Abiding in Exile 4/21/2022

Abiding in Exile 4/21/2022

April 19, 2022

Sacred Invitation

By: Nate Mason


How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

This question is a variation of Thomas Aquinas’s reflections found in Suma Theologica. In the centuries since, the premise of the question has been mocked for its abstract faux intellectualism, but the question was meant to inspire wonder and awe. How can the servants of the Lord achieve such wondrous works with only the Spirit? Let me pose an updated question for reflection: How can a half-time pastor serve spiritual, social, and administrative needs of two churches at once? In both cases, the answer is “It can’t happen without God’s help.”

I do my best to get done what needs to be done in my 25 hour/week time constraints. It takes organization (never my strong point) recruitment, and delegation. Again, on the rare times we succeed, it is through the power of the Spirit!  But on Holy Week, I throw any thoughts of “half-time” out the window. I love Holy Week so much it didn’t feel like work at all, though the DS and my SPRC tell me otherwise. We did a Bible study, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, three Easter services, and an Easter breakfast. Each of these activities provided a diverse way to experience the Spirit, and we rarely get the opportunity to break out of our routine. Of course, this week, I’m just carrying the momentum of Holy Week. There’s a wedding rehearsal, a wedding, a baptism, the church is receiving new members, and my kids and I will be doing special music. As far as my DS and SPRC are concerned this will all take 20 to 25 hours… shhhhhhh… lets just keep this between us. I’m sure next week I will crash and sleep until I have to get up and go to Annual Conference, but right now, I am excited. I’m excited because this is an opportunity to invite others into something great.

What do you invite people into? Who do you invite?

Dating has a weird rhythm to it. When you first ask out your love interest, you plan hard, spend too much, and hope that you invited them out to the perfect date. After the relationship is established and time passes, dating becomes more routine. You know where you like to go, you know what you like to do. I am not trash talking this part of dating life. I loved that time with my wife! There is no anxiety, no worries about whether they like you. You can just enjoy the moment. For those of us who choose to have kids, we return to that need for dating perfection because we hardly ever get the chance to go out. When you have kids, you aren’t going to go through the work to line up a babysitter, coordinate schedules with your significant other, light a candle/say a prayer that no one gets sick the day of, just to go out to a chain restaurant! If you’re going to go through all that work, it must be for something special.

A few weeks ago, on our bi-annual date, Krissa and I got all dressed up (our son thought we were going to church) and went to Clyde’s Fine Diner in the East Village, Des Moines. It’s a good date spot for a good United Methodist because of their wonderful “Zero Proof”[i] cocktail list. We didn’t realize that we were going out on the same night as several local proms were happening. I’m sure many of the kids picked Clyde’s for the same reason I did. Around the restaurant we could see the whole spectrum of romantic life in one spot. Young kids full of nervous excitement, established couples out for the night, old married couples doing something exciting, and us, young(ish) married couples doing something exciting. Clyde’s, who isn’t paying me to say this, was the perfect spot to fit the needs of a wide variety of people. We all had different needs and expectations, but Clyde’s managed to meet them all. The church could be a little more like Clyde’s.

What kind of church are we inviting people into? A church they need, or a church we need?

This is an important question to my family as we prepare to baptize my son, Ezekiel. 
United Methodism teaches that baptism initiates people into the faith community and into a covenant relationship with God and God's people. Reaffirming their vows enables Christians to renew their commitment to discipleship — with the help of the Holy Spirit[i

By baptizing Ezekiel, he becomes part of the church. Is this the church that he needs? From an administrative perspective, baptism acts as a form of church membership. He’s dipped. Now he’s “one of us.” We’ll find him a spot on a committee that needs to be filled. He’ll sign up for his Sunday to be liturgist/acolyte/usher, and he will be responsible for bringing a salad to all luncheons and funerals. Even if he weren’t three years old, that’s not the church that Ezekiel needs. We need more people to be part of that church, but are we filling the needs of those who are filling our needs?

But from a spiritual perspective Ezekiel will be “incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation.”[iii] Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has made something new. There is a new world being redeemed out of the old one. A world where pain, poverty, hate, and sin have no place. Through baptism, God is inviting Ezekiel to have a place in this new creation. Additionally, God reminds us of our role as the Church. We recognize that our faith and well-being is influenced by the world around us. It is hard to feel at home in God’s new creation when we are hungry and scared. It’s hard to feel God’s love when the pains of the world plague us. So we reaffirm our promise “to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” Since we are already incorporated into these mighty acts, it’s our duty to participate in this new creation. Does my son need to be part of a church that is transforming the world so everyone can know God’s love?Absolutely. We all need that.  

We all need that invitation 

Going to church is good for you. I studied Sociology in undergrad, so I generally focus on observable phenomena when talking about benefits. We can survey somebody’s stated belief, but we don’t really know how authentic their responses are, but we can measure behavior. So for the sake of this conversation, I’m going to talk about going to church as a positive response to being invited into relationship with God, and it’s good for you. VERY good for you. I have a weird hobby of going to Pew Research and reading their charts and tables, then I click on their reference links, and eventually I get lost in a rabbit hole of church data. Of all my dorky habits, this might be the dorkiest. But by all accounts, if you go to church, life is good. You are happier, more engaged, and healthier;[iv] more educated, wealthier, and less likely to get divorced compared to non-church attenders of the same socio-economic background (for example, I am more educated, wealthier, and less likely to get divorced than a non-church attending forty-year-old white male) [v], and so on, and so on. Again, this is focusing on behavior, because there is a lot of research out there saying that if you claim Christian beliefs, but do not attend church regularly, it has the opposite effect of what was just stated.

Being in an active relationship with Christ through church is really good for you. Staying home and believing in Jesus can be bad for you. Here’s the thing about most people: when we find something good, we want to share it! Have you ever gone to a good restaurant and then never mentioned it again? No! You tell everybody about it whenever food comes up. (Go to Clyde’s. Seriously, not getting paid to say it, it’s just good.) Shouldn’t your relationship with Christ through church be the same way? Then get out there and start inviting people to experience this goodness! Sure, I make it sound easy, and it is, but most of us get caught up on two big things.

1. We just aren’t excited about church.

Church and dating life go through that same cycle. Sometimes we aren’t in that new excited mode. There is no zealot like a recent convert! Many of us have spent years attending the same church and are comfortable with that same routine. We feel like it might not be exciting to somebody else. Perhaps some of us are just burnt out on church as normal, and don’t want to invite people into the humdrum we now feel. In either case, it’s time for you to jump into that “new creation” part of your baptismal covenant. What ARE you excited about if it isn’t church as normal? Prayer, meditation, table service, outdoor service, home church, game night, date night, cooking class, baking club, comic books? Anything? Whatever you are excited about, invite others to join you in doing it. Take any activity you like, add a prayer and some fellowship, and BAM, it’s church. You might be thinking “Yeah Nate, Not EVERYTHING can be church.” Well maybe not, but way more than you think. I love comic books and horror novels. Very unchurchy stuff usually. I just had a 45-minute conversation at Mayhem Comics in Clive about how Jesus was a Moses figure and not a Christ figure. That was with a non-church going stranger. Just imagine if I invited church goers into a conversation like that. That’s a new fellowship. By the way Stephen King was raised Methodist and has some of the most authentic representation of Methodism in literature. It would be easy to make a church book club to talk about all the Methodist references in King’s work.

At the same time, be gracious and understanding of others who are content with “how it is.” We are all in different places in our spiritual life. I completely understand why my “Stephen King Methodist Book Club” hasn’t taken off… yet. The goal is to make a space for everyone’s journey, not cater to just one position.

I have a rule in my churches. Any time “Someone should do…” gets said, I stick my fingers in my ears and shout “LALALA NOT LISTENING!” (or if I’m feeling polite I quietly ignore it). Anytime someone says “I would like to do…” I shout “Yes, YES, HALLELUJAH YES!” Pastors, even full-time pastors, don’t have the time to organize and execute all the things that “someone should do,” but if you love something, we will support you and give you the confidence to do it. Just be excited to do something you love.  

2.  We are worried that people will reject us… and then hate us and never speak to us again.  

There is a new phenomenon called the faux invitation. It’s the “Oh we should get coffee sometime!” invitation that all parties in the conversation know will not likely happen. People are busy. Most of the time people dread adding more things to do even if they are good/fun things, but we like to be invited. We lack the self confidence to state the underlying feelings, to just come out and say, “I think you are wonderful, and I like the time we share.” So we imply that sentiment through invitations. Inviting people to social events, such as church, help build strong social bonds. These bonds will help us be more resilient to feelings of loneliness, grief, despair, and depression.[vi] Extending an invitation will make you feel better and make them feel better too. So do it!

Like I said before, I am excited about all the stuff going on in my churches. I invited everyone I came across to our Holy Week services (even poor comic book shop guy.) I did it because I love Jesus and my churches, and that makes me excited to be there. For Ezekiel’s baptism, I have been aggressively inviting all the people I know and love to come and participate. We take that “surround him with a cloud of witness” thing very seriously. I have invited clergy friends who I know have to work. I invite friends from so far away I know they can’t make it. I’ve invited Jewish friends, Muslim friends, militant atheist friends, I’ve even invited a couple Lutherans! In every case, they have responded with joy and appreciation for the invitation. Most say no, like I knew they would, but they were honored that we wanted them to be there for a special service. It was a chance to reconnect and spend a little time talking with someone important. If church is important to you, and you are excited about going to church, people will feel that they are important, and you are excited about them when you extend an invitation.    
By the way, Ezekiel gets baptized this Sunday, April 24th at Maple Grove United Methodist in West Des Moines. You are all invited to join us.  

[i] Zero Proof is the best description of a non-Alcoholic cocktail.  “Spirit Free” and “Mocktail” just sound like you are living a sad life full of lies.  
[ii] https://www.resourceumc.org/en/content/to-be-united-methodist-i-cant-remember-my-baptism#:~:text=United%20Methodism%20teaches%20that%20baptism,Spirit%2C%20Burton%2DEdwards%20said.
[iii] United Methodist Hymnal Baptismal Covenant I
[iv] https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2019/01/31/religions-relationship-to-happiness-civic-engagement-and-health-around-the-world/
[v] https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/religious-landscape-study/attendance-at-religious-services/
[vi] https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2018/04/building-social-bonds
Subscribe to Abiding In Exile ?