Rabbi Akiva and His Questions


Rabbi Akiva was walking home one night on the same path he always traveled, except that this night was incredibly foggy and he missed his usual turn off the path.

Soon he encounters a massive fortress.

At the gate the Rabbi hears the voice of a guard yelling to him from the wall, “Who are you and why are you here?”

Upon hearing those words, the Rabbi asks: “How much are you paid for your work?

“Two shekels a day,” the guard responded.

Rabbi Akiva then looks up at the guard and says, “I will pay you twice that if you follow me to my home and ask me those very same questions every single morning.”

I will pay you double

While so many of us are busy getting ready for Christmas and the end of the year, Rabbi Akiva (who lived around the time the Gospels were written) tells this little story. I remind you of it as a reflection to this Advent season:

I was walking home after the sun had set and while being caught up in my meditation, I took a wrong turn home. I arrived at the gates of a Roman garrison and a voice shouted down to me, "Who are you? What are you doing here?” The night watchman's voice was so loud it jolted me out of my meditating. Additionally, I was so caught off guard by his question that I didn’t respond. He then shouted again, “Who are you? What are you doing here?” I shouted back, “What do they pay you to do this job?” The watchman answered, "A coin a day!” I then told him that I would pay him double if he would come stand at my front door and ask me those same two questions every time I left my home and returned.

Who are you?

What are doing here?

Beer exposes the growing or dying fallacy in the Church

From the laity to the largest church pastors I have heard this phrase, "you are either growing or you are dying." Like many dichotomies that set up an either/or scenario in order to categorize good and bad, this "growing or dying" dichotomy is not Gospel but Empire building. 

To begin with this grow or die idea puts out there that there is prefered option - growth. And because we tend to have an unhealthy relationship with death, church leaders will lie to ourselves in order to paint the picture that our church is growing (just to show we are not dying). This is part of the reason why it has taken the UMC decades to come to terms with the fact that we are in rapid decline. 

Because fundamentally this growing or dying question is in our minds and we all desire to grow, we forget that the Gospel is not about growth but about dying. It is about dying to self. It is about dying in order to be raised by God. As such, in our efforts to always grow, Churches never learn how to die - as a body or as individuals. We are so growth focused that we shun death and dying thus retarding a healthy developmental relationship with death. 

 It may be the influences of Empire that Christians began to read the story of Jesus and elevate Matthew 28's commission over the other commissions of Jesus. The "Great Commission" of Matthew 28 is not great because Jesus said it was great. Jesus gave many commissions - forgive, heal, reconcile, welcome, visit, feed, etc. But it is the "Go and make disciples" commission that also helps fuel the growing or dying dichotomy.

"Westvleteren-beer" Attribution below.

"Westvleteren-beer" Attribution below.

As an example of what is might look like to add an additional way to the grow or die mentality lets talk about beer. Specifically the beer that is brewed by the Westvieteren Brewery. This brewery is run by the Trappist Abbey of Saint Sixtus in Belgium. Their three beers have been talked about as some of the best beers in the world. With such high demand you might think this brewery is looking to expand, because we all know if they are not growing they are dying. 

However, the monks there make a set amount each year to meet the financial needs of the monastery and their mission. At that is all they will make until the next year when they make roughly the same amount of beer. 

When asked by commercial businesses why they do not make more beer to meet the demands of the market I imagine the monks might say something like, We do not make beer for the market, we make the beer for God who has put before us a specific mission and purpose. To be move too far away or become focused on growth we miss the mission God has set in our hearts." 

Of course it is exciting to hear about the visions growing churches have. It is equally humbling to hear of the dreams that dying churches hold on to to preserve the saintly work of the past. But it should also be admirable to the churches that seek to be who they are because that is what God is calling them to be.

These churches are not growing or dying perhaps they are, like the monks in Belgium, focused on meeting the call of God and not the demands of the market. 

Source: "Westvleteren-beer". Licensed under CC ...

Is the UMC mission statement part of the problem?

The UMC has a mission statement that we tout out all the default for anytime we are asked what our mission is.  

"To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world" 

Not bad really. It is clear and concise. It tells people what we do.   

And that is the problem - it tells people what  we do. 

Simon Sinek gave a great TED Talk based on his book, Start With Why. Take 6 minutes and watch just a part of the whole TED Talk.   

If you watched this, you will recall Sinek stated that everyone on the plant knows what they do. Some know how they do it. Few know why they do what they do. 

"And by why I do not mean to make a profit. That is a result that is always a result." 

The UMC is an organization that is very clear on what  we do. We make disciples. Different churches may or may not know how  they make disciples. But as an organization the UMC is not conveying why we do what we do. 

You may be thinking, "Well isn't 'for the transformation of the world' the why of the UMC?" Perhaps. But this is too vague of a why to mean anything. Transform the world to be different in what ways? 

Our mission statement is one that expresses what we do. And that may be part of the problem. We are clear on the what but not on the why.  

So in an effort to be clear on my why, let me say:

Everything that I believe we all need to be the change we wish to see in the world. The way I do this is by sharing lessons that make people think, speak clearly and to not be afraid, and I love everyone I encounter. I just so happen to be a follower of Jesus Christ who taught me the way to be the change.

Would you like to join me.