theology from below
When I first started preaching at Spirit of Peace Lutheran Church in 2014, I realized that much of what I had learned about preaching, and much of my “go to” stuff was not going to work. As a former youth minister, I was given many opportunities to preach in the large, suburban, mostly middle class, mostly white, Lutheran churches that I served. Now, the people called me pastor of a small, urban, diverse, and struggling church. Adding to the complexity, the church had been through a moral failure that would have ended most churches. The church had suffered a breach of trust by one of it's own, the church treasure. He helped himself to over $250,000, the proceeds from the sale of one of it’s buildings. The theft was not detected until the pastor's paycheck bounced. I can't imagine the depth of loss, shock and horror, suffered by the good people of this small trusting community. I remember hearing about it while I was at Seminary in Chicago. The gossip was, that the church would most certainly would have to close its doors and sell off it's assets to pay it's debts.
The church gathered on a hopeful night to hear about it's newly formed mission plan that their "dream team" of members from both churches had prepared. It was to be a night of celebration and dreaming of it's future. Instead… when members came to church that night they heard the embezzlement. For the next two years they banded together just managing to keep the doors open. The new mission was simply to hold Sunday worship services, continue to offer free music lessons to neighborhood children and to keep their commitment to the community food pantry they housed.
THE JOY OF NAMES YOU CAN'T PRONOUNCE
When I first stepped foot in the church, it was as a supply preacher. I had no idea what I was getting into. That first Sunday I was stunned at how much hope I encountered. I expected to see a church full of despair and grief and instead I felt God's Spirit moving in a palpable way. I watched as young teenager got up to read the lessons. He struggled to get through a difficult passage, with lots of unpronounceable names of people and places. As I looked around, I saw the members of the congregation almost willing him to get through it. The looks of compassion and pride for his effort on their faces. My confusion turned to tears as I realized that they were directing good will and encouragement his way. In all my experience, I had learned that only the best readers should proclaim the gospel and that not everyone was cut out to lead. This was something truly different.
The Peace that Passes All Understanding
Near the end of the service, we came to the place where we passed the peace. Nothing I had encountered in my big church past prepared me for what happened next. Everyone got up and left their pews and met in the isle. The gave real hugs and to looked deep into each others eyes shared a moment of true shalom. What I saw was so much better and more vulnerable. This began my education in a theology from below.
JACKED BY THE SPIRIT
In the weeks that followed as I prepared to preach, I kept realizing that the theology I had been so proud of, just didn't work. The Holy Spirit worked on me through visualizing the faces of my new congregation as I prepared the message I was to give. Even while preaching, much of what I intended to say was somehow replaced with kinder, gentler words. My plan to present a well crafted sermon with three points all of which began with the letter “P” just didn’t fit. You see, much of my understanding of the role that church played in peoples lives was defined by a doctrine of sin. It just didn't make sense to get up and hit them over the head with the law so the gospel could swoop in like a super hero and offer them grace. They had already been beaten. Over and again I found my sermons about our moral deficiencies as humans being hijacked by the Spirit of Peace that permeated that sacred space. Humanity started to become a beautiful word.
I BELIEVE GOD CAN FLY
Then there was the point in the service where we would stand up and recite the Apostles Creed. As I led people in this ancient creed, I realized that much about the creed we were professing seemed foreign and irrelevant. It became an embarrassment to me that in such a key part of the service, we were saying things we didn't understand let alone believe. On occasion they would substitute a creed that was written by the their own Sunday school children. It was a simple collection of thoughts about God, Jesus, and each other. One of the lines was, "I believe God can fly." What??? I am not sure why, but in some strange way it really seemed to fit. The freedom and authenticity of saying a creed written by children seemed to connect with a people who had been through so much. It was however, a bit hard and confusing for those who were visitors. So, we set out to write our own creed. We called it, "The Spirit of Peace Creed." The name is not so much for the church that created it, but the Peaceful Spirit of the living God who guided us in the process.
Lastly, as you may have already gathered, this is not a scholarly work with footnotes for the purpose of being able to prove my point of view. I am certain that if it is your mission to find holes in our thinking, you will find them. My hope that I will also find them and grow from the writing of this blog. I hope that what I write will serve not as a well crafted answer, but as a way into the questions. You are free to email me with your thoughts and if time is available, I will respond as best as I am able. Each day during the 40 days of Lent I will post a bit more in hopes to share what is behind this creed we have come to love.
Peace and Joy, Pastor Tim