Tag Archives: mission

The Maasai Creed (Creed of the Month)

The cover to a volume of Pelikan's edited collection of creeds, in which this month's creed is included.
The cover to a volume of Pelikan’s edited collection of creeds, in which this month’s creed is included.

A new feature here at Uniting Grace will be a “Creed of the Month,” highlighting a different iteration of what St. Vincent of Lerins called, “that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.”  We’ll do this the third Monday of each month, since, you know – Trinity and all that.  First up is a creed I have recently come across from the Maasai people of Kenya.  Yale historian of doctrine Yaroslav Pelikan referred to it as an excellent example of how the faith “once and for all delivered” (Jude 1) is adapted to local culture and custom.  One of his students, a former missionary, told him of this creed, and he included it in his magisterial collection of creeds published near the end of his career:

“We believe in the one High God, who out of love created the beautiful world and everything good in it. He created Man and wanted Man to be happy in the world. God loves the world and every nation and tribe on the Earth. We have known this High God in darkness, and now we know Him in the light. God promised in the book of His word, the Bible, that He would save the world and all the nations and tribes.

We believe that God made good His promise by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left His home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing the meaning of religion is love. He was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and died. He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, He rose from the grave. He ascended to the skies. He is the Lord.

We believe that all our sins are forgiven through Him. All who have faith in Him must be sorry for their sins, be baptized in the Holy Spirit of God, live the rules of love and share the bread together in love, to announce the Good News to others until Jesus comes again. We are waiting for Him. He is alive. He lives. This we believe. Amen.”

I especially love the line about “the hyenas did not touch him,” and the way that “share the bread together in love” unites both the Eucharist and justice.  I find this to be a wonderful creed, and a true gift to the church universal.

What do you think?

P.S. For more on creeds by Jaroslav Pelikan, here is a great interview he did with Krista Tippett.

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Centrifugal Forces in the Church

A swing from the NY State Fair. Courtesy blog.syracuse.com.
A swing from the NY State Fair. Courtesy blog.syracuse.com.

“Suspense of judgment and exercise of charity were safer and seemlier for Christian [people], than hot pursuit of these controversies, wherein they that are most fervent to dispute be not always the most able to determine.”

-Richard Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity

The church is about Jesus.  That seems obvious, but we humans are a distractible lot, easily thrown off course.  Yes, it  seems obvious that the Body of Christ is to be centered in Christ.  But in large, bureaucratic organizations, mission drift is all too real.  As a big-tent denomination, our variety of goals, agendas, and callings within the United Methodist Church is a strength (other large denominations, or even megachurches, would apply equally, here).  Taken individually, most of these are even noble and life-giving, but they can also take us off-center.  Put another way: there are many centrifugal forces at work in the church.

Wikipedia defines centrifugal force in such a way that I am reminded of the UMC at present:

Centrifugal force (from Latin centrum, meaning “center“, and fugere, meaning “to flee”) is the apparent force that draws a rotating body away from the center of rotation.

A force that draws a body away from center? Wow. We have a lot of those.  All those boards and agencies, all those programs, teams, and sub-sub-committees, each vying for attention, energy, and resources.  One veteran of a similar family feud is R.R. Reno, who draws on Anglican priest-theologian Richard Hooker for advice on weathering the storm:

“For a great Anglican figure such as Richard Hooker, the deepest law of ecclesiastical polity was preservative, and all the more so when the church was threatened by centrifugal forces that threatened ruin…he was convinced that the church communicates the grace of God as a stable and settled form of life that is visibly connected to the apostolic age. His via media was precisely the willingness to dwell in this inherited and stable form, especially when uncertainty and indecision about pressing contemporary issues predominate. For Hooker the first imperative is clear: to receive that which has been given, rather than embarking on a fantasy of constructive theological speculation and ecclesial purification that would only diminish and destabilize.”

In the midst of “centrifugal forces” that sought to destabilize and harm the Body, Hooker’s strategy was to stay close to the apostolic deposit which had been received, on his view, from Christ an the apostles. I am especially drawn to Hooker’s insight, quoted by Reno in the original section above, that the quickest to debate might be the last people you want trying to make decisions.

We all know the swing is fun.   The centrifugal force brings a rush; it’s a blast to swing out as far from center as possible and look around.  But the Body can’t maintain itself if too many of us are constantly playing so far from center that we forget what home looks like.  As Reno hints at, “when uncertainty and indecision” abound (hello GC2012!), it’s time to stay close to center, to what has been received.

After all, it’s impossible to build on an unstable foundation.  Even the friendliest centrifugal forces still need a center off of which to pivot.  What would it look like for protestant Christians, and especially for United Methodists, to dwell in the inherited forms today? What would it look like for us to get off the swing?

Source: R.R. Reno, In the Ruins of the Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos 2002).

10 Advent Outreach Ideas Better Than Train Communion (@GNJUMC)

train communionDesperate times call for heretical measures.  The Greater New Jersey Conference has announced an Advent outreach event designed to share the love of Christ with commuters at busy train stations throughout the Garden State: give the bread and cup to passers-by.  Building on a a similar practice increasingly embraced on Ash Wednesday – taking liturgical rites to public places – the Greater NJ Conference hopes to meet people where they are:

As a part of the All Aboard for Advent Campaign, pastors and lay leaders who live near train stations throughout the Greater New Jersey area are being called to bring communion to daily commuters at train station platforms.

“I think it ties in with our belief of having a ministry without doors,” said Rev. Frederick Boyle, the senior pastor at Old First UMC in West Long Branch. “To give communion to commuters will come as quite a surprise to them for sure. But I think spreading God’s blessing is important and we need to do that whenever and wherever we can.”

I hate to rain on the Christmas parade, but this kind of practice is implicitly forbidden by the official (General Conference-certified) document expounding the UM theology and practice of Communion, This Holy Mystery.  All throughout, THM presupposes a gathered community for the celebration of the Eucharist.  For reasons I explained at length here during the debate over “online communion,” the gathering of a community is essential to the nature of the act (and visiting the sick and homebound is not so much an exception to this rule as it is an extension of the table in proper pastoral circumstances).  As THM makes clear throughout, Holy Communion is indeed a communion:

Holy Communion is the communion of the church-the gathered community of the faithful, both local and universal. While deeply meaningful to the individuals participating, the sacrament is much more than a personal event. The first person pronouns throughout the ritual are consistently plural-we, us, our.

Since train communion (unless done as a full, public worship service, which doesn’t seem to be what is proposed) is a bad idea, I don’t want to leave my NJ colleagues hanging.  Here are ten ideas (in no particular order) for Advent outreach that are better, and far less offensive to UM theology and practice, than train communion.  I owe this idea, in part, to Carol Bloom who proposed several of these alternatives during a recent discussion in the UMC Worship Facebook group – so thanks, Carol!

  1. Prayer Stations: Pray with and for people.  Very few people – even the nonreligious and nominally religious – will punch you in the face if you ask to pray for them.
  2. Blue Christmas: Sometimes called a Longest Night service, these worship services are a great way to offer hope to the many in our communities who are hurting during the holidays.
  3. Free Hot Cocoa/Coffee:  Who doesn’t love a hot beverage in the dead of winter?  Also pairs well with #1.
  4. Gift Wrapping: Many of us (your humble author included) are terrible at wrapping gifts.  Offer a free gift wrapping station at a local shopping center.
  5. Advent Calendars/Devotionals: Advent gets too easily run over by the commercialism of the holiday season.  Hand out Advent calendars or devotionals to help people remember Jesus in the midst of the hustle and bustle.
  6. Parents’ Night Out:  Sponsor a parents’ night out for the community; get some Doritos and board games, throw on Elf, and let the parents drop off their kids so they can have a date night and do their shopping.
  7. Free Bibles:  If you give out whole Bibles you’ll already be doubling the effort of the Gideons.
  8. Christmas Meal: Odds are there are people in your community who either can’t afford a Christmas meal or don’t have family to celebrate it with, or both.  Reach out to them in with Christian love…and mashed potatoes.
  9. Go Caroling: Pick a neighborhood, a nursing home, or a homeless shelter and spread some Christmas cheer.  Against such things there is no law.
  10. Thank the Train Employees: Okay, this one is specific to Jersey, and other places with lots of public transportation.  The idea is very transferable, though. Pick some public servants in thankless jobs and show them some appreciation and holiday cheer.  Take care packages to the local police station.  Send cards to the neighborhood fire house.  Do something for the nurses that will be working while the rest of us celebrate.  You get the idea.

There. Ten ideas for Advent outreach that do not run afoul of This Holy Mystery, many of which could even be done in and around train stations.  How about it, GNJUMC?  Are you #allaboardumc with a slight change in plans?

I close with the words of Brian Wren from one of my favorite Communion hymns, I Come With Joy.  He reminds us that the sacrament, for which we gather and by which we are united, sends us out to fulfill the Missio Dei in a variety of ways – but hopefully none which deny the nature and dignity of the Eucharist itself.

Together met, together bound,
by all that God has done,
we’ll go with joy, to give the world,
the love that makes us one.

Nuclear Joy

I recently completed Signs Amid the Rubble and I cannot recommend it enough.  The lectures within – ranging from the 1940’s to the mid-1990’s – contain insights that are just as fresh today as when they were written.  The very last lecture in the book, given at Salvador, Brazil to a missionary conference, struck home with me.  He concludes with the following observation:

“I find it strange that conferences about mission and evangelism are often pervaded…by a kind of anxiety and guilt – as though this were a program that we have a responsibility to carry out and about which we’ve no been very successful.  Isn’t it remarkable that according to the New Testament the whole thing begins with an enormous explosion of joy?  The disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy and were continually in the temple praising God!  It seems to me, the resurrection of Jesus was a kind of nuclear explosion which sent out a radioactive cloud, not lethal but life-giving, and that the mission of the church is simply the continuing communication of that joy – joy in the Lord.”

I think anyone who has been a part of discussion within Mainline Protestantism can relate to the anxiety and guilt that Newbigin names which, in my experience, often do reign in clergy gatherings and conferences.  We sometimes talk as if all of this is up to us, and bearing God’s message is a task to complete rather than good news to share.

Instead, as the great Bishop reminds us, the mission of Jesus Christ is one of joy – a kind of radioactive cloud emanating across time and space, in which we participate as witnesses and heralds.  Thanks – and joyful, exuberant praise – be to God.

 

From Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History by Lesslie Newbigin, ed. by Geoffrey Wainwright (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s 2003), 121.

Wisdom From James Harnish

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Churches in decline, like any other institution facing the potential of a slow fade and eventual death, get stuck.  Any entity focused primarily on survival is not likely to thrive.  Yes, survival may take place – for a while – but eventually the survival mentality kills you.  For churches, this mentality translates to a self-centeredness  that is contrary to the gospel and the mission of Christ’s church.  The apostles, Bishops, and Fathers of the early church did not sit around asking, “How do we survive?” or “How can we get more money?” or “How can we get more people?”

They especially did not ask that unholiest of church questions: “How do we get more people so we can get more money and survive?”

The gospel is not an invitation to mere survival, but a call to new life.  Thus the message and focus of the Body of Christ cannot be an anxious struggle for survival.  Instead, it should be related to discerning the aid and call of the Holy Spirit to reach, welcome, equip, and send disciples in Christ’s name.

No ministry of consequence will come from merely a desire to survive.  In the excellent, theologically-grounded and accessible You Only Have To Die, James Harnish’s words to this effect hit me like a ton of bricks:

When a congregation becomes aware that it is in or on the edge of decline, the primary question can easily become, “What can we do to help our church survive?  How do we keep the doors open? How will we pay the bills?”  But when survival becomes the primary motivation for change, the congregation will inevitably turn in on itself and become so centered in its survival needs that it will be ineffective in responding to the real needs of real people in the world around it.

New people who come in contact with the congregation immediately sense that the church is not so much interested in using its resources to meet their need as it is interested in using them for its own survival.  In the end, the focus on survival easily becomes self-defeating. (99)

I wish I had these words at a recent meeting of church leadership.  He hits the nail on the head.  You Only Have To Die is a wonderful resource that I heartily recommend to any pastor or concerned layperson.  The only question I have – and this applies to the vast majority of ‘church growth’/congregational health books – is how does this model apply to a small church?  My sense is that in a small church, the survival instinct will only be more keen and finding leaders who can see beyond survival considerably more difficult.  Any thoughts?  Where do we go for resources on turning around, re-missioning, and enlivening small churches?