Pentecost 2010 - Understanding Babble

Understanding Babble

Recently, Daniel Carlson was in my office for a meeting and at exactly 3 o'clock he suddenly looked up and asked, "Is something about to explode?"  Now ministers rarely take each other at face value, so I was wondering what he might mean by this, when he pointed to my desk.  "Over there," he said, "something is beeping."  I thought he was kidding.  So I go over to my desk to show him that there is nothing there.  After I get to my desk I hear the faintest of noises.  Like an alarm coming from a world on a baseball.  I find a electronic pocket watch that is on my desk and hold it directly to my ear.  There is the tiniest of alarms going off.  It had apparently been going off every day at 3 pm, set months ago for some event that I must have missed, since I couldn't hear the darn thing.  I had heard that there were frequencies that you lost touch with as you got older, but here it was.  Daniel could hear things plainly that I couldn't.  My own alarm, no less.

Our lives are full of babble, of misunderstanding.

Each of us lives in slightly different perceptual world.  Because of our physiologies, we hear different things.  Before sense data even gets to our frontal lobes, our experiences are filtered and often categorized by our sensory processing.  We look at ink blots and actually see different things.  A few people in the world can listen to hard rock music and understand the lyrics.

It is no wonder we understand things differently.  In the human family we use different languages and words to describe different experiences.  It is to be expected that I couldn't understand someone speaking Mongolian, but most of the misunderstandings in the world are with the people closest to us.  Husbands and wives who have lived together for decades will still completely miss some meaning or message.  Parents and children will see each other as people from other planets even though they have shared life for years.

It's a wonder civilization exists at all.  The simplest of orders is mixed up.  If people understood each other, I could always get my eggs the way I want them at a breakfast place, when in fact, my not-so-picky egg preference only makes it to my table correct about a third of the time.

We mishear, misstate, misunderstand, misrepresent, misconstrue, misuse, misinform, and misspell.  It is no wonder we miss each other's meaning.  The writers of Genesis told the story of Babel to understand the basic fact that we just can’t get each other most of the time.

Men complain about not being able to understand women.  And women complain about . . . being able to understand men all too well.

The church has a problem being understood.  The Bible is not completely transparent; it can be confusing.  We have rituals and customs that may not communicate what we want.  Elders process down to the first pew, strange flags fly in the sanctuary, we say unfamiliar words.

One of the basic battles fought by our denomination was over how to be understood.  This church was founded by people who spoke Dutch.  When they came to worship, therefore, they spoke Dutch.  At some point, they had to decide if they were just talking to themselves, or whether God needed them to have other people understand.

The Miracle of Pentecost is that people understood.

In the face of all the potential ways that we can misunderstand each other, it is a miracle if it ever happens, especially if it is about something very important.  When we take away the hubbub and the flash, when the wind and the fire are taken out of the story, the miracle is even more clear.  Strangers understood each other about something important.  A miracle.

When the stakes are higher, when the issue is filled with emotion, the odds go down that the message will get through, unless God is involved.

This is not to say that at Pentecost everyone got it.  In every age, some will not be ready to hear God's tune and so will think it nonsense.

But our new hope is that the power that changes our lives can be shared with others.  Our faith is not such a personal thing that it is all bottled up inside us.  We risk talking to each other about important things with the new hope that someone else will 'get it.'  When we were young, we stayed up to all hours talking about what was important.  We can either get lazy or jaded and forget the spirit that brings new life.

Today we have brought in hope for our future in the form of a twelve new disciples who now share the Spirit with us.  We will all speak.  We will all listen.  And with God’s Spirit, we will sometimes hear something like the rush of a mighty wind and understand each other.

Just like the first Pentecost, when we understand, we wonder how it will work out: "What does this mean?"

I'm not exactly sure what Pentecost means for our futures.  On the interpersonal level, it may mean the reinvigoration of our efforts to understand and be understood.  Apparently it IS possible for men to understand women and for parents to understand teenagers.  It just may take more listening than we have been accustomed to.  Babble is understood when we gather in the Spirit.

On the level of our faith, it may require us to trust folks who hear alarms very dim to us.  Remember, other people can literally hear things we can’t.  We need to listen to voices of hope in people who sound very different.  Different languages, different music, different expressions.  Babble becomes holy when we gather in the Spirit.

As a congregation, this means we pay attention to our role in the spreading of the Spirit.  The disciples were gathered together in one place when the Spirit fell.   Being understood seems to require us to be connected with each other, constantly checking the status of the people around us.  Maybe Facebook and twitter have something.  The business of understanding and working with the Spirit is a rejection of the self-centered and self-satisfied life.

This community centered life is tough for a big church.  It’s easy and comfortable to be a spectator here.  It would be easy for us minister types to simply put on a good show on Sunday morning and leave it at that.  But there is more to be understood here.  There is more Spirit on the wind.  Bagabagabaga?  Bagabagabaga!

May 9, 2010 - Giving Peace

Preacher’s Preview
May 5, 2010
“Giving Peace”

1. What conditions get you anxious and excited?
2. What calms you down from those feelings?
3. Are emotions contagious?
4. When has someone else’s bad feeling infected you?
5. When has someone else’s peace affected you?
6. What do you do to calm down an overwrought child?
7. If you wanted to calm down a whole crowd, how would you do it?
8. How can you ‘give peace?’
9. How do you think of the Holy Spirit?
10. Have you ever had a distinct experience of the Spirit?

Read Passage

1. When do you remember hearing this passage? Why there?
2. Is the Holy Spirit related to Jesus ‘leaving peace?’

John 14: 25-27

25”(Jesus said) I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

The word ‘advocate,’ has been variously translated as counselor, comforter, and advocate.
Verse 26: The “Advocate” does not bring teaching independent of the revelation found in Jesus’ words and actions. The Holy Spirit will not add any new revelation of his own, since that given by Jesus is complete.
Verse 26: “remind”: 12:16 says: “His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.”
Verse 27: “peace”: More than the conventional meaning of shalom is intended. To give “peace” is a royal and a divine prerogative (see Numbers 6:26; Psalm 147:14; Isaiah 26:12; 45:7) which Jesus bequeaths as God’s Messiah, the Prince of Peace (see Isaiah 9:6 and Ezekiel 37:26). Worldly peace comes through coercion. [BlkJn] Isaiah 9:6 says: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”.

Commentary on Gospel by Mary Hinkle Shore
In the last evening he spends with the disciples before his death, Jesus tries to show them two elements of reality that are difficult to hold together: he is going away, yet he will not leave them orphaned.
Throughout the farewell discourse, Jesus makes it clear that followers love him by serving others. (One could say that Jesus' love language here is "acts of service."1) Although we might distinguish between loving Jesus and keeping his word, and imagine that we can do one but not the other, Jesus does not recognize that distinction. The clause in John 14:23b is a condition of fact: "Those who love me will keep my word..."2 Love for Jesus simply is love in action.

Whether the disciples know it, to live that kind of love, they will need the constant presence of God in their midst. Jesus offers that presence with three different promises. First, he says of himself and the Father about those who love him: "We will come and make our home with them." From the first chapter of this gospel we know that prior to anyone's love for Jesus, "The Word became flesh and lived among us" (John 1:14). No one would be able to love Jesus if the Father had not first loved the world enough to send his Son into it. The cohabitation that Jesus speaks of is not a reward for good behavior. It is simply a statement of where God likes to spend time. It hearkens back to the first chapter of the gospel and forward to the reality envisioned in Revelation: "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them" (Revelation 21:3).

The Son also announces the advent of the Spirit among the believers. During the time between his leave-taking and life in the new Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit "will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you" (John 14:25). I once heard a New Testament scholar speak of material written fifty years after Jesus' death as a relevant source for the life of the historical Jesus by saying, "My mother has been dead for thirty years. I think I understand her better now than I did when she was alive." The Holy Spirit accompanies the church as it remembers. The Spirit guides the disciples and the church as we think back over what we have experienced of Jesus, and as we seek to let our love for him show up in the ways we relate to others. The Spirit helps disciples to understand Jesus and his word and to love Jesus by keeping his word on behalf of the world.

Parish Based Social Services

A Manifesto for Parish Based Social Service
by Rev. Dr. Bill Levering

Once upon a time when Protestants were in control of the culture and everyone was in church, local congregations would gather to do good works together. They began cooperative non profit ventures that fed the hungry, housed the homeless, and counseled the troubled.

Things changed in the river cities in America.
• In an era of shrinking mainstream attendance, churches began competing more for members, often at the expense of a cooperative spirit.
• Urban churches declined to the extent that their existence demanded more of their attention, fewer church resources were available to support causes.
• The spun off non-profits began to develop a contributor and volunteer base completely separate from local spiritual communities. Few offered holistic services, but catered to niches where money was available from grants or donations.
Although the separation of social services from churches may have seemed like a good idea at the time, it created a certain ghetto of poverty services separated from spiritual communities. It was easier to think of the poor as 'them' when they were served 'over there.' The needs, conditions and stories of the poor got further and further away from the consciousness of church folks. As a nation, when we decided to shrink services to the poor, this meant that not only were vital services lost, but that there was no locus of advocacy.

The United States Nonprofit Sector found that, excluding foundations and religious congregations, there were 837,027 nonprofits in the United States in 2003, and that they had combined assets of $1.76 trillion. On the other hand, American Church Lists, who makes its business by knowing how and where churches are, says that there are about 380,000 active churches in America. While there will always be a need for human services delivered out of the context of faith communities, it appears the balance has been tipped so that now communities of faith often give up their active role entirely.

Contemporary spiritual people are looking for a faith that expresses itself in action, not another United Way at worship. If we do not provide opportunities for service that are connected to our congregations, our faith seems to be without concrete expression. We also need to remain attached to concrete situations that are different from our own and need to risk dirtying our hands with the real business of human need.

Because isolated non-profits are often at the mercy of governmental grants, their work has often been compromised by governmental requirements and they may chose to provide services where grants are to found rather than where need is to be found. We can do better.

Parish based social services use the local church or synagogue as the locus of oversight, funding and provision of services. We bring non-profits back into our buildings and our parishes. This can begin with the provision of the spiritual services that slipped away most seriously. Community chaplains can reach out to local institutions and begin the relationship of need to nurture. Without jeopardizing the mission of any agency, we can form cooperative ventures in which congregations provide staff that are still very connected to the local congregation or can use church buildings for offices and provision of services.

For example, instead of giving $20,000 to a local agency to fund a half-time social worker, we hire a social worker/chaplain and give them to the agency three days a week. The chaplain attends worship here and connects our congregation to the community of need in a much closer fashion. The chaplain would work with volunteers and help us learn from different folks as well as providing services. Another day or two a week the chaplain would work with some other agency, transcending turf battles and connecting the not-for-profit sectors as well.

Of course there are problems if this idea is carried to extremes. It is not intended to supplant the fundamental role of government in insuring the basic needs of its people. "Faith based initiatives" should go out of their way not to involve governmental subsidies so that there is not an unintended shift or reduction in services. We shouldn't use this as a tool of blatant evangelism, either. Participation in our brand of religion cannot be a prerequisite for receiving whatever we have to offer.

Financially stable urban churches are well suited to begin this re-attachment of human services to spiritual communities. They have the resources, contacts, and experience to understand and develop effective interventions. They have the political presence to understand how to get things done in the complex world of urban governments and funding. That being said, a congregation in any setting can begin to use this concept to be more engaged in the needs of the community.

Parish based social service is a new approach and will garner resistance, especially from those involved with institutions now receiving support from churches. This is why it is best developed in new proposals, leaving current funding programs alone. We need to reassure folks, however, that losing a bit of control may be balanced by closer relationships and expanded services.

The Missioner Process

First Reformed Church began to enact some of the concepts of parish based social services in its Missioner program in 2008. In brief, the following process was followed to involve the congregation in mission work.

1. Informal conversations with civic leaders and not-for-profit directors took a pulse of the needs of the community and the work already being done.
2. Mission leadership in the congregation developed a few short proposals for a position, funded by the church, serving in a mission setting. After the mission target was established, a role for the missioner in the congregations needs was nailed down so that they had a particular helping job on Sundays.

3. The congregation decides from among the proposals, in our case through the consistory.

4. The supervising mission site actually hires the individual with input and consultation with the congregation. It is vital that the mission site have full jurisdiction over their workers, but the person hired needs to be happy about serving in a congregational setting whatever his or her faith is.

5. The missioner is trained and supported in the congregational setting, enabling them to write newsletter articles and draft appropriate folks to help in their mission niche. This support takes place in weekly scheduled meetings with all the missioners and a pastor.

The Missioner Experience

First Reformed Church, Schenectady has had a very positive experience measured by:

• Congregational excitement, involvement, and empowerment in mission issues increasing.

• Funding continued for these positions from other sources at the end of the two year cycle. In each case below, the original vision became so vital to the community or the not-for-profit that other resources continued its funding. This ensures a checkpoint for the assessment of the community need.

• Public presence has increased. While we don’t blow our own horn, newspaper stories about our missioners increased our exposure as a caring institution and brought in worshippers.

Habitat for Humanity
In the summer of 2008, Randy Sparrow was hired to work in a very hands on way with the ‘stuff’ of housing. He worked with habitat for Humanity managing the ReStore. This new position was able to take this Habitat chapter to a whole new level of activity and generated income doubling our investment in his position.

The City Mission
In the spring of 2008, Art Hudak was hired by the City Mission of Schenectady in collaboration with First Reformed of Schenectady to promote and manage an Ambassador program involving a broad range of people in providing a welcoming experience to downtown Schenectady. Art also work directly at the City Mission and had a strong street presence.

The Damien Center
In the spring of 2008, Dan Butterworth was hired by the Schenectady Inner City Ministries in collaboration with FRCS to be the executive director of the Damien Center, a place providing care and support to those affected and infected with HIV/AIDS. Dan expanded the program and managed the move to a building donated for the ministry in 2009.

Stepping Stones Ministry
In the spring of 2010, Art Hudak was hired (half time) to work with a board of representative churches and communities to create a spiritual ministry for people in recovery groups. This worshipping community would be designed to use the language and forms of the many twelve step programs in our area.