WHO ARE WE?

One of my Bible study groups just started a new topic.  Last year, we had planned to do a study of basic Christian doctrine and follow that up with a study of our specific denomination.  We got a bit sidetracked and spent several months on a study of the Holy Spirit but in both the Bible study groups I work with, getting sidetracked is one of the most exciting parts of the study process.

But this particular diversion meant that instead of going right from a study of Christian theology into a more specific denominational approach, we had a gap.  I had a concern that the gap would mean that we would lose sight of the connection between the two studies.  My original plan was to move right from one to the other, which would help us see ourselves as believers in a specific context within the wider church.

I think our study group will be able to make the connection–but just to make sure, I dug out and passed around a 2 page summary of Christian history that I developed years ago with help from a variety of sources.  But on a wider scale, one of my concerns throughout ministry has been that we believers have a terrible tendency to forget the big picture.

Because I belong to the Baptist segment of the church, I have a tendency to think that the rest of the church is somehow off course.  There are also people within this tradition who are absolutely convinced that anyone who isn’t a Baptist really isn’t part of the Church.  If such thinking were confined only to the Baptist segment, that would be a serious but somewhat manageable problem–the rest of the Church could ignore our thinking and get on with its business.

Unfortunately, the inability to contextualize denominational stances within the wider church seems to be one of the defining characteristics of  the church as a whole, at least in North America.  You would think that at a time when the whole Christian faith is experiencing a decline in the West, we would be more willing to pull together–but instead of pulling together, we are often doing our best to put each other down.

We even spend more time than any of us want to admit trying to convince believers from other segments of the Church to join our segment.  While some might call this evangelism, it really isn’t.  We are just rearranging the seating plan, not reaching into the darkness to rescue people as we are called to do.

But the reality is that we believers need to deal more effectively with all the other branches of the faith that we do at this point.  It is simply wrong to assume that everyone outside our particular brand is either wrong or needs to switch.  Christianity isn’t a competition to see who can capture the most from the “other side”.  The Church is a wide and diverse gathering of believers whose actual expression of the faith takes many forms and many styles, none of which is perfectly right or perfectly wrong.

Jesus died and rose to life for the sake of all humanity and instituted the Church as a place where those who follow him can grow and develop and fellowship and enable each other.  And he died and rose to life and instituted the church for Baptists and Catholics and the Africa Brotherhood Church and Brother Joe’s Independent Chapel and all the rest.  I may not feel particularly comfortable in Brother Joe’s Independent Chapel and I am much too happy being a married pastor to consider being a Catholic priest but I am joined to Brother Joe and the Roman Catholic church is deep, powerful and eternal ways that I need to recognize and strengthen.

The things that tie me to the rest of the church are important and basic.  The things that differentiate me from the rest of the church are also important–but nowhere near as important as the love and grace of God shown to all through the crucified, risen, living and someday to return Jesus Christ.  When I look at the Church through the lens of Jesus Christ, many of the things that separate me from other believers really aren’t that important.  So what if Anglicans use wine and Baptists use grape juice and the Africa Brotherhood Church uses some local dried powder reconstituted with questionable water?  We all see it as the blood of Christ, which ties us together with an unbreakable bond.

May the peace of God be with you.

VISITOR, FRIEND OR BROTHER

            I can sum up my journey through the difficulties of inter-cultural relationships in Kenya in three words.  Each word is accompanied by a specific set of actions and assumptions.  And since I seem to have an urge to play with my Kiswahili, I will use words from that language.

When we first arrived in Kenya we were introduced to the church as “wageni”, a Kiswahili word that means visitor or guest, although it can sometimes be stretched to cover tourists.  As wageni, we were given special treatment:  guest food, a place to sit on a real chair in the shade, someone to make sure that we were shown to the right place and served our food.  There was always someone close to translate, answer questions and make sure we weren’t ignored, embarrassed or made to feel uncomfortable.  For me, this got old really fast–the food was good but I really didn’t care for much of the rest that went with being “mgeni” (singular of “wageni”.

I noticed that after a while, people began to use a different word when I was around.  Since the change coincided with my increasing facility in Kiswahili, I knew what they were saying.  I became a “rafiki”–not the shaman/advisor in Lion King but a friend.  Being a “rafiki” meant that I didn’t get quite as much pampering.  Mostly, we still had wageni food but I had to serve myself and got to sit where I wanted, within limits.  I also got to talk with people more and didn’t have to answer as many questions about all things “wazungu”–I could talk intelligently about crops, politics and the potential for a good rainy season.  Being a rafiki was much better than being a mgeni.

The more I hung around, the better my language got and the more I clued into the local culture and customs, the better rafiki I think I became.  But one day, I began to notice a different word being used.  Someone would refer to me as “ndugu”, which means brother.  At first, I thought that this was simply the traditional Christian family of God stuff–and it was that at times.

But other times, the context convinced me that some people at least were using the word in another way.  They were including me in their family.  I belonged.  I got normal food–because brothers don’t need the expensive mgeni food.  I sat where I sat with my brothers and sisters.  I didn’t need a baby sitter or translator–I was a brother and knew when people were teasing me and could tease them back.  As a brother, I not only belonged but was expected to be a responsible brother–doing things like welcoming wageni and helping the family and being available for family emergencies or to share a cup of coffee and some good conversation.  I liked being a brother a whole lot more than being a mgeni and even more than being a rafiki.

Now, the thing is I didn’t get to decide what people called me.  I had no control over when the transitions came.  Even if I didn’t like being a mgeni, I didn’t get to tell people I was a rafiki or ndugu.  I could and did spend my time learning and appreciating and practising and understanding the culture.  I could and did work hard to learn and use Kiswahili and a bit of Kikamba.  I could and did work hard at loving people and showing it the best way possible.

For me, this journey through language and relationships serves as a parable for the church in North America.  I think that the church here wants to be a mgeni in our culture–we want the special treatment and the best seats and the company food.  But our culture really isn’t there–they don’t see a need for us as guests or visitors.  Sometimes, we are appreciated as friends, as when we provide a service like grief support or emergency help of some kind.

But in the end, our culture needs the church and its members to be brothers and sisters.  We need to be willing to understand and appreciate and be a part of the culture in a way that allows us to speak as family.  We don’t need to give up our faith or compromise it–but we do need to love people so much that they call us family.  Then, maybe, we can help them become part of our family, the family of God.

May the peace of God be with you.

COFFEE CHRISTIANS

While churches are communities, they are often poor examples of community.  People meet together, they worship together, they may even pray and study together but often, there is a distance and a lack of real connection within the community.  Some believers, in fact, aren’t even sure that they need to have a Christian community–we are, after all, deeply affected by western individualism, which requires that we stand independently on our own two feet, not needing anyone else.

But ours is a community oriented faith and any gathering of believers that doesn’t foster a sense of community is dooming itself to weakness and possible problems.  The difficulty is that most congregations are composed of people who are busy and active and who don’t have time for community–we need to be focused and make good use of the limited time that people offer the church.

But if community is important, we need to build in ways to develop the community.  And that means much more than just taking a few minutes during worship to greet each other–in fact, I could probably make a good case that congregations that need that included in their worship really don’t have a good community.  If they had a good sense of community, they would have already greeted and welcomed each other before the worship time and would continue after the worship.

There are ways to create stronger community among believers.  One significant and often overlooked method is to have coffee and tea available to people, either as an official “fellowship time” or just there, somewhere near where people are gathering.  The process of pouring and preparing coffee and tea seems to have a deep effect on community building.  As people stand around pouring, preparing and tasting their beverage, they talk–about the weather, the new car, the latest grandchild (I serve older congregations), who is in the hospital, how bad the church coffee is and on and on.

But they also build community.  They demonstrate their care and concern in a real and tangible way.  Talking about the weather is much more than just talking about the weather–it is an essential tool in building community.  As we talk about the weather, we are measuring each other, evaluating each other, checking the relationship, discovering and deciphering the non-verbal messages–in short, we are learning a great deal about each other and in the process, contributing to the strength of the community.

We could probably do all that without coffee–and a healthy Christian community should probably be able to do it automatically.  But just as we are not perfect as individual believers, so, we are also not perfect as congregations and what we should be able to do we probably need help to do.  Coffee Christians might not be particularly Biblical but a good conversation over a cup of coffee can help build community, which is a strong Biblical mandate.

We can build community by encouraging people to talk together–meetings can be conducted in a way that is efficient but also allows people time to talk and share.  I am a very strong proponent of effective and short meetings–but even in that context, I encourage people to talk and share.  Whether we buy blue hymn books or red hymn books is probably important–but the community we build in the process is even more important.  After all, we won’t have either red or blue hymnbooks in heaven, but we will be together with all the people on the committee for eternity–we can probably spare some time here and now to help build a good foundation for that eternal community.

Congregations need to build in times and opportunities to develop community.  When we try to live our faith as determined individuals, we pick a hard road to travel.  Since God has designed our faith to be lived and developed in the context of a community, whatever we can do to build community not only makes the community stronger but also makes our individual faith stronger because the plan is for the community to help individual.  We are our brother’s and sister’s keeper–and they are ours, by God’s design and plan.

May the peace of God be with you.

FELLOWSHIP TIME

In many of the congregations I know and have worked with, there is an insider language which we use to describe things in ways that might seem hard to understand to outsiders but which make perfect sense to us.  Often, for example, a special service of some kind might be followed by a “fellowship time”.  The basic translation is simple–there will be food afterwards and all the regulars of the congregation need to remember to bring their particular speciality.

I happen to like fellowship times as my long suffering belt will give witness to.  But one of the interesting realities of church life is that the fellowship time we all enjoy has a very strong and direct connection with another part of church life that many are not aware of.  Fellowship times with food and the worship at the Table (variously called Communion, the Lost Supper, the Eucharist among other things) have an interesting relationship that can make both more significant.

At first glance, there isn’t a strong connection.  Fellowship times have lots of food, coffee and tea, lots of talk, spilled drinks, dropped food, sharing of recipes, laughter and so on.  The worship of the Table is serious and solemn, filled with symbolism and ritual, conducted with reverence and congregational silence.  Fellowship time seeks to bring us together with each other and Communion seeks to reconnect us with God and give us a spiritual boost.

The two are clearly separate but important aspects of church and faith–except that they aren’t as separate and different as we think.  The worship at the Table began as a meal.  Jesus and the disciples were sharing in the Passover meal when Jesus instituted the Communion worship.  The Passover meal has a lot of symbolic and highly spiritual aspects–but in the end, it is a meal complete with all the aspects of a normal meal.  That would include lots of conversation, passing of food, spilling and slopping (Da Vinci’s Last Supper includes a spilled salt dish by Judas).  The people at the table were friends–they had their differences and tensions like any normal group of people but they were in the end friends enjoying a good meal together–much like any collection of people enjoying a fellowship time.

For me, the connection between fellowship times and Communion is important and can help both become more important.  When we look at fellowship times as a form of Communion, our laughing and sharing becomes a spiritual exercise.  When we drink coffee and share food at a fellowship time, we are in some real way experiencing the reality of the Last Supper.  As we fellowship, we can be more aware of the presence of God in our midst, bringing us together and blessing our time together.  We eat and laugh but we also make concrete our love for each other, which makes concrete our love for God.

When we take elements at a Communion service, we can see them not just as symbols of the love of God but also as reminders of the fact that the worship at the table began as a meal among friends and that underneath the centuries of ritual and tradition, we are still sharing food and drink with friends in the presence of God who called us together to the table.  The reverence and solemnity of the Communion should never hide the fact that it began as a good meal among friends.

Both the fellowship time and Communion also point to the fact that ours is a community based faith.  We are joined together by God’s love for us in Jesus Christ and when we eat and drink together, we can remember the community, whether the eating is a full meal or a ritualized event filled with symbolism.  We eat and drink together with people who are important to us and with whom we are comfortable–and in the Christian context, we eat and drink together as people joined together by our shared acceptance of the grace of God shown to us in Jesus Christ.

So, whether we celebrate Communion during worship or eat together after worship, we are called to remember and emphasize the community nature of our faith.  God has invited us together to share at his table, a table that we can see not just in worship but also in the food of a fellowship time.

May the peace of God be with you.