Come Dine at Church This Sunday Evening

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In the spring of 2016, I began attending a church called Simple Church in Grafton, Massachusetts, about an hour west of Boston by train. 

My close seminary friend Christy, who shared an affinity for local food, cooking, and farming with me, became a part of the Simple Church community about a year before I did and encouraged me to go with her. It became a formative part of my final year of seminary. 

Simple Church's pastor Zach Kerzee, an original Texan (and actually a close friend of our former youth pastor, Matt Bell!), launched Simple Church after his graduation from seminary as a church plant with a radically...well, simple intention: to make the meal the heart of the worship experience. Down the street from Simple Church is an organic farm, whose head farmer generously donates produce to prepare the weekly soups for the service. Bread-baking is another central piece of the service, and bread is used as a metaphor for the communion experience as a whole and as the community takes communion together. Kendall Vanderslice, the former baker for Simple Church who now attends Duke Divinity School, is writing a book about the power of dinner churches in church movements. 

Zach and Kendall were both important friends and sources of inspiration to me during my final year of seminary, and Simple Church an important part of my weekly spiritual life.

While the dinner church experience includes some elements of "traditional" worship services, the energy of the service is much more participatory. Following a short homily, the entire gathered community of all ages is invited and encouraged to share conversation about the topic for the week--often topics that are avoided or glossed over in traditional worship spaces. I left Simple Church each week feeling so grateful for authentic conversation: about faith and politics, the challenges of maintaining a spiritual life in the midst of life's busyness, and more. 

Simple Church is part of an exciting broader movement of dinner churches cropping up across the country (there is actually a New York Times article about Simple Church- check it out!), and has especially drawn young people to its tables.

Like many of my fellow young Christians (and fellow older ones, too), I often long for church spaces to create more meaningful authenticity where followers can be honest about their lives and struggles and be held accountable for their Christian walk in loving community. Generally speaking, I find that we churchgoers so often feel like we have to shed our "baggage" or topics that might seem unpleasant as soon as we cross the threshold of the church door. I don't think Jesus called us to do that. I think he called us like he called his first disciples and the early church that we see in Acts--that radically communal body of believers who shared all in common--to take risks; to be vulnerable; to commit to action and reflection in community. 

Speaking honestly, I tire of the lament I regularly hear about "why young people don't go to church anymore." How do we get curious about this, rather than place blame or refuse to reflect internally? Maybe young people leave the church in part because the church has not created a place for them to experience meaning and authenticity. The church has not done enough to challenge the frantic, money and power-oriented society that shapes us on a daily basis, and which our young people are especially molded by. 

What an opportunity to try something new! I experience Kessler Park UMC's openness to this newness, and I am excited that this dinner church we are trying on Sunday gets to be a small piece of this. 

On that note, I hope you come on Sunday evening-- come just as you are. All ages will be in the same place, gathered at tables to eat bread, soup, share communion, song, and holy conversation. It doesn't get any simpler than that! 

How to Pray About A(nother) School Shooting

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I was blissfully unaware of the school shooting yesterday in Florida for much of the day because I was busy with meetings and preparations for Ash Wednesday. When I saw the “Breaking News” alert on my phone, I tried to ignore it as long as I could.

Not until I got home from the Ash Wednesday service last night could I spend any time processing what happened.

Since I have already announced that our Lenten focus will be going deeper in prayer, let me suggest a couple of important things to know about how to pray in the aftermath of big tragedies such as a school shooting:

 

  1. Because the blame game will shortly begin, it’s always good to pray a Prayer of Confession. The usual suspects will be on TV soon — the NRA gun lobby, a do-nothing Congress, the state of mental health services, those who knew the shooter was a threat but did nothing, etc. But we all shoulder a portion of the blame for this national trait of ours. As Americans, we are complicit in a culture that celebrates violence, shames those with mental disabilities, and does nothing to prevent future school shootings. A Prayer of Confession is the only way to approach God in this matter. 
  2. Pray for victims, survivors, and first responders by name. As names pop up on the screen or in news coverage, use those names in your prayer. This personalizes the situation for you, and has the effect of deepening your empathy and compassion. It’s one thing to pray for “all those affected by” an event, and quite another to pray for Reginald, Barry, and Leigh.
  3. Pray for the shooter. Our natural impulse will be to pray for the shooter’s destruction, or to leave him out of our prayers altogether. He has committed an atrocious and horrific evil. We want to avoid mentioning him, but the Truth-with-a-capital-T is that he is a beloved child of God, as surely as those whose lives he took. He is a human being who deserves dignity and respect, even if he did not extend dignity and respect in kind. Our prayer for this particular shooter ought to be that he finds grace from God such that he is driven to repentance.
  4. Very few words rise to the surface of one’s consciousness when trying to pray about a school shooting; thus, it can be a helpful thing to attempt praying without words. One way to do this is to watch news video footage with the sound muted. Let the images guide you; enter the scene with your imagination, and let the emotions you encounter lead you into prayer, either wordlessly or with words. Remain in silence for as long as you need to.
  5. Finally, pray for guidance to action. On Twitter yesterday, politicians who offered “thoughts and prayers” for the shooting were mocked endlessly, because this has become the standard response to a recurring problem. If prayer doesn’t lead to corresponding action on our part, then one can rightly question whether our prayers were prayed in all sincerity. Ask God what you can do to counter the rash of school shootings in America. 

 

Would Jesus Get a Flu Shot?

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If every silly thing an evangelist said became news, we’d have 24/7 coverage of preachers, and the late night hosts would never run short of jokes.

Gloria Copeland is the latest preacher to have been caught in a ridiculous string of sayings. What made her claims newsworthy apparently is the fact that she and her husband, Kenneth, are part of the president’s evangelical advisory board. Here’s what she said in a Facebook video this past week:

We’ve got a duck season, a deer season, but we don’t have a flu season. And don’t receive it when somebody threatens you with, ‘Everybody’s getting the flu.’ We’ve already had our shot … Jesus himself gave us the flu shot. He redeemed us from the curse of flu. And we receive it and we take it, and we are healed by his stripes. Amen? You know the Bible says he himself bore our sicknesses and carried our diseases and by his stripes we were healed. When we were healed, we are healed, so get on the word, stay on the word …  Just keep saying that, ‘I’ll never have the flu. I’ll never have the flu.’ Put words -- inoculate yourself with the word of God.

Believe it or not, these comments don’t sound insane to me, like they might to you. Because I understand the underlying theology. I was raised in a church that shared the beliefs of Kenneth and Gloria Copeland. They aren’t typical “evangelicals,” though they share common political viewpoints.

The Copelands are part of the Word of Faith movement, born out of the ministry of E. W. Kenyon, and popularized by Kenneth Hagin, who built a church ministry and Bible college in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. The Christianity espoused by Hagin and his followers, including the Copelands, Creflo Dollar, and Charles Capps, to name a few, represents a subset of Pentecostalism, which incorporates elements of the “prosperity gospel,” along with an embrace of faith healing and positive thinking.

Word of Faith Christians believe that, besides the experience of salvation, in which a person repents of her sins, is forgiven, and is “born again,” there is a second experience available to us:“the baptism of the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues.” This occurs when the Spirit fills a person, and enables her to speak in other tongues, as happened in Acts 2. The technical term for these other tongues is “glossalia,” and is best described as an ecstatic babbling. Those who participate in such babbling believe they are speaking in a heavenly language, known only to God. At times, someone is given the ability to “interpret” this heavenly language, and so speak the message in English to those around.

Along with the tongues comes other benefits: people who are empowered by the Spirit are supposedly given the ability to gain wealth and prosper, as well as remain healthy throughout their lives.

Gloria quotes a passage from Isaiah 53 in her justification of believing that Christians don’t need to get the flu. The passage is known as one of the Suffering Servant songs, because it contains a lengthy description of a servant who suffers on behalf of Israel’s deliverance, and whom Christians believe is a prophecy of Jesus Christ.

The passage in question reads like this:

He was despised and avoided by others;     
    a man who suffered, who knew sickness well.
Like someone from whom people hid their faces,     
    he was despised, and we didn’t think about him.
It was certainly our sickness that he carried,
    and our sufferings that he bore,
    but we thought him afflicted,
    struck down by God and tormented.
He was pierced because of our rebellions
    and crushed because of our crimes.     
He bore the punishment that made us whole;
    by his wounds we are healed

(Isaiah 53:3-5, Common English Bible)
 

The last verse is the one which charismatics have seized upon. In other translations, the line reads, “By his stripes we are healed,” which they believe refer to the stripes on Jesus’ back after he was whipped. They take the word “healed” to be a literal reference to one’s health. Thus, if this is a prediction of what the Messiah is going to do in the future, then they reason that those wounds or stripes are meant for our healing in the here and now. All we need to do to be healed is to “name it and claim it.”

As soon as I left home, I left Word of Faith Christianity behind, believing it to be not only irrational, but dangerous and heretical. Their message goes over quite well in middle-class North America, but it falls like a thud in the Global South, in poor neighborhoods, and in war-torn countries.

Jesus didn’t come to earth in order to make us wealthy and healthy. He came with much deeper ambitions — to make us good.

We are, in fact, supposed to become like Jesus. Nowhere in Scripture is Jesus portrayed as particularly wealthy or healthy. in fact, I daresay that following in Jesus' footsteps guarantees quite the opposite.

I’ve met plenty of healthy and wealthy people who made me sick to my stomach, who were genuinely despicable people. But at the same time, I’ve known plenty of broke people who were sick in bed, but were filled with God’s shalom to the point that I wanted to be like them.

In the meantime, I’m headed to the pharmacy for my flu shot. Maybe you should, too.