During this time of year we experience the season of Epiphany. The word means, “discovery” or “realization”, somewhat along the lines of the famous exclamation, “Eureka! I’ve found it!” During Advent we anticipate the coming of the Messiah. At Christmas, Christ arrives. As Epiphany unfolds we understand more about the identity of the Savior, what he came to do.
Oftentimes in life we want important things without having a clear picture of their actual meaning. We say, “I can’t wait until I’m grown up and get to do what I want to do!” or, “Someday I’ll be married and then have children!” For most of us, the goodness we hope for comes to fruition. We do grow up, graduate from school, engage in meaningful relationships and make commitments. As we actually go through these steps, we begin to realize that we had no idea what they’d really entail. That’s scary, in a sense, but it’s also a great joy. Words like “adult” and “graduation” and “spouse” end up being far more than the two-dimensional, self-referential constructs we once assumed. At one time or another, most of us end up saying, “I’m married now. I guess I better figure out what that means!” The discovery changes our lives and our world.
God is infinite. We never come to the end of our journey with him, nor do we ever get to say that we understand the complete definition of words like God, faith, Savior, grace, and love. There’s always something else to discover. During Epiphany, we say, “God’s here and he loves us. I guess I better figure out what that means!” As with marriage, children, graduation, adulthood, and a thousand other things, the discoveries we make during that process end up transforming us in profound ways.
Blessed Epiphany to you!
--Pastor Dave (firstname.lastname@example.org / 208-362-1112)
Christmas Eve 2017
As the holidays approach, I always start reflecting on all the things that have changed in the past year. 2017 has brought turbulent times for our country, communities, and culture. That subject is way too big to deal with in a short newsletter article. Let’s just say that we’re all figuring out how to deal with everything, which is another way of saying we’re figuring out how to deal with each other.
I can’t tell you how the world is doing this, but I can share the things we’ve done at Shepherd of the Valley in the midst of a changing world…ways in which we’ve grown together as a community.
We’ve discovered the joy of eating together! In addition to the usual potlucks and youth dinners, we now have a Chili King (Paul Steward) and Queen of Fudge (Jan Philp), both of whom earned their trophies in congregation-wide contests. This summer we’ll have a barbecue festival for the whole neighborhood as well. Maybe you’ll become our next BBQ Master!
Our doors have been open for several neighbors in need. We’ve distributed funds, groceries, gas, rent and utilities help to dozens. Our Christmas Tree of Giving produced almost 100 presents for local families.
We’ve been blessed by people of different backgrounds, orientations, and ages. Our younger generation has shared laughter, music, and a few of them have even led the sermon on Sundays! The same is true of our seniors. We’ve woven all ends of the spectrum together through our Wednesday Family Nights, facilitated by scores of people leading studies and bringing food. (Food is a big deal to us, apparently! But what better way to get to know each other?)
We have learned to be flexible, to take time with the people around us. We care less about attaining some mythical, unreachable standard of perfection. Instead we value who we’re doing things with…and who we’re doing things for.
In all of this, we’ve re-discovered what it means to be a family…not the traditional, impermeable, “We’re inside and you’re out” church family, but a community where none of us stands at the center, where walls matter less than grace, in which we regard everyone as God’s child.
We hope you experience the warmth and Spirit of this blessed night as we gather around the babe in the manger and hear the story of God’s great compassion for us. We want you to know that always, everywhere, love lives among us. It shapes the church and flows out to the community around. There’s no better or greater purpose, especially in the midst of chaotic times.
How will we respond? We will love. We will care. We will walk together. And we are blessed to share this night, and this calling, with you.
God’s blessings, now and always.
Every Wednesday at 6:00 pm we gather for “Family Night”, an inter-generational education and social time. The model is fairly simple. We eat together at 6:00, with food prepared by some of the folks among us. Around 6:30 we hear about the night’s scripture story. Then we split into small groups with age-appropriate discussion of the lesson. Younger folks do crafts or music, older sit in discussion circles, while youth do their own thing.
The idea for Family Night was pretty simple. Up until last year we ran a traditional Sunday School. We heard that teachers and students were feeling isolated, maybe even abandoned in a sense. Kids would come and get dropped off in a little room, where they’d sit and “learn” for an hour. We didn’t have enough activity, connection, or interwoven relationships.
We heard this and thought, “Instead of dismissing that feedback or trying to convince more people to be a part of the system we already have, why not change the system based on what people are telling us they need? What if we started with the idea that God is learned best through relationships with each other and let everything else flow from that?” Family Night was born.
Now instead of a couple classes of children, we welcome 60-80 people of all ages. Our facilitators and participants see from moment one that they’re not alone in this…that we all find God’s family important. Parents and children can come together, talking about the experience on the way there and back. We’re not separating people anymore. We’re daring to believe God works through all of us.
We haven’t forgotten Sunday mornings either. Our youth are beginning to lead younger participants in activities that fill the space left by Sunday School: music and Veggie Tales movies and all kinds of stuff. (Right now we’re rehearsing for our Christmas Pageant!) Once again we’re trying to make connections, trusting that God’s grace will come through many hands, and working together.
Come experience Family Night for yourself if you haven’t already! It’s an easy way to get to know people and a safe environment to start learning and talking about God.
--Pastor Dave 208-362-1112 / email@example.com
Over the years as a pastor, I’ve found that most theological difficulties and misunderstandings boil down to a couple of things:
1. We assume we know how God operates instead of examining and learning.
2. Our assumptions tend to fall into a rut, carved out by our own need and the culture that surrounds us.
When it comes to our relationship with God, most of us are cars driving in blind darkness on a country lane. We don’t have a really good idea which way to steer. When our wheels find the ditch at the side of the road, it gives us a sense of security and location. So we drive with our car in the dip and assure the other passengers, “I got this! I got this!”
Every once in a while, as opinions and culture shift around us, we find out that the ditch we’re driving in doesn’t work. Sensible people would turn on the headlights and try to figure out where the road is going. Instead we pull out of the rut, correcting the other direction until our wheels find the ditch on the other side of the road. Then we drive along happily in that one until our culture changes again.
Seldom do we remember to ask the important question: Is this road even going in the right direction?
You can see this phenomenon at work when people discuss how God views us as human beings. The old-school response was legalistic and cranky. “God is judging you. You’d better be good for Jesus or else you’ll be condemned!” This gave rise to insular, judgmental churches full of holier-than-thou people. At some point we figured out this was wrong…mostly when the children of those people left the church in droves. Then we pulled out of that ditch and drifted towards the other side until we landed at, “I’m OK, you’re OK, and God accepts everybody just as they are.”
The right-hand ditch wasn’t true even for a moment. We are not saved by our own goodness. If we could have been good enough to earn salvation, we would not have needed Jesus in the first place. Judgment is folly. It only leads to us condemning ourselves.
The left-hand ditch is not true either. God does love us. Saying that he “accepts us just as we are” discounts both our imperfection and any transformation that comes through our relationship with God. If I’m already OK “just as I am”, then (again) why did Jesus come to save me?
Here you see the essential problem. We don’t need Jesus in the right-hand ditch, nor do we need Jesus in the left-hand ditch! They’re just different versions of the same mistake. That’s a pretty good sign that this road is leading the wrong way. No matter how many times we bounce back and forth between its ditches, or even if we end up in between, we’re still not going to end up in the right place.
We have to stop finding comfort in the ditches and start upping the headlights a little so we can figure out where the road’s going. Studying scripture, listening to others, being challenged by the world, and praying all help us remember that we’re not the center of the universe…that we need more than our own assumptions to get us through. These disciplines are vital in the life of faith. They don’t save us, but they help us understand how someone else is.
None of us will ever fully comprehend God, or our path, completely. That’s no excuse for driving in the dark and pretending, finding security in being predictably wrong instead of opening to the possibility that God is transforming us and the road ahead of us each day. Churches, and the people who comprise them, need to stop digging deeper ditches and start shining light on the matter, that we might all find ways forward that are inspirational and true rather than destructive and self-confirming.
--Pastor Dave 208-362-1112 / firstname.lastname@example.org
What We Teach New Members: Part 2
Last time we talked about the significance of God saving us through his grace rather than by our own works. Today we explore the second foundational piece of our identity at Shepherd of the Valley:
Assertion 2: Church does not exist for its own sake, but for the sake of those around it.
In too many cases, church becomes an endpoint rather than a way in which God shows his grace to the world.
The path to ruin is deceptively attractive. We start with a positive affirmation, “Church is called by God to do good things.” That’s true, but we’re only able to see as far as our eyes take us. As we discussed last time, our eyes are imperfect. Inevitably we define “good” by our own terms, inheriting all the limitations and imperfections of our human perception.
That’s an uncomfortable realization for most of us. “We’re called to do good, but we’re not sure what that is or how to do it,” seems complicated and unsatisfactory. Having to search for goodness, defining it by something besides ourselves and our own culture, forces us out of our safety zone. It takes us away from pat answers, high walls, and security. It forces us to ask questions instead of making declarations. It appears to subvert our power rather than granting more.
Most of us find a work-around to this discomfort, our way to remain by the flesh-pots of Egypt rather than wandering the wilderness. We subtly switch the affirmation from, “Church is called to do good things,” to, “Church IS good (in and of itself).” The step is short from there to, “Everything the church does is good (because the church is doing it).” Now we don’t have to evolve at all or face any uncomfortable realities. Goodness is whatever we say it is.
At that point our definition of goodness becomes indistinguishable from us. This is exactly how churches “called to do good” end up justifying icky things in God’s name. There is no God anymore, there’s just who we say God is. There is no purpose for church other than preserving our viewpoint.
Following this impulse, we’ve all learned to gather around the church facing inward, as if church itself were the center and ultimate good. We identify church as a place instead of a mission, a sanctuary from the world instead of a crucible in which our relationships with God and the world are grown and refined. We pay more attention to how we look sitting down and facing the altar than how we act moving through our daily lives. We resist change.
Framing everything towards the church as an institution doesn’t fulfill our mission, it perverts it. When we talk about stewardship we say, “We’ve got to give in order to keep the lights on.” When we speak of evangelism we say, “We need to get more people in here so the church will survive.”
The church has no purpose when it’s simply an endpoint, a repository for dollars and time spent self-referentially. We need to keep the lights on? For whom, and what are we doing under that light? Stop saying you need more people “in here” as if everybody else in the world were just an object in your institutionalized faith drama. What are the people “in here” doing to make a difference in the community and world? You can’t just ask what you should do for your church; you should also ask what your church is doing for others.
It’s the height of hypocrisy to talk to people about sacrifice and selflessness for your institution if that institution is only concerned with itself and all the things it can accrue in order to perpetuate its own existence.
Shepherd of the Valley does NOT exist just to serve itself, or just to be a church. Not everything churches do is automatically good—or fulfills God’s call—just because those things are done by a church! The “church” designation does not whitewash selfishness or failure of mission.
Shepherd of the Valley exists so that people might be able to hear God’s grace-filled message that we are beloved, filled, and sent out to do amazing things in the world. We do not own or understand the definition of “goodness”, nor do we define it by ourselves and our experiences alone. When we say we’re called to do good things, that goodness is defined by God and by the people we serve.
We don’t gather to face inward in a given place and talk about ourselves, we gather to inspire and be inspired, that we might be pushed outward into a new life. We don’t reduce the world around us, we open up new possibilities into which God is calling us, new ways of listening to him as we serve our neighbors and families. We gather around something greater than ourselves in service to people beyond ourselves, making the “us” part as transparent and mobile as possible, the better to live as the people we’re called to be.
Church is not the endpoint of our faith. Church is full of new beginnings and constant waves of transformation that change not only us, but the world around us, faithfully and for the better. If we’re not doing that, we’re not fulfilling our mission.
What We Teach New Members: Part 1
What We Teach New Members: Part 1
Several times a year we welcome new members into the church. It’s a chance for interested people to find out why we do the things we do. As we explain and discuss our theology, we come to a richer understanding of our relationship with God and our purpose in life.
We start each session by emphasizing two things that lie at the core of our understanding of God and the world. Today we’ll cover the first. The second will come next time.
Assertion 1: We are saved by God through grace, not by our own works.
This declaration is as old as the Protestant Reformation, 500 years ago. It’s the foundation of our journey together. None of us is perfect. If we could be, we would not have needed Jesus Christ to die and rise again to redeem us. Jesus’ arrival on earth swept away the notion that we earn salvation ourselves by any deed or belief. To claim otherwise would create a “Christian” church which did not follow Christ!
Though this is easy to say, it’s also easy to forget. Most of us carry a dividing line in our heads between “that nice faith stuff” and “real life”. We say that Jesus saves us, but then we act as if church depends on the things we do. We uphold traditions as central, fret over the placing of candles or the color of flowers, debate the appropriateness of songs, and define “success” by numbers on a piece of paper. All of these things have a place, but none of them lie at the core of our identity.
Being saved through grace means that we’re imperfect, that we’re going to mess up. No tradition or practice will change that, or bring us to God. No matter what we say or do, no matter in what order or season, when the practice is completed and the tradition fulfilled, there we are…still imperfect. Whether our human foibles crept into the process or we did it correctly and falsely assume that the practice makes us “good” now, we’re still lost.
Being saved through grace also means that God meets us in our imperfections and works through them, filling the cracks with his love and forgiveness, making us whole again. God does not work through our church because we said or did the right thing to summon him. God works in our lives and community because he loves us no matter what.
Instead of engaging in the hopeless quest to find the perfect practice, we explore and try things together, letting many people and many voices lead. In each we find flaws, but in each we also hear the voice of God. Nobody at our church will measure if the candle lighter was held at an exact 45-degree angle relative to the altar. Everybody at our church will consider it a blessing that somebody is lighting that candle, that God’s light in shining through, and that we have a chance to ask again, “Where is God in all of this and how is he changing our lives today?”
When we stop sitting as judges over faith--determining what is executed rightly and wrongly, separating the world into better and worse--and start looking for God at work in the midst of imperfect things and people, we begin to follow God instead of leading him on a leash. Suddenly, God appears all around us: in worship, through children, in the normal, everyday moments of our lives. This is the beginning of wisdom.
We do not welcome people into our community by telling them we have the right way, defining ourselves merely by practices and traditions. We ask people to be on the lookout for God in everything
we do together, knowing that their vision and contributions will help us see God in ways we never have before, and never could without them. We don’t inquire whether God is working among us. Instead we ask how. We don’t assume that God works only through us either, nor that faith requires becoming just like us. We confess that God is bigger than all of us, then we spend our lives discovering just how big without worrying whether we’ll be damned if we ask the wrong question or see things through a less-than-perfect set of eyes.
This is the great blessing, and great freedom, that being saved by God’s grace instead of our own works gives us. It’s at the heart of everything we do.
Up next: Another key assertion that informs our faith life together!