.

When we were doing New Song Worship, I would very very much have benefitted from having a coach. New Song Worship required a lot of creative work, and I did the lion’s share of that. It would have been very very helpful to have someone outside the community to help me focus that energy and maybe find ways of achieving what I thought of as the goal of New Song Worship (sharing God’s love with people on the edge who don’t seem to fit in anywhere; that is, evangelism through worship).

Of course, one of the points that helped us sell New Song Worship to a hesitant session was that it would cost the church zero dollars. Sara, Danny, and the others suggested that there were means to maybe help with the finances at the start, possibly through presbytery support or grant money.

At any rate, I think coaching would be invaluable, especially to people starting new creative edge-reaching ministries, because doing that kind of work seems too difficult to try to do on your own.

Using Demographics Differently

There was also an “exhibit floor” with a number of booths for different seminaries and ministry organizations. One of those was Mission Insite, a company that specializes in church demographics. PSL is a customer of Mission Insite. I’m sure we’ve used their products at Northminster, and, to be honest, I’ve been underwhelmed.


I talked with Mission Insite’s Peter Wernett about my misgivings. I’m certain by his reaction that he hears that a lot, but I worked hard to make clear that I wasn’t attacking him or his company or the idea of church demographics. It just seemed to me that demographics studies just cause every church in the city to go after the same group of people who make up the largest demographic.

I’m just not that interested in spreading the word of God to people who are already hearing the word of God from every other church in town. I'm far more interested in ministering to people who get forgotten, the folks that don’t make up the biggest demographic group.

However, talking with Peter, who frequently told me that all Mission Insite does is gather data, we worked out another way of approaching the demographics: from the bottom.

What if we looked at the demographic reports not from the top two or three demographic groups in an area, but from the bottom 2 or 3, or even the middle 2 or 3?  These groups may not be courted or served by anyone.

Serving those people is not the way to make tons of money or members (unless the groups are the Fabulously Wealthy and the Extremely Well-Connected). Still, maybe we'd be reaching the lost and the lonely and the left-out.

Other Notes


I didn’t mention earlier the broad diversity of the group. I met people from Africa and India and California. We had prayers and songs in English and Spanish and Portuguese and Korean. I met young people and older people. I met pastors, theology professors, commissioned ruling elders, and just folks who wanted to help. It was actually pretty great to be the middle-aged white guy at a religious conference and be one of the minority.

I also want to mention an amazing pastor named Tamara John, who does a ministry in a trailer park. She lives with them in California and serves them. When I heard this, I told her, “THAT SOUNDS INCREDIBLE!” and she replied happily matching my tone of appreciation, “YEAH, DOESN’T IT?”

And I NEED to mention Faith Works Wings and Prayer. Dian was a social worker and an elder in New Jersey, ready to leave her inner city home, when she felt love for the prostitutes and pimps and drug dealers and drug users wandering the streets. There was a church every block, but for these folks, they might as well have been parking lots. She got a group together to go out on a weekday afternoon and pray one-on-one with anyone who wandered by. She’d give them a chicken wing after the prayer. When the weather got cold, they opened the church and served more food.  They work to help these people, not belittle them or judge them. She had a hundred stories about them. I am honored to have met her.

We had a really cool Bible study, which, like the best Bible studies, really can’t be summarized briefly afterward. The diversity and faithfulness and vulnerability of the group made for some fantastic discussions.

We ate together A LOT, which, as a New Orleans boy, I really liked. I made a point of eating with different people as often as I could.

Conclusion


This was a fantastic opportunity for me. I’m looking forward to where the Spirit will lead me next. I hope that I can help support people in PSL who look to find creative ways to serve the people on the edges, or who embrace new ways of being a church. Maybe Sarah was right, and I’ll help start another community, only this time better hooked in to all 1001 NWC has to offer.

I am completely grateful to Peggy, John, and PSL for making this happen.

About this blog

These are my thoughts about my Christian discipleship, including my occasional sermons, and ideas I get from reading the Bible.

Please feel free to e-mail me (Mr. Tim). It's gmail, so if it's spam, you're probably wasting your time.
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