Wise Evangelism

 Before I begin my Reflection, I’d like to share with you a list as think about the work of the church on this day of the Annual Meeting. This is a list of things you’re not likely to hear at church… I say not likely because maybe we are different!

– Hey! It’s MY turn to sit on the front pew!

 It was so packed today, I had to sit in the balcony!

– I was so enthralled, I didn’t even notice your sermon went 15 minutes longer than usual.

– Personally, I find evangelism much more enjoyable than golf,

– I’ve decided to give our church the $700.00 a month I used to send to Joel Olsteen

 You know, pastor, since you got here, we’ve forgotten all about the pastors that came before you.

– I volunteer to be the permanent chairperson of the committee of your choosing, pastor.

– I love it when we sing hymns I’ve never heard before!

 Since we’re all here, let’s start the worship service early!

– Nothing inspires me and strengthens my commitment like our annual stewardship campaign!

 Pastor, this winter we’d like to send you to this church conference in Hawaii for a couple weeks.


Anyway, on to Micah 6…

MICAH 6:1-8

Hear what the Lord is saying:
Arise, lay out the lawsuit before the mountains;
        let the hills hear your voice!
Hear, mountains, the lawsuit of the Lord!
        Hear, eternal foundations of the earth!
The Lord has a lawsuit against his people;
        with Israel he will argue.
“My people, what did I ever do to you?
        How have I wearied you? Answer me!
I brought you up out of the land of Egypt;
        I redeemed you from the house of slavery.
        I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam before you.
My people, remember what Moab’s King Balak had planned,
        and how Balaam, Beor’s son, answered him!
        Remember everything from Shittim to Gilgal,
        that you might learn to recognize the righteous acts of the Lord!”

With what should I approach the Lord
        and bow down before God on high?
Should I come before him with entirely burned offerings,
        with year-old calves?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
        with many torrents of oil?
Should I give my oldest child for my crime;
        the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit?
He has told you, human one, what is good and
        what the Lord requires from you:
            to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.

God, as Micah describes it, is not happy with Israel. This is a common state for God according to the Prophets. What is God not happy about?

Humans grumbling when they ought to be grateful.

So in Micah 6, God is quoted as saying something to the effect of, “C’mon, people! Didn’t I save you and set you free! How about some gratitude for a change!? Stop complaining its too hot in the summer when in just a few months, you’ll be complaining its too cold.


But in verse 5, the text changes. It turns to say God also doesn’t want the opposite of grumbling. God doesn’t want your appeasement, your seeking to please God with human things – a big donation, hours of volunteering, perfect worship.

God doesn’t want grumbling. God doesn’t want appeasement or obligation either! God wants our hearts.

God wants hearts that act justly, love kindness, and walk in humility with God. Barack Obama had this saying when he’d campaign and folks would start booing. He’d say, don’t boo, vote.

Well, don’t grumble – be just and love compassion.

Don’t appease or seek to please God – walk in humility with God.


Our reading from I CORINTHIANS 1 points to something else God doesn’t desire…

19 It is written in scripture: I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will reject the intelligence of the intelligent20 Where are the wise? Where are the legal experts? Where are today’s debaters? Hasn’t God made the wisdom of the world foolish? 21 In God’s wisdom, he determined that the world wouldn’t come to know him through its wisdom. Instead, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of preaching. 22 Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. 24 But to those who are called—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom. 25 This is because the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

26 Look at your situation when you were called, brothers and sisters! By ordinary human standards not many were wise, not many were powerful, not many were from the upper class. 27 But God chose what the world considers foolish to shame the wise. God chose what the world considers weak to shame the strong. 28 And God chose what the world considers low-class and low-life—what is considered to be nothing—to reduce what is considered to be something to nothing. 29 So no human being can brag in God’s presence. 30 It is because of God that you are in Christ Jesus. He became wisdom from God for us. This means that he made us righteous and holy, and he delivered us. 31 This is consistent with what was written: The one who brags should brag in the Lord!

Remember when we used floppy discs to run computer programs? Like now, there was Apple and Microsoft. And for a floppy disc to work with a PC, it had to have the right format. Apple-formatted discs wouldn’t work on Microsoft computers, and vice versa. It is kind of similar these days with iPhone apps and Android apps – they are not interchangeable.

Well, Paul in I Corinthians 1 discusses two different wisdom formats. There is the human wisdom format, with its notions of human success and human strength. And there is the godly wisdom format and all that godly wisdom entails. Human wisdom and godly wisdom are two very different formats. They’re not interchangeable.

In other words, God’s got no need for human wisdom. Your wisdom format won’t work when it comes to my kin-dom, God is saying for Paul.

Human wisdom is foolishness to God. Human success is failure to God. Human strength is weakness to God.

But here’s the thing. If we want to walk with God, we need a change in our operating system so it aligns with God. We need a heart change, a godly transformation in order to apply godly wisdom, godly success, godly strength.


A couple months ago, I came across this powerful quote from Henri Nouwen. It is about leadership. He said, “I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. That is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love.”

Well, Nouwen is speaking to all of us here. We’re all called to lead others to the Jesus way and to the community that walks that way. That is the great commission Christ gives us. That is the point of the Church – “go into all the world, leading others to the Jesus-way of love.”

But how do we lead?

The how is a godly how, Nouwen reminds us. This godly how defies all the human wisdom found in books on leadership and motivation. It defies all the methods taught in MBA programs. It defies all the self-help programs claiming to create strong, relevant leaders.

Forget worldly relevance. Forget human strength. Be out of step like Jesus was, be out of step with the world’s ways, be out of step with human concepts of success and strength and be vulnerable. As the mandalorians say, “this is the Way.”

Does this mean we don’t do cool stuff? Not at all. I’ll be discussing a cool program I’d like us to pursue at the Annual Meeting. Living joyfully despite the gloom, that is being out of step like Jesus was. The point is the Joy in the Journey, not arriving at some goal.


That brings us to the Good News!

Because our human wisdom and human modes of success don’t apply to the spiritual life, we don’t have to strive so hard. God doesn’t want human perfection. God doesn’t want human wisdom or human success. God doesn’t want our sense of obligation and sacrifice, at least not first and foremost. He simply wants our hearts! To me, that is good news!

God wants you to rest in Him, the one who is Just, who is Love, and who humbly walks with us. God wants you to grow in knowledge of Her and Her wisdom, leaning not on our own understanding, letting the Spirit work through you. That’s why we’re here. To me, that is good news

And for our spreading the Good News, it won’t be the our perfect programs, our innovative plans for growth, or our impressive worship services that spreads the Kin-dom. It will be our sense of justice, our love and compassion, and our humility in walking with God that will spread the kin-dom. To me, that is good news.

And our own spiritual joy and contentment will lead the way, a counterintuitive, subversive contentment born of the Good News will spread the Good News. People will see our contentment and want to join us!

I close with the Good News and with Jesus description of the counterintuitive, subversive contentment born from the Gospel. Matthew 5:1-12:

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up a mountain. He sat down and his disciples came to him. He taught them, saying:

“Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

“Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.

“Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth.

“Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full.

“Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy.

“Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.

“Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children.

10 “Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

11 “Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. 12 Be full of joy and be glad, because you have a great reward in heaven. In the same way, people harassed the prophets who came before you.


I’d like to close with a quote that sums up Jesus’ beatitudes well. It is from the Dalai Lama, with small addition:

“The planet does not need more successful people – or churches. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kinds.”





Born Again for Mainliners, Part 3

This is the 3rd Reflection in a series titled “Born Again for Mainliners.” In the first couple Reflections, I juxtaposed the Mainline tradition and the Evangelical tradition, implying that Mainliners don’t really talk a whole lot about being born again. 

But maybe you’ve wondered, what exactly is an Evangelical. The term has politicized, for certain, often conflated with a particular political party. But before that, there was a category of Christians known as Evangelicals. There is a difference here between the more radical Fundamentalists and the more mainstream Evangelicals, but that's a topic for another day. There's also a light of diversity among the Evangelical tradition, which we'll discuss next week.

Evangelicals hold to 4 cardinal beliefs, according to scholar John Green. First, they believe in the errorlessness of the Bible. The Bible is, to use their term, inerrant. Second, an Evangelical believes in the exclusiveness of salvation – only Christians go to heaven, simply put. Thirdly, an Evangelical believes in the essentiality of conversion. We must have a born again experience, in other words. Lastly, an Evangelical believes in an evangelism mandate. We must seek to lead people to that same born again experience.

Mainliners either don’t hold to one or all of these cardinal beliefs, or they don’t believe to the same degree, meaning they may hold to one or all of the beliefs but not as strongly, not placing a great emphasis on those beliefs.  

With that explanation offered, maybe you’re asking the simple question – why am I preaching on this? Why does it matter? Why do Mainliners need to bother with the idea of being born again?

Well, I’ve hinted at a couple answers to the related questions. A couple Sundays ago I read from John 3 where Jesus in a conversation with the teacher and leader Nicodemus states, “you must be born again.” Well, if Jesus said it, it is important, right? And if there is a must in what he said, it is even more important. This means we should talk about it.

Then last week, I expressed that we might have something to learn from the Evangelical tradition. After all, that tradition has been more successful than the Mainline church when it comes to overall numerical growth, engagement, and involvement, which survey after survey indicates. They are doing something right. We should discern what they are doing right, separate that from a lot of what they do wrong, and maybe emulate the right things in our own ways.

I want to reiterate, I am not saying we need to become Evangelicals. There is a lot Evangelicals get wrong. Homophobia comes to mind. Racism comes to mind. Harmful exclusivity comes to mind. Selling out to partisan politics comes to mind.

But what they get right is something we should learn from.

And I think Evangelicals get that 3rd cardinal belief, that conversion is important, mostly right. 

What do I mean? In what way is conversion essential for us Mainliners?

From my years of experience in the Mainline ethos, most people who are part of the church have come to that either from growing up in the church, being baptized and confirmed within that church. We might call these folks lifers. Those who are not lifers have come to the church through assent to a particular church’s approach, meaning folks find a church whose mission and ideals align with theirs and join the team.  

In this setup, there is little mention of any kind of conversion. What do I mean by conversion? I mean an spiritual experience that changes something inside us. Last week I talked about accepting Christ into our heart. Now, it doesn’t have to be as specific as this. The specifics will vary. But the common denominators of a conversion experience are this – it is heartfelt, it involves something transcendent whether we call this God, Christ, grace, or love or even music, and it changes something inside us.

I’d dare say we’ve all had conversion experiences. We’ve all had moments where our hearts experienced something transcendent and we were changed for the better as a result.

Let me be clear such moments were Christ forged moments. Whenever lives experience the transcendent and are changed for the better, Christ is there. I firmly believe this. Christ is in the Good. Christ is in the Good always and forever. Again, let me say, all moments of real transformation are Christ induced, my friends.

But here’s what I’m trying to get at. We don’t talk about these conversion experiences enough. We don’t talk about our transformative moments enough. We don’t talk about our theophanies, our when God was shown to us moments, enough. We’ve all had them. They were all Christ induced. But they are left unspoken. That needs to change.

Before I became a church pastor some 10 years ago, I was a hospice chaplain. I had officiated more memorials than Sunday services at that point. Of course, officiating memorials continues. To be honest, early on, when I compared the memorials I officiated to Sunday services, the memorials felt much more powerful, meaningful, and heartfelt. In many ways, this remains true. I’ve asked myself why for some time. Why are memorials so powerful compared to your run of the mill Sunday service? Well, because memorials include remembrances of transformative moments and transformative relationships. Memorials include loved-ones talking about how their lives were touched or changed by the person being remembered. Sadly, Sunday services don’t include such testimony.

I’d like to change that.

Beginning in February, I’d like to incorporate what the church I grew up in called personal testimonies. I’m going to ask if any of you all would like to come up on a Sunday morning and give a personal testimony, sharing with us about your story of your conversion, about a moment you experienced God, Christ, or love or grace and were changed by that experience.

I’d like to end this with a testimony of my own using a poem written years ago. It is a poem that arose from a moment of stillness that changed something inside of me.

 Another Salvation - To My Son

A singularity nudges dour days and night to the side
as I watch mesmerized by your first willful smiles
and the sounds of pre-language accompanying them.
What else could lift me so high to a reality purer than light?
What else could bring laughter in me so foundational, as joyous
How could tears be so completely unfiltered by thought?
How could I have ever fathomed a moment of such nirvana?
You answer with lively eyes, toothless smiles, a poem of coos.
And the moment ordains itself, and I sit so, saved and selfless. 

Born Again for Mainliner, Part 2

 Growing up in the Evangelical tradition, there was often talk about our relationship with Christ. The idea was the conversion experience of being born again or being saved began that relationship. There’s a phrase often offered up to describe this conversion, this born again, being saved experience. That phrase is, "accepting Christ into your heart." 

That phrase – accepting Christ into your heart – is a really interesting one. It wasn’t so novel or interesting when I was a kid or a young person still within that tradition. And there was a time after I departed the Evangelical approach to the Christian when that phrase or talk about being born again and saved sort of bothered me. It was language from a past I had left behind and wanted to forget. That language for awhile left a bad taste in my mouth. Sometimes, it still does.

But after years of space between departing what I felt was bad for me and embracing a new understanding of the faith, I’ve come to see especially that phrase and some parts of the Evangelical tradition in a new light.

Christ living in our hearts – do you know what that phrase indicates, what approach to faith it points to? Christian mysticism. That’s right, Christian mysticism.

Now, the term Christian mysticism may evoke some images and ideas in you that we ought to be honest about. Maybe the idea and image arises within you of people having ecstatic visions and trance-like experiences of God. Maybe concerns arise in you about a hippy, trippy, new-agey overtaking of our tried and true, prim and proper church life. Maybe you think, too touchy-feely, loosie-goosy for my taste.

But I’d say that these thoughts and concerns are based on false presumption of what Christian mysticism is. That the term Christian mysticism is prone to such false presumptions is why I don’t like the term, to be honest. We need a new term, something I’ll discuss later.

Christian mysticism is not anything hazy or crazy, hippy or trippy, loosie or goosy. It is simply points to the need of starting from inside and moving from insight out. Start inside our hearts where Christ lives. Start with insight into Christ based in the heart. That is what we’re talking about.

In his book, “The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, “ Carl McColman says this:

“Christian mysticism argues that any respect you pay to external authority – God, Christ, the Church – can emerge only from a profound inner experience or conviction that God is real and present, and that it is both possible and plausible for the average person to have a truly experiential relationship with God” (p. 9)

We can easily fit the Evangelical idea of being born again by accepting Christ into your heart into the definition I just gave you. We can’t have a relationship with God, come to know God, even worship God fully until we have the profound experience of accepting Christ into our heart. And its possible and plausible for anyone to experience Christ being born in us and have a relationship with God.

So, in a deep sense, Evangelical Christianity taps into Christian mysticism. It would ardently deny this, but it seems pretty clear that its true.

But what does this have to do with us. Let me be clear, I’m not saying we should all become Evangelicals. But I will say that there is a reason the Evangelical tradition seems to outpace Mainline Christianity when it comes to growth, church attendance, and spiritual engagement. That the Evangelical tradition practices and preaches a form of Christian mysticism is one, profound reason why it’s been so successful. And there’s something to learn from there.

Thankfully, there is a burgeoning Christian mysticism movement within Mainline, non-Evangelical circles. Right here in New England, we are seeing this movement, focused on contemplative practices and Christian mysticism, happening. Agape Spiritual Community, a UCC congregation in Waltham, Mass, is devoted to building the beloved community using contemplative practices grounded in a Christian mysticist approach to the faith. Its pastor, Matthew Carriker, just this past year, offered a series ofconferences to the Southern New England conference discussing Contemplative Christian practices.

Renowned theologian Karl Rahner once said, "the Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.” I really think this is true.

I close by turning to that purveyor of knowledge Wikipedia. Quoting Bernard McGinn, a scholar of Christian mysticism,  Wikepedia says, “Christian mysticism is [T]hat part, or element, of Christian belief and practice that concerns the preparation for, the consciousness of, and the effect of [...] a direct and transformative [experience of the] presence of God.”

A direct and transformative [experience of the] presence of God. Isn’t that what we all want?

As for a new term to replace the oft-misunderstood and stereotyped term, Christian mysticism, how about this: the Way of Christian Insight? In-sight is the practice of looking inward seeing the truth of Christ alive in us. Isn’t the Christian life about insight, looking inward to find Christ and his Way, and seeing the world through Christ and his way, seeing from the inside out?

Christian Insight. The Inner Seeing of Christ.

Is Christ somewhere out there? Can we find Christ in the sky or some place out of our reach? Perhaps. But if Christ is in our heart, why not look there. We look inside to see Christ waiting there in our hearts, waiting to be connected to and lived-out in the world.

This is what I seek to do as a Christ-follower. To look inside, find Christ there, and from there allow Christ to be embodied in and through my life. I hope you feel similarly and thus join me in the adventure, the venture of walking the way of Christian insight. It begins, to end as we began, by being born again, receiving Christ into your heart, allowing Christ to live within you. And, yes, I am talking about conversion. But we’ll talk about that week.

Born-Again for Mainliners, Part 1

 On this day when time in a sense is born again, I begin with a question Have you ever been "born again?”

It is a question that in my family was somewhat common to ask or hear asked. My parents were part of the born again movement which reached its peak in the 1970's and 80's.

The term “born again” comes straight from scripture. I just read it to you. Jesus tells Nicodemus, you must be born again.

The Common English Bible which I read from  translates it, “Born Anew” which I kind of like.

Either way, there are two births according to Jesus in his discussion with Nicodemus. There is the physical, human birth from a mother’s watery womb here on earth. This the "born of water" Jesus mentions. And then there is a second birth, "born of the Spirit," a spiritual birth that is sourced in heaven, sourced in the Spirit of God.

Jesus is pointing to that second birth, and is saying that birth is vital for the heavenly life, the eternal life.

For those who want to be part of the community of God, for those who want to be part of the community that will see heaven and heaven brought to earth, a spiritual birth, being born again in the Spirit is required.

In the context I grew up in, there was another question sometimes asked – when was your spiritual birthday? It was a way of asking when were you born again? It may sound sort of silly. But it does highlight the importance of the born again experience in the Evangelical context. And there’s something to learn for us.

What I am saying here is that we shouldn’t ignore Christ’s teaching to Nicodemus. Even us Mainliners should embrace this call to be born anew.

You don’t have to be an Evangelical to consider or even internalize Jesus’ words. We can be proudly open and affirming UCC, mainline Christians and embrace the language of being born anew.

The question is how, right? How do we claim being born anew while holding to a moderate to progressive view of the Christian faith? That question of what a Born Anew UCCer looks like will be the theme for the next few Sundays.

For the rest of our time today, let me ask the question why? Why is being born anew important to us here. In many ways, the hymn we will sing answers that, but let me just say this here and now: 

We live in an age of a Nicodemus approach to faith.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, so to be conspicuous about his curiosity about Jesus. As a respected, educated person, he doesn’t want to be seen seeking out Jesus, a lowly Galilean itinerant preacher. He doesn’t want people knowing about his appreciation and admiration of Jesus. And he certainly isn’t about to put aside his pride and follow Jesus.

See, Nicodemus believes in his self-sufficiency and status more than he does in God’s grace and love. He believes he’s won God’s favor through sheer self-will and good deeds. What's more, he believes he is being a good leader by assuring Jesus passes his own God self-sufficiency test.  

But Christ tells Nicodemus that is not what God wants first and foremost. Jesus says God wants a transformed heart, a reborn spirit, not merely self-improvement or an enhanced spiritual state.

Us mainliners tend toward the Nicodemus way of things, don’t we? We don’t wear our heart on our sleeves. We don’t necessarily hide our faith, but we keep it close to the vest, as they say. In our increasingly secular world, we sometimes maybe hide our love for Jesus, our faith in and following of Christ.

Like Nicodemus, and as New Englanders, maybe we cling to the ideal of self-sufficiency, and hold onto our good deeds as something qualifying God's favor.

I’m not condemning anyone here. But I do want to say that as with Nicodemus, Jesus might say to us, what I want most is your heart. I want spiritual transformation. I want a letting go of ego and pride so I can be born in you.

Years ago I left the Evangelical faith. I upset folks in my family when that happened. They still pray for my salvation. And I'm still recovering from the wounds from that part of my childhood. But I cannot help but to carry the Evangelical sensibility with me. I also carry memories of teachings. One such memory is a quote from the minister I grew up hearing. He said the Christian life is not me working hard to please God. The Christian life is Christ’s life working through us.

That Christian life of Christ’s life working through us begins with Christ being born in us. Christ born in us - that is what born again means. And then Christ grows in us and Christ’s life works through us.

So I end as I began – are you born again? I pray the answer is a yes and a proud yes.