Monday, August 27, 2007

Lost and Found?

You know from reading this blog that I am pretty critical of the church. I must confess that I really don't like attending church very much. This is a really bad trait for a guy who is a preacher.

I have had some incredible worship experiences in church. I have had much growth from hanging with sinners. God has really worked in me when I have had to struggle with my faith. Mostly I have grown more from one-on-one time with friends over coffee than anything else.

I was challenged this weekend by a few friends. Geoff and Sandra Ryan were guests at our annual gathering for our division known as Family Camp. Geoff spoke Saturday on the lost. He used the Luke 15 text. My heart was pierced when Geoff spoke about the lost not only being like the prodigal son, lost sheep and lost coin, but when he said that the church could be lost like the Pharisees. Good people, doing the best with what they had, but so confused on what was really important.

I have a position where it is easy to be corporate. I realized Saturday that I was sliding down a slope toward the corporate mode instead of being what God wants from me. I know that He has made me a free spirit. He has asked me to be zealous in finding the lost. By that I mean, not only the sinful, but the lonely.

I had that hit home through another friend today. As I read what my friend had written about the weekend, I realized that I was not as good a friend or Christian as I could have been. I have become so conscious of appearance and so busy in my job that I have lost the ability to listen. I have become a bit unfeeling. I had become lost. I may not have been sinful. I had become neglectful of the important.

I also rubbed shoulders with my good friend Phil Laeger this weekend. He is a treasure to the church. I sat yesterday morning as he led worship in a church service. He had no idea that the songs he picked for worship were some of my favorite old hymns. In short, I was trashed at the end of worship. I realized again how lost I was. I wondered how God could love me. I wondered what God saw in me.

Then Geoff spoke again on Hebrews 11. He reminded those of us assembled that we are just like the people of Hebrews 11. We are screwed up, but God sees the potential in us. We may never be completely healed, but we can still be the child of the King.

I made a commitment this weekend to be found. I want to be found reaching the lost. I want to be found being what God wants me to be. I want to be found not conforming, not for the sake of rebelling against authority, but for being faithful to my calling which seems at times to be at odds with the Army. I want to be found being a better friend and more loving person. I want to be found thinking through my faith.

I found myself kneeling at the mercy seat this weekend. In a private act of commitment I committed to being found.

We are all lost. We often feel a sense of not belonging or that our potential is sorely lacking. Yet God finds us and appreciates our potential.

I still don't like going to church very much. I do love being part of the church.
I love it in its purest and most accepting form. I think that we have lost much of this.

This has been a very emotional couple of days. The church is a fellowship of the lost who are being found. I wonder where we lost that perspective. Have we become so lost that we have forgotten where we came from? Have we become so lost that we have chosen to take appearance over genuine love? Has form taken over function in the church? Have we come to the point where we are so corporate that we have lost our sense of being?

I have rambled a bit here. But hey, I am lost and being found! So with all of my blogs I want to know your opinion on the lost and found. What do you think?

Monday, August 20, 2007

Management or Mercy Part II

I don't think I have ever gone to the same subject twice in a row. I think that this one needs to be revisited. Last post, I shared that many of our management team, in the name of fiscal sanity, have suggested that we cut back on the amount we spend on the poor.

There is no doubt we are facing a significant financial dilemma. There is also no doubt that we are facing the a crisis with the poor in this community like never before. We do need to be conservative in our approach to spending. We are, however, entrusted by the public with thousands of dollars, because they see us as serving the poor.

We face the fact that many of our facilities are aging and that we are struggling to pay many of our bills for operating.

Many of us chuckled a week or so ago when our maintenance supervisor, who is a good man with simple faith, challenged us to pray for someone to give us hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix our heating and cooling system. It is antiquated and is always breaking down. His faith was so simple. He simply stated that since our Father controls the resources of the universe, He can help us in this situation.

I was in a meeting today with two very remarkable people. One of the people is an octogenarian. She has more energy than three of me and is heading up an endowment campaign in one of our smaller communities, which to date, has been incredibly successful!

She simply stated a profound truth. When people of faith do things without a sense of entitlement and getting something in return for their work, but simply do what they believe God has called them to do, He miraculously powers His projects. He gives back more than we could ever ask or imagine. She was not talking necessarily of money, but of blessing. She talked of spiritual enrichment and life fulfillment. She also shared that she always experienced a greater blessing for the project for which she was working when she sacrificed herself and her comfort for the cause.

The second remarkable person was my mentor. He is a confessed fiscal conservative. Let's face it, this man could care less about his own comfort and his own entitlement. His favorite place to eat out is a greasy spoon that has the $1.99 breakfast special, which you taste for three days after you have had it.

He spoke of a morning worship meeting he had attended yesterday. His mind wandered to the fact that we are facing a significant fiscal crunch. While acknowledging the need to be prudent and not wasteful, he shared that he felt somewhat embarrassed as he watched a response after the message yesterday. He thought to himself that he was worried about the wrong thing. If he was faithful to his calling and denied himself, God would take care of the finances, just as He was taking care of the spiritual needs of the people yesterday.

These three people got me to thinking. That is a very dangerous thing I know. Is our lack of resource due to the fact that we have become a people of entitlement and not faith? Are we looking for return on our investment in the wrong kind of riches? Could it be that somewhere along the way we have lost our adventurous spirit of caring poor in spirit and in finance and decided that we would be CEOs of a corporation instead of shepherds seeking the lost? Have we spent on our own comfort and in some way forgotten that our first desire should be to rescue the perishing? Have we domesticated God to the point that we need to manage Him too and not trust that when we are pure before Him that He will provide what we need, not what makes us comfortable?

I wonder have we become a people who have become so sophisticated in our methods of management that we have failed to be simple in our delivering of mercy? Do we just lack trust and faith?

I know that there is need for careful stewardship. I wonder if we have micro-managed to the point that we have left The Almighty out of the equation?

As always I ask, What do you think?

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Management or Mercy?

There is no mistaking that I live in the poorest city in the US. Cleveland earned that distinction last year. This summer has been dubbed by one columnist in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, "The Summer of Death." It has been an incredibly violent summer in Cleveland. It has been a summer marred by senseless violence and murder at an almost record rate.

While all this goes on, I am also acutely aware that in the United States that there are now more poor people in the suburbs than in the cities. Granted the concentration of poverty is greater in the cities, but the majority of poor people now live in the suburbs. Gentrification has served as a contributor in making this happen. In our county the inner ring suburbs are experiencing many of the same issues that were once the domain of our large city. In fact, once quiet streets are now rampant with crime.

Non-profits find themselves at a crossroads. Many are fighting for financial survival while at the same time the need, especially here in the poorest city in the US is as great or greater than ever.

I have had conversation with people here in the city who believe that in order for us to survive that we need to curtail our social service assistance. While I understand that we need to fiscally responsible, I also believe that the first goal of the Kingdom and the organization to which I am called is service to the poor. We have used the motto, "Soup, Soap and Salvation" for years. The argument is that if we do not manage our assistance, we will not have funds available to help anyone.

My contention is that the moment we slow down spending on the poor, especially here, we are unfaithful to our calling and in fact sinful and immoral. We also violate a public trust. Millions of dollars are given to us yearly because people believe we serve the poor. I believe we do a good job of that. Yet there is so much more that needs to be done.

I also contend that we are wealthy in buildings and in administrative personnel. I wonder what those bring us. I know we need people to administer the large programs we have. I also know that we cannot just close corps. I believe, however, that many of our buildings are under-utilized and have become well-managed facilities instead of mercy centers, where physical and spiritual needs are addressed.

I have been there. I have shamefully worried more about the management of a program than administering mercy. I believe that much of our administrative burden rests with people like me. I am very well-cared for in the salvation war. I live in a decent home and drive a decent car. (Although, because of my guilt regarding the environment and operating costs I now drive a hybrid. In fact, Janet and I almost always drive together unless it is a necessity.) I also, have no worries about how I am going to make the next utility payment or where my next meal will come from. I rarely feel the pain of economic hardship. I am glad that in recent years as I have taken stock of the important in my life and that I have realized how well I have it and how little it means in eternity. I have come to the point where I see the need for less in holdings and a greater need to be divested of stuff for the good of the Kingdom.

I see the need around me in the city, and yes, in suburb in which I live, which is dotted with welfare motels. There are also times when I see those working poor, looking for the perks of suburban life, crammed into a substandard house in this suburb and ridiculed by their neighbors, because of their lack of standing. The need is all around. Mercy is needed and the coffers are drying up. The management wing of our ministry has its points. I just wonder where the balance is between management and mercy.

In a couple of weeks, I will be with some friends who are in the midst of a great Kingdom experiment. They find themselves serving in a very poor neighborhood. Their neighborhood is surrounded by gentrification. They struggle to make ends meet, yet somehow by keeping the poor at forefront of their service and not worrying about the perks of a nice building and good car, they are being blessed. Isn't that a model that we could use?

Here are my questions. I am speaking about the church in the Western Hemisphere here. Have we come to the point where we are living as an entitled organization? Do we want the comforts and not the sacrifice? Are our ministries becoming more about management than mercy? How would you think that we can balance be angels of mercy while still being good stewards of the resources God has given us?

I want to see mercy prevail in our society and in our city, which this summer seems so merciless to the young, poor and defenseless.

As with all my blogs, I wonder, what do you think?

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Shaking Hands or Shaping Faith?

It has been a while since I have blogged. I really have had a difficult time thinking of material to stimulate conversation. Some would call this "writer's block." After all, not all of us can be Jim Knaggs :) I have come to realize that there is a bit of dryness here.

I am not sure if it is lack of stimulation, lack of good topics (probably not the case)or just the fact that there has been some significant self-examination which is probably too personal at this point for me to share with the whole world via the web. Whatever the case, I am walking through this period really trying to find again the edgy nature and the controversial themes that have been my desire to discuss in this blog.

I guess it brings me to this. I have taken a yearly pilgrimage, with Janet, to Old Orchard Beach, ME every year for our territory's camp meeting series for the last 13 years or so. This is the first time in all those years we have missed. My mentor/divisional leader and his wife went. They deserved the break. They work incredibly hard and have had an unbelievably stressful year. I was glad they could go. That meant I had to stay home and "mind the store."

I admit, I was not really anxious to go this year. I do miss the beach. I do miss my yearly visits to the places like Two Lights, the Good Table and Camp Sebago. I do miss my yearly visit with a couple of very dear friends who live nearby Old Orchard. When people asked me if I was going this year, I simply quipped, "Too many generals for me this year." This was the year the retired generals who are still alive and our current general were the guests for Old Orchard. I have great respect for all of them. In fact, I have personal ties to a couple of them and cherish the way they have spoken into my life. My desire not to go came from something else.

Last year about this time, I blogged on whether this series of camp meetings was about reunion or renewal. It is hard to separate the two. I know there are many who enjoy the meetings. I know others who go simply to catch up on friendships. I would hasten to say the latter is just as important as the meetings. What is the church without deep relationship?

I guess what I was feeling this year was a tug at my heart about who I hang out with. I run with mostly Christians. They are of all stripes ranging from conservative, to progressive, evangelicals to more reformed thinkers.

I have, though, stumbled upon a new circle of friends. Like me, they are asking hard questions about life, faith, ethics, the church and relationship. Unlike me, they are not necessarily claiming to be "saved." No matter what your definition is of that term, they don't claim it. (I can see the comments now regarding the idea of being saved.) They are people of "faith." They are "spiritual." They are not necessarily "religious." They are GOOD people. They ask me some really tough questions about faith. They have no pretense about where they are.

Recently, I have come to understand how much fun they are. I have come to the point that I really love to hang out with them. I have come to the point where, what I receive from them in honesty and unconditional acceptance, is not always what I find among my more religious friends. I laugh a great deal. I have begun to learn a great deal as well.

As a professional Christian (I get paid for this. Thanks, Phil Wall for that term.)I have often thought that I had a lock on truth. My mission was to conquer the world for Jesus (like He needs my help? I know that is a whole other debate.). My evangelistic push came from a desire to get as many people "saved" as I could. I still want people to have intimate relationship with Jesus. I want my new friends to know Jesus deeply. What my new friends have given me, is an outlook on my motivation and on my methodology and let's face it, on my faith walk.

The seminal moment came a few weeks ago. One of my new friends came to ask me a question about "theology." They had heard a very well-meaning person say, "You got to give it all over to God," when speaking about the issue of trials. As we sat together and pondered those things, my friend asked, "How exactly is one supposed to do that? Don't we need to think? Don't we need to struggle a bit? Don't we need to try to seek for some truth?" I found myself answering "yes" to those questions.

My friend said, "I am not religious. I am spiritual. I would rather talk to you than Jesus." I was somewhat taken aback. I began to realize that I did not have a lock on truth. I did have knowledge of Scripture and hold it as inspired. I pray often, in fact daily. I realized that my definition of being saved was pretty weak. I needed to be sharpened more by these questions and by the shock of a statement about Jesus and me being on equal terms, than I did another meeting or the sharing of a few hugs with old friends, who I still love as much as life.

I missed my pilgrimage. I missed the beach, saying "hello" to friends and yes, hanging around the Pavilion during the meetings. I can't, however, at this point in my journey miss out on the sharpening of my faith the way my new friends bring the challenge to me. I can't get that in a church meeting right now. I have been getting it from some people who don't claim to know Jesus. They are showing me things about myself and about my walk with Jesus in a new and fresh way. They make me think about and wrestle with faith, instead of having it fed to me.

Please don't take this as an affront against the meeting together of saints. Old Orchard Beach is important in the faith journey of many, so is attending the Holiness Meeting. Don't stop doing that! Maybe I will need to experience my pilgrimage again next year. I would like to see my old friends again.

For me right now, I just need this way of building relationships to really shape me. I hope that makes sense.

So my questions are simple. They will reveal something about the current state of our depth of community. Is it really possible to have your faith shaped this way outside of church as we know? What do you prefer, hanging with those of no faith or those with faith? Why? Can I really be experiencing "church" with those outside of the faith? Should I be shaking hands with more saints?

What do you think?