Tag Archives: church

photo: frolic

“I would  remind them to frolic in the beauty of God’s creation, to feed and
clothe the poor, to protect the weak and heal the sick, all the rest, as
both Rabbi Hillel and Jesus said, is commentary.”

– Ron DeJong (in answer to the question, “What advice might the Not Church have to offer the church?”)


chasing birds
© erin dunigan 2012

love wins…shouldn’t that be a good thing?

Love wins. And apparently not everyone is happy about it.

I just finished listening to the new book, Love Wins, by Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Church, and author of another of my favorite books, Velvet Elvis. I had heard rumblings about the book on Twitter and Facebook, that before they had read it and before it had been released, there were those who were condemning it as ‘heresy.’

The heresy accusation, the reality that I had loved Bell’s thoughtful reflections in  Velvet Elvis and the ability to download it for free from audible.com (and if you use that link you can get a 14 day free trial and I can get another free book) was enough to get my attention. So I downloaded it. And I listened to it. And I loved it.

Being a ‘designated tentmaking evangelist’ (my official ordination designation in the Presbyterian Church, USA) and having no official congregation or church building or program, I spend most of my time amongst those who want little or nothing to do with ‘organized religion’ or ‘church’ as they have known it. Does that mean that all of ‘organized religion’ or ‘church’ are bad? Of course not. There is so much that is good and right and healthy and life giving about both church and religion. But there is also so much that is decayed and lifeless and stagnant. Both are true. Both co-exist.

One thing I have found, in spending time, as a minister, with people who want nothing of church, is that, for the most part, what they are rejecting I am rejecting as well. They are typically not rejecting the sense of community, meaning, service, and love that can often be found amongst groups of Jesus followers.

But they are often rejecting the institutional ‘stuckness’ which is often found garnished with a healthy dose of  exclusive narrowness. The rejection is not necessarily of God, but more of the tribal God of our own particular group or understanding. Is God the God of the entire world, all of humanity and all of creation, or just our particular mascot, buddy, bully or bodyguard? If God is the God of all of creation, and that God, as we claim, is a God of love, then what is so crazy about the idea that maybe, just maybe, that love wins?

meeting Jesus in the parking lot

“We preach from experience for one reason, and one reason only: experience is where God meets us.” Anna Carter Florence

It wasn’t God who met me. But it was Jesus. Jesús, to be precise.

He was on a bicycle, riding through the Starbucks parking lot in Downey. I had stopped at the Starbucks to do some final sermon prep, and was taking Tigger out for a quick stroll before heading over to First Presbyterian Church of Downey to preach a sermon I had entitled “Detour.”

We got to chatting, Jesús and I, eager as I am to practice my Spanish. Finally I told him I had to go, I was going to be late for church.

“What church,” he asked. “I’m looking for a church.”

“The Presbyterian Church,” I responded. “It’s on Downey Ave, just a few blocks from here.”

“What is the address?”

“I don’t know. But it is on Downey Ave, just a few blocks from here. You should come. They speak Spanish. The services are at 10AM.” I replied, trying to be friendly, but knowing that I was now a few minutes late for my ‘guest preacher’ meeting before the service started.

“Could you tell me the address?” he asked.  Okay Jesus, I was thinking, can’t you just find it on your own? I’m late for church! It was the irony, more than my own sense of generosity or hospitality that forced me to respond, “I will look it up for you.”

So, I went to my iPhone, looked up the address, and proceeded to tell him.

“Could you write it down for me?” Seriously, Jesus, I don’t have time for this! I thought to myself, but again, noting the irony of being too much in a hurry to invite Jesus to church.

I found a piece of paper and wrote down the address.

“Here it is,” I said. “I’m so sorry, but I really have to go–I’m running very late.” I did not mention that I was the preacher for the morning. We said our goodbyes and I was on my way.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” I said to Alfredo, the Associate Pastor who met me as I arrived at the church. “I met Jesus at Starbucks.”

the church without walls

I was walking home from worship one Sunday morning when the thought occurred to me. Actually, it did not really occur to me, rather, it barreled in full force and took up residence in my mind.

What if the church was never meant to be an institution? (Thoughts like that don’t tend to waltz in without resistance.)
What do you mean, what if the church were never meant to be an institution? How can we even conceive of the church as other than institution?
And so it began.
Institution. Institutionalized. It is a term that we use for those who are locked away, kept separate from the masses. For whose benefit? For the benefit of those locked in, or those on the outside? Presumably it is for the benefit of those who are inside.
But I wonder, does it not also keep those who are outside feeling a bit more secure, knowing that they are kept at a distance? Does it not diffuse the potential threat, to keep those inside the institution, inside?
I wonder, does the rest of the world breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that we, the church, are kept securely within our institutions?
We are called to be salt. We dare not lose our saltiness. But in the effort to maintain our saltiness have we not kept ourselves safely tucked away inside the proverbial saltshaker? That way the saltiness of other Christians around us can mix with our saltiness and we will really be salty. It’s a great plan, until you taste it. My guess is that Britain’s well-known chef Jamie Oliver isn’t going to have any “salt only” menus on the new school lunch plan.
We are called to be yeast. But have we forgotten that yeast is not beneficial, in and of itself? Yeast does not nourish. Yeast does not feed. Yeast, when not added to the dough, does nothing but puff itself up.
By now the thoughts were firing one after the other.
If the church were not meant to be an institution, if the salt is meant to leave the shaker, if the yeast is meant to be worked through the dough, what might happen?
I worked for a summer as a hospital chaplain as part of my seminary training. One particular afternoon I really needed a break. The hospital, in the heart of Orange County, California, had a coffee cart in the lobby entry. In Southern California you are never far from being able to fulfill your latte needs. So, on this particular afternoon, I decided that I ‘needed’ an ice-blended mocha, and headed for the lobby. How could I justify taking an ice blended mocha break when literally, people were dying, and I happened to be a chaplain? But I had an idea.
I would go get my ice-blended mocha, and then find someone waiting in the lobby who looked like they might need a chaplain, sitting down next to them. It was a perfect plan—I could have my ice-blended mocha, and still be fulfilling my role as the chaplain, so that no one could say that I was shirking my duties. I still did feel a bit guilty, knowing that I had ulterior motives, but my taste buds spurred me on.
The other chaplains that I worked with that summer wound up calling it ‘lobby ministry.’ In a moment of guilt I confessed to them that I had obeyed my taste buds instead of my chaplain instructions. What amazed me was that instead of condemning this fleshly indulgence of taste over duty, they celebrated it. Instead of forcing me to try to defend the validity of ‘lobby ministry’ they encouraged this entrepreneurial spirit.
I guess the Holy Spirit can even work through taste buds. I should have been on the third floor, visiting patients. I should not have been taking a break, as it technically was not allowed. I should have been a better chaplain, I should… But out of that ice blended mocha came one of the most meaningful encounters with a patient and his family that I had all summer. It began with me sitting on a couch in the lobby, drinking my ice-blended mocha, and starting up a conversation.
So, my question is, what would happen if we really believed in this idea of the “Church Without Walls?” Perhaps believe is not the right term for it. What would happen if we really lived the church without walls? What if we followed our taste buds out into the world—into the places where we are led, not just to satisfy our tastes, but with a purpose, with ulterior motives, if you will? As Peter Nielsen, then head of New Charge (Church) Development for the Church of Scotland,  stated, “What if we were to go out to where the people are and actually stayed there, not trying to bring them back here, to the church?”
What would happen if we were to unlock the doors of our institution and step out into the world? What might it look like to be a church whose saltiness actually seasons the meal? What if the yeast were allowed to permeate the dough, working its life throughout the loaf?
What if we, as followers of Jesus, saw ourselves as sent to permeate the world, not adding saltiness or puffed-up-ness, but bringing out its flavor and allowing it to rise in all its fullness?
What would happen if we left the institution and went out into the world, our world?
‘the church without walls‘ was originally published on culture-voice.com

“Taking” the offering

Though I’ve been in sort of a dry spell with my ‘musings’ as of late,  I had to share this story from my most recent preaching endeavor at the small, struggling church in Long Beach…

I’ve now preached there 3 times. This time the choir and the congregation were tied, 8-8.  Yes, that’s 8 people in the choir and 8 people in the congregation. The congregation was unfairly stacked with family friends Susan and Robin who came to hear me preach. So, I guess technically, the choir’s ahead by 2.

The sermon was over (you can read a version of it, “The End of Late Fees” in the Sermons section).  The two ushers had taken the offering (from the other 14 people) and had just walked down the center aisle and up to the front chancel area of the church.  All of a sudden a fairly disheveled looking man in a wheelchair came in from outside, wheeling himself up the center aisle, right to the front of the chancel, next to the ushers.  People sort of looked around, wondering what to do about this man—a dilemma between the good Christian ideal of welcoming the stranger and the social awkwardness of the stranger clearly deviating from the social customs.

So we all just kept singing. The man in the wheelchair waited patiently for the song to be over. When it was he leaned over to one of the ushers (still holding the offering plate) and said, “Can I have two bucks for the bus?”

Timing, apparently, is everything.

Mighta Shoulda…from Mississippi

I am typing this from the sanctuary of Hannesboro Presbyterian Church, about twenty minutes outside of Gulfport, Mississippi. I am sitting on the floor behind the pulpit—the place where I found a plug that works. The church looks amazing—something I am told is because a lot of work cleaning it up since Katrina. Another interesting story about this church…apparently before Katrina the church and its facilities were open one hour a week, for Sunday services, and then closed up and unused the rest of the week. Now, in addition to housing much of our team for the week, it is the relief center for this part of Mississippi and has almost constant activity. Some higlights of the trip so far:
I am typing this from the sanctuary of  Hannesboro Presbyterian Church, about twenty minutes outside of Gulfport, Mississippi.  I am sitting on the floor behind the pulpit—the place where I found a plug that works.  The church looks amazing—something I am told is because a lot of work cleaning it up since Katrina. Another interesting story about this church…apparently before Katrina the church and its facilities were open one hour a week, for Sunday services, and then closed up and unused the rest of the week. Now, in addition to housing much of our team for the week, it is the relief center for this part of Mississippi and has almost constant activity.

Some higlights of the trip so far:

There are 27 of us on the trip, 8 women, 19 men. By some horrible twist of fate, the women are all sleeping in an unfinished barn (what used to be the tool shed) on cots and air matresses, while most of the men are in the ‘Grace House,’ which, among other things, is carpeted and has a large color tv! This is not right! When I walked in to the Grace House the guys were all sitting comfortably (there are no chairs for ‘sitting comfortably’ in the barn, and even if there were, there is no room for them among our wall to wall cots and air mattresses) watching the Broncos football game.  I did get quite a response from them when I asked if they would minding switing over to Desperate Housewives…
Just as a bit of background, the Grace House is a house that was bought by Grace Presbyterian, in Long Beach, with part of their funds from their recently building program—they figured they should spend some of that money investing in others, so they bought a place to house volunteers that are coming down to work on the rebuilding projects with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

I flew in a day ahead of the team and took the opportunity to visit friends from Scotland (but they are Americans), Tee and Kathryn, who live two hours away in Baton Rouge. The last time I had seen them was in Scotland about a year and a half ago, in the hospital, hours after their daughter Sarah was born, and as I was on my way to catch a train to begin my journey back to the US. So, it was fun to see Sarah, now 18, and Thomas, now just over 3, and to get to spend some time with Tee and Kathryn over dinner last night.

On my way back from Baton Rouge I drove through New Orleans. I have never been to New Orleans, so I don’t have anything to compare it with. I didn’t really know where I wanted to go, so I saw the Super Dome and drove past that, then found my way to Canal Street and onto Bourbon Street and through some neighborhoods of the French Quarter. I am ashamed to admit that one of the first things that came to mind was, ‘gosh, this looks so much like Disneyland, like…oh, that makes sense…like New Orleans square…’

I was back in Gulfport in time for lunch at, I am also afraid to admit it, Applebee’s. I do have this tendency toward liking chain restaurants, and I would love to say that it was just what was convenient at the time, but actually, I had seen this particular Applebee’s when I arrived yesterday and premedidated going there for lunch today! To my defense, we don’t have Applebee’s in Newport Beach, so it is not something I can get at home (though driving 30 miles could get me there, but who wants to expend all that effort just to go to Applebee’s??) and during my time in Princeton I became rather fond of their boneless buffalo wings. So, there I was, sitting in an Applebee’s, eating my boneless buffalo wings, when a woman, who seemed like a local, said to the others at her table, “We mighta shoulda gotten some of these here new potatoes…” I love it! I am definitely in Mississippi! Not only that, we had ‘sweet tea’ with dinner tonight.

I just got word that the lights in the barn are being turned out (it does have lights!) and since I am sleeping up in the loft, I should probably get out there and make my way up the ladder before I have to climb it in the dark…