I’m just back from the 2011 edition of the New England School of Congregational Development. I was reminded of a few things, learned a lot, and was inspired to put a lot of both into practice. Two of the most important things I was reminded of was: 1. Telling the story is important. 2. Consistency matters. As I sit to write this I find that the two are inextricably linked.
As a clergy-person, I’m often asked, “what was your call to ministry like?” Or, my favorite, “why did you decide to become a pastor?” The last person that asked me this was my doctor. My answer to her was, “the same reason I put pants on this morning...it seemed like a good idea.” Of course, the answer is a little more involved than that; and, it’s a story that I would be happy to share with you, if you’re willing to tell me why you serve God’s people in the way that you serve. Friday afternoon I was reminded of what my Evangelism professor used to tell us was the more important question, “why are you a Christian?” Margaret Feinberg, though I struggled with some of the content of her presentation, reminded me that the more important to question to answer is, ‘why are you a Christian?’ “Why do you follow Christ?”
I don’t believe this question deserves as flippant an answer and is, and should be, a key way we can call people into a deeper relationship with God. It’s true that people are drawn into a community because of something interesting or what they hear about that community but that surface introduction soon wears off and unless there is a purpose for that person to fulfill, they quickly loose interest and move on to the next group. Unless there’s a good reason why you and I are part of our congregations, or more importantly, why we are Christ-followers, the reason why someone should have a relationship with Christ goes out the window soon after flying in through the window.
I grew up in a home that it was expected that we attend worship, Sunday School, and Youth Fellowship every Sunday. We didn’t have much choice in the worship service we attended, either. This night owl was expected to be in the car by 7:30am, ready for the 30 minute drive from our home to the neighboring town, where the closest United Methodist Church was located. To deny any bribery on the part of my parents would be a lie. It would also be a lie if I didn’t admit to several loud protests on my part and on my sister’s part.
When I was old enough I was sent to summer camp. I hated it. If they gave such awards, I would have gotten the homesick award for sure. If it wasn’t for a certain Gary Marsh, I would have probably gone home early in the week. If Gary and my mother hadn’t schemed I would have gone home, but they sneakily schemed Sunday night and Gary vowed to get me through the week. The next year was fun and by the time I was in middle-school, a riveting rendition of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” and a few new friends later, I was hooked. Looking back, Mechuwana was the most influential part of my faith development and today I tell people that I believe in God and am a follower of Christ because of my experiences while I was a camper, staff person and volunteer. I learned what it meant to live with and love the unloveable. Those people who live hell-like lives but for a few days or a week they could be kids.
I remember about 8 years ago there was a camper who was from somewhere north of Augusta, Maine. He was prone to violence. Sunday night, while playing basketball, someone stole the ball from him. Instead of taking it back within the rules of the game, he popped the kid that stole the ball from him between the eyes and took the ball back. If this wasn’t enough, the next day he hit someone else, if memory serves me right it was one of his youth leaders. The point that my heart broke was when, after calling his mother, Norm informed me that “...his mother didn’t want him...”
After about an hour long car-ride we arrived in a dilapidated trailer park. I couldn’t believe, pulling into the drive way of the trailer in the back corner, that someone could live in the structure standing before us. The front steps were falling apart, but the floor of the mobile home made the front steps look like they were in great shape. I don’t know what has happened to that kid. I hope that the 48 hours he spent at Mechuwana changed his life in a positive way. He taught me some important lessons. He especially taught me that not everyone has what I had, something that I knew, intellectually, but until that moment never believed.
It wasn’t the experience itself, or the countless other experiences that inspired within me a deeper yearning for a relationship with God, but the relationships with people that already had those relationships and in turn encouraged me to ask the tough questions and wrestle with those hard issues of faith. Those issues that I still wrestle with and usually walk away with more questions than answers. The only thing that is for sure, that I still hold onto, is a lesson taught by a certain “Big Jullio,” that is God loves you, no matter what...A lesson that I try to impress upon the youth groups, widows groups, and other church groups that I get to work with today.
So, I’m a Christian because God loves you and God loves me and the way that I experience that love is through a Protestant Christian lens.
Take away number 2: Consistency matters. This lesson made it clear that I need to be better about updating my blog...