Church

America's Rough Week

Hands photo, Andreas Gradin / Shutterstock.com
Hands photo, Andreas Gradin / Shutterstock.com

Life is difficult. It can knock you down. Sometimes, an entire nation gets knocked down.

First it was Boston. Some mad man (or men) lays waste to one of America’s most hallowed sporting events — the Boston Marathon. Sidewalks that should have been covered with confetti were covered in blood.

Then it was the quintessential small Texas town of West. Populated by hearty Czech immigrants, folks in West worked hard in their shops, bakeries, and fertilizer plant until the plant exploded. A magnitude-2.1 on the Richter scale, witnesses compared it to a nuclear bomb. Dozens are feared dead.

In the nation’s capital, we had the bitter realization that something is broken that will not be easily repaired. A commonsense proposal that emerged from the Newtown, Conn., tragedy, background checks to prevent convicted felons and the seriously mentally ill from purchasing guns online or at gun shows, fell prey to Washington gridlock. None of the Newtown proposals — the ban on assault weapons, limits on the number of bullets a gun can hold or expanded background checks — could garner the 60 votes necessary to overcome a Senate filibuster.

Finally, there were the ricin-laced letters sent to a Republican senator and the president.

Be Ready to Be Changed

Flower growing out of crack in asphalt, Elena Elisseeva / Shutterstock.com
Flower growing out of crack in asphalt, Elena Elisseeva / Shutterstock.com

We have a group at our church that does a weekly sandwich ministry together. Though we already had a group that makes sandwiches each week for a local shelter, another team realized some folks don’t go to shelters, and that they might be missing out on a real opportunity to connect with different folks in our community if they didn’t go out to where the people are.

So now, every week, they walk the streets of downtown Portland and hand out upwards of 100 sandwiches. As they’ve met folks who live outside, they’ve identified other needs some have, such as socks, new underwear, rain gear, flashlights, and batteries. Each week, they come back with a list of needs, and each week our congregation helps fill those needs.

To me, this kind of ministry is exemplary of what missional church is about. We don’t simply wait behind the walls for people to come ask for something; we go out, meet people face-to-face and get to know them. Yes, we offer them a meal, but we also share stories, learn a bit of their history, and they come to know that there actually are flesh-and-blood people behind all those steeples and stone facades.

Boston Marathon’s Holy Ground and Sacred Bonds

Photo courtesy Daniel Burke
Daniel Burke (second from left) with his wife and family after the Marine Corp Marathon in 2007. Photo courtesy Daniel Burke

When it comes to running, America often looks like a country divided between apostles and apostates.

For true believers like Olympian Ryan Hall, marathons assume an almost-biblical importance.

“I have heard stories and had personal experiences in my own running when I felt very strongly that God was involved,” Hall, an evangelical Christian, has said.

Other Americans — athletic atheists, you might call them — roll their eyes and see marathons as a painful waste of a perfectly nice day.

In the Church of Running, I sit somewhere in the back pew.

Atheists Find a Sunday-Morning Connection with Other Nonbelievers

Courtesy of says-it.com
A fake church sign for the Houston Oasis group. Courtesy of says-it.com

HOUSTON — Sunday mornings at Houston Oasis may look and feel of a church, but there’s no cross, Bible, hymnal, or stained glass depictions of Jesus. There’s also nary a trace of  doctrine, dogma, or theology.

But the 80 or so attendees at this new weekly gathering for nonbelievers come for many of the same reasons that others pack churches in this heavily Christian corner of the Bible Belt — a sense of community and an uplifting message that will help them tackle the challenges of the coming week, and, maybe, the rest of their lives.

“Just because you don’t believe in God does not mean you do not need to get together in community and draw strength from that,” said Mike Aus, a onetime Lutheran pastor who is now an atheist and founder of Houston Oasis.

“We are open to any message about life as long as no dogmatic claims are made.”

Fifty Years Later, Church Leaders Respond to King’s 'Birmingham Jail' Letter

Photo courtesy Bloomsbury Press
Jonathan Rieder, author of 'Gospel of Freedom,' said reporters initially ignored the letter. Photo courtesy Bloomsbury Press

Fifty years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. challenged white church leaders to confront racism, an ecumenical network has responded to his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

“We proclaim that, while our context today is different, the call is the same as in 1963 — for followers of Christ to stand together, to work together, and to struggle together for justice,” declared Christian Churches Together in the USA in a 20-page document.

The statement, which is linked to an April 14-15 ecumenical gathering in Birmingham, Ala., includes confessions from church bodies about their silence and slow pace in addressing racial injustice.

“The church must lead rather than follow in the march toward justice,” it says.

How Will I Know I Have Given Enough?

Man asking for help, Africa Studio / Shutterstock.com
Man asking for help, Africa Studio / Shutterstock.com

As has happened many times after I have given a talk about the Body of Christ’s responsibility to care for their brothers and sisters experiencing impoverished and dehumanizing conditions, I was asked to answerthose questions — the ones in my experience that are always the first to be asked the moment I stop speaking.

“How will I know I have given enough? How does the church balance financial responsibility with service to the poor? Where do we draw the line?”

These questions always come, sometimes spoken in a curious tone by a person whose heart is being convicted, sometimes in an angry accusing tone insinuating I must hate prosperity, sometimes privately as a whisper in my ear or in a personal email filled with insinuations about my sanity. What a preposterous proposal, that the Body of Christ in any particular location should be the first resource to its own community for spiritual, physical, and emotional well being! Don’t I know that such a mission is naïve and impossible to achieve? Most recently it was phrased like this: “I love this idea, but it is difficult to see benevolence funds go towards someone's electric bill when they smell like they smoked five packs of cigs before meeting with us; what do we do?”

Change or Die

argus, artcphotos / Shutterstock
Without reinvention, churches risk dying. argus, artcphotos / Shutterstock

Church is being reinvented. So are technology and education. And all for the same reasons.

Facebook just started moving Google’s cheese with its launch of Home. An army of upstarts in Silicon Valley is challenging the hegemony of Microsoft. Nothing is staying the same; disruption is the path to prosperity.

The reason: the marketplace is highly dynamic. New needs emerge. New products stimulate new needs. New entrants want to make a difference right away. Problems and opportunities multiply faster than bureaucratic pillars can respond.

A Glorious Mess

ANYONE WHO LIVES in Christian community or participates in congregational life knows that it is a holy mess. A group of flawed individuals trying to do "life together" can bring out the worst in one another. But that's precisely where God calls us to be.

In our hyperindividualistic culture, it's often difficult to remember that God has created us to be in community. Christian faith and discipleship, from the beginning, have been shaped not by going at it alone but by engaging in ancient and contemporary communal experiences. The first house churches and the formation of communities among the early desert fathers and mothers, as well as today's megachurches, parachurch organizations, and new monastic groups, all point to how we long to be connected to God and with one another.

Our faith and character are refined by the miraculous gifts of grace, reconciliation, and forgiveness made available to us in community. In such a demanding and disconnected world, it is indeed a miracle when two or more gather to break bread and give of themselves in service to God and one another.

Here are some books to help us along the Way, as we seek to deepen our understanding of what it means to be in communion with Christ and with each other.

In 2009 I was co-leading a new intentional community in Washington, D.C. Our nascent group endured many struggles, including interpersonal issues, conflicting visions and goals, and the involuntary removal of a community member. How I wish The Intentional Christian Community Handbook: For Idealists, Hypocrites, and Wannabe Disciples of Jesus (Paraclete Press), by David Janzen, was available when we first began our journey.

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Pope Francis Says Women Play a ‘Fundamental’ Role Within the Church

Pope Francis on Wednesday said women play a “fundamental role” in the Catholic Church as those who are mostly responsible for passing on the faith from one generation to the next.

While the new pope stopped far short of calling for women’s ordination or giving women more decision-making power in the church, his remarks nonetheless signaled an openness to women that’s not often seen in the church hierarchy.

“In the church and in the journey of faith, women have had and still have a special role in opening doors to the Lord,” the Argentine pontiff said during his weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square.

House of Prayer and Dreams

A rendering of the reconstructed cathedral.

WE WERE LOOKING at cathedrals while others were mourning and burying their dead.

It was the first day of the international design competition that would help choose a few architectural plans that might be used to rebuild Notre Dame de l'Assomption, Our Lady of the Assumption, Port-au-Prince's most famous cathedral. This cathedral was so central to the city that, before it was leveled in the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, its turrets could be seen from most places in Port-au-Prince, as well as from the sea, where mariners used a light on the cupola of the church's north tower to help bring their ships home.

During the 2010 earthquake, the Catholic archbishop of Port-au-Prince, Monsignor Joseph Serge Miot, was killed inside an administrative building adjoining the cathedral, along with priests and parishioners. It was the images of their crushed bodies and their loved ones wailing around the perimeters of the cathedral's rubble that motivated me, a non-architect and non-Catholic—but a lover of cathedrals—to agree to join a development strategist, a preservationist architect, a structural engineer, a priest and liturgical consultant, the dean and associate dean of two architectural schools, and the editor of a magazine that discusses the dual issues of faith and architecture to help select three out of the 134 moving, elegant, and in some cases totally out-there designs that we had received from architects all over the world. Among the panelists, three of us were Haitian born, and many of the others had either worked in Haiti or in the Catholic Church for years.

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