The Takeaway

     I voted, and I have the sticker to prove it.  Gary and I marched into Breton Downs School last Tuesday with our cheat sheet in tow.  We briefed each other the night before about candidates and issues, including the local school board election, University of Michigan Regents (with 3 UM grads in our family I had to get this one right), Michigan Supreme court judges, and the 6 state ballot proposals.

I’m a sucker for elections.  There is something magical about 120 million ordinary people freely meeting at the polls without anyone harassing or preventing them.  Each one with one vote regardless of age, ethnicity, income, status, or location.  People waiting hours to vote, never giving up because they wanted to exercise their right to have a say in who will lead them.

  • The takeaway?  Don’t underestimate the power of people who are determined to shape the future of their country.

     I voted, but I was also baffled.  The infamous Proposal 6 stared me in the face, “Should voters approve every tunnel or bridge from Michigan to Canada?”  WHAT?  Matty Moroun’s bridge company, which owns the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, put $33.2 million into the Proposal 6 campaign after a potential competitor, the New International Trade Crossing Bridge, was put before the Michigan legislature last year.

Depicting the new bridge as a government pork project for Detroit and a pay-off to Detroit politicians, Moroun engineered the ballot proposal so that Michigan voters would have to approve every bridge project from now on.  Opponents of Proposal 6 claimed that the proposed bridge is critical for economic development in southeast Michigan and that Moroun is afraid of losing the $60 million in annual tolls from his bridge monopoly.

  • The takeway?  Voters aren’t dumb and would not allow a special interest group to control the state Constitution.  The proposal went down.

     I voted, but I also goofed.  It’s pretty embarrassing to make a mistake on a ballot because everyone waiting in line could see me slink back to the desk and beg election officials for a redo.   In my humble opinion, the layout of ballot was difficult to decipher, which was confirmed by others.  I held my head high, waited for another spot, and got it right the second time.

  • The takeaway?  Keep it simple, please.

     I voted, but I also checked in with a few friends from around the world.  My African friend said, “In the Congo it takes months for people to know election results, but in the U.S. you know the same day who is going to be the next President.  In some parts of the Congo, the election is not free, and people are pressured by soldiers to vote for the person they will tell you, especially in the villages.  I also don’t like it that some people get to know who the president is going to be even before the election.”

A friend from the Philippines said, “I trust and pray that President Obama’s second term will make him better and that he will be God’s answer to our prayers because we recognize the U.S. as the world police today.  Let us hope for the best in attaining real peace and deliverance from all social evil.  Your election result is so quick.  Here in the Philippines it will take more than a month before we will know the result.  Consequently, many political losers do not concede immediately, and that divides our people.  Keep us in your prayers, too.”

  • The takeaway?  Much of the world still looks to us as an example of freedom and cooperation.  Are we living up to our reputation?

I voted, but I was also saddened by Maine Senator Olympia Snowe’s decision not to run for re-election after 33 years in the Congress, in part because of incessant partisan bickering.  Snowe, a Republican and one of the few Senators willing to work toward compromise, often provoked consternation in her party by bucking convention and voting her conscience rather than the party line.

In announcing her retirement, Snowe said, “As I have long said, what motivates me is producing results for those who have entrusted me to be their voice and their champion…  I intend to help give voice to my fellow citizens who believe, as I do, that we must return to an era of civility in government driven by a common purpose to fulfill the promise that is unique to America.”

  • The takeaway?  The mandate of our executive and legislative branches is to work together in creative problem solving for the good of our country.  This year I sensed the desire of voters to elect officials who have the will to set aside their own party or personal agendas to achieve unity.  How will we hold them accountable?

I voted, but I also learned a lot about the church by watching the election results.  In an election predicted to be very close, the Obama campaign developed a brilliant strategy and did not waver.  They mobilized thousands of volunteers and targeted swing states that would provide the tipping point for electoral votes.  After both campaigns spent nearly $1 billion on television ads, President Obama carried seven of the nine critical states.

  • The takeaway?  Strategy and execution are everything.  Why is it so difficult for local churches to develop a specific plan for numerical, missional, and spiritual growth?  What is preventing your church from devoting itself to prayer and discernment, doing the necessary demographic research, and then formulating goals for worship attendance, outreach, small groups, and children’s, youth, and young adult ministry?  How will you ensure the necessary follow-up?

If only white people voted in this election, Mitt Romney would have won handily. Romney garnered a whopping 72% of the white vote.  However, 93% of African-Americans, 71% of Hispanics, and 73% of Asians voted for Barack Obama.  Romney won the senior vote by 12 points, but Obama won among Americans under 30 by 23 points, while.  The LGBT vote went to Obama as well.

If only men had voted, Mitt Romney would have won the presidency, 52% to 44%.  However, Barack Obama was reelected with 55% of women’s votes and 45% of men’s votes.   This is the second largest gender gap (10%) in presidential voting recorded by the CNN exit polls, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.  The Democratic party was much better able to connect with the new face of America.

  • The Takeaway?  Embracing diversity strengthens the whole.   Does the make-up of your church reflect the constituency of your neighborhood?  In politics as well as the church, we ignore the burgeoning ethnic diversity of our country at our peril.  Is God calling your church to become a church for all people?  If your answer is yes, as I hope it is, then how will you be intentional about transforming your hearts and minds, practices, and worship style in order to reach people who are not like you?  Don’t just lament the lack of young people or racial/ethnic diversity in your church.  Be intentional, be humble, have a passion for connecting with their language, needs, hope, and dreams, and prepare to be blessed by their presence.

Voters will not normally cast ballots for someone they believe is not concerned about the general welfare.  Although they want politicians to understand their own needs, even more so, they desire liberty and justice for all people.  Voters don’t want privileges at the expense of others, and they don’t want money thrown at them.  Rather, when voters believe that their leaders demonstrate fairness and authenticity, they will come together to accomplish amazing things.

  • The takeaway?  Making collective responsibility toward others our default mode creates unity.  Psalm 86:11 says, “Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth.  Give me an undivided heart to revere your name.”  An undivided heart displays integrity toward others and consistency in thoughts, words, and actions.  The church is called to lead the way in proclaiming that when faithful people rally together for righteous causes, we can and will change the world.

We may have red states and blue states, but we do not have to have a divided nation.  We may have a Congress consisting of two parties, but we do not have to have divided hearts.  We may have different religious and political beliefs, but we do not have to be divided in our desire to join hands to create a country where 100% of people count.

     I voted, and I have the sticker to prove it.  But it’s the takeaway that ultimately matters. 



The Tortured Soul

I noticed it as I sat in meditation before worship.  High on a pillar of the restored medieval Benedictine Abbey at Iona was a stone carving of a man with his eyes and mouth wide open in surprise.  I had just arrived on the island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland and was living in community for a week with 45 people from different countries.  The Abbey is the home of the Iona Community, an ecumenical dispersed community that is committed to seeking new ways of living the gospel in today’s world.

Central to life at the Abbey is morning and evening worship, which draws thousands of visitors from all over the world every year.  The Iona Abbey Worship Book states, “We owe our very existence as a community to the central Gospel conviction that worship is all that we are and all that we do.”  So what did this stone carving have to do with worship?  Why was he there? 

The primary purpose of worship is to facilitate an encounter with God in community.  In Matthew 18:20 Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name I am there among them.”  From the very beginning of the Christian church, new believers spent much time together in the temple praising God and being taught by the apostles.

Worship has been a primary portal for spiritual formation and instruction throughout Christian history.  Before most people could read, worship was where the scriptures were heard, the Word was proclaimed, and stories of faith were taught in stained glass, sculpture, paintings, and illuminated manuscripts.  The architecture of cathedrals and abbeys drew people into God’s presence and offered a “sanctuary” where community was formed and the troubles of a harsh world could be left behind, if only for a time.

During a subsequent tour of the Iona Abbey I learned the history of the aptly named “Tortured Soul.”  Abbey preachers in medieval times were instructed to face the tortured soul when speaking because in this position their voice would project to every corner of the sanctuary.  The tortured soul was the first sound system!  And we all know how tortuous it is not to be able to hear in church.

Life is very different today than in the days of the tortured soul.  We don’t need preaching to impart information because the Internet is at our fingertips.  We don’t need worship to facilitate a social network because we can find friends anywhere.  We don’t even need the church to provide service opportunities because a myriad of social service agencies and non-profits beg for our time and energy.  What people are desperate for today is an encounter with God that will empower them to love their neighbor and connect their faith with the world. 

Unfortunately, data gathered over a five-year period by the Barna Group does not give high marks to churches in this area.  According to the 2001 study, nearly half (48%) of regular church attendees had not experienced God’s presence in worship during the previous year.  Evidently, millions of tortured souls in our country are not able to connect with God in worship.

Worship was listed in the survey as the most important of six foundational faith practices (worship, evangelism, discipleship, fellowship, stewardship, and compassionate service), but a significant percentage of people struggle to experience God in worship.  Clearly, Christians desire worship to be a time of spiritual formation.  They want to be challenged to grow in faith, hope and love, but it’s not happening consistently.

Where’s the disconnect?  It’s not on God’s part.  God is always fully present in worship and desires more than anything that we become people of faith who offer our very lives in service to God and the world.  As God gave us the gift of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, so God patiently and passionately unleashes the power of the Holy Spirit every time we gather for worship.  If worship is all that we are and all that we do, why don’t we tap into that power?  What is it that gets in the way of our encounter with God?

At times the disconnect is with those who sit in the pews because they have not adequately prepared for worship.  Too often we become the tortured souls on the pillar of the church by rushing into worship without knowing the theme of the service or having read the scripture ahead of time.  We have great difficulty letting go of the cares and worries that preoccupy us, refuse to leave our cell phone at home, and even sneak a peek at our email during the offering.

We cannot be fully present to God without engaging worship with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.  When we come receptive to the unpredictability of the Holy Spirit to grab us and take us where we may not want to go, spiritual formation takes place.

Even if we arrive with open hands, however, our experience of God can be inhibited if worship does not flow, leaders are not well prepared, and unnecessary distractions are not eliminated.  At times we have difficulty encountering God because of the worship experience itself, which has been anecdotally described by some as torture.

  • Do you provide sermon titles, themes, and scriptures on your web site and in newsletters and bulletins so that worshippers can prepare themselves spiritually for the service?
  • Do you offer a time of quiet meditation before worship so that people stop visiting with friends, calm their spirits, and turn their hearts toward God?  In a world where there are few noiseless places, we need space to prepare to encounter the holy mystery that is God.
  • Do you take seriously the different ways in which people experience God by offering worship that appeals to all the senses and various learning styles?
  • Does the music reflect the theme of the day and focus on spiritual formation rather than entertainment?
  • Do you plan and execute worship so that Joe is not allowed to hijack 10 minutes in the middle of the service to advertise the chicken BBQ?
  • Do you offer well-crafted prayers that are confessional, reflect an awareness of current events, and move beyond simply naming the sick to embracing the entirety of needs in God’s world?
  • Does your preaching connect the biblical narrative with the hopes and dreams of today’s seekers, encourage wrestling with difficult and timely subjects, offer practical application, and challenge worshippers to respond to God’s call in their lives?

Consider yesterday’s worship.  Did your worship leaders pray for all those whose lives have been affected by Hurricane Sandy, share how the church is on the scene with disaster relief, and offer an opportunity to respond generously?

Did you pray for the presidential election on Tuesday and remind parishioners that Jesus’ commandment to love God and our neighbor as ourselves should inform our voting as well as our everyday living?  Did you share the words that John Wesley wrote in his journal on October 6, 1774 in reference to the British Parliamentary elections?

“I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election and advised them,

  1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy;
  2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against; and
  3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.”

I finally figured out why the soul on the pillar of the Iona Abbey is tortured.  The soul is tortured because he/she did not meet God in worship.  Worshipping souls become tortured when they yearn to make sense of the events of our world from a faith perspective but find only a vacuum.  Souls are tortured when leaders fail to connect the everyday heartaches and hopes of worshippers with the good news of a God who walks with us even in the valleys and motivates us to love our neighbor in the midst of mysteries we cannot fully understand.  Souls are tortured when difficult questions and doubts are either ignored, given shallow answers, or seen as a lack of faith.

May we keep ever before us a vision of all tortured souls who yearn to deepen their walk with God.  May we face them directly, listen carefully, speak to their hearts, and provide bread for the journey.