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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

What Families Want - and how the Church can Help

Churches have spent millions attempting to cater to the needs of the young families in their communities.

Come here! Bring your kids! We have a replica-sized Noah's Ark with real, live animals - a coffee shop that sells Pumpkin Spice lattes - cupholders in the chairs and state-of-the-art acoustics.

From a millennial mom: this stuff is great. We like it, especially the lattes. But what we really want - what we really need - might not cost a thing.

***

When I started about a year ago as Pastor of a small Lutheran church in the Chicago suburbs, one of my first priorities was to re-start the moms group that had been meeting at the church.

At one time it had served almost as a preschool drop-off, later it had been held down by one more mom and her friends, and as their children grew up; no one came to fill the void.

I wanted to make it more than a drop-off, though - I wanted it to be Christian with a Capital C. I made some tongue-in-cheek flyers with a black and white photo of a crying baby holding a Bible, and I called it Babies and Bibles.

Then, on a few Thursday mornings, I brought Jake to the church. A few curious moms emailed and showed up, but it never really took off.

Meanwhile, I missed the close-knit moms group I had in California, where Jake was born.

I was in the process of giving it all up for awhile, when one day as I drove to church God spoke to me:

"Why are you holding this at the church?" God asked. "It should be at your house."

As usual, God made a lot of sense. Our house had more places to sit right among toys for the kids. It had space for nursing and a kitchen where we could share goodies. We didn't have to work around the church schedule, and it made sense to open the group to my neighborhood - which just happened to be full of babies.

I thought back to my moms group in California. We'd all met at a weekly parenting class organized by the hospital, and now that the babies were 6 months old, we had to start paying each week. My friend, Alyssa, told her husband this - and he just shook his head.

"Why are you guys paying to get together? Just hang out at each other's houses."

The suggestion was so simple and yet it turned our group from a casual, occasional bunch of overprotective mothers into an intimately connected group of friends. At root - what we most needed as moms didn't cost a thing. We didn't need another class about baby dentistry or reading to your 2-week-old. What we most needed was each other, for no reason other than we lived in the same community and had children the same age.

We didn't have a whole lot in common. I was the outlier from the Midwest, which everyone else considered flyover country. Some women spoke Japanese in their homes, others balanced tech careers or real-estate or husbands who worked in the Middle East. We probably never would have otherwise met, yet we changed each other for the better.

So it was clear. Bibles and Babies would be held at my house. I even changed the name, to reflect the street that wrapped around our neighborhood, and to welcome moms of other faiths to the group. As a Pastor who loves Jesus deeply, this was counter-intuitive. Everything we do has to be about Jesus, right?

But sometimes being about Jesus starts with His grace rather than His name.

Last week, we had our second moms group at my house. We haven't gotten out the Bible yet, but the Word was present nonetheless. See Jesus talked a lot about the Kingdom of God, about how all were included and all the normal rules about society and who eats with who and who is first and who is last get reversed in this special community of Jesus Christ. And every once in awhile; it usually doesn't cost a thing - we get to experience this community.

I experienced it last week. In the warmth of my next-door neighbors who brought their babies of all ages; in the Latino woman from across the street who lives in military housing and whose husband had gratefully returned from deployment unscathed.

In the grandmother who came from a nearby suburb and brought Hungarian nuts for all of us to try.

In the woman from the apartments across town, who came even though she got lost and had just a half hour to spend before children's doctor appointments.

In the clinician who came from the million-dollar neighborhood just a few blocks south.

In the Russian woman who shared an almond kringle with the group, and whose daughter wore perfectly coordinated fur boots.

We may never have met if we didn't live near each other and have children the same age. And we found out that some of the most athletic moms had babies who were late to walk. And that it's hard for all of us to entirely eliminate TV. And that balancing career and work and spouse and babies is worth more than anything in the world but it also makes us tired, and we were so glad we knew other moms for support.

As a Pastor, looking out over too many empty pews on too many Sunday mornings, I'd often wondered: what do they want? The families who I meet at swimming lessons and brush elbows against during pick-up at daycare? What can we do as a church?

It's no mystery. Families today want what families - and human beings - have always wanted. We long for deep, real, genuine, simple community.

Today through Facebook and Google and Wikipedia and DVR -- we have access to nearly limitless knowledge and information. If we want to converse with our interest group, we can fill out online comments or join an online community or Facebook group.

We can Skype our relatives and friends across the world, and we can watch documentaries at the tip of our fingers, about Genesis and Creation and Quantum Physics.

Ultimately, I think what families - and human beings - want today is not more learning, more groups, more programs, more how-to's -- what they want, what I want, is real community in our real communities.

The Christian church started in believers' homes in Greece, in Rome, in Turkey. People of all backgrounds gathered together and shared a meal. It was radical then and it's radical now.

So what can the church do? We can get out of our venerated, beautiful buildings and into one another's homes. Invite people over and just spend time together. There will be opportunities for Bible Study and prayer, but first community must form again.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The 2014 Mid-Term Election: What does Jesus say?

I'll never forget the time I was handed a Voting Guide when I walked into church on Sunday morning.

It was 2008 and I was a 23-year-old single woman, attending a large Southern Baptist congregation in Florida for the very first time.

The high school football coach I'd just written a profile on for the front page of the sports section had recommended I attend his church. He was, I'd ascertained, a good man and a genuine Christian. Plus, he and all the other football coaches from the area attended church here. There was the potential of additional scoops, plus an opportunity to make friends - or more - with some of the younger assistant coaches.

It was an impressive campus, all palm trees and white arches. We sang some familiar music and to be honest I don't even remember the sermon.

I remember the seemingly harmless Voters Guide. It was 2008. On the second page, listed in alphabetical order, was the man who would become our nation's first black president.

BARRACK OBAMA

It could've been a simple typo, an auto-correct. But as we were all told to bow our heads and pray for awhile to end abortion, I figured out this little Voters Guide might have a slight political agenda. And perhaps that little agenda might have contributed to them not bothering to spell the Democratic candidate's name correctly.

Much as I would have loved going to the church of the football coaches, I couldn't go back after that.

Lest you think this is just conservative Christianity's problem - I've seen it on the liberal end as well. Pastors and leaders unable to even conceive of a person who follows Jesus casting a vote for the Republicans.

My Facebook news feed this Wednesday following the Republican wave mid-term election was filled with laments and lack of trust. There were a few cheers mixed in there, but as a former journalism student and a female pastor who has lived in Illinois and California, you can imagine I might see a few more liberal posts.

Rampant among the posts was the utter disbelief that any person elected as a Republican would have any merit to govern.

Meanwhile, as I worked out at the gym this afternoon, you couldn't help but see the smug smiles on the faces of the FOX News hosts.

***

Where is Jesus in all of this? Where is God during election week?

Sometimes when I read the vitriol from either side, I find myself empathizing with the 78 percent of my age group who didn't bother to vote on Tuesday. I think many of us just end up feeling disgusted with it all.

Somewhere along the line - maybe it was the cable news networks and political blogs and PACS and ... who knows - it seems we as a country reached the conclusion that the two major political parties have to be diametrically opposed - that to like one is to hate the other. That to support one is to have a sense of utter distrust for the other.

That just doesn't make sense.

There will, as we've seen, be scandal and lying and utter mismanagement and fraud from both political parties. Sometimes one will seem to be more transparent than the other, and sometimes one will seem mired in stupidity - but ultimately the pendulum will always swing back the other way.

Since I got the right to vote in 2003, I've seen dramatic swings in elections and advantages. In 2004: Advantage: Republicans. 2006: Edge: Democrats. 2008: Democratic. 2010: Republican. 2012: Democratic. 2014: Republican.

I think behind these dramatically changing political tides is the general disgust or frustration that most of us feel with our politics. I can empathize. In my moves from solidly red districts in Florida and Kansas to swing state Nevada and blue California to blue of an altogether different kind in Illinois -- I've felt my own internal pendulum swing. Like many young people I was caught up in the excitement and dream of President Obama in 2008.

Like many young people I've found myself disillusioned in the past six years.

We drift from one party to the other. Yes, this party is the Golden One - they will save us this time.

***

After my sophomore year of college I had the privilege of serving a congressional internship for a moderate Republican from Minnesota. He had always won huge margins and was known for working across the aisle. His staff was dedicated and honorable. I worried that summer I'd lose my faith in politics but instead I gained respect for what it meant to be an elected official - all the while keeping under wraps my moderately Democratic leanings. I think I whispered it once to a staffer, who didn't seem to mind.

Such an amicable environment and respect across the aisle seems almost unimaginable in many places today. Districts have been drawn and redrawn so many times that many are barely even contestable by the minority party. Many Americans live in ideological ghettos: our Twitter feeds and Facebook news feeds are dominated by those who think like us. Our towns are increasingly dominated by one party or the other. When you don't know anyone who is a Democrat - or anyone who is a Republican - it's easy to demonize entire groups of people.

***

As a Pastor, I've seen the office of ministry just outright abused time and time again for the purpose of politics -- not just in the "Barrack" Obama gaffe at that Baptist congregation in Florida.

Whether it's subtle or screaming, the dismissal of an entire group of people from our churches is inexcusable: whether we're dismissing Republicans or Democrats.

We walk a fine line, of course, because sometimes Jesus does call us to political action: to advocate for the oppressed - to loosen the bonds of the captives - to allow all people dignity, life and freedom.

Jesus' dictate of loving your neighbor offers a sharp critique to an extreme Libertarian position, because it requires us to consider other folks besides ourselves when making political decisions.

Jesus' insistence on His way critiques an extreme liberal social school of thought, which assumes that through human goodness and strong government we might achieve heaven on earth.

His death on the Cross flies in the face of any political policy that claims to realize what only God can promise.

Jesus stands over the polls, I believe, and he watches us vote and he bids us to remember the words of the prophet Micah: "What does the Lord require of you? But to do justice. And to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God."

I pray our newly elected officials: Republicans and Democrats, consider abiding by Jesus' words. Do Justice in your office. Love kindness, even across the aisle and even love groups who don't support you.

Walk humbly. Admit that sometimes the other side might have a better idea, and that through collaboration the best idea might be allowed to flourish.

***

I don't think Jesus is just scolding or admonishing us, though, when he watches Americans vote - as about 83 million of us decided to do on Tuesday.

I think there's still a part of him that's proud - that's glad.

In the midst of FOX News and MSNBC and preening pundits, we often forget that a peaceful transfer of power, as happens nearly every two years in Congress, is impossible in many countries across the world.

We forget that in simply being able to go to the polls and have our votes counted, we've already experienced something amazing.

And despite our bickering and imperfections and allegations - politics has done some good things in America.

On Tuesday in a Chicago suburb I stood in line to vote in front of an African-American man.

As we waited for the folks in front of us to figure out a mishap in the new electronic voting machines, we shared a smile about choosing the wrong time to come to vote.

When I walked out of the polling place five minutes later, a thought struck me.

One hundred fifty years ago, neither one of us would have been able to vote at all. By our mere presence in the polling place, we were doing something remarkable - we had chosen the right time to vote after all. And returning to the polls this year, despite all the corruption and all the lies and all the disappointments - our presence there reminded me that Jesus' hope is burning bright in America after all in 2014.