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Thursday, December 18, 2014

In Celebration of the "Average" Church

You may have never attended an "average" church.

But you've certainly seen one.

Older buildings, often made of dark brick - with old-fashioned roofs that slope down from the center - possibly a bell tower and a steeple.

Maybe it's on the corner of that road you always drive down to get to work.

St. Stephen's. Redeemer. Hope. Resurrection. St. Thomas. St. Vincent. Beautiful Savior.

The names recall an age gone by, not just the 1950s, when neighborhoods walked together to Sunday morning worship, but also an age 2,000 years ago, when the world was changed by the witness of Stephen, the martyr, and Jesus' resurrection from death on a cross in Jerusalem brought freedom and life to a world hungry for God's love and redemption.

Their parking lots are small, if they have one - and in downtowns they often don't.

A hopeful banner hangs near the doors: "Join us for worship!" "Sunday School: 10 a.m."

If you've never been in an "average" church, or even if you have, long ago - you may wonder what it's still there for, after all. This Jesus who is coming again this Christmas, could he be housed in such a monument to the past -  a place often carried on by an ever-dwindling number of retirees who lament the lack of young people to serve on Altar Guild and tidy up the pews ...

The median American church has 75 regular participants in worship on Sunday morning. More than half of American congregations worship between 7-99 people each Sunday. They are strikingly homogeneous. In 2010, just 13.7 percent of congregations reported being "multiracial." Thirty percent of congregations still didn't have a website in 2010.

Reading these statistics, it may seem easy to despair - to drive by one church, and then another - to attend worship there on Christmas Eve - and wonder why you bothered.

Let me tell you why you - why I, a pastor of one of those "average" churches - still bother ...

A week ago I attended one of the most inspiring events of my life. I was surrounded by 43 of the brightest voices for American Christianity today: authors, founders of non-profits and non-traditional churches, activists, speakers, well-known bloggers and spokespeople.

Their communities of faith were anything but average: a hip-hop church in gritty Chicago, a Mennonite community in Raleigh, N.C., serving people experiencing homelessness; a woman and her family who were living amongst Somali refugees in Minneapolis; a 26-year-old dynamic founder of an organization working to combat sexual violence in sub-Saharan Africa; an author working to bridge the divide between the gay community and American Evangelicalism -- I could write chapters about the amazing folks I met there and the work they're doing to put Jesus' Gospel to action in America today, particularly when it comes to issues of justice.

While I heard their stories, I thought back to my seemingly average existence at my seemingly average church. My exclusively white family. Our weekly trips to Costco, Target, and Trader Joe's. Preppy sweaters and Christmas Dinners at church and a mundane American existence.

I wondered if an "average" American pastor at an "average" American church in the suburbs could make Jesus' words come to life, too: "he has anointed me to bring good news to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free ... "

In a year of Eric Garner and Ferguson and Peshawar and Boko Haram and Janay Rice - could the "average" American church speak Jesus' words of truth -- and would it make a difference?

In the midst of our time together last week a musician from the group came up to share a song, filling in the silence of our tears and shared prayers.

He told us about an evening he had once in Bosnia, in the aftermath of a war so terrible that they were burying corpses along the side of the highway; in the patch of grass next to the on-ramp - because all the graves were full and people continued to die.

He walked the streets that day filled with despair and longing for a taste of Gospel hope, of a reminder that death would not have the final say and Christmas - a Savior - might be born again, even in Sarajevo.

As the shovels broke the frozen ground to bury another body, he came upon a choir practice - perhaps in an "average" church building, on an average street in an average Bosnian neighborhood that had been torn apart by war, hatred, and death.

On this average night in this "average" neighborhood, they were having choir practice. And somehow voices from ethnic groups and religious backgrounds who had once wanted to slaughter one another were singing together verses of hymns about Jesus.

In the shadow of newly dug graves and unremitting death, when he heard their voices, he found he could hope again.

Choir Practice.

The words sent ice cubes down my spine.

See, at my "average" church, we have choir practice, too.

In fact on this very night our little "average" choir will gather together for choir practice. They'll listen to a conductor who immigrated from the Ukraine, where she was baptized in the middle of the night as to not alert the Soviet government. Men who had been bankers and advertisers and technicians would sing with women who'd been florists and administrative assistants and non-profit executives. A Russian immigrant would play the piano and a soloist from Israel would practice her verses in English, the language she was still struggling to learn.

Choir Practice. It seemed such a mundane, "average" part of being Church in America and yet in Bosnia Choir Practice became an instrument of justice and reconciliation. Choir Practice became a powerful witness to a new way of being in the world, where Power did not hold the final stakes and instead Love did and voices that weren't all that certain on their own could come together into beautiful harmony and tell the story of a Savior again and again and again and it never was quite average because He was never quite average and whenever He gets involved, peoples' lives are changed and justice rolls down like waters and righteousness flows like an overflowing stream, even in an "average" church.

Maybe this Christmas you're feeling like that "average" American church; on the corner of an "average" street in an "average" suburb with an "average" choir. Maybe you're thinking you can't make a difference for justice - for peace - unless you leave and do something grand in a grand place where things matter and people do grand things.

Maybe you'll go and do that.

But for now, remember that God chooses God's instruments with care. God chooses Choir Practice as an instrument of justice and reconciliation. God chooses the "average" American church as a place where an alternative way of living can still be lifted up - a way of giving and not only receiving; a way of hope, and faith, and love.

If you think you're average or your church is average and because of that you don't matter - you're wrong.

Don't forget the Christmas story. Jesus was born in Bethlehem - an "average" suburb of Jerusalem.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Christmas 2014: Hope in the Shadow of Ferguson and Ray Rice

Last night my husband Ben and I decided it was time to put the Christmas tree up. It was Dec. 3 and in three weeks it would be Christmas Eve so it had to be now.

It was our first tree in 10 years of dating and three years of marriage, and it turns out it takes longer than you'd think to unwind each and every tiny green branch of artificial pine, wrapped and boxed thousands of miles away in China.

With our 2-year-old Jake looking on - needing "mommy help" approximately every 4 seconds, we got the tree up and then had to race upstairs before we passed Jake's threshold from "I'm tired" to "I'm so tired I refuse to ever go to sleep."

It was close, but we made it. Then while washing my face I noticed a crack in the side of the bottle, and soap streamed all over the bathroom floor. I ran downstairs to wash the rug, brushing past Ben, who was standing on a kitchen chair trying to nail our mistletoe ball to the ceiling.

When I came back up from the laundry room he looked aggrievedly towards me, frustrated by the impossibility of this silly mistletoe ball and a slippery kitchen chair, and suddenly one foot went out from under him and he crashed to the floor, twisting the same ankle he sprained on Thanksgiving, missing the final step in his parents' basement.

We were exhausted, and Christmas seemed elusive this year. A week ago we'd sat in this same living room and watched as Bob McCulloch, prosecuting attorney for St. Louis County, dispassionately blamed first the media and then the eyewitnesses, tersely denying Michael Brown's family and America at least a chance at the airing out of evidence in a public trial of police officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed the 18-year-old Brown in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 9.

As I wrote at the time, the whole incident seemed to play out an old American script of white police forces given free reign in predominately black communities. I wasn't convinced that Wilson was entirely in the wrong, but given the history - and the fact that a man had died - it seemed heartbreaking to see an entire community dismissed by a few words from the powers that be.

Ferguson wasn't only about race but about power - about the ways American society conspires to protect the powerful, even in the case of injustice - and as a defeated-looking President Obama addressed the nation last week following McCulloch's statement, he looked as though he'd all but given up. He'd once written that hope was audacious, and in the wake of Ferguson, and riots, and a sense of injustice, hope seemed not only audacious but unfounded.

Three days after McCulloch read the Ferguson grand jury decision, another case was decided in favor of protecting the powerful, at the cost of injustice to the oppressed.

This time the powerful entity was not the white police department of Ferguson, Mo., but an African American NFL running back. Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice won his appeal to the league to be reinstated, after commissioner Roger Goodell in September announced an indefinite suspension.

You may remember Ray Rice from the video: that video, where the 206-pound football star is seen dragging his then-fiance, Janay Palmer, out of the elevator. Palmer had passed out after a violent altercation with Rice; he punched her in the face and knocked her out. Then he dragged her out.

It happened, as these things tend to do, in a media frenzy on ESPN and TMZ. Everyone was watching the video, in that sort of sick voyeuristic pleasure that we take in seeing horrible things happen but not to us.

I never did watch it, but I could see the fear in her eyes at the press conference.

At the time, the NFL was all: "We stand against domestic violence," and the Ravens removed Rice's jersey from the pro shop and the league released commercials featuring female fans.

Janay knew, though, that like Michael Brown - she was up against money, power, and influence. Her hope was not only audacious but unfounded, and so she gambled with her life and stood by his side. It was the safe bet, because just two months later - fans in fantasy leagues across the nation were adding Rice back on to their roster as he quietly won his appeal to play football again.

What about that thing that happened this fall, that video, that girl? No one really remembered or cared. In the world today power wins and hope seems worse than audacious; it seems stupid.

***

Last night, Jake safely asleep in his crib, I came back downstairs and my sprained-ankle husband had somehow managed - miraculously - to finish it all himself. Our stockings were hung on the TV stand with care, and he was waiting under the mistletoe for a Christmas kiss.

He just couldn't get the star to stick on top of the tree; it kept falling and he said this time if it fell again he was taking it off and throwing it out.

He jammed that 8-dollar Target special into that fake Chinese pine branch as hard as he could, and this time as he stepped down from the kitchen chair, he didn't twist his ankle, and the star didn't fall.

I wound up the manger scene snow globe and its tinny voice sang the first and last verses of "Away in a Manger."

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed ... And take us to heaven to live with you there.

Over and over again it played.

The lights were low and the silver 8-dollar Target star was bright. "Away in a Manger" played on and the snow globe whirled with snow and I sat there silently.

I couldn't speak. I couldn't move.

My eyes were drawn, irresistibly, to that silver styrofoam star.

It drew my heart up, swelling into my throat; and I imagined how those wise men in the East must have felt the first time they saw it. Inexplicably they followed it into unfamiliar land, without guarantee of safety or security. They followed it because ultimately they knew that hope would not disappoint them, that God does not protect the powerful but lets the oppressed go free, that God brings new life where we thought was only death.

We know that hope does not disappoint us, even in the shadow of Ray Rice's return to football, and Bob McCulloch's dismissal of justice in Ferguson - because God turns earthly power on its head. He uses the weakest entity imaginable: an impoverished newborn baby born to an unmarried, uninsured, migrant couple - part of an ethnic and religious group that was ruled by a faraway empire who held all the power.

God laughed in the face of Rome and he took the Cross and said I'll show you a thing or two about Power: it's fed by life and not by death; by hope and not by fear; by love and not by hate.

Hope was reborn in Jesus underneath the star. When I looked at that silly styrofoam star last night I remembered Christmas. It caught me. It stopped me. It reminded me that - all evidence to the contrary - what wins in the end is not earthly power but faith, hope and love.