“I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”

~The Rev. John Wesley, Founder of Methodism

 

A cursory glance at my social media feeds today will reveal any number of Christian bloggers railing at the dysfunction of modern religion. Religion, they claim, has been the source of one foul scourge upon the earth after another; an institution only in existence for its own self-perpetuation that does more to hinder a love of Jesus than it does to help. The alternative (much summarized) is to love Jesus but hate religion.

Although I might be tempted to view this rhetoric as a recent phenomenon, in truth I believe that it can be traced back to the anti-institutionalism of the 1960’s. In his book, Bowling Alone, Harvard Sociologist Robert Putnam notes that the 1960’s saw the rise of a “generation which, relative to earlier generations, rejects the norms and institutions that are central to the…system of which they are a part. Although 96 percent of [this generation] was raised in a religious tradition, 58 percent abandoned that tradition and only about one in three of the apostates has returned.”[1]

This message of religious anti-institutionalism has so permeated our Christian ethos over the past 6 decades, that it is difficult (though not impossible) to find contemporary voices from within the faith that speak positively of institutionalized religion in any capacity. To be fair, I fully understanding that there are exceptions to this message. There are those among us who have been working to spread a different message about institutionalized religion. Nonetheless, the popularity of anti-institutionalism and specifically religious anti-institutionalism over this formative period in American history must have had an impact on the religious perception of the American people.

So, what I find myself wondering is this…If religious anti-institutionalism has indeed been a major component of the message that the people of the Church have been sending to the world for over ½ of a century, I cannot help but wonder whether or not the elusive reason behind declining participation in institutionalized religion in America over the past 6 decades (The United Methodist Church has been in decline since the late 1960’s) is simply a result of the fact that people have listened. We told them that organized, institutionalized religion was bad, and then we didn’t understand why they stopped participating in it.

Ironically, even those researchers who engage in secular research, and are therefore not overtly Christian, have noted that this message religious anti-institutionalism which states that institutionalism in religion is a hindrance to those who would live out an authentic love of Christ, is not factually accurate. I return briefly to the work of Robert Putnam who noted that:

faith communities in which people worship together are arguably the single most important repository of social capital in America. Religious institutions directly support a wide range of social activities well beyond conventional worship. Among the entries on the weekly calendar of the Riverside Church in New York City, a mainline Protestant congregation, were meetings of the Social Service Training Session, the AIDS Awareness Seminar, the Ecology Task Force, the Chinese Christian Fellowship, Narcotics Anonymous, Riverside Business and Professional Women’s Club, Gulf Crisis Study Series, Adult Children of Alcoholics, and Martial Arts Class for Adults and Teens. Regular worshippers and people who say that religion is very important to them are much more likely than other people to visit friends, to entertain at home, to attend club meetings, and to belong to sports groups: professional and academic societies; school service groups; youth groups; service clubs; hobby or garden clubs; literary, art, discussion, and study groups; school fraternities and sororities; farm organizations; political clubs; nationality groups; and others…[2]

 

While defending the accused British soldiers after what would later come to be known as “The Boston Massacre,” Former President John Adams remarked that, “facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” The truth that Christian people should be communicating with the world is that participation in institutionalized religion and loving Jesus are not mutually exclusive. While history has noted much evil that has been accomplished in the name of religion, there is likewise much good that is still accomplished every time that the structure of institutionalized religion provides a framework to mobilize the people of God to share the power of God in the midst of a hurting and broken world.

The hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, the ill are cared for, the impoverished are provided for, the lonely are embraced, and the abandoned are redeemed all because the people of God came together to form a structure that makes it possible for large numbers of people to participate together in what God is doing to heal brokenness in the world.

I cannot help but wonder what the world would look like 6 decades from now if the Body of Christ started living out that message today.

[1] Putnam, Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community, 258.

[2] Ibid., 66–67.

“Dad?”

“Yes, Megan?”

It was raining outside, and we were doing our best to hit as many puddles as possible on the way to school.

“Pastors must not have taste buds.”

“That was random. Any chance that you are going to fill me in as to why you’ve decided this?”

“Because every time we have a potluck at church, you eat everything on the table…even the things that NO ONE ELSE WILL EAT because they taste so bad. Therefore, you must not have taste buds.”

It is in our human nature to want to make sacrifices in order to keep from hurting the feelings of the people that comprise the significant relationships in our lives. To a certain degree, those sacrifices are normal, healthy, and even expected within the boundaries of healthy relationships. However, those sacrifices can quickly become unhealthy, damaging, and destructive when we begin to feel forced to make them for the sake of maintaining peace, avoiding abuse, or continuing the relationship.

Healthy boundaries are important. They are important for a healthy lifestyle as much as they are important for maintaining healthy relationships. When we regularly allow people to cross our boundaries for the sake of maintaining peace within the relationship, then we have made a habit of teaching people that it is okay to treat us with less value and respect than we deserve.

If you are feeling overwhelmed, unloved, and disrespected, then ask God and visit with your minister about what setting healthy boundaries would look like in your life. No one will set those boundaries for you, nor will many even recognize when they have crossed them. Nonetheless, those who truly love you will respect the healthy boundaries that you have set, and will work together with you and with God to keep you accountable to the kinds of boundaries that bring life.

Although it can seem overwhelming and intimidating to think about, if you begin to set healthy boundaries in your life, (and you do so together with God and your support system) you might be surprised to find that your outlook on life improves dramatically.

Grace and Peace,
Matthew Scraper

Read more at: http://www.mbscraper.com

 

“I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.” ~The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

 

As I watched the scenario in front of me begin to unfold, I couldn’t help but wonder whether or not the fast-food restaurants of modern America have begun to intentionally design their parking lots to be as difficult as humanly possible to navigate. It seems that, as of late, there are always a multiplicity of routes that any famished driver can choose from to enter into the drive-through lane, creating a bottle neck of Lincoln Tunnel-esque proportions. As if the convergence of routes alone were not enough, not one of those routes allows the conscientious driver to avoid blocking parked cars from exiting their parking spaces while sitting in line, waiting to advance to order.

Kate and I had decided to go out to lunch, traveling to one of our favorite haunts. As we pulled into the parking lot, I opted for the route that took me to where the line seemed to be forming, instead of opting for the alternative option. As I sat in line waiting for the excitement of the slow advance toward the ordering station, I noticed a woman who had selected the alternative route, pulling up to the line at a point that intersected with the car in front of us.

There is an unwritten rule of courtesy at the fast-food drive through window…that being that no matter which route you choose, you allow the cars that have been waiting longer than you have been waiting to advance ahead of you before taking your spot in line. This unwritten rule exists, I believe, as certainly as the rising sun and the changing seasons.

Perhaps that is why I was so taken with immediate fury when this women, without so much as a glance toward the driver in front of me, inched closer to the line, cutting off this poor man (and the rest of us) from being able to take our rightful place. I watched as the man in front of me, clearly frustrated, raised both of his hands in the universal “what on earth do you think that you’re doing?” gesture…just as I watched as this woman, both hands firmly on the steering wheel, stared straight ahead in the universal “I know that what I just did was terribly wrong but I am going to pretend that you don’t exist by not looking at you” gesture.

With nothing left to do but commiserate, we eventually found ourselves pulling up to the ordering station, ordering our food, and finding out how much we were to pay at the first window (incidentally, I’ve always wanted to ask in return how much it would cost if I paid at the second window, but my wife is convinced that I shouldn’t do so).

As the attendant at the aforementioned first window opened the sliding glass, I fumbled around for my wallet only to hear the attendant calmly tell me that the nice gentleman ahead of us had paid for our meal.

I glanced up just in time to see his car pull around the corner of the restaurant, driving away in a direction forever hidden from me, as I realized that it was unlikely that I would ever see that man again. In a moment of extreme frustration, this man who had himself been short-changed by the irresponsible behavior of a person that he would likely never encounter again had chosen to repay that behavior with a small act of kindness and love directed toward yet another person whom he would likely never encounter again.

Sometimes it feels as if we live in dark times. Atrocities abound on an ever maddeningly increasing scale, to the point that whatever the nature of the current tragedy, it seems to dwarf those that have preceded it. It seems almost as if there is some great evil game of one-upmanship that none of the rest of us are aware of. Perhaps it is true that only great power can hold such evil in check, though I suspect that if true, that Great Power chooses to work itself out daily through the small acts of kindness and love chosen by faithful people who refuse to let the darkness gain a foothold in their lives.

It is through those small acts of kindness and love…those acts that turn anger to kindness and despair to hope…that the real power of change begins to work itself out in the world.

The next time that you find yourself confronted with injustice, take just a moment in the midst of your frustration to visit with God about the difference between responding in love and responding in anger. If you do, then you probably won’t be surprised by how much it changes your attitude. What is likely to surprise you is how much responding with God’s love changes that attitudes of others as well.

 

…and yes, we paid for the people behind us too.

“Old age is the most precious time of life, the one nearest eternity. There are two ways of growing old. There are old people who are anxious and bitter, living in the past and illusion, who criticize everything that goes on around them. Young people are repulsed by them; they are shut away in their sadness and loneliness, shriveled up in themselves. But there are also old people with a child’s heart, who have used their freedom from function and responsibility to find a new youth. They have the wonder of a child, but the wisdom of maturity as well. They have integrated their years of activity and so can live without being attached to power. Their freedom of heart and their acceptance of their limitations and weakness makes them people whose radiance illuminates the whole community. They are gentle and merciful, symbols of compassion and forgiveness. They become a community’s hidden treasures, sources of unity and life. They are true contemplatives at the heart of community… ” ~Jean Vanier, Community and Growth

I will freely admit that the state of athletic entitlement in North America has become something that increasingly disturbs me from season to season. Without regard for simple common sense, coaches are terminated the instant that it appears that they won’t be able to lead a team to the playoffs, whether they be coaches of professional, collegiate, or even high school teams seems to be irrelevant. Americans want to win, and if their team doesn’t, then it must be the coach’s fault.

One of my favorite Christian movies tells the story of a middle-aged football coach at a Christian high school somewhere in the southeastern United States. Though not for lack of effort on his part, the poor coach can’t seem to lead his team to a win to save his life…or his job.

After far too many losses, the parents who comprise the football booster club have begun to meet in secret, calling for his immediate termination and the hiring of a more effective head coach; something that the poor embattled coach catches wind of while locking up the athletic complex late one evening before heading home from a long day’s work.

The very next day, the disillusioned coach is sitting in his office lamenting his condition, when an older gentleman walks in. This particular older gentleman has a long history with the school. Day after day for many years, he has made it a habit to walk the halls of the Christian school while the students are in class, placing his hand upon each of the locker and praying for each of the students as he walks down the hallway. Upon entering the coach’s office, the older gentleman asks for a moment of his time, and then proceeds to tell a story…

“Two farmers prayed for rain, but only one of those farmers went out to prepare his fields to receive it. Now Coach, which one of those farmers do you think really believed that God would send it? Coach…God is not finished with you yet.”

The coach spends a night in fervent prayer, ultimately realizing that his calling was never to win football games but rather to help a group of young men to take one more step toward becoming the people that God had created them to be. The coach changes his philosophy, which changes his methodology, which changes the hearts and minds of the young men under his care. Within a short period of time, a spiritual renewal begins in that small Christians school that branches out through the football team to the others students of the school, their families, and ultimately their entire community.

It has been said that aging is not for the faint of heart. It is so easy to fall into the stereotypical American tendency to locate our identity in our vocation, causing a crisis of meaning when we are no longer able to continue in that vocation…or to continue as effectively as we had once been able to.

If you want to be one who ages with a child’s heart, bearing a radiance that illuminates your entire community, then remember that God is not finished with you yet. God never had one calling for your life. God’s call has always been dynamic…not static…ever changing as the story of your life has been molded by the experiences that have helped you to grow into the person that God has called you to be. God has a calling for you today that is every bit as meaningful and every bit as important as the very first call that you ever heard.

Maybe it is time to stop praying for rain. You can rest assured that God has heard you. Instead, pick up your tools, step out of the barn, and join God in preparing your fields to receive it. If you do, then you will probably be surprised by the unintended everyday holiness that results from remembering what it means to be alive.