Thursday, August 19, 2010

Islamic hospitality

In these times where so much strife seems to be in the air between people of differing faiths, yesterday I got an email that brings some hope. Our congregation was invited by a local Muslim group to attend a Ramadan iftar meal.

This past spring, we had invited a Muslim speaker to come to our adult Sunday school class after a unit on interfaith issues. We had watched some videos about Islam and compared passages from the Qur’an and the Bible, but it was helpful and eye-opening to hear another person’s firsthand experience. He told us we had an open invitation to share an iftar meal to break the fast with them come Ramadan. The invitation has come.

I talk a lot about “radical hospitality,” often in the context of Jesus eating with all sorts of people in order for us as Christians to think about what it means to welcome others. This invitation from our Muslim friends is a beautiful example of radical hospitality. This particular Muslim group is very far theologically from what is usually labeled “Radical Islam,” but in this lovingly welcoming act of inviting Christians to dinner, they are radical in the same way that we are radical when we practice the very counter-cultural Christian practices of forgiveness and love. They are taking a holy risk to invite us to feast with them. It crosses boundaries of religion, culture, and language. I know I will be outside of my comfort zone, and I’m sure our hosts will be as well.

However, as much as I value the ministry of providing hospitality, I also recognize the equally important ministry of receiving hospitality. I pray that accepting this invitation of interfaith learning and eating is a chance for such a ministry of being welcomed.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Avon evangelism

Right now, I'm sitting at a Starbucks, ostensibly doing some sermon preparation. I say "ostensibly" becasue I'm actually eavesdropping on the women at the next table. I like writing at places like Starbucks because I get to observe humanity in all its wonder. As I overhear their conversation, I start thinking about evangelism.

The three ladies are talking about Avon. The one woman has a big box of catalogues and samples. They appear to be getting the third woman started as an Avon representative. Apparently Avon reps get credit for sales made by people they recruit, and the people they in turn recruit. It's about building your team. I wonder--isn't this how evangelism should work? You have a meaningful experience with God, you tell your friends, they tell their friends. Instead of recruiting people to sell Avon, we tell others about God.

I realize that Christianity isn't a product to be sold. In fact, I often cringe at the commercialization of religious devotion. But I think we can learn something about evangelism from Avon. It's about relationships. It's a matter of building connections between individuals.

Imagine--what would happen if everybody invited one extra friend to worship? Our attendance would double in size.

I don't always think bigger is always better. I've heard repeatedly that people have been attracted to Amazing Grace because of our size--they don't want to feel overwhelmed. But I also realize that behind the numbers are people. Avon's model works because people want to tell their friends what a good product it is. As Christian people, we have an amazing story to tell. Why wouldn't we want to share it with our friends?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Clergy burnout

There's a chunk of time this summer where I'm only preaching one Sunday out of four: two weeks of vacation and a special visit from our synod bishop.

In some ways, I feel like I'm missing something when I don't preach. Preaching is one of my greatest passions. I love reflecting on what the Bible says for our community on any given week. I also think of preaching as a spiritual discipline.

On the other hand, I know that life goes on without me. I know I need to breathe and take some time away. An article in Sunday's New York Times about clergy burnout was a helpful reminder of this:

According to the article, pastors have higher rates of obesity, hypertension, and depression than the rest of the population. In our ELCA, 69 per cent of pastors report being overweight. In my first year at Amazing Grace, I didn't take all my vacation time. I enjoy what I do so much, I want to put all my energy into being pastor. However, I know that I need to stay focused. I now that I need to practice self-care. I am not Jesus. Sometimes I need reminders of that. This NY Times article is one of those.

Regarding supply pastors filling in for preaching, there are two schools of thought: First, have the best possible preacher be the guest so that the congregation can experience faithful proclamation of the Gospel. Second, have the worst possible preacher so that the congregation is utterly thankful the regular pastor is back. I try to do the former. The pastors I've invited to preach in my stead are wise, experienced pastors that I have firm confidence in. I almost wish I could hear them preach.

But then, that defeats the purpose of vacation, doesn't it?