Mixon Muses: The Hopes and Fears

In 1868, the great American Episcopal preacher, Phillips Brooks, penned his best-known text in the Christmas hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” inspired by a visit he had made to Israel in 1865. More than once, we have mined this hymn for the beauty of its words and richness of its imagery. The phrase that’s stuck in my head today is the joining of the “hopes and fears of all the years” as they meet at the foot of Bethlehem’s manger, I am drawn to the convergence of these two, presumably opposed, emotions because our own day and age is wrestling with just such a convergence.

Among the readings for Advent, we hear twice Luke’s angel say, first to Zechariah and then to Mary, “Do not be afraid.” As we know, this is a familiar theme in scripture, especially when an angel appears. “Do not be afraid,” seems like an appropriate word when confronted with the mystery of the holy. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I’d feel fear if some sacred figure showed up at the foot of my bed in the middle of the night. I know Old Scrooge was shaken to the core as the spirits appeared in his locked chamber, well after midnight.

Continue reading Mixon Muses: The Hopes and Fears

Mixon Muses: midwifing the future

Mixon MusesIn a recent blog post, Amy Butler writes about the challenges of coming back to work after vacation. In her case, she had been away for month after her first full year as senior pastor of Riverside Church in New York City. I can only imagine what it takes to be the leader of such a large and complex congregation. I am certain she was ready for a vacation and it sounds as if she had a good and restful one.

Of course, the cost of taking time off is what it takes to get back into the routine on your return. Amy writes, “I spent most of the first week back getting caught up with latest developments, reconnecting with staff, and sorting through paperwork. While these tasks took a decided toll on my post-vacation zen, I noticed that my energy reserves significantly started flagging as (it seemed to me) folks emailed or lined up in person to tell me about various problems that had popped up in my absence. You know, normal church, just in concentrated form.”

We’ve reflected before on the impact of critical and negative thinking. We focus more on the problems than we do on what is good and going well. I wonder if this has anything to do with the perfectionistic push that many of us felt, growing up in churches that focused on the importance of getting things right juxtaposed to the direct or implied threat of punishment and hell. Scripture passages focused the consequences of sin were highlighted at the expense those that showed a loving God who desires to draw all creation near though acts of amazing grace.

I can see and feel the long term results of such an upbringing. The mindset is deeply embedded and often operates out of consciousness. What if we were more intent in focusing on what is sometimes called “appreciative inquiry”? What if we concentrated on what is good and right and going well with our faith community? Would we be surprised to find great blessings available right under our noses? How much easier would it be to be church and do the work of God’s Beloved Community if we would “accentuate the positive”?

Amy continues her blog by relating an incident that occurred in the second week after her vacation. She was starting to sort out the challenges of the week, when into her office walked an older woman, a member of the congregation whom she did not know well. The woman came prepared with a sheaf of papers and a list of what she wanted to cover. Amy steeled herself for this woman’s collected concerns, her selection of problems, her complaints and criticism. Here is what the woman said:

“You know, there is a group of us who get together by conference call every Tuesday morning at 6:30 to pray. We started this little group last year when you came to be our pastor, because we wanted to pray for you. As you start your second year here, we all know it’s going to be tough. There’s a lot of change, and it’s so exciting, but some people are unhappy. So before you get overwhelmed by all the grumbling, I wanted to tell you that we are praying for you.”

I have feeling that in the moment, Amy was stunned, speechless. This was not what she was expecting at all. Imagine – a group of people praying for you and your ministry and the life of the congregation and you weren’t even aware. That might not be so surprising in a large congregation, but what a gift! However, the thing that struck me most deeply was the woman’s parting comment, “We know there is dissension, and some people are grumbling about change. But we are praying. And we are taking our job seriously. We feel that we are like midwives—we’re midwifing the future of this church we love.” Isn’t that a wonderful image – “midwifing the future of this church we love”?!

Let me be clear that I do not sense dissension and grumbling within our community. I actually believe we are in a healthy place as we look to our own future. The positive spirit around the decision to hire Gregory Stevens as our Associate Pastor for Faith Formation and Family life was palpable and exciting. Gregory has many wonderful gifts but as he emphasized for us, he cannot do the work alone. He is not coming as our “savior”. He is coming as our partner in ministry. He will need all the support, including prayer, that we can give him.

There is a long road ahead of us as we seek to move into God’s future for FBCPA. I am sure that that road will not always be easy. There will be surprising twists and turns. We will have to go downhill as well as up. None of us can predict what will be at the end of the road – except, we know that God holds the future and is not done with us yet.

Will you commit with me to pray for God’s guidance, strength and companionship as we walk this way together? I believe such prayer is crucial in seeing and sustaining what is good and right and going well about our journey. In our worship, mission, study and community-building, let us, too, be engaged in “midwifing the future of this church we love so much.”

God bless and keep us on our way,

Pastor Rick

A Strong Foundation (8/16/15)

Sanctuary is openA Sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church of Palo Alto
Sunday, August 16, 2015

Text: 1 Corinthians 3:9-17

Twice in the last three years I have made a pilgrimage to Overland Park, Kansas, for the biennial Mission Summit of the American Baptist Churches in the USA. These trips have been particularly evocative not only because Kansas is my birthplace but also because my earliest memories come from that part of the world.

Overland Park is a suburb of Kansas City, Kansas, where our family lived from 1950 to 1953. For me, that period spanned ages three to six. As I have mentioned before, during those years my father was the founding pastor of Prairie Baptist Church in Prairie Village, the suburb next to Overland Park. In that time of the post-war boom in the church, American Baptists had a program called “Churches for New Frontiers,” in which they purchased land and planted churches in promising suburbs.

My father, following a missionary yen, left a church of 1000 members to pastor a congregation of 13, which met in someone’s living room where the pulpit was the top of a new-fangled television set. At least this is the story I’ve been told. The vivid memory I do have from that time is of my father, wearing work clothes and his grey fedora, helping to roof the first building on the lot at 75th and Roe. That building was eventually the parsonage, but in the beginning it served as the church building. Upstairs was left open as a single large room which served as the sanctuary and the rooms in the lower level functioned as classrooms.

I don’t know how much of that building beyond the roof was the work of parishioners, but I’m certain someone laid a strong foundation there. I don’t mean only the foundation of the physical plant. After 65 years, that little house is long gone, but Prairie Baptist Church seems to be going strong.

I also can’t tell you the full extent of my father’s evangelistic passion that led him to leave a large congregation for one that didn’t even exist when he signed on. It must have been some of that same passion that led Paul to travel all around the Mediterranean carrying the gospel to the Gentiles and planting churches all along the way. Part of the story of my father’s missionary journey across Kansas was that, in spite of low pay and a growing family (my younger sister, the last of four siblings was born in 1951,) he stayed long enough to lead the congregation through its first crisis. He helped the congregation through the tension that arises when a second wave of members arrive, challenging the comfort and control of the charter members. I believe my father, like Paul, was a “master builder” who laid a strong foundation and the congregation weathered the challenge and grew and prospered.

People in Palo Alto also laid a strong foundation for this congregation now in its 122nd year. We have a long and rich history of faithful witness and service. But, as we face an unknown, uncertain future, I wonder what it is that constitutes a strong foundation for a church. In the hymn we just sang Rod Romney wrote that the “The church’s strong foundation is God’s eternal love…” Does that sound right to you? Is that the rock on which our church is founded, the pillars sunk deep in the soil that lift our spire towards heaven, the grounding from which our ministry rises and shines? Is it a foundation on which we can continue to build?

We know that Paul was dealing with a contentious congregation in Corinth. He believed he had laid a strong foundation – the one foundation of Jesus Christ, the sure foundation of the empowering Holy Spirit, the strong foundation of God’s eternal love. But he was worried about what was being built on that foundation. He was afraid that false prophets, bad teachers, and self-centered preachers were leading the people astray and creating chaos in the congregation. I suppose my father must have worried that the charter members of Prairie Baptist Church would not be hospitable to new folk, would not offer a warm welcome to strangers so that the message of God’s eternal love would distort and die from inbreeding.

How do we encourage one another and work together to carry the gospel forward into God’s future? In a column on “adaptive change,” Amy Butler reflects, “The old ways just are not working. The church is in need of creative leadership to take it into the future. We might need to think outside the box, to consider solutions we have never thought of before, to pursue adaptive change. What will this mean?” she asks, then answers, “Well, it will mean that people will not be happy…but life moves on…and the Spirit of God blows fresh wind wherever it wills. It’s our job to respond, discomfort or not. It’s adaptive change, and it’s true for our individual lives and for the church.”

In conclusion, she wonders, “When will we have the courage to boldly embrace this kind of change, to encounter the new opportunities that come as possibilities and opportunities instead of problems? Change is hard. This is a true statement. But change comes, whether we want it or not. The Spirit of God is always creating new possibilities where we prefer to endow old institutions. Will we have the courage to embrace this change? Or will we keep searching the aisles, hoping to replace what we had?” (Amy Butler, “Choosing Adaptive Change,” 8-11-2015, baptistnews.com).

The strong foundation is laid, foundation of God’s eternal love. The question is what will we build on it moving forward? Paul says we might resort to “gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw.” But we know that, literally, wood is the only one of those resources with which we might build a building. Paul is more concerned with the qualities that characterize a congregation than he is with building a church building. He is wants us to consider when the refiner’s fire is lit, what will be destroyed and what will be purified?

Remember the three little pigs? Neither the house of straw nor the house of twigs survived the wolf’s bad breath. Only the sturdy brick structure built on a strong foundation withstood the horrible huffing and puffing. We have been given this strong foundation of God’s love for us and all creation, a foundation that can withstand any evil powers that threaten to disrupt us and consume us. What will we build on it?

I don’t mean to be a prophet of gloom, but the good news is being undermined, distorted and destroyed by the false prophets, bad teachers and self-centered preachers of our own time and place. The threatening powers are not just individual, they are also structural and systemic. Some of the biggest challenges to the church are embedded deep in our traditions and too often operate outside our consciousness – like racism, classism, sexism, power and privilege. As Amy reminds us change is hard.

Brian McLaren writes that “Jesus promised his followers three things. First, their lives would not be easy. Second, they would never be alone. Third, in the end all will be well.” “But,” he continues, “all is not well now, and that raises the question of how…how does God get us from here to there? How does God put things right?” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 245).

In this chapter on the “Spirit of Holiness,” McLaren focuses on God’s judgment, which, at first, struck me as a curious emphasis. As I imagine some of you do, when I hear the word “judgment” I think of “hellfire and brimstone.” We were raised to believe in a literal separation of the “sheep and goats.” It was better to be scared into heaven than to burn in hell. It was a terrible legacy that led us far from any strong foundation based on God’s eternal love. For me, anyway, the notion of eternal punishment simply will not reconcile with a God who is love and eternally loves by definition.

McLaren’s argument sounds to me something like the parent who expects the best of us because she loves us so. In his view, this a God of restorative justice not a God of vengeful retribution. The place of judgment is to make things right, to restore the blessed order of creation, to build the Beloved Community on the strong foundation of God’s eternal love. The call to be the best self, the best community that we can be is a call to fulfill God’s vision for us from the beginning of time.

Paul says we – you and I collectively, the church of Jesus Christ – we are “God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in” us. To live into that reality is not an easy thing. To establish God’s temple in the here and now, to be God’s dwelling place will constantly shape and re-shape our witness. It is inherently counter-cultural, not easy but worthwhile work. If we trust that we are never alone in the work, we can also trust that in the end all will be well.

In our words of preparation, McLaren writes, “If we believe in judgment [as] God’s great ‘setting things right,’ we won’t live in fear. We’ll keep standing strong with a steadfast, immovable determination, and we’ll keep excelling in God’s good work in our world. If we believe the universe moves toward purification, justice and peace, we’ll keep seeking to be pure, just and peaceable now. If we believe God is pure light and goodness, we’ll keep moving toward light each day in this life. Then, someday, when our time comes to close our eyes, we will trust ourselves to the loving Light in which we will awaken, purified, beloved, forever” (McLaren, op. cit., pp. 247-248).

A strong foundation is laid. “Each builder must choose with care how to build on it.” Let the church continue to be built and re-built on God’s eternal love. Amen.

“edgy, largely inconvenient and a little strange”

a new thingThe church and the gospel are not the same thing. I doubt they ever were, though there may have been times when they were more closely aligned than today. With acknowledgement of its ancient roots, the church that most of us have known and loved in this country was the product of the post‐war “boom” of the 1950s and 60s. I am a relatively early boomer (1947) so my experience of church life was thoroughly steeped in that tradition. The church was often the center of the community, a place where traditional, nuclear family life was idealized, where you went to make significant business contacts and your name known in the neighborhood. Denominations strategized church planting throughout suburbia, “silk‐stocking” downtown churches thrived.

The church my father served from 1945 to 1950 was in a small Kansas railroad town of 14,000 people. First Baptist, Newton, had a thousand members when he left to start one of the American Baptist “Churches for New Frontiers.” The denomination had purchased a large, well‐situated plot of land on which to build. He started out preaching to 13 people in the Borel’s living room, using the top of the TV as his pulpit. When he left that congregation in 1953, it had grown significantly and had built a parsonage on the site that was used as the church building for worship and Sunday School. He lived (1964) long enough to see Prairie Baptist Church, in the suburbs of Kansas City, Kansas, grow to several hundred members and become the largest American Baptist mission giving church in Kansas.

My point is not to brag, though I hold my father and his ministry in high esteem. The point is to give you a taste of the times, not that many of you don’t have your own stories to tell from that glorious period in the life of the church. None of this is new to you. You’ve heard it all before. Now the church of the 50s and 60s is in rapid decline and I would guess will largely disappear in the next 50 years. Some church people are caught up in mourning what is passing, some are dedicated to moving back to the future, some are in despair of what can be done to save the church. One problem is that all of these folk have taken the burden on themselves. Either they are stuck in grief and guilt, they are busily replicating the methods of 50 years ago, or they are writing blogs, columns (like this one!) or books recounting the downward spiral, the reasons for it and myriad untested ideas about what the church should be and do next.

Our congregation has a mixture of all these, but for now we have voted to work toward renewal. Dan Cudworth has raised a question as to whether or not “renewal” is the right word to describe what some of us are looking toward. Renewal implies a resuscitation of that which is dead or dying. Should we let it go? Should we instead look for God’s new thing, for an outcome that we have yet to image, for transformation in service of the Gospel? You see the church as we know it may be disappearing but there is no reason that God’s good news should disappear with it. The Jesus movement has weathered the coming and going of any number of institutional forms that have attempted to encapsulate it. Still the gospel lives. The promised reign of God still looms on the horizon and trickles down into contemporary culture all the time.

I met today with Eric Swanson, pastor of Westhope Presbyterian Church and director of The Contemplative Center of Silicon Valley. Eric is working to turn around a congregation that was pretty much on its last leg. He has challenged
that community to turn from more traditional church life to a congregational life that is centered in the Spirit. They are not growing by leaps and bounds –not in numbers, that is – but they are clearly growing in the Spirit. One thing they do very deliberately is to ground everything they do in prayer and contemplation. They look to discern rather than dictate God’s will and way for them. Is that something we might explore as means of transformation rather than renewal?

There’s been whole lot of discussion in recent times about the SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious) and how they have either turned their backs on the church or else have never darkened its doors. Amy Butler, pastor of Calvary Baptist
Church in Washington, DC, in her latest blog, writes an open letter to the SBNR. She says to them, somewhat tongue‐in‐cheek, “I want to tell you that despite our collective panic attacks here on the Spiritual And Also Religious side of things, I am increasingly finding myself less and less interested in trying to find just the right song and dance to make you wake up one day and want to be part of a faith community.

It’s not you. It’s me. I just think that finding a way to be popular again may not be the most pressing work of the church these days.” I think she’s on to something. I think there was a time when we were popular and some of us long to be popular again. I think that’s more the name of the game than we’re willing to admit. We want to be popular, well‐liked, influential, just like Jesus was(n’t). Oops! Have we been on the wrong road, barking up the wrong tree, looking for love in all the wrong places? Maybe so. Amy continues writing to the SNBR, “I hear you when you say the church is irrelevant.
I get that you don’t care what we’re doing to catch your attention. If we’re smart, we’ll listen to what you’re saying to us and believe that you mean what you say. And then we’ll stop trying to package the institution to make it palatable and just get busy leading the church to faithfully do its work in the world.” If we’re smart we’ll listen, we’ll pay attention – not only to the witness of the SNBR but also to the witness of the Spirit.

What is the Spirit whispering to us? Where is God leading us? What does Jesus have to offer us today? The Gospel is not the church but the Gospel can and must surely shape any meaningful future we have. Amy concludes with an image of the body of Christ that may not be comfortable but is surely challenging. “I suggest to my angst‐ridden colleagues [SAAR] that your [SNBR] blatant rejection of the church, rather than a challenge to us to scramble for new ideas and back peddle when churches screw up, is actually a glimpse of what the church of the future will be: less attractive, more alternative, kind of edgy, largely inconvenient and a little strange.”

Less attractive, more alternative, kind of edgy, largely inconvenient and a little strange! Can you hear God calling us to such a reality? Can you feel the Spirit moving us in that direction? Does it seem like that’s exactly the way Jesus
walked? Uncomfortable, challenging, and still, good news, the Gospel that draws all creation into holy communion with God, leads us in the Jesus Way and empowers us with the Spirit. May we learn to pray, to discern and then say, “yes.”

Pastor Rick