Monday, September 28, 2009

The Church in the Cloud

To the church of those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 1:2-3)

Unless you happen to know something about information technology and computer systems, you might not be familiar with the phrase “cloud computing.” Apparently, it has nothing at all to do with using a computer while high in the air. It's not a way of describing a lack of visibility at your desk. Cloud computing has to do with making use of online business applications and other services, and storing the information created on servers that are also accessed through the internet.

In the near future, so we're told, businesses and enterprises will move more or less completely from using software physically placed on every employee's computer to applications and services accessed through a web browser. Similarly, as reliability and security improve, they will move from storing information on servers inside their physical buildings, to storing it on off-premies servers also accessed online. The whole thing's very technical and, frankly, quite a bit beyond me. But I get the gist of it; the point for businesses is that cloud computing is theoretically more cost-effective, more flexible and adaptable, and more scalable – that is, it's able to handle growing amounts of work efficiently. Instead of employees being tied to their desktop computers, they can work with available hardware wherever they have an internet connection.

I know very little about the advantages and disadvantages of such a model for business. It occurs to me, though, that the cloud metaphor works for the church, as well.

What would it look like to “do” church “in the cloud?”

As is true with many ideas, this one might be better understood by comparison with the way most of us currently think about and “do” church. For most of us, church has to do with a place (the place where our church services or assemblies or meetings or whatever we call them happen) and a time (the day(s) and hour(s) of those services, assemblies, and meetings). Oh, we can talk about not going to church but being the church. Some of us can say that we belong to churches that meet in buildings that they don't own. Still, if someone asks you about your church it probably won't take long before you're thinking of a building and the worship service going on inside it.

We come by that honestly. We've been conditioned since at least the fourth century, when Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion and turned over buildings and property to the church, to associate church with time and place. So the next time you're yelling at your kids to get dressed because “it's time for church,” try to remember that there's a Roman emperor to thank for that.

As if, for Christians, it's ever not time for church.

That's why the more I think about it, the more I like the metaphor of the church in the cloud. It's truer to our nature to break the connections we've assumed for a millennium and a half between church and a particular address and time. It's truer to the nature of the One whose name we wear.

Some of the first disciples discovered that from the moment they met Jesus. “Where are you staying?” they asked, and Jesus shot back, “Come, and you will see.” He warned another prospective disciple that he had “no place to lay his head.” And if Jesus didn't imagine that he could do his work boxed up inside a building or a worship service, why do we imagine that we can do his work that way?

When Paul wrote his letters to churches, he didn't even bother to try to put street addresses on them. They were addressed to “all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his saints.” To “the church of God in Corinth, together with all the saints throughout Achaia.” To “the churches in Galatia” and to “all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi.” Those Christians met in houses and public halls and who knows where, and they had enough to do with each other that when Paul wrote them a letter, you'd better believe it got passed around.

What do you think might happen if the church adopted this “cloud” thing and consciously broke the connections that tie us to a physical location?

What would it look like, for instance, if we learned to do community in the cloud? For one thing, we'd figure out how to be in each other's lives all the time, not just on Sundays when we all showed up at the same place. We'd find ways to be together, to pray together, to worship together, and to share each other's struggles. Our community would come from our being connected to each other through the work of God, through Jesus, in the Holy Spirit, and not attendance at the same event.

Or what might ministry look like in the cloud? For starters, it would bubble up from the interface between the Holy Spirit and the talents, passions, and priorities that each of us have. It wouldn't be necessary to waste time and energy persuading people to be a part of this or that ministry. Instead, the church as a whole would be asking itself how to support, encourage, and resource one another in the ministries to which we were called by the Lord.

And leadership in the cloud? It would have less to do with institutional maintenance, and more to do with spiritual formation, preparing God's people for ministry, building up the church in faith and knowledge, and helping them to maturity in Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-16) Leaders would facilitate the connections between the church and the Lord, and between one another. They wouldn't need to be decision-makers and permission-givers, but could fulfill their God-given responsibilities as teachers, mentors, and protectors.

Our “cloud,” of course, is the work of God, the person of Jesus, and the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Wherever we are, whatever we're doing, if we're connected with the Father, Son, and Spirit we are the church, along with all those everywhere who call on his name. Our identity doesn't depend on a time and meeting place; it has to do with what Jesus has done for us and the presence of the Spirit in us and among us. A building is a convenience, a tool. A scheduled worship service is the same. But let's begin thinking and praying about how we can leave those conveniences behind when it better suits the work we've been given to do, and get back to the essentials of who we are: God's people, connected to the Lord and to one another.

The Church in the Cloud.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Gratitude That Costs Us Something

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:15-17)

Earlier this month, 22 people got off a train at London's Liverpool Street station. The only unusual thing you'd have noticed about the group was its age: all of them were in their 70's and 80's, looking like they were on a retirement home field trip. And in fact it was a field trip, of a sort. But not a pleasure trip, not really. More like a pilgrimage.

The last time they made the trip – from Prague – was seventy years earlier. Back then they had been Jewish children, 669 of them, whose parents had lost jobs and homes to the Nazis. Their parents had packed them off to new homes in London, hoping to join them later. None did, though. The concentration camps saw to that.

But those children got the chance to survive. They grew up and had children and grandchildren and even great-grandchildren of their own. But they never forgot what could have been, or that they had been saved from their parents' fate. Seventy years later, 22 of those 669 made the trip again to remember.

More than to just remember, though. The man who met them on the platform at Liverpool Street this time was the same one who met them seventy years ago. His name is Sir Nicholas Winston, although seventy years ago he wasn't Sir Nicholas. He was a stockbroker in London in 1939, when a friend in Prague told him about the Nazi occupiers taking away the jobs and homes of Jews in the city. Nicholas began to raise money, begged the British government for visas, forged papers, and found British families willing to adopt children. Then, when he had everything in order, he chartered the trains that saved those 669 children from being murdered in the camps. He met them the day they arrived. And he met them again, seventy years later. He's a hundred years old now, but he leaned on his cane and shook hands with each of those 22 grateful people and received their thanks.

They told him about their children and grandchildren. There are, they say, 7,000 descendants of the children Nicholas Winston saved all over the world. Seven thousand people who know the story of how a London stockbroker saved their parents, their grandparents, their great-grandparents.

With typically English reserve, Nicholas seemed to enjoy being there. “The trouble 70 years ago was getting them together with the people who were going to look after them,” he said. “I've got no responsibility this time.”

No, those 22 people were there because they had a responsibility. They were there because they felt the need to give their thanks to the man who had saved them.

There's something fundamental about gratitude. Something basic. That's why we teach our kids to say “thank you” and make them write thank-you notes when someone gives them a gift. It's hardwired into us, I think, that it's only right to be grateful when someone does something for us. But just because it's hardwired into us doesn't mean that we always remember. Though God may have created us with the capacity for being grateful, the damage sin does in us includes turning us inward. The consequence is a self-centeredness that tends to notice only what we don't have while forgetting the blessings we've been given. The result is that we become unable to be grateful.

That's why gratitude is a theme that the Bible returns to again and again. “Be thankful,” Paul tells the church in Colosse, and then two verses later says, “whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

There are basic spiritual sicknesses for which gratitude is really the only existing remedy. Selfishness. Bitterness. Hate. Greed. Lust. All of these have a common cause: obsession with ourselves and what we perceive to be lacking in our lives. Gratitude, however, calls our attention to what we have, and to how much of it has been given to us by God for no other reason than that he loves us. When we're thankful, our attention is on him and what he has blessed us with.

Sometimes, though, gratitude is a lot of trouble. Twenty-two people taking a train across Europe? Wouldn't it have been more efficient for everyone to write a note? Send a gift? Well of course it would have been. But then, efficiency isn't the point, is it? The point is gratitude. And unless gratitude costs you something – a little inconvenience, at the very least – well, it's just not much, is it? You can talk about how thankful you are, but gratitude is one of those inward attitudes – like love and faith and hope – that aren't real unless they bring about a difference in the way we live and the things we value.

That's why God told the Israelites to give thank offerings – not because he needed their cattle and goats, but because they needed to express gratitude that cost them something. And you don't think, do you, that just because we're not Israelites we're somehow exempt from gratitude that costs us something? You don't really think, do you, that we who have heard the good news of Jesus, who have been saved from death by his sacrifice, have only to nod and wink and say, “Thanks, God?”

That's what worship is, of course: gratitude that costs us something. It's an indicator of how far we've drifted that to us “worship” is to be evaluated by how it makes us feel. “I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.” That, Paul told the Christians in Rome, is “true worship.” (Romans 12: 1) Our calling is to offer ourselves – our energy, our priorities, our possessions, our passions – as a thank offering to the God who has shown such mercy to us.

What do you think our children and grandchildren will remember about us? My prayer is that my son, and his children, will remember me as someone who was saved by God's grace through Jesus and who lived a life of thanksgiving. I want them to remember me as someone who had gratitude in his heart, and who did everything he did as an expression of thanks to God. Not so they'll speak well of me, but so they'll remember the God whose grace I was so thankful for.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

It's Not About Me

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
    In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had... (Philippians 2:1-5)

In July of 1945, there were events happening in our world that were far more significant than a ball game at Yankee Stadium. Soldiers were returning home as World War II came to an end, and one of those recently - returned soldiers was at the game with his four-year-old son, who happened to share his name. The father had a little time before he returned to his job, and he just wanted a chance to get to know his son again.

They were in the stands, enjoying the game, when someone sitting nearby noticed them and recognized the father. He waved, then passed the word. Pretty soon, the stadium was buzzing with the news of who was in the mezzanine. The game on the field was momentarily forgotten, and the buzz began to turn into a chant: a name, over and over, the name of a Yankee legend.

Four years before, he had set a record that has yet to be broken. The Streak, they called it, and still do. He had put his career on hold to serve his country in the war, and he had come to the park that day just to watch. But he was who he was, and the fans knew him and chanted his name.

“Joe, Joe, Joe, Joe DiMaggio!”

DiMaggio waved to the crowd. Then he looked down to see if his son had noticed the attention the crowd was paying to his dad. His shining eyes and big smile told Joe that he had definitely noticed. But before he could say anything, four-year-old Joe DiMaggio, Jr. rained on his parade.

“See, Dad?” he said. “Everyone knows me!”

Cute story, isn't it? But only because Joe, Jr. was a child at the time. Because they have no other reference point, young children tend to think that the world revolves around them. It's an understandable mistake that we all make as kids. But we learn. We see our parents giving affection and attention to siblings, and it starts to dawn on us. We start school, and we begin to get it. There are other people in the world, and they have needs and wants and opinions and perspectives that are often at least as valid as our own. We learn that the world, in actuality, does not revolve around us. We stop assuming that all applause is for us, and we stop needing it to be.

Except for when we don't.

Or when we forget.

Or when we don't care.

I could tell you some stories, stories about people who didn't learn, or forgot, or didn't care, that the world didn't revolve around them. I could tell you some stories about people who who thought and behaved as if everyone in their lives was put there for their benefit, every whim needed to be satisfied, every impulse was to be followed, and every accolade was theirs by right. I can tell you stories, and in every case they're sad stories. Tragedies, even. There's a reason for that.

I could tell you about the friend who decided that the other woman was exactly what he needed. He explained it away by how unhappy he was in his marriage, and how this woman made him feel. He's on to someone else now – he's probably been through more than one “someone else” – because it will never be enough with him. Not until he learns that it's not all about him.

He comes by it honestly enough, though. Near as I can tell, he learned that attitude from his parents, who also seem to have been burdened with the illusion that it was all about them. Scary how it can be passed down from parents to children, like a mutated gene.

I could tell you about people who couldn't find a way to stop spending, or drinking, or gambling, or lying, because down in their heart of hearts they really thought the most important thing in the world at any given time was how they felt.

I could tell you about people who have brought discord, bitterness, and division to church after church, largely because they honestly believe that their opinions about X or Y issue, or their understanding about one text or the other, or their love or hatred for a particular tradition, is more important than what God might be doing in those churches.

As near as I can tell, the Bible only mentions one person who could have ever said, “It's all about me” and been right. About him, Paul wrote “ him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:17-18) Whatever else that might mean, it means that the world really does revolve around him.

Of course, we know that Jesus chose not to say that, or even act as though it were true. He “made himself nothing” and took “the very nature of a servant.” He “humbled himself” and was obedient to God even though it led to his death – “death on a cross.” He chose not to insist that the world stand and applaud him. Instead, he gave himself in service and as a sacrifice to the broken people who couldn't recognize him because we were too immersed in ourselves.

Now we know, though. And because we know the self-sacrificing grace of the One who could have said it was all about him, we're called to “have the same attitude of mind.” If Jesus can value us over himself, then surely we can value others over ourselves. If Jesus could look to our interests at his own expense, then shouldn't we follow him in putting our own interests aside to care for those around us? If Jesus could foreswear ambition, then what's stopping us?

You don't have to look far. Start with one relationship, and resolve to have the attitude of Christ with that person. Make choices that show that person how much you value and love them, and that their well-being is more important to you than your own. Start with an easy one – a child, or a spouse, or a good friend, if you like. But then choose another relationship, and another. Reach out. Stretch. God will do amazing things in our relationships if we will do our best to step off our pedestals long enough to serve, give, and love.

And one day, when you're finally with your Father forever, I think, just for a moment, that it will be about you. As worshippers bow down and sing his praises, you included, I think he might turn to you. “Well done,” he'll say. And he'll lead the applause for you. Why not? We'll have eternity – as long as we need for all of us to have our moment. And even if it's just a moment, it will be all we ever really needed.

It will be all we ever needed to know that, for God, it really is all about us.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.