Tuesday, May 31, 2011

overheard at YAC

I served as the designated listener/preacher at this year's Church of the Brethren Young Adult Conference. Here's what I heard. And said.

42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day, the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

I had a professor in seminary who insisted that the gospels got written and the church got invented because a few people witnessed something so incredible and awesome that they couldn’t help but build the rest of their lives around it: their friend and teacher died, and was brought back to life. They witnessed their world turned upside down, their leader – the one who did all the overturning – crucified, and then, miraculously, brought back to life. It must have been as if God was saying, “YES! All that ridiculous and illogical and unconventional stuff Jesus was saying and doing, I really, really mean it to be the way YOU live, too: so much that I’ll overturn even the most sure thing you know. I’ll overturn the power of death.”

How could you resist such powerful movement? How could you witness such incredible things and NOT be compelled to change your life and live in a different way?

That’s what this passage in Acts is about. And that’s what I think the Church, at its best, is about: responding to the mysterious, incomprehensible, ridiculous, illogical movement of God in the world with very specific and practical ways of living…together.

That actually sounds kind of simple. And the passage from Acts makes it look pretty simple, too. What, exactly, did the early church do? According to these few verses, they:

- learned from and listened to each another

- hung out with one another

- ate together

- prayed together

- lived together

- shared what they had

- acted generously, making sure that everyone was taken care of

- witnessed with awe the wonders and signs that the Spirit was doing through their friends

I don’t know about you, but this picture of church actually sounds pretty lovely to me. In fact, when I think about it, it actually sounds a lot like what we’ve been doing here, this weekend. And I LIKE what we’ve been doing here, this weekend. I like to hang out with people, and I especially like eating together. I like to pray. I love listening and learning new stuff, especially from interesting people I like. I want to be generous. I especially like being in a state of awe. And, honestly this doesn’t sound all that hard – it hasn’t felt hard. Being the church, here at YAC, and in this tiny paragraph from Acts, doesn’t sound complicated or forced or painful.

And yet, being church today – at home, in this denomination, outside the property lines of the Camp that hosts YAC each year - seems to be all these things for us: hard and complicated and forced and painful. Sometimes, it’s even that way here – maybe it has been for you this weekend. Why is that?

I have a couple of ideas. First, we’ve sort of lost the ability to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit. Robert Wall and Anthony Robinson, in their book “Called to Be Church: The Book of Acts for a New Day,” say that “The first question is not, suggests Acts, what should we do? Instead, it is: what is God doing? Where is the Spirit moving?”[1] We rarely ask one another – or ourselves – this question. We “what should we do?!” all the time, but hardly ever “what is God doing right now?”

And, secondly, I don’t think we know how to act out of genuine awe. If the first Christians were motivated by their incomprehensible experience of resurrection, shouldn’t we learn to follow their lead? We often act out of fear and obligation, doing what we think we should and what we must in order to keep what we’ve got…but we rarely find ourselves compelled to do something just because we don’t know what else we can do with this overwhelming sense of wonder at what we’ve witnessed.

There are plenty of reasons explaining why it is that we can’t seem to do or be what we’re called to be and do.

Actually, if you keep reading just a little bit further in Acts, you find that the early church wasn’t so ideal, either. Despite how “quaint” (as someone in my small group described it) this picture of church is, the realities of the story are actually more nuanced, more complicated. The passage in chapter 2 says that everyone sold all their possessions and contributed the proceeds to the group. But later on, just a few chapters down the road, Ananais and his wife Sapphira try to pull a fast one on the community. They sell their possessions, but they try to keep some of the money back for themselves. When they’re found out and confronted about their dishonesty, each of them is struck down dead. Not so quaint. I mean, people aren’t getting struck down for not tithing their weekly 10% in the offering plate or anything, but THIS actually sounds a bit more like the church we know, right?

Still, there’s something about this kind of idealized picture of the church in Acts 2 that’s appealing to us. Even if these verses don’t exactly accurately describe the reality of the early church, they do express a greater reality of what it meant to be a church community, what these people were attempting and aspiring toward. Eating together and praying together and standing in awe of the works of the Holy Spirit was the benchmark for the church.

Notice, in this benchmark passage, what the church did NOT do:

- worry about heaven and hell

- act out of fear

- hoard their goods

- refuse to listen to new revelations

- huddle together in their bunker to wait for the end of the world

- create a strategic plan (I have a friend who recently said that strategic plans are for people who don’t know what they’re doing…people who have a clear mission just want ways to do more of that.)

This weekend’s theme has been “rethinking church.” It’s a good way to think about this time and place in which we find ourselves. It makes especially good sense to me when I think about what one of our BVS volunteers from Germany told me recently: In German, “rethink” is a verb used for “vomit.” As in, hurl, blow chunks, throw up. If you’re throwing up, he said, you’re sort of…”rethinking” your food. In at least a couple of ways, I bet: the actual thinking again about the food you ate that is now making you sick, and the more heady reconsideration you’re doing about the wisdom of eating whatever it was in the first place. When you rethink something, at least in German, you’re dramatically cleaning out your system.

And, honestly, that might be an appropriate metaphor for what needs to happen with the Church. We definitely need to rethink some of the things we do and believe. But I also think we need to…RETHINK them…if you know what I mean.

There are parts of what “church” has come to mean and to be that I think we would do well to get rid of, to rethink, to VOMIT UP. (Okay, I know it’s gross. But it is, at least, an emphatic metaphor!) Most likely, in our conversations this weekend, we’ve named some of those things about church that are making us sick. I could give you my list, but I think your own lists are already running through your heads right now.

So. How do we get rid of the deadening parts of church, and how do we find new life in the essential parts? I think it starts with paying attention, getting together, and allowing ourselves to be awed.

And that is, in part, what we’ve been doing this weekend. What you might not know is that part of my job here has been to listen to what you’ve been saying. Not in a creepy, hide behind the walls kind of way, but in a good, hearing what’s being dreamt and hoped for and lamented kind of way. Here are some things I’ve heard:

First, we know who we are, on a very deep level. Somehow, the stories of what it means to follow Jesus as Brethren have sunk deep into our bones. We know all the stories – Sarah Major and Dan West and Ted Studebaker – mention just the name and you get an understanding nod around the room. But how did this happen? At dinner last night, someone said that she learned the stories through the songs of Andy Murray. Someone else said that they learned because when they first started attending a Brethren congregation, their Sunday school class was doing a series on Brethren stories. We know how to do this – we’re good storytellers, and we’re good at forming disciples.

We know how to do lots of things well, I’ve heard you say: Love Feast and service and peacebuilding and community…we know these things not in a studied way – no one taught us the step-by-step plan for building a community – but in a deep heart and soul way. We know them because we’ve lived them, they have been the air that we breathed. We learned them almost through osmosis.

And I’ve heard you say that who we are and what we do is peculiar: even though we know who we are, not many other people do. And when they hear about us – when we start to explain who we are – people are baffled. They don’t understand: “You WASH each other’s FEET?!” “Your CHURCH encourages you to engage in civil disobedience?!” “You guys actually DO peacemaking?!” “You teach justice – based in Biblical TRUTH?!” “Wait, you’re going to serve beside someone you deeply disagree with?!”

I hear you saying that – maybe because all this seems so obvious to us – we don’t know how to share it with the world. Even when people ask us explicitly for it, we don’t know what to say. Maybe it is that we’ve eaten too many of Ezekiel’s scrolls, and we’ve lost the taste, forgotten how sweet they tasted, how powerful they are, and started treating them like boring mush.

And, finally, I hear loud and clear that we love the church, and the Church of the Brethren in particular. Maybe we even love it so deeply that we can’t find enough ways to appropriately express it.

We do a lot of things that we call “church.” Some of them are great, some of them are good, and some of them, honestly, stink. Luckily, we have some guidance for which parts we ought to sift out and which parts we ought to keep. Are we eating together? Are we praying together? Are we being generous? Are we paying attention to the wonders that are happening right in front of us? If we are, then maybe we should just keep doing that. And if we’re not, well, maybe we should start. They aren’t hard things to do.

And, the funny thing about this description in Acts is that, when the church started doing these things, they started growing. Not just in numbers, though the Lord did add to their number day by day, but in regard – they were liked by everyone around them. There’s this pattern in Acts: conversion leads to community leads to conversion leads to community, and on, and on, and on. Pay attention, be converted, join with community, pay attention together – to the food you eat and the people you eat with and the ways you do and be church together – and be converted again, into a new community.

I was sitting at breakfast this morning, and someone at the table asked if anyone would be seriously interested in joining an intentional community. Every single person around that table answered with either “yes,” “I have this dream about intentional community,” or “I’m already kind of doing it.” What I heard in that question was not just about living in intentional community; it was about who was really ready to commit to being church in a serious way together – intentional community is just one way to do that. And what I heard in the answers was a resounding YES.

That’s it: it’s not complicated, but it also isn’t easy. Eat together. Pray together. Pay attention to the wonders going on all around us. People might resist. People might hold back. People might fight over what we eat or how we pray. But this is what we’re given, and this is what we’re taught. I’m up for giving it a try. Are you?

[1] Anthony B. Robinson and Robert W. Wall, Called to Be Church: The Book of Acts for a New Day (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2006), 6.