Today I pray for those communities disproportionately affected by violence in our culture, and for those held down by the systems and structures of oppression in our society. For African Americans, Latinos, Muslims and other racial, cultural, and religious minorities. For women. For the poor. For the vulnerable and the innocent.
Today I pray for those in authority whose good work is stained by the dysfunction and abuse of their peers and by the dysfunction and abuse of the system in which they work.
Today I pray for peace, not through subjugation or submission, but through reconciliation and redemption. A peace found only through the embrace of justice. A peace found only through the acknowledgement of God's image in all people, regardless of race or occupation, regardless of religion or culture.
Today I pray for all those who've lost their lives to senseless violence, who've been termed acceptable casualties, when in the eyes of God no casualty is acceptable.
Today I pray that we all might use our ears to hear the voices of the unheard, the ignored, the silenced. Of those like Freddie and Walter and Tamir and Eric and others silenced before their voices might be heard.
Today, I repent that my silence, my inaction, and my compliance has all too often ignored the plight of oppressed communities. Of women and men of color. Of those unlike me.
"When someone comes to you and says, 'Pastor, I've been praying about it and I think we should do x,' that's an open door to say, 'That's great. It sounds like God is calling you to lead us in that effort.'" This commonly shared pastoral quip is often used for things like new ministry ideas, recycling/reuse efforts at the church, and the like. Less often do we hear it in terms of massive theological and societal issues, like the interplay of race, violence, oppression, poverty, and law enforcement within our culture. Yet, in my heart, I feel the conviction welling. If this is truly my prayer, then it must be more than thoughts or conversation with God.
It must be a call to action in my own life.
So today, I pray this prayer would become active in my life. Let this be a call to action, to change, to advocacy, to partnership, to support, and to pursuit of true justice and true peace, and nothing less, never less.
Recently, across the platforms of social media, I've seen some interesting commentary on small churches from people that I know fairly well and from complete strangers. Full disclosure: I'm the pastor of a community that sees between 15 and 30 people on a Sunday morning right now, so I've a deeply seated interest in the success of little churches.
Some find the draw of a small community compelling, because it allows them to truly know everyone, as well as develop a vested interest in the ongoing ministry of the place. Some enter a small congregation like ours and find a reason for excitement, because they may truly have a voice in the shaping of this community's identity.
Others struggle with small communities because of a lack of age-specific programming and the relatively small numbers in each group. For instance, our community currently includes one elementary aged student, two middle schoolers, no high schoolers, and a half-dozen college students. We are an inherently different type of congregation than those that offer Sunday school for every grade individually or a worship experience entirely separate for children, youth, and adults. Some enter a small congregation like ours and find a reason to despair, because it doesn't fit the common model for a successful congregation.
But here's the thing. We still have a vision for growth. Our weekly worship numbers are trending upward, as is our membership. We've developed new programs with our campus outreach and with ministry to people with disabilities. We've also begun conversations with the middle school and local library about some form of weekly after school programming. First time worshippers with us may not come to know this all, that there's a vibrant life of outreach and mission that comes from within this small group of people.
That leads to two, interrelated realities.. First, small churches must do better about communicating our identities, our commitments, and our missional work, not only on Sunday mornings, but throughout the week via personal conversations, social media, and in the community at large. If we're only known as the little congregation, then the onus is on us to help communicate the heart of our little congregation. The cliche about first impressions is true. We only get one chance to make that impact, so we need to do better in making an impression that compels others to join in mission with us.
Secondly, though, for those of you visiting churches and looking for a new church home, don't let the attendance numbers or age distribution alone indicate whether there's life to be found in that place. Ask questions about their outreach, their mission, their vision for kingdom work. What you notice is lacking may just be a niche that you fit within that community, a gift you may offer to God, the church, and the community.
Small churches have big dreams, dreams of growth in the kingdom of God, and many are at work to realize vision. We all need to find betters ways of communicating that hope and of seeing that potential.
In Luke 24, Jesus appears alive to the disciples, showing them the wounds from his crucifixion and even eating fish to show that his body remains a physical entity. After reminding the disciples that the Messiah's life, death, and resurrection were foretold by the Hebrew Bible, Jesus says, quite simply, "you are witnesses of these things."
You are witnesses to these things as well. Yes, you. You’re witnesses, we’re witnesses. Witnesses of Jesus’ life, his death, and his resurrection. Witnesses of his miracles, his friendships, his teachings, and his forgiveness. We are witnesses to the holes in his hands and feet, witnesses to his resurrected body – so physical that he’s hungry for fish – and witnesses to presence with us still.
Unfortunately, the role of witnesses seems degraded in our culture. Nobody wants to be seen as a rat, especially in mobster movies or on the school playground. Witnesses are seen as tattle tales rather than truth tellers. Rather than come forward with a testimony, witnesses often must be subpoenaed in order to appear. If the question is, “Can I get a witness?” often the answer is simply, “No,” if anyone answers at all.
We need to reconsider the value of witnesses in our society, especially since Jesus tells us that we are witnesses, that central to our identity is the role of a witness. Isn’t there something good about being a witness? I mean, Jesus called us witnesses, so there must be some value to it. So what can we say about being a witness?
Witnesses always have a story to tell, and one of direct experience. They’ve lived an event and so have a testimony to share. No, really, that fish was THIS BIG. I was there when the USA Hockey Team beat the Russians. Jesus, who was once dead, is now alive. Of course, our story, the story of Jesus, carries ramifications far beyond the size of fish or Olympic hockey. When we share the story that we’ve witnessed, we invite people into a new life, into Jesus’ resurrected life, to live beyond the rule of death. We tell this from our own experience, from our own life lived as the Body of Christ. And so we are witnesses to these things, to this story.
Another interesting thing is that witnesses aren’t the primary actors within the stories they’re telling, but they’re necessary to the story. Think about Francis Scott Key, who wrote the Star Spangled Banner during the war of 1812. He wasn’t a part of the Battle for Boston or the defense of Fort McHenry, the events which led to the production of our national anthem, but he’s an essential witness to that piece of history. Without Key’s firsthand experience, we would not only lack the iconic musical symbol of America, but his unique historical perspective on that momentous event. As a witness, Key wasn’t the primary actor in the Battle for Boston, but he was absolutely necessary to that story, that the story might carry on and impact those who didn’t see it firsthand. It became his story, and as a witness, a story he must share.
Yet, our witness as Christians is not just about a single event in history a few hundred years ago, but about the fullness of God acting in the past and in the present. We are witness that Christ rose from the dead two thousand years ago precisely because we meet Jesus alive in the world today. In our sisters and brothers in this room, in the NRV, and across the world, we find the image of God alive and well. As the Holy Spirit brings new life within those bodies, we meet Jesus even in ourselves. We see that sin and death no longer rule us but instead, along with the resurrected Jesus, we live a resurrected life. Jesus’ story becomes our story, a story we must share. And so we are witnesses to these things, to this story, to your story.
Perhaps most importantly, witnesses are called upon to tell the truth. Witnesses aren't fiction writers. We’re not called to embellish. There are no innocent lies for witnesses. We are called to be witnesses to the truth above all else. And we are witnesses to these things, to this story, to your story, to God’s truth.
The difficulty of this, of course, is trusting that truth. As those who meet the resurrected Jesus in sacraments and in other people, the images of God around us, we don't see Jesus in the same way that the first apostles did. Yet, that makes Jesus no less real to us. Rather, Jesus comes to us continually bringing new life out of our death, continually inspiring hope out of despair. As witnesses, we have our stories to tell. We can (and should) point others to the Scriptural stories, the witnesses of Christ's disciples. But we also have very real stories to tell of God's truth, of God's activity in the world today.
So yes, you are witnesses. We all are. Let's share the story we've lived, so that we may share the grace by which we live.
I took an accidental sabbath from blogging. This was accidental because it wasn't planned, nor did I realize until two weeks in that blogging had fallen by the wayside. This was sabbath because it helped me to rest in areas that I needed rest, to have conversations and develop relationships that have helped contribute to the growth of ministry here, especially during my first Lent here at CLC.
Here's the thing, though. I love blogging. I love this time to reflect on God, on the church, on our community, and on our world, hoping for the best for all. The sabbath wasn't because I wanted to get away from this. Rather, it was because I needed to spend some time doing other things.
Things like get to know some more people here in Radford, and especially some of our neighbors nearby. Things like go bowling with the Intellectual Disabilities Agency of the New River Valley. Things like develop a more consistent habit of prayer and meditation. Things like focus on leadership development, both in the church and in our campus ministry. Good things. Wonderful things.
Sabbath isn't just giving up things we don't want to do and resting. Sometimes sabbath is an opportunity for reorganization of our lives, of once again prioritizing our responsibilities, which means we must take a step back from some things we love to discover other blessings in our lives.
So, I'm back, not replacing those things with blogging, but using blogging as a way to connect more deeply those experiences with the life of faith. More than just scriptural reflections or societal commentary, I hope this becomes more focused on the development of a community. One that's radically inclusive in the image of Jesus. One that seeks to value our neighbors as a key part of our kingdom community. One that focuses on raising up leaders for the advancement of God's love here in the NRV. Here I return, refreshed with hope that God has a mission for Christ Lutheran Church in this place.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.