“Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitude”

Here are my thoughts for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost. The Scriptures for this Sunday are 1 Samuel 1: 4 – 20; Hebrews 10: 11 – 14 (15 – 18) 19 – 25; and Mark 13: 1- 8.


I had several things cross my desk this week as I was preparing these thoughts. First, my wife sent me some pictures of a church that had been converted into a personal home. (http://forwardon.com/view.php?e=Id12473ba76d0865e8&type=latest&time=all)

Then I read the report that the Connectional table of the United Methodist Church is going forward with a plan to study the national and regional agencies of the denomination in order to reinvigorate the denomination. (http://www.umc.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=lwL4KnN1LtH&b=2789393&ct=7658283)

Finally, I read Donald Haynes column about ways to think about the small membership church. (http://www.umportal.org/main/article.asp?id=6081),

The first of these “notes” was somewhat humorous in that it reminded me of the setting for “Alice’s Restaurant” by Arlo Guthrie. But it also struck a chord about how we see God’s House, our church.

There is no doubt that the United Methodist Church is dying physically, if not spiritually. Dr. Haynes notes that the United Methodist Church is 19 years older than the general population. The other numbers that he mentions don’t bode well for the church as well.

It takes an average attendance of 150 to support a church in today’s economy. He doesn’t go into the details but one can see that what he is saying is that many of the churches in the denomination do not have these kinds of numbers. From my own experience as a lay speaker in this district, I know of no church, including my own, that has that type of attendance. With the costs of health insurance and pensions rising, the crisis of the dying church is also fiscal.

He does offer a variety of options that, in part, match some of my thoughts about what we can and cannot do. My thoughts came from the experiences as a lay speaker in a variety of places and settings; Dr. Haynes pointed out that many of the models for smaller churches have been studied in the past.

But these models have been cast aside because the current leadership of the denomination is not familiar with small churches. How could they? To get to a point of leadership, pastors have to rise through the ranks. Though they may have started at a small church once a long time ago, they moved up to medium-sized and larger churches in order to take on the administrative roles they now have. Second, most pastors probably don’t like the small church. It is hard working at a church far away from the excitement of the ministry, dealing with personalities and situations that are never covered in the academic world. The only hope that many small church pastors have is that they can do a reasonably decent job and then get moved up to a bigger church so that they can get a pay raise.

Finally, the parishioners of the small churches don’t like the models because the models require that they share their pastor with another church, a church with whom the members haven’t spoken civilly with the members from the other church in years. Besides, there is glamour to having one’s own pastor. He or she is “our” pastor and he or she will do what we want them to do; yea, right!

This makes the announcement of a new study to reinvigorate the denomination, in my mind, questionable. We have studied the problem from a variety of angles and multiple solutions have been offered. The denomination has made an honest effort to let society know that it is alive when the “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” advertisements were first run, they ran at 2 in the morning. How many people watched those ads? How many people would have responded to an ad about open doors at a time when the doors were really shut?

I think that the Gospel reading for today, a reading in which Mark has recorded Jesus predicting the destruction of the temple, is highly appropriate in light of the Council report and Dr. Haynes comments. Now, we know that Mark wrote this Gospel after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A. D. but we cannot be certain whether Mark recorded Jesus’ words or if he simply modified the story to fit the situation. Actually, I don’t think it matters.

The destruction of the Temple, prophesized or not, changed the nature of Judaism. The Jews could no longer see the Temple as God’s House/Home and it must have devastated them. It forced a radical rethinking of the nature of the religion. The same can be said for the early Christian church.

I am not enough of a theologian or a historian to understand how the destruction of the Temple affected the early Christian church. I do know that they had a hard beginning. Jewish authorities didn’t like them; Roman authorities didn’t like them. There were even arguments between Christians as to whether one had to be a Jew before they could be a follower of Christ or whether anyone could follow Christ. And there was the argument developing, if I understand the chronology of the writings of the New Testament, about which was more important, faith or good works.

But when we hear about the pending demise of the church and the denomination, for which we do not need some expensive survey to tell us as we see it every Sunday in our church, we are hearing the words of Jesus to his disciples along the road to Jerusalem, prophesying our own doom.

When we hear discussions about big churches and small churches, of churches that can carry the load and churches that are too weak to do so, we are hearing the Old Testament reading for today. Elkanah had two wives, Penninah and Hannah. Penninah was the “good” wife, able to give Elkanah the sons that society demanded; Hannah was barren and, in society’s eyes, a “bad” wife.

The good churches are those which can give the conference the resources needed to survive; the bad churches don’t have the resources or perhaps the capability to provide the resources. But there the story changes; in today’s story, the denomination elders seem to want to get rid of the unproductive churches. In the Old Testament, Elkanah gave Hannah a double portion of his love. And Hannah prayed to God that she would be able to return the blessing. And from this story came Samuel and a new ministry in Israel.

We do not need another study. First, it is a waste of money; second, it won’t tell us anything that we don’t already know. We don’t need to change our worship services by offering new music or having preachers who are “hip”. Those are superficial changes. The message of the Gospel is a powerful message of hope and renewal; amidst the ruin of the Temple, people heard a message of hope. But it required a new thinking.

When I started thinking about this piece, I had a different title in mind. But, as many things go, the title didn’t seem to fit. And as I was writing, I was reminded of a phrase from a Jimmy Buffet song, “changes in attitude, changes in latitude.” I don’t know if we need a change in latitude as much as we need a change in attitude.

So hear the words of the writer of Hebrews telling us that the sacrifices of the priests were of no value and that what was needed was faith offered by the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. The writer of Hebrews speaks to me of a new way of thinking.

We will not find this new way of thinking in a message that threatens people with doom and destruction for they already know that. We will not find this new way of thinking in a message that excludes and casts out people; we seem to think that we are the only ones who can read the Gospel message. Those whom we cast aside and exclude from the church can read the Gospel and they see the hypocrisy in our message. That’s why they are leaving the church; that’s why they aren’t coming to church.

We don’t need new forms of music that will show the youth of this country how modern the church is. If the music doesn’t move you, it doesn’t matter how it is played. And the music won’t move you unless it echoes the message of hope and promise.

What is needed in today’s church is not marketing skills but story-telling skills. We need to tell the story, the true story. We need to put the story out there for the people. And if that means supporting the small church because that is where the people are, so be it. The bottom line for any church will always be the souls that are saved and come to Christ and that is a number that can never be determined in the present time. When you look at a financial bottom line as a measure of success, you miss the point.

We need a change in attitude. I have seen it occur. I have seen churches that were down and about to die change their attitude and put the work of the church before the finances of the church. And guess what, those churches grew. I have seen churches put the finances of the church before the work of the church and those churches died. It is and will always be about the attitude of the people.

We need a change in latitude, a change in attitude. And it is possible. It is that change that occurs when you come to the altar rail and kneel there and open your heart to the Grace offered to you by Christ. It is that change that occurs when you say to God that you will accept the empowerment of the Holy Spirit and you will work to see that God is present in this world, even when you leave God’s House.

Changes in latitude, changes in attitude should be more than a phrase in a song; it should be the mantra of a church, be it local or denominational, that plans on living into the next century.

Are You Ready

These are my thoughts for this Sunday, the 24th Sunday after Pentecost.

For some reason, a few weeks ago, someone said something that caused me to think of an old 60’s song from the group Pacific Gas & Electric. The song was entitled “Are You Ready?” and it was one of the first pieces of music that could be called “Jesus Rock.”

It was a song that carried a very subtle Christian message. I really don’t think that too many people at that time understood the connection between the music and the message. And I was one of them. I heard a good song with a good beat. But between the conversation a couple of weeks ago and the reading for the Gospel today (1), the connection comes back.

Peter, James, John, and Andrew are asking Jesus about the end times, the times when God’s Kingdom will come on earth. Jesus answers in terms of rumors of wars and nations rising up against nations, earthquakes and famines.

For us today, there are those who speak of these days being those times. They point to the conflicts in the Middle East as a coming sign that Jesus will be returning soon. The only thing that bothers me about such connections is that the people who claim that these are the times Jesus speaks of in today’s Gospel are actively encouraging war. Somehow they think that if they encourage war and discord, especially in the Middle East, Jesus’ return will be hastened.

It is very clear that Jesus is speaking of a time when God’s Kingdom will be here on earth and I think that we should be ready for that moment. But I also do not think that we should work to make that moment a possibility by seeking war and other signs of discord. To do so would work against the very nature of the Gospel which commands us to heal the sick, help the lame to walk, the deaf to hear, give sight to the blind, and bring freedom and hope to the oppressed. Encouraging war and seeking destruction, ignoring famine just because it is a sign of the end times hardly seems logical in those terms.

And when we read from Hebrews for today that we are to consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds (2), then what are we to do? If God’s Kingdom comes through war and destruction, is that not a sign that we have not done that which we should have done? Do we really think that Jesus will return if we are encouraging war and division? If God’s Kingdom comes when nations turn against nation and we stand by and let war engulf regions, how can we say that we are able to enter into His Kingdom?

The words of Matthew 25 echo the contradiction. We are to be ready for Jesus’ return; but when He does return, we will be asked what we have done on this earth. Did we help the poor and needy, did we give assistance to the downtrodden, did we visit those alone and forgotten? Or did we just stand by?

The words of Jesus, given to us in Mark, tell us to be ready. The words of Hebrew tell us that we cannot stand back but must act in our readiness. If we look at the Old Testament reading for today (3), we are introduced to Hannah, the mother of Samuel.

The passage opens with Hannah lamenting that she has no children. And in a society where the number of children that a woman has is a marker of her success in life and her social status, Hannah is justified in lament. Yet, we read that Elkanah, her husband, loves her as much or more than he loves Penninah, his second wife. There is every indication that Penninah holds it over Hannah that she has been fruitful in bearing children while Hannah has not.

But in her despair and grief, Hannah continues to pray to God that God will offer a solution. Year after year, she pleads with God to give her a son. If God grants her prayer, she will raise him to a life of service to God. And eventually God does grant Hannah’s prayer and Hannah gives birth to Samuel. And Samuel will serve God all his life.

Samuel will become the judge who will launch the long liberation of Israel from foreign rule. His birth and the joy of Hannah parallel the joy of Mary when she is told that she will be the mother of Jesus the Christ child. As we read of the birth of Samuel today, we are being foretold of the birth of Christ, who will free us from a life of tyranny through sin and death.

But we cannot stand back and wait for Christ to come. We cannot stand back and allow the world to self-destruct just so we can rejoice in the coming of the Lord. Rather, we must take the steps that will ensure that all are able to rejoice and welcome Christ when He returns again. For Hannah, it was a quiet and humble prayer that allowed her life to have meaning. In her rejoicing, Hannah sings of the Lord bringing home to the poor; in her rejoicing, Hannah sings of the new vision of the world. (4)

The writer of Hebrews encourages us to not neglect others as we prepare for the coming of Christ. The Gospel message tells us that the care of the poor, the sick, and the needy will be a sign of our preparation. If we neglect those who are less fortunate than us, how can we expect to be ready?

Are you ready for the coming of the Lord? Do you not see the signs? As the days grow shorter and we awake each day in darkness, do you not see the signs of the coming of the Lord? Though we are still in the days following Pentecost, Advent and our preparation for the coming of the Lord are just a few weeks away. Are you ready?

(1) Mark 13: 1 – 8

(2) Hebrews 10: 24

(3) 1 Samuel 1: 4 – 20

(4) 1 Samuel 2: 1- 10