Pastors’ Blog

Sharing David Lose’s “Terrifying Thought”

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More on the question of how we do church/the future of the church: A challenging set of questions raised by David Lose, one of my favorite writers and the president of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.  He calls this, “A Terrifying Thought,” posted today:

“So what if all the decline our congregations and denominations have experienced in recent decades has little to do with a failure of leadership (what congregational leaders fear) or changes in theological or political stances (what more conservative church leaders assert) or a degenerate or disinterested generation of believers (what people in the pew too often feel) or with any of the other things we usually attribute it to. What if the decline is simply the result of a massive cultural shift? That is, what if we now live in a world where the emerging generation a) has tons of options for ways to think about and make sense of their lives, b) has way less time for things that don’t feel purposeful or worthwhile, and c) (and as a result of a and b) just don’t do things because their parents did but instead only commit to things that make a tangible difference in the world, both theirs and the world around them?

I guess another way of putting this is, what if our congregations are set up – in terms of things like “membership” and “pledges” and “new member classes” and “friendship pads” and scripted worship services filled with sixteenth-century music – to respond to the needs of those who came of age in the fifties, sixties, and seventies but have little to offer millennials? In other words, what if the way we do church just doesn’t make much sense to the youngest third of our population? What then?

I find this to be a terrifying thought. Mostly because I think it might be true.”

You can read David Lose’s posts at http://www.davidlose.net/2014/10/a-terrifying-thought/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+davidlose%2FIsqE+%28…In+the+Meantime%29.

Here’s the thing: It doesn’t mean what we’re doing is “wrong.”  It also doesn’t mean that if we switched to drums and guitars we’d “attract” a bunch of young people.  I am pretty convinced we would not.  What I’ve garnered is that what Lose is saying applies to all “church” offered as something people do on Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, Saturday evenings or any other time, in a building on a corner with a “sanctuary” and classrooms and a budget and all the rest of it.

I do NOT think the Church of Jesus Christ is “dying.”  I suspect, however, that it will look very different in 25 or 30 years.

In the meantime, we have to be agile, creative, responsive, vulnerable, and above all, faithful to Christ in a way that dares greatly, as we strive to “make a tangible difference in the world, both [ours] and the world around [us].”

The photo accompanying this blog is one I took earlier this year in Sonora, California, in the Gold Country.  It was in the window of a small coffee shop.  You have to click on it to read the sign.  I invite you to do so.

Together we serve,

Joanne Whitt

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Outline for Belhar Confession Study

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An Outline for a 1-Session Study of the Belhar Confession 

Sunday Seminar, October 5, 2014, 11:30 a.m. following worship.

 

Discussion Questions:

1) What is a “confession” of faith?
2) What is the Belhar Confession?
3) Why talk about it now?
4) What are the arguments for and against including the Belhar Confession in Part I of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) (our Book of Confessions)?

I. What is a “confession”?

What does “confession” mean in this context? To “confess” in this sense means to affirm, declare, acknowledge or take a stand for what one believes to be true.

Why does the church confess? Part I of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Constitution (The Book of Confessions) contains eleven confessional statements adopted by the Presbyterian Church as significant and instructive in both our individual and corporate Christian lives. Each one arose out of a perceived need for the church to define itself, both for itself and for the world, in response to:
1) a perceived threat to its integrity or identity;
2) a political or cultural movement that attacks the church or seeks to compromise its commitment to the gospel;
3) new insights into the promises of the gospel desperately needed by the church and the world;
4) or all three.

The eleven confessions are:
• The Nicene Creed (A.D. 381)
• The Apostles’ Creed (A.D. 180 – 8th Century)
• The Scots’ Confession (1560)
• The Heidelberg Catechism (1562)
• The Second Helvetic Confession (1561)
• The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647)
• The Larger Catechism of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647)
• The Theological Declaration of Barmen (1934)
• The Confession of 1967
• A Brief Statement of Faith – Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (1983)

Chart: For the historical context and crisis that inspired these confessions, see the attached chart from Jack Rogers, Presbyterian Creeds: A Guide to the Book of Confessions (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991). *The chart does not include A Brief Statement of Faith, adopted in 1983. The crises facing the church and world when A Brief Statement of Faith was adopted were the reunion of the northern and southern wings of the Presbyterian Church after over 100 years of separation over slavery, and the threat of nuclear annihilation.

What do these confessions mean to us? (In other words, do you have to believe everything in them to be a Presbyterian?)

II. What is the Belhar Confession?

The Crisis: The Belhar Confession has its roots in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. It does not, however, mention apartheid, but rather seeks to address a far wider context.

Date/origin: the Dutch Reformed Mission Church first drafted this “outcry of faith” and “call for faithfulness and repentance” in 1982, taking a lead in declaring that apartheid threatened the truth of the gospel. That church formally adopted it in 1986.

Issues addressed:
(a) Unity of the church and the unity among all people
(b) Reconciliation within the church
(c) God’s justice

A look at the Belhar Confession itself (see the attached).

Churches that have adopted the Belhar Confession:
• Dutch Reformed Mission Church (1982)
• The Uniting Reformed Church in South Africa (1994)
• The Evangelical Reformed Church in Africa in Namibia (ERCA) (997)
• United Protestant Church in Belgium (1998)
• The Reformed Church in America (RCA) (2010)
• The Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRCNA) created a new, less-binding category for the Belhar, and adopted it as an “Ecumenical Faith Declaration” (2012)

III. Why talk about the Belhar Confession now?

This past June (2014), the 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA) approved the committee’s recommendation to refer adoption of the Belhar Confession to a vote by the Presbyteries.

History: The PC(USA) first considered adopting the Belhar Confession in 2008. A committee from the 218th General Assembly requested that a committee begin the formal process of including the Belhar in its Book of Confessions. That committee recommended adoption of the Belhar Confession to the 219th General Assembly in 2010. The General Assembly approved the recommendation and referred adoption to a vote of the Presbyteries. The Belhar Confession fell 8 votes short of the 116 necessary for adoption. In 2012, the 220th General Assembly began this process anew, and in 2014, the 221st General Assembly approved the new committee’s recommendation to refer adoption to a new vote by the Presbyteries.

IV.  What are the arguments for and against including the Belhar Confession in Part I of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) (our Book of Confessions)?

Arguments for adoption:
1) Belhar powerfully interprets the gospel around three central biblical and confessional terms of our Reformed tradition: unity, reconciliation, and justice.
2) Belhar is a powerful advocate of God’s salvation at work in and through the church for the sake of the world and the healing of the cosmos.
3) The church has a special need to be instructed on the continuing dangers of violence and warfare, of the division between the rich and the poor, and between those of differing races, tribes, and peoples.
4) The unity of the church is our common calling in Christ. The church’s unity is its mission.
5) Adopting Belhar would be a declaration of solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the Reformed tradition.
6) Adopting Belhar would announce to the Church in the world our commitment as Presbyterians to unity, reconciliation and justice, not just in our own nation, but also in the world.

Arguments against adoption:
1) Not timely: The apartheid it addressed in South Africa no longer exists.
2) Redundancy: The PCUSA has spoken clearly on racism in the Confession of 1967, which is already included in the Book of Confessions. The Belhar Confession is redundant.
3) A waste of resources to “talk” rather than “do”: The church today desires to bring reconciliation through Christ to the world by doing the work of releasing the captives, bringing sight to the blind and binding up the wounded. Spending the church’s time and resources to debate an outdated, 20 year old document – written to address apartheid in Africa – is wasteful of her time, energy and resources.
4) Liberation Theology: The concern is that there are phrases in the Confession of Belhar, written from a Liberation Theology perspective, that could be used by other groups [read: LGBT] that consider themselves oppressed, to bolster their agendas in the church.
5) Failure to focus the Confession on the Lordship of Christ: The Belhar Confession emphasizes the unity of the Church, which is not a confession that Jesus Christ is Lord, but a confession about what the Church is or must do. Unity is not necessarily tied to Christ’s Lordship, since unity may be achieved by other means.
6) The issue of homosexuality: The argument is that because unity is the main point of the Belhar Confession others have insisted on using it for issues that are “unbiblical.” One of the contributors to Belhar, Allan Boesak, has sought to use it as a means to gain ordination for practicing homosexuals in the Uniting Reformed Church in South Africa.
7) The Israeli and Palestinian conflict: Speakers for the Reformed Church in America have suggested using the Confession as a solution for what they perceive as racism on the part of Israel. As one South African put it “If there is one situation in this world that contextually fits the antiapartheid struggle and its dynamics, for which the Belhar Confession was written, it must be the Palestinian situation, currently.”
8) The issue of pluralism: At several places in the confession the word “church” is replaced by another category called “the People of God.” The Belhar Confession uses this term to describe the church. The question has been posed: “Is it possible to expand this “People of God” terminology to encompass the ‘peoples of God,’ including in this Jews and Muslims? And by this to provide a monotheistic platform for unity?”

(Resources for arguments against Belhar: Advisory prepared by Sue Cyre, Theology Matters, May 2008 http://newchurchrising.org/lessons-from-south-africa/the-belhar-confession/joint-renewal-ga-teams-argument-against-belhar/; http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2009/05/11/belhar-confession-yea-or-nay/)

Response to Arguments Against:
1) Redundant? By that standard most of our current confessions would have to be excluded.
2) Waste of time – to whom? This is a complete insult to anyone who has experienced racial discrimination, and only demonstrates the ignorance and insensitivity of the Joint Renewal General Assembly Team.
3) Liberation Theology is problematic? Is the book of Exodus not liberation theology? What about Jesus’ ministry “to proclaim release to the captives…to let the oppressed go free?” Black South Africans, most of whom were Christian, desperately needed liberation from a white supremacist so-called “Christian” regime. Nelson Mandela was labeled a “communist” by the Reagan administration.
4) With regard to “the Lordship of Jesus Christ” as a central focus: In reading the Book of Confessions one does not read any one part of it as if it were the whole. Belhar will stand along beside the other witnesses made over the past two thousand years.

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A Home for Our Cranes

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I just wrote the members of session an email about a wonderful phone conversation with Mike Trautman, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Ferguson, MO.  I want to share it with everyone.  Rev. Trautman was delighted we are having the conversation about race and white privilege, and that we hold his community in prayer.  He and his congregation would be delighted to receive our cranes, which he will share with their equivalent of our Marin Interfaith Council – so the Lutherans, the Catholics, the Methodists will also receive them.

Ferguson is about 67% African American, and the other 33% is mixed. Many of the non-black people there are there because they have made a commitment to diversity, while many of the white residents of Ferguson fled north and west decades ago.  Rev. Trautman said that it is a town with some serious divisions, but there is also a wonderful grassroots movement among the people of Ferguson that the national news doesn’t cover.

This grassroots movement is paying attention to policing policies, including the fact that the many small municipal police departments in suburban St. Louis support themselves with speed traps and traffic fines – it is their major source of revenue.  This turns into a regressive tax which impacts people of color disproportionately because of the economic disparities that follow color lines.  When people can’t pay fines, a warrant is issued for their arrest, they are jailed, they lose jobs, and the bad feelings between white police and people of color intensify.  It raised for me, again, one of those things I never have to think about: Will a traffic violation cause me to go to jail and lose my job?

The big concern looming on the horizon for Ferguson is the grand jury decision about whether to press charges against the officer who shot Michael Brown.  Rev. Trautman says the general fear and suspicion is that he will not be indicted.  It will cause problems – protests and perhaps rioting.  I promised we would hold the community and the grand jury process in prayer.

Rev. Trautman said the community, black and white, is worn out by protests, by news people, by cameras, by national attention.

I said we would like NOT just to dump the cranes and run, but stay in touch.  We will keep him up to date with our evolving plans for learning about and discussing white privilege, leading up to the celebration commemorating the 50th anniversary of our involvement in the Selma-to-Montgomery March which is coming this spring.  He will keep us posted about the grand jury and other ways they need prayer.  We will keep this conversation going.

In that vein, I would like “News from Ferguson MO” added to the regular session agenda for the time being.

Those of us who are planning Sunday Seminars about race and privilege have lots to talk about.  I look forward to a creative and energetic meeting soon – we need to figure out when to do that.

In the meantime, when our cranes are all folded, they have a place to land.

Together we serve,

Joanne

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From Bill Wilson: The Worst of Times – Really?!?

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I’m sharing with our session (that’s the governing board of a Presbyterian church) articles and insights about the state of the Church in our changing culture. Far from thinking “the church is dying,” I believe there will always be a church of Jesus Christ, although it may look different – eventually. It will evolve as it has for 2,000 years. What will it become? I do not know. But I am certain that responsible and faithful church leaders need to pay attention, be agile and adaptable, and continue to respond to and move with the winds of the Spirit, which blow where they will, after all.

I offer this article by Bill Wilson of the Center for Healthy Churches as a sign of hope.

The Worst of Times–Really?!?
Sep 09, 2014
by Bill Wilson

It happens nearly every day for me. It’s the inevitable conversation about the demise of organized religious activities, specifically local church attendance and giving. The vultures are gathering to feast on the carcass of the local church. Clergy and lay leaders are wringing their hands. Is there any hope? The sobering statistics and gloomy projections made most of us long for some good news.

Well, here you go. I believe there are some very encouraging signs and trends for congregational life in the 21st century. Here are some thoughts to get the conversation going.

The boomer generation transitioning to retirement is going to provide opportunities for churches that prepare well for them.

Much congregational angst is expended on the question of how to attract young adults and young families. Truthfully, aging congregations that are primarily internally focused and dedicated to maintaining programs, facilities and dated staffing structures are highly unlikely to make the radical shifts required to be relevant to large numbers of young adults.

Such congregations are much more likely to reshape themselves to be relevant to the masses of senior adults in their community. While still welcoming the occasional twenty-something that walks into the church, congregations would be wise to invest in the fastest growing age group in their community. This is much more, by the way, than taking senior adults on church-organized vacations or gathering to hear bad music once a month. Relevant ministry with this age group is complex, diverse, and demands excellence.

The demographic data about the surge in retirees may be welcome news to such congregations. (see: http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/what-baby-boomers-retirement-means-for-the-u-s-economy/) The population of the United States is aging rapidly, and congregations who pay attention to the boom in senior adults may be able to provide meaningful outreach and ministry for this overlooked age group.

Congregations that have been divided by worship style are reuniting.

Thom Rainer recently noted something many of us have recognized for several years: dividing a congregation along musical preference lines has negative consequences that many have downplayed. (http://thomrainer.com/2014/08/30/six-reasons-churches-moving-back-one-worship-style/). When the multiple worship style fads erupted among traditional worship congregations 15 years ago, it was based upon the assumption that traditional worship formats and their leaders were increasingly irrelevant to younger constituents. In an effort to remain relevant and appeal to young adults, many congregations started a “contemporary service” as a means of reaching this age group.

While some of these efforts were successful, the unintended consequences were legion. Divided churches, poor quality music, and half-empty worship spaces often resulted.

As we have grown in our appreciation for musical diversity, and as a generation of musical leaders who were the most resistant to change age off the scene, a more rational and logical approach to worship is emerging. I think this is a very encouraging and hopeful development.

The population is returning to the city center, and the churches that stayed there are perfectly positioned for that surge.

Nearly every mid to large city I travel to is experiencing a boom in population in the center of the city. The rush to the suburbs has been replaced by a documentable tsunami of population growth in urban areas. Suburban sprawl is giving way to the new urban growth boom. For the first time since the 1920’s American city centers are growing faster than the suburbs. It’s not just anecdotal, the statistics are impressive:

http://www.veteransunited.com/realestate/suburban-flight-and-what-it-means-for-real-estate/

http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304830704577493032619987956

Over the last few weeks I’ve talked with congregations who are watching this unfold in Charlotte, Louisville, Greenville, Atlanta, Nashville, Richmond, Greensboro, Orlando, Pensacola, Dallas, Fort Worth, and Kansas City. The energy and growth and excitement are in the city center. The suburban growth wave has peaked, and people are coming back downtown to live.

Unfortunately, many churches long ago abandoned the city center. A North American Mission Board church planter recently shared with me that, in 1965, there were 166 Southern Baptist churches inside the I-285 beltway of Atlanta. Today, there are 37. Of those 37, only 13 average more than 100 people in worship.

I see an immense opportunity. The city center is re-emerging as a dynamic center of life, and churches that stayed in the city are perfectly positioned to become part of that fabric. One warning: the new urbanites are VERY different than their predecessors and will demand creativity and innovation from established churches in order to get their attention. “Business as usual” will only hasten your demise.

The rediscovery of the neighborhood as our mission.

The missional church movement is forcing us to think beyond patriarchal mission endeavors. One fascinating trend I am heartened by is to see local churches take ownership of their neighborhood as a primary component of their missional strategy. The energy and innovation in churches that take seriously their call to their community is palpable and transformative. You’ll find many resources and encouragement for this important shift in attention. http://www.churchleadership.com/leadingideas/leaddocs/2014/140521_article.html

So, when the talk turns negative about the church, these trends (and others) make me say with enthusiasm: “There has never been a better time to be a church on a mission!” How about you?

Bill Wilson
About the Author
Dr. William “Bill” Wilson, the founder of The Center for Healthy Churches, has previously served as President of the Center for Congregational Health at Wake Forest Baptist Health and brings more than 33 years of local church ministry experience to the Center. He is a certified coach and facilitator and has experience as a consultant in numerous settings.
http://healthy-churches.org/worst-times-really/

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The Future of the Church, #1: “RIP Average Attendance”

Today I sent this email to the members of session (the session is the governing board of a Presbyterian Church)

At the last session meeting, I made a statement to the effect that Diana (our associate pastor) and I have absorbed a great deal of information about the trends in the American church that we have not shared with you, and that you as leaders of the church really need to be brought up to speed, so to speak.  In response to these words, Elder Royce Truex said something like, “Well, share with us what you know.”  This email is the first of perhaps many in which we will share with you the latest wisdom about the future of the Church.

First, a preface: If you’ll remember, a few years ago our Officers’ Retreat topic was “Our Iceberg is Melting.”  We know that the culture is changing, and that we need to respond, not react; to adapt, not panic.  Still, the way was not clear.

Last year, our retreat theme was “Why We Start with the Why,” because in order to step with confidence and integrity into an unknown future, we need to know why we exist in the first place.  And, as Simon Sinek said, people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.

There are still many articles being published about how the church is “dying,” but more and more, the wiser pundits and observers are saying, no, the church isn’t dying, but it is going to look different.  The Church of Jesus Christ will continue to thrive in ways that are faithful to the gospel as long as there are people faithful to the “why” of the gospel – but again, we do not know what that future looks like.  We do know that knowing our “why” and living into it as a community makes us more flexible, more adaptable, more ready to become what God is calling us to be.

(By the way, “look different” is NOT about worship style.  The so-called “worship wars” are behind us, and more and more writers are realizing that liturgy and traditional music have tremendous value.  “Look different” is more about ministries, programming, and people’s connection to the church.  I invite you to refresh your familiarity with “The Missional Church: Simple” video (it’s 2 minutes long): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=arxfLK_sd68 )

Below I have printed out an article about the end of “average attendance” as a measure of church health.  More and more, I am thinking in terms of lives touched by hope, rather than weekly worship attendance.  The Church is one of the few institutions in the U.S. (and maybe the world) that offers a word of hope, even a plan for hope (we call it “the Kingdom of God”), in this broken and hurting world.

Please read this at your leisure.  Diana and I will not flood you with reading material (or videos) – you can expect perhaps one piece a week from us.  I saw this article but it was Diana who suggested it as something we ought to share with you.

Thank you for being leaders.  Thank you for your vulnerability and courage – for daring greatly along with us.

Together we serve,
— Joanne Whitt Pastor and Head of Staff First Presbyterian Church San Anselmo, California

 

RIP, Average Attendance

by David Odom, August 21, 2014

http://www.faithandleadership.com/blog/08-15-2014/rip-average-attendance

The Rev. Dr. David Odom is the associate dean for leadership initiatives at Duke Divinity School, which includes Alban, Leadership Education at Duke Divinity and Faith & Leadership. He blogs regularly on Call & Response.

Average worship attendance was once such an important number. With it, I could predict the size of the church staff, the informal patterns of decision-making, most of the stresses on the pastor’s time, the leadership required for small groups, and more.

Back in the day, church consultant Lyle Schaller was quoted as saying that average worship attendance was a better indicator of congregational behavior than denomination, geography or neighborhood.

Today that number means much less because the definition of an active member has shifted.

At one time, “active” meant attending services three or four times a month. Today people feel active when they enter the church building once or twice a month. Some people engage worship more regularly online than from the pew. Others prioritize participation in a small group over worship attendance. Congregations have multiple services and, increasingly, multiple campuses.

It is more and more difficult to determine what “attending” means, much less judge someone as “active.”

These changes are signs that congregational culture is now less uniform, which has practical implications for things like the development of a Bible study curriculum.

When a denominational publishing house could predict the needs of congregations, curriculum materials could be mass-produced. While the number and variety of materials have expanded in recent years, teachers are often dissatisfied with their options. They then feel obligated to write congregation-specific material for children, youth or adults, requiring a huge commitment of time and creativity.

Developing customized curriculum and activities, such as missions experiences, means that the congregation feels a need for more staff, regardless of the church’s size. The needs are not connected to any predictable ratio of ministers to members, but the costs are.

In the old days, attendance was a good predictor of revenue for the church. Today, revenue can be up when attendance is down–sometimes these trends can go in opposite directions for years.

In a doctoral seminar with experienced pastors last semester, the group begged for help in developing a score card of statistics by which they could monitor the vitality of their congregations. Each was tracking average worship attendance, giving, mission/ministry hours and more. Yet, the relationships between the numbers were not clear.

Church attendance was once a key indicator of a virtuous cycle. If the church could get a new person in the pew regularly, offerings would go up, involvement in small groups and missions would climb, and the church would be healthy. If attendance was declining then everything else would eventually decline.

The growing lack of dependability on attendance is a sign that the virtuous cycles that have sustained congregations since the end of World War II are collapsing. In order to sustain congregations over the long haul, new cycles need to be developed. Once that begins to happen, new measures can be identified.

One place to start is to map all the ways that a person engages a congregation — joining a small group, attending group meetings and social functions, contributing to special causes and to the church’s general budget, reading sermons or other resources on-line, volunteering in a missions project, teaching a class and more.

What patterns of engagement emerge? Which activities encourage participation in other activities? What practices are most likely to lead to spiritual growth? These are the building blocks of virtuous cycles.

Having answered these questions, look at the numbers the congregation is gathering or could be gathering. How do these numbers help track the ways of engagement? What other data could be gathered easily? It is important to gather data that are measurable signs of the engagement that matters most.

Marketing is all about answering these sorts of questions. Rather than seek to master this field, I prefer to ask for help from an expert. No marketing professional knows the church like the leaders, but the expert can ask the questions and organize the data into something that can be tracked over time.

Yes, this is a lot of work. I wish we could go back to the good old days and track a couple of different numbers. But, most people know that is no longer working. What will we do about it?

 

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Easter Crafts

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It’s almost Easter and there are a ton of interesting crafts that might be fun to do at home (but not quite right for children’s worship). If you try one of these, please post with how it went and take a photo, email it to me (dianabell@togetherweserve.org), and I’ll post it. 

Together We Create! / Diana

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DIY Mini Resurrection Garden
Or, a Long term planter

 

 

 

 

crosses craftFinger Paint Cross

 

Water Color Cross
(Image above. Paint with or without the body on the cross)

 

 

ETREmpty Tomb Rolls
(delicious!)

 

 

 

 

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Bird Nest Treats (w/ Easter candy)
Pick your favorite snack materials:

Shredded Wheat & Coconut

Coconut  

Chow Mein Noodles (scroll down)

 

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Resurrection Egg Hunt (courtesy of Inspired blog)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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*Tree w/ Eggs telling the Holy Week story…cannot locate directions! Look closely and be creative!

 

 

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Why Christians Need to Speak Out – and Take Action – On Global Warming

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Many of us have heard plenty about global warming.  That’s certainly true in environmentally-aware Marin County, California, where I live and lead a Presbyterian congregation.  Sometimes I wonder if people have heard so much about it that they’re either paralyzed by fear or numbed by boredom into non-action.  Sometimes I wonder whether people are thinking, “If I don’t think about it, won’t it go away?” or “Why should I worry about it when there’s nothing I can do, anyway?”

There are plenty of good scientific answers to these questions.  I will not repeat here the scientific research about the current impacts of global warming and what we can expect in years to come if nothing changes.  There are loads of articles by scientists that document these facts and offer predictions.  I even found a “Global Warming for Dummies” website, if you want the facts plain and simple.  What I want to address is why this is an issue for people of faith; specifically, for people who are Christians.

This question has come up recently because in 2014, our congregation is sponsoring a series of speakers we call the Green Chautauqua.  The speakers, starting with Union of Concerned Scientists climatologist Melanie Fitzpatrick on January 31, will speak about how we can respond to global warming – not just why we should be petrified by the prospect, but what we can do.  A number of people have asked me, “So, why is a church doing this?  What does global warming have to do with the Christian faith?”

There is a two-part answer to this question.  First, Christians believe that we belong to God.  As the psalmist wrote, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.”  (Psalm 24:1)  Everything belongs to God, who created us and entrusted this beautiful, blue-green planet to us to enjoy and to thrive.  A faithful response to this blessing is to be good stewards; to be caretakers of the creation: the air we breathe, water, the oceans, wild and domesticated animals, plants, minerals, agricultural land, wilderness – and human life.  My denomination, the Presbyterian Church USA, has a long history of activism in social, political and environmental justice issues because we believe that God calls us to take care of what God has given us.  Christ set the example for us, by healing, telling us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and speaking out for the outcast and the oppressed.

And so because global warming affects people and the other creatures, and threatens God’s good creation, we are called to respond.  To act.  Depending on their location, people may be affected by disease, rising sea levels, drought, extinction of species, reduction of food supplies or major storms.  The impact of these effects will be greatest on those with the least financial resources to adapt to or recover from the effects. 

We Presbyterians are committed to the truth in both science and faith.  Our Green Chautauqua speakers are not what you would call “faith-based.”  They may or may not be people of faith; they will speak about responses that anyone and everyone can do.  Regardless of your faith, the Green Chautauqua is offered to our friends and neighbors in Marin and beyond as a challenge to think critically about both the issue of global warming and our responsibility to respond. 

For the details about our speaker series, go to http://www.togetherweserve.org/green-chautauqua/.

 

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The Atheist on the Radio

On my way home from church on Sunday, I listened to “City Arts and Lectures” on public radio.  The guest was evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.  Dawkins has been described as an evangelist for atheism, although he denies this.  He says he doesn’t stand on street corners and harangue people, after all.  Which points to the first of two problems I have with Richard Dawkins.  When he talks about “religion,” he sets up a straw man and then knocks it down.  He pretends that all people who are “religious” are politically conservative creationists (that is, believe God made the whole cosmos in six days a few thousand years ago) who knock on people’s doors to ask whether they are “saved,” who care more about what happens to people after they die than before, and who need to believe in a higher power because they are unwilling to address the world’s problems with political or economic solutions.

If Dawkins had to deal with actual religion instead of these stereotypes of religion, his case would fall apart.  As Texas pastor and activist Jim Rigby puts it, “Most of the ‘New Atheist’ books don’t even define what they mean by religion.  It’s just an amorphous image of all that is superstitious and oppressing.  Most of those books would fail a Philosophy 101 paper for failing to define precisely what it is they are attacking.”  It isn’t that the “superstitious and oppressing” aspects of religion don’t exist.  It’s just that there is so much more that Dawkins conveniently ignores.

He ignores religious movements like the Quakers and the Mennonites, with long histories of focusing on peace and human rights.  He ignores the fact that King George III, king of England during the American Revolution, called that conflict “that Presbyterian rebellion” because the cause of freedom from tyranny was so identified with Presbyterian principles.  He ignores religious leaders like Bishop Romero, Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, all shot down because their religion called them to risk death itself for the cause of human liberation.  He ignores Jim Wallis and Sojourners, long the voice of faith in action and ethics in public life.  He ignores Gordon Cosby and Church of the Savior in Washington D.C., an icon of Christian activism addressing real needs of real people.  He ignores the way neighborhood churches all over the world are doing the same thing, in bigger and smaller ways.

There’s a second problem I have with Dawkins.  When I was 8 years old, my sister and I were in a high school production of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I.”  We played two of the king’s many children, and each of us had a short, easy line (probably because we were the principal’s daughters).  The scene was in the classroom, where Anna was teaching the king’s children about the bigger world beyond Siam.  My sister’s line was, “I do not believe in such a thing as snow!”  A child growing up in Siam (present-day Thailand) would never have experienced snow.  How could anyone expect her to believe it existed?

Dawkins has never experienced the presence of God, so how could he be expected to believe in God?  It doesn’t follow that because he has not experienced God, God and the experience of God are not real.  I suspect Dawkins would argue that the people who claim to have experienced God are making it up, are delusional, or have some pathetic need to believe.  But this argument is just a belief.  It is a belief, just like the belief in God.  Dawkins can’t prove he is right about the non-existence of God – that his belief is true – any more than I can prove to him that God exists and I have experienced God’s presence.  He is operating under a belief system, just as people of faith are.  His brand of atheism is just another kind of religion.

Would Dawkins say that qualities like love, trust or loyalty don’t exist because you can’t see them?  I suspect not.  I suspect he’d say that you can tell they exist because you can see the results.  That, however, is a belief, as well.  No one knows the truth of an individual human heart.  No one can know for sure that someone’s actions are motivated by love as opposed to, say, greed, self- interest, fear, etc.  We have to decide based upon belief.

I have experienced what I believe to be a divine presence at work in my life – something bigger than myself; something that is a power for good; something that inspires me to be better.  I call this presence God.  As a practicing person of faith, I am humble about defining God and claiming that my definition and my understanding are better than anyone else’s.  I practice my faith within a community and within a particular tradition.  This keeps me grounded and on track.  In my experience, faith practices developed over centuries by faithful people have survived because they are effective practices.

Like most people of faith, I continue to have questions and doubts.  Doubt is not the opposite of faith.  In my community of faith, we like to say we don’t have all the answers but we try to ask the right questions.  I continue to see the very real evidence of the power of God in the lives of individuals and communities.  I can’t prove it.  Neither can Richard Dawkins.

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New Look at the 7 Deadly Sins

office_sins_1

I’ve been thinking about the so-called 7 Deadly Sins.  I’ve been thinking that perhaps it’s time to revamp the list.  After all, Pope Gregory revised an older list to come up with the traditional 7 in the 6th century. 

First of all, I know lots of folks have trouble with the word “sins.”  Let’s move beyond that by saying there are things people do that hurt themselves, others and God’s world, and a traditional way to describe those actions is “sins.”  In my theology, sins are not deadly because committing them sends the sinner straight to hell, do not pass go, do not collect $200, because I don’t believe in hell.  However, I do believe people can do things that are deadly to human relationships, to human life, and to the survival of God’s creation.  So I’ve been toying with this new list:

Aggression

Callousness (including disregard for the suffering of others, and conscious refusal to act when action is necessary)

Cruelty

Denial

Entitlement (encompassing lack of gratitude, unexamined privilege, selfishness and arrogance)

Prejudice (including all forms of closed-mindedness, deciding without exploring, and judgment without understanding)

Tribalism (xenophobia, jingoism, white and every other kind of supremacy, and super-patriotism)

I prefer these to the traditional 7 because these imply a particular action or set of actions – or inactions.  The original list of 7, for example, includes wrath.  Sometimes the feeling, the emotion of wrath is appropriate.  What matters is what you do with it.  Do you lash out cruelly?  Do you attack aggressively?  The old list also includes pride, which can be a very positive quality – depending on what you do.

I also prefer this new list because these are the sins that break down connections, that deny our oneness with each other and our world.  That is what is deadly to humanity, and to our planet.   

What do you think?  What’s missing?

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Facing Up to a Hard Question: “What If the Kids Don’t Want Our Church?”

D6797 Joanne Whitt

What will happen to all our stuff when the time comes that we need to downsize, move into assisted living – or die?  Derek Penwell, author, activist and pastor at a mainline church in Louisville, Kentucky, points out in a recent Huffington Post article that our kids may not want all those precious family heirlooms, like Grandma’s china or Grandpa’s golf clubs.  Not to mention the furniture and other piles of stuff that we worked so hard to acquire.  It doesn’t suit their taste.  It doesn’t fit their lifestyle.  It will end up in a garage sale or perhaps at the Goodwill.

And then he raises the painful and provocative question: “What if the kids don’t want our church?”

Dr. Penwell concludes: “In fact, in many ways, these [younger] generations increasingly think the church has been running toward the wrong finish line for years – concerned as it seems to have been not with figuring out how more faithfully to live like the Jesus of the Gospels, but in acquiring bigger and better stuff to hand down to a generation that doesn’t particularly want to inherit it.”

“You could try to convince the emerging generations that they ought to value the tools you’ve always used, that they should want to take care of them, that they’re going to need them someday, that they should want to pass them down to their children.”

“Or, you could complain about the fact that these kids just don’t appreciate what you’ve done for them.”

“Or, you could suck it up and bless them on their next wild adventure.”

Food for thought with the clear ring of truth.  Except for that part about not trying to figure out how more faithfully to live as Christ’s disciples.  That is exactly what we strive to do at First Presbyterian Church.  No one does it perfectly, but it is our goal.

So, given that, what is God calling us – our congregation – to do?  Certainly, to let the world know in whatever way we can that in fact we are striving to live the Gospel faithfully, which, to us, means loving our neighbors, “neighbors” defined as everyone regardless of any human condition, and “love” defined as taking action (not just having warm and fuzzy thoughts) to be good stewards of God’s earth and to work for justice and peace.

But also, perhaps we are being called to continue to treasure the gift that church is to us, the gift it is right now to so many people, at the same time that we let go of fears for its future.

How do we do the work that God is calling us to do within the body of Christ, at the same time that we bless younger generations in their next wild adventure?  What does that look like “in real life?”

You can read the article yourself by clicking on this link: “What If the Kids Don’t Want Our Church?”

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