Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Infinity and Providence

In preparation for this week's message on "Why Can't I See God's Will?" I was reflecting on what it means for an infinite God to interact in a finite world.  If we assume that God is at work in the present world, it means that one whose time is different than ours is at work in our time. 

It is likely that you can see the implications of this by your own experience.  Perhaps you share with me the experience that each year seems shorter than the previous.  Here we are in mid-December already, and I feel like I just got used to 2012.  You might wonder why every year seems shorter than the previous... I suggest it is because each year is relatively shorter from the perspective if finite beings.  We only have a certain number of years.  so each year is in relation to our beginning.  A five year old experiences a year to be a long time because it is 1/5 of their life.  A 50 year old experiences the year to be a much shorter period of time because the year is only 1/50 of their life.  this means that a year in the eyes of a five year old is like 10 years in the eyes of a 50 year old.  It takes 10 years for the same change in lifespan that a five year old experiences in just one year.  This continues.  For the 100 year old, it would take another 20 years to experience the same change in lifespan as the five year old in a single year.  So, it doesn't just seem that a year gets shorter and shorter as we get older--it really does (relatively speaking).

So then consider our finite experience of time from the eyes of our finite God.  The psalmist writes, "Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God... for a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past or like a watch in the night." (Psalm 90:4).

If this is true, then God--who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow... and God who is without time... when that God interacts in our world time is no factor - so it would see if God can continue to interact in our present, God can also continue to interact in our future--right now... and God can interact in our past--right now.

What does that have to do with Providence and God's Will?  Sometimes people wonder whether they missed God's path.  If at some point they strayed from God's plan for them.  Made the wrong decision, married the wrong person, attended the wrong party, took the wrong job, said the wrong thing at the wrong time...  Despair can set in.  How can we be sure we are on God's path?  Surely God has a path for us as we believe he intended it from before the foundations of the earth--so the scriptures say.  And yet how does that work when people have the ability to make up  their own minds--to choose the good or the bad--to follow or not follow God's desire for them.  Perhaps it was God's will that you get a particular job, but the employer does not listen to God's voice and finds a reason to go with someone else--is God thwarted?  Is all lost?  Can we even claim that God has a will and a plan in light of the ease with which you, I, or anyone else can ruin the plan?

But if the infinite God is at work in the past, present, and future of our finite world, then perhaps God's perfect plan is more of a perfecting plan.  In other words, when we step off the path God has laid for us, it isn't so much that God puts us back on the right path as it is that God adjusts the path to include the place to which we have strayed.  In this way our God is not just perfect, but is perfecting.  What was not perfect is made perfect by the God who is continuously seeking us out -- not hiding from us and hoping we can navigate the complicated map that is God's will.  Rather God's will is to redeem lost sheep - not by laying a trail of bread crumbs and hoping the sheep make it home to the other 99, but leaving the 99 to go and search.  So it becomes God's plan that the sheep was lost in the first place that God's diligent, loving, searching nature might be revealed.

Paul told the Romans not that bad and evil would never happen, only that whatever happened God was working it together for good for those who love God and are called for God's purposes.  That is a picture not of a perfect God that us imperfect humans must figure out--it is rather the picture of a perfecting God who realizes that we and others will get off the path, but that God will make our paths - whatever we've done to them--that God will make our paths straight--raising the valleys, lowering the mountains; and making us holy.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Gift of Disaster

It seems every time there is a disaster it is always noted that the silver-lining is the way in which communities come together to comfort each other and rebuild.  We say, "Isn't it a shame that it takes a disaster to bring out the good in all of us."  Living near the wreckage of Sandy, we are getting inundated with people all over the nation who want to do something to help.  Indeed this is fantastic! 

The reality, however, is that soon the initial desire to help meet the need will give way to fatigue and aid will slowly decline.  Before long we (as a society) will be back to yelling at each other over differences of political opinion, social and cultural differences, etc.  And yet there will be part of us that will remember how wonderful was the unity of purpose.  We will wish for those days of community again.  Until the next disaster when like clockwork, we will say, "Isn't it a shame that it takes a disaster to bring out the good in all of us."  So we must struggle with this:  Is disaster a gift from God?

I do not mean to suggest that God desires death, illness, injury, etc.  But I wonder if when material things are destroyed and people's lives hang in the balance, we are forced, at least momentarily, to cease our "love of money, and material things."  Having nothing else, having seen such great loss--we draw toward one another.  We want to give even if we have nothing.  And we feel good about it because finally in the midst of disaster we behave according to our operating manual.  We assume the loving and giving image of our creator.  Perhaps on occasion God ordains our losing everything so that we can find the one thing that matters.

Before the storm came, my six year old daughter reflected, "Even if the storm means we can't do Halloween, I'd rather have the storm--because God turns the world upside down.  He takes what seems the worst and makes it the best!" (a child of two theologians!!)

I have no doubt that God is working this disaster for good for those who love God and are called according to God's purposes.  It is the promise of scripture, it is what always happens in times like this, it is my personal, immediate experience of the world I live in, and it is reasonable--we often emerge on the other side of hardship stronger than before.  In fact, the outpouring of love for one another is not the silver lining - Rather that is the big picture.  It is the storm and its destruction that is small in comparison.  And so part of me is thankful for the storm.  Not thankful that people are hurting and without places to stay.  But thankful that it is bringing people together--thankful that we can begin to talk about the things in life that really matter.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The House on Sand (Reflections from the Eye of the Storm)

We who live in Somers Point and the surrounding mainland area of Southern New Jersey are seeing life return to normal fairly quickly following Hurricane Sandy.  In fact, if it were not for reports from our friends and family that live on the barrier islands, we might think this storm was not as bad as many have made it out to be... 

This has led some to an obvious conclusion--the barrier islands did their job.  They take the brunt of storms and thereby protect the mainland.  Theoretically people would live on the mainland, and the islands would be more or less vacant land masses that protect people from storms.

That said, I am deeply grateful for the economy of the islands.  I find the Ocean City Boardwalk a place I can count on to get away, touch the power of God in the waves, the wind, and the vastness of the ocean and miles of beach.

It is in this context that I hear the words that many have remembered again: "The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Matthew 7:27)  Of, course this describes the house of the foolish man who built his house on sand.

Some of us are tempted to cite this teaching as words of warning that rebuilding on the barrier islands of New Jersey is foolish--in fact some go so far as to say that Jesus said that it should not be done.  But I'm afraid we miss the point.

Jesus, though we know he was a carpenter, was not giving construction advice.  He was pointing to people's experiences of the natural world and drawing spiritual conclusions.  He wanted his hearer to imagine two houses side by side--both experienced the rain, the wind, and the waves - one stood and the other fell.  The one that stood had the strong stone foundation while the one that fell was built directly on the sand and was easily washed away.  Jesus' message was not to build in a place where the waves will not crash - the waves will certainly crash - they do not discriminate, they hit houses on the rock as well as houses on the sand. 

We should not think that building on the barrier islands = the sand, or the corollary is that building on the mainland = the rock.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Fit to Serve?

Today, a fellow pastoral leader (of a different denomination) referred to me as "young man."  He certainly didn't mean anything by it, we were leaving a meeting, I suspect he doesn't know my name, and so he said to me, "See you later, young man."  [Why is it that it seems appropriate to respond to someone as a young man, or young woman, but the same is not true with regard to referring to someone as an "old man" or "old woman?"]

Its not the type of thing that offends me--I am relatively young (especially as far as pastors go) and I am a man--so technically speaking he was correct--I am a "young man."  However, it had the ring of the type of thing I heard as a teenager or a college student.  My dad used to refer to me as a "fine young man" up until about the time I got married and became the sole provider for not only myself, but also my family (about a decade ago).

Moreover, I think my gut response that this felt inappropriate was connected to an earlier experience this week.  A local hospital was conducting a community needs assessment in our church, and when I met the woman from the hospital who was organizing the assessment, when she first met me, the first thing she said was, "You are not old enough to be a pastor!"  Ha!  If I'm not old enough today, what she would have thought 10 years ago when I began serving as a student pastoral intern?  Moreover, I am this year the traditional age of Jesus at his death (33).  If I am not old enough for ministry, neither was he!

But this posting is not actually about age--in reality, I am long over being considered by some as too young for a pastor.  More to the point is holding this idea against another.  My Father-in-Law, now near sixty had expressed that he sometimes feels as though there are people who think he is too old to serve.  That at 60+ you just can't be cutting edge enough in the church to meet the needs of these fast changing times.  So apparently there are people who think pastor's should be older than 40, and younger than 60. 

Why is there such a narrow picture of the most appropriate age for ministry?  I think it is tied to an overall assumption that the call to pastoral ministry must be rare.  There are any number of excuses which people can give themselves from entering ministry--I'm too young, I'm too old, I'm not "holy" enough, I have bad history, I'm not smart enough, etc.

This points to a deeper issue that sometimes we speak of God as so holy, righteous, and transcendent--such that the idea that we can serve this God, that we can speak to the nature of our God--that we can share the love of this God seems almost impossible.  But our God is not one who stays far off and distant.  Our God is not one who uses the obvious people to share demonstrate God's love.  God uses a stutterer to talk to Pharaoh, a murdering adulterer to be the greatest king of God's people, a king who was a descendent of a Midian woman who threw herself at Boaz to convince him to have her as his wife so that she and Naomi could live.  The list goes on--murder, prostitution, stealing--nothing is a barrier to being used as God's servant.

I believe that we put barriers on who we expect God will use because too often we don't expect ourselves to be used.  Serving God in certain ways is for uniquely called people--those who few who must somehow meet special unknown requirements--certainly they won't be too old or too young, they have some unique connection to God--something the rest of us do not have.

Let us not be surprised that God uses all kinds of people for all kinds of different reasons.  I am not too young, and my friend from this morning is not too old.  The recovering addict is not too broken, and the workaholic is not too busy--God cam close to us, walked among us, and promised to be with us always.  God is in our midst and can use any and all of us--we know this.. it isn't surprising, so lets stop acting surprised when God uses a variety of people in varied ways.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

It's Not Me... It's You...?

Most of us are familiar with the infamous break-up cliche, "It's not you, it's me."  We laugh at it because we assume it to be an obvious misstatement.  It is a phrase used by the person initiating the break up--so we assume that they must have a reason--something against the person with whom they are splitting that has led them to this action.  And so for the person who has decided it is time to break off the relationship to say, "Its not you, its me" fails to capture our imagination as to what led to the ending of the relationship.

However, in pastoral ministry, I have learned that sometimes--broken/hurting relationships are not always about us.  In fact a core Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) training point is that we (people/pastors included) often become defensive because we fail to see that when a person is angry at us, we are not always the reason such anger is being experessed.

Recently a friend with a very sick child posted on his facebook page a picture stating that "Jesus is the Great Physician."  An atheistic/agnostoc "friend" responded that it was childish and silly to think that God heals people.  (see my post on "Truthiness" for how we come to say things online that we might not say in person).  My first thought was that this person had picked the worst possible time to debate "theology," and I almost responded before thinking better of it.

I remembered something.  "Its not me... its you."  The person who made that comment was not talking to his "friend" who had posted the picture or really to anyone else.  He was working out his own issue with faith or lack thereof.  Had such a statment been made to me while one of my children was sick, my initial inclination would be to become angry: "What is wrong with you?"  The funny thing is I typically don't get angry in theological discussions.  If I had experessed such anger, any close friend of mine would wonder why I had responded so forcefully in light of a theological disagreement.  They would have to remember the context that I had a sick child.  Suddenly my response is not about the person to whom I am responding but rather it is about what might be going on in my own life.

For this reason, I encourage everyone to remember that when someone acts or responds to you in a way that feels inappropriate, or even angers you--it may not be about you.  It may be about them...  Jesus said, "You must not oppose those who want to hurt you.  If someone slaps you on your right cheek, you must tirn the left cheek to them as well.  When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let hem have your coat too.  When they force you to go one mile, go with them two."  Why would Jesus teach his disciples to be so passive--to not stick up for themselves?

I believe it is because Jesus realizes that when a person slaps you--its not all about you.  There is something going on in their heart.  If we respond as if their slapping us was about us, we fail to allow the space for them to come to know what it is that is going on in them.  So today, if your coworker lashes out--don't assume it is about you, they might be dealing with problems at home.  How can you love them?  If your spouse suddenly explodes with anger at an apparently small thing--they might have had a bad day.  Sometimes it really isn't about you...

Monday, October 22, 2012


In a recent conversation with a teenager, I was informed (as I already knew) "Facebook is all lies."  I would temper that--it isn't all lies, but there are a lot of lies--especially, though not exclusively, among younger people.

Put a bit more diplomatically, Facebook is about branding.  Everyone has a brand now.

Recently Terri Gross interviewed Sherry Turkle, author of "Alone Together."  Turkle is a clinical psychologist who asked teenagers and adults why they prefer to hold conversations over text-messaging, email, and other social networking instead of face to face, or at least, voice to voice conversations.  The most popular answer was that in face to face conversation you can't as easily control what you are going to say and what will happen.   Turkle's argument is that the avoidance of face to face conversations keeps us from practicing nonverbal communication that occurs face to face.  She believes that in the natural reading of non-verbal cues we are actually connecting with people on an emotional level beyond words.  In lacking this type of communication, she believes that we can connect with people all we want through technology and yet feel all alone because we are not having this level of emotional connection.

I would take her thoughts a step further.  If we like technological communication and social networking because we can control what we say, then we have ceased to have truthful relationships.  We only have relationships based on the carefully controlled representations of ourselves which are often related to the truth but it is a truth carefully shaped into the image we most prefer (or, you might say our relationships are based on what Steven Colbert called, "truthiness.")  It is like what companies do when they carefully create and market their "brand."  Recently PBS has complained about the use of Big Bird in politics.  Why?  It harms the brand... Big Bird is not political.

But as Christians, our Lord, who came to set captives free, told us that the truth would do just that--set us free.  Many of the challenges that we have with each other are due to our fear of truth and our preference for truthiness. If you and I are not only entitled to differing opinions but also differing truths then we no longer have authentic relationships--we are simply "Alone Together."

Tonight during the final presidential debate, and we will hear again competing claims as to what is and is not true.  Notice it is not limited to competing claims about how best to respond to a shared sense of what is true--we will hear competing claims as to what is actually true.  Even if there is a shared truth--both sides will shape that shared truth in such a way that it best fits their party's "brand."

It is bad enough that this happens in our politics, let us not allow it to happen to ourselves in this new world of technology.  Integrity, honesty, humility and faithfulness remain important to us regardless of what mediums we use to interact with each other.

How do you use social networking?  Do you carefully craft your brand?  Do you carelessly say things you wouldn't otherwise say?  Do you avoid it, or can you not live without it?  How can/do you use it to further the truth which will set us free?

Monday, October 15, 2012

We May be Going to Hell in a Hand-basket... But I'm Not Worried About It

It seems in vogue in the United Methodist Church hierarchy these days to be obsessed with various metrics for the strength and vitality of our local churches.  From an organizational perspective this is important work.  We must be able to identify whether churches are living up to their call or are in need of revitalization.  However, it is too easy to slip into an idolatry of numbers, followed by despair over the reality that seems to face us.  Then we have experts who we know must be experts because they speak with great clarity and passion to how bad the situation is. 

It is all too tempting to look back on the 1950s church and say, "Wow!  Look at the growth!  Look at all the programs that were developed!  Look at how everyone in the nation was a church-going Christian--and the most popular brands were the Methodists." 

While I was in seminary, I remember visiting the church where my wife (then fiance) served as a student-associate.  After worship we went to a local diner in the 50's style with several members of the church.  One man pined away--"Ah! this place reminds you of the good days, doesn't it?  Those were good times.  Life just isn't what it used to be!"  As I listened to him, I had a sudden realization.  Here we were in rural North Carolina at a '50s era diner--exactly the kind of place where black people were refused service--and so without thinking, I shared my reflection... "Well I guess the '50s were pretty great, so long as you were not black."  Silence...  Then an uncomfortable agreement... "Well... I guess so..."

When we compare the current generation/situation to the past we generally perceive the past as better than the present.  The overwhelming assumption among people I know is that day by day, month by month, year by year the world is always getting worse... while at the same time there is an overwhelming shared hope that the future will be better...  The past is rosy and the future holds hope--where does that leave us today--? 

Friday, October 12, 2012

Sin is Not a Choice

Sometimes it seems that in the process of discussion about God and faithfulness, even those of us with solid theological footing get confused about the basics. One basic that gets missed by many people is the nature of sin. We fall into thinking that behaviors that are innate to a person; part of their personality; simply reflections of who they are... that these innate behaviors must be good and not sinful because they are part of having been created in the image of God.  We speak as though an action is only sinful if it is a choice that does not arise out of a person's natural inclinations.  If actions arise out of natural inclinations we can be tempted to treat such actions as part of the diversity of what it might mean to be created in God's image.

However, sin is not described in this way in scripture.  Rather sin is part of who we are.  We don't get to chose whether or not we have sinful inclinations--we do.  We all do.

Sometimes personality surveys give us such knowledge of who we are that we embrace our natural inclinations as though all natural inclinations must be okay.  So the bully says, its just who I am...  I speak my mind, I care about being right--you can't fault me for that.  The passive-aggressive person says, I know... I don't like conflict, but I still desire to get my way, so while I may not engage in conflict in the open, I will work behind the scenes to develop the scenario I need without being openly conflictual... its just who I am.

The truth is, both are sin.  To the bully, the scriptures say, "love your neighbor, turn the other cheek, etc."  To the passive-aggressive, the scriptures say, "let your yes be yes and your no be no."

And they might respond...  "But wait!  I don't have a choice--its just who I am!"  Of course it is.  You don't have a choice.  You are inclined toward sinful behavior.  I am inclined toward sinful behavior.  As Christians, this is fundamental truth--we have inherited a fallen nature, a brokenness.  At our core we desire sin.  Paul said, "What I want to do I do not do, and yet I find myself doing the very things I hate!"  That's the way it is.

Of course we do not end there...  That is not the final act of the play.  Jesus told Nicodemus who came by night that the one who wants to inherit something else--the one who wants to inherit God's righteousness... God's Kingdom, "must be born from above."  In Christ we experience rebirth so that our understanding of who we are can change.  We are no longer defined by our natural inclinations which may include sinful desires. Rather we are defined by the power of the Holy Spirit that has been given to us to choose righteousness and life over sin and death.

It is no longer faithful to declare yourself powerless over the inclination to sin, because the old has passed away and the new has come.  Therefore let those of us who call ourselves Christians not confuse natural inclinations with holiness.  Rather let us bear witness to the power of Christ that regenerates so that we have the power to overcome the fall...  power to choose the right... power to resist temptation/inclinations... power to know that we can choose to receive the grace that empowers us to live differently.

The nature of sin is not choice.  Sin is a prison--there is no choice... its just the way things are.  When we say in despair, "I have no choice" examine the situation and realize that often what we are saying is, "I can't beat the nature of sin... I have no choice but to sin."

The nature of grace is the power to choose.  Grace creates options where before there were not options.  Grace takes what was once inevitable and invites us to decide on a different path.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Being Medicine

The world is sick, about this, there is little debate.  People disagree about why the world is sick, what makes the world sick, and what would make the world better--but it is easy to agree that it is sick.  It has always been sick, and until God's restoration of creation is complete, it will remain sick.

GK Chesterton tells us that the saint is a medicine:
The saint is a medicine because he is an antidote.  Indeed that is why the saint is often a martyr; he is mistaken for a poison because he is an antidote.  he will generally be found restoring the world to sanity by exaggerating whatever the world neglects, which is by no means always the same element in every age.  Yet each generation seeks its saint by instinct; and he is not what the people want, but rather what the people need.     (from Chesterton's Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Calling Joseph: Can Anyone Interpret My Dream?

William Placher
I had a bit of a strange dream that has kept me up much of the early morning, so I thought I would share it and see if anyone has insights.  Dreams play an interesting role in scripture as a mysterious way in which God communicates certain truths about life, occasionally pertaining to the future and at other times the present...

I dreamt that my brother (although in my dream my brother bore no resemblance to my real brother) was urgently encouraging me to ask my father to go with me to a baseball game (I don't know which teams).  Apparently tickets were cheap, it was October, and the games had playoff implications.  So again brother encouraged--just get over there and invite your dad to a baseball game before its too late!

In my dream I traveled a short distance to my father's place and sheepishly--more like a young child than a grown adult child--invited my dad to go with me to a baseball game.  He was very excited, and we began looking for ticket information immediately.

I awoke as soon as I realized that "dad" in my dream was not my real life dad.  Moreover it was someone else I know--or knew.  "Dad" in my dream was the now deceased Theologian and Professor, William Placher.  Bill Placher was one of the excellent professors of religion and philosophy that I studied with at Wabash College, a small excellent liberal arts college for men in Crawfordsville, IN.  He was a professor who was not only of legendary intelligence, but also legendary character.  He took his practice of Christianity as seriously as his study of it.  The academic world often wondered what kept such a renowned scholar at this small school in the middle of nowhere--the same town where he grew up, the same school he attended when he was an undergrad himself...  He was a professor that invited his senior "Contemporary Theology" seminar to have our final class discussion at his house over a fine dinner that he personally prepared for us.  The summer before my senior year, he took me out to eat at a local Mexican restraunt to discuss my future plans and graduate schools to which I should consider applying.  His dedication as a teacher, scholar, advisor, and a faithful Christian made him one of my more influential mentor's I have ever had.

Dr. Placher passed away shortly after Thanksgiving in 2008, almost four years ago at the too young age of 60.  He was not sick and his death was not expected.

And my "brother" was saying, "Invite him to the game before its too late!

Are there any Joseph's out there?  Why did I dream it?  Is it instructive (I will see my dad this coming November around Thanksgiving)?  Is it a simple truth that always bears true--life is short, don't put it off?  Or was it "just a dream?"  I'm interested in the various perspective you all might have regarding the meaning of this dream and dreams in general.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Your Limitations Can Be A Gift

Its a Monday, and I don't often hide it--despite my discomfort with the violence of the sport and the blood-thirst with which many people experience the game--I enjoy the game of football.  And today, as everyone in the sports world discusses what happened during yesterday's feast of games, I heard a sports radio show host say something about quarterbacks that is a profound thought for life in general and Christians in particular.  Colin Cowherd said sometimes a person's limitations are directly related to their success.  (Whether or not you like or even understand football--I believe you will find something of value here)

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Being Meek When Provoked

A Few Days ago, I shared an excerpt of a prayer by Paul Wesley Chilcote from his book, Praying in the Wesleyan Spirit.  It was a prayer for a meek spirit based on John Wesley's sermon Meekness, Justice, and Mercy.
Look Inside
"Lord, I want to be meek--
not apathetic about life or lacking in self-confidence--
rather always resigned to your will and never demanding my own way,
always patient and content in myself, at ease and at peace,
always mild and gentle toward friends and enemies alike.
I want to have a deep interior meekness,
not just the outward form;
I want a spirit that is easily reconciled to others."

My Friend, Susan, asked:
I want to [be] meek too...that kind of meek...but what do you do when someone is relentless in their anger and ability to see the entirely negative in every situation? How do you protect yourself from that other than keeping them at a distance?
It was a great question, so I promised her a response here:

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Everyone Sees Themselves as a Hero

Character Actor, Stephen Tobolowski, was interviewed on NPR's Fresh Air today, and at one point spoke a profound truth about acting and also life in general.  One of Tobolowski's more significant roles was playing leader of the KKK, Clayton Townley, in Mississippi Burning.

An except from the interview regarding that role:
The secretary looked over and saw me nervous and she said, 'You know, Stephen –- they like you a lot in there. A lot of people have been reading this part and they keep trying to be scary, but Alan [Parker] thinks you're scary just as you are' ...
"This is true with a lot of things in acting. You need to ask questions and you need to ask the right questions. Alan asked me how I saw the man and I said, 'I saw him as Abraham Lincoln –- I don't see him as a villain. This man is a hero with his agenda, with his point of view.' I did not intend to play Clayton Townley as one chromosome short of a human being, like a lot of people will play various villains in movies ... In real life, everyone kind of sees themselves as the good guy, doing what they're doing. They see themselves as a kind of hero...

Tuesday, October 2, 2012


Tomorrow night, the only two people who have any chance at securing the most powerful and politically/historically influential job in the world will engage in a debate so that we who have the responsibility of electing such a person can make our decision.  The truth is most people have already made up their mind.  Among the small group that has not decided who they will vote for either doesn't follow the issues and will vote any way, or are fundamentally frustrated with the limited choices.  So, with such an audience, the candidates simply are hoping to not make major errors, to navigate the challenging questions of our day in two minutes or less without saying anything too revealing that might actually change how someone already feels. 

I remember my speech class in college.  The first speech we gave was a 2 minute self-introduction (just to break the public-speaking ice).  You can't say much in two minutes.  If you talk quickly, you might get through a single double-spaced typed page.  But lets face it, talking quickly is not great for most public speaking endeavors.  So, perhaps 3/4 of a double-spaced page is more accurate.  Now waste a portion of that space saying meaningless introductory remarks, a small bit for your conclusion on each question--and you really only get about 1 paragraph, at the most, of substance--and by the way, the questions are some of the most complex, consequential, issues the world will ever face:  How do we ensure people have access to healthcare?  How do we care for the poor without creating government dependency?  What do we do if Iran achieves a nuclear weapon?  What do we do if Israel attacks Iran first?  How will you handle people and fellow politicians who disagree with you?  Is there anything the government can do to ensure jobs with living wages are available for the citizens?  If not, what do you do with the unemployed and unemployable?  What about socially divisive issues?  How do you decide who to appoint to the Supreme Court?  We won't get to all the questions, because the TV slot leaves only 90 minutes so there can be 30 minutes of paid political operatives telling us what they believe we should have heard, and who we should believe "won"

It's all about winning at this point.  Pick sides, fight it out, see who wins.  In fact, most Americans will not even watch for substance, rather we will be hoping that our chosen candidate delivers the knock out punch.  It's a sporting event more than a policy discussion.  Lets face it, we don't like policy discussions.  Policy is hard, complex, and doesn't fit into neatly categorized boxes of right and wrong, good and evil.  And at the end of a long day of work, who has the energy to follow policy.  So we tending to deify our side, demonize the other side, and dig in our heals to watch the battle, hoping that once again good will triumph over evil--just like in star wars--since it is really all about entertainment.

As bad as this is, the real problem is that this practice at demonizing each other spills over into our other relationships.  At home, in the workplace, at church even? we engage in discussions to win.

But in sharing the Word of God to the Church in Philippi, Paul said:
I urge Euodia and Syntyche to come to agreement in the Lord...  Be glad in the Lord always... Don't be anxious about anything; rather bring your requests to God... If anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise...
When the goal becomes winning, we sacrifice knowing, loving, and growing.  If only we were not trying to win, but trying to figure out.  Not trying to defeat, but trying to sharpen.  Not trying to overcome, but trying to find harmony--that we could compliment each other rather than destroy each other.  I believe this is the vision God has for us--I pray that at least those of us who call ourselves church could find this way.

Monday, October 1, 2012

"A Prayer to Heal Brokenness and Division"

The Greater New Jersey Annual Conference passed a resulution in June that all churches in the conference shall join in a day of prayer for healing the brokenness and division that exists in our denomination around the issue of homosexuality, especially with regard to the experience of the conversation on the topic at General Conference.  The prayer, written by our Bishop at the time of the resolution, Sudarshana Devadhar, is below:

Sunday, September 30, 2012

3 Religions, 1 God? (Part 2)

This is the second in a series reviewing a forthcoming book, Do Jews, Christians, and Muslims Worship the Same God? by Jacob Newsner, Baruch Levine, Bruce Chilton, and Vincent Cornell.  In Part one, we reflected on Baruch Levine's perspective on the question from a more inclusive Jewish perspective.  In Short, he argued:  Everyone who worships God with sincerity worships the same God.

Jacob Neusner also writes from the Jewish perspective, but with a more orthodox (and exclusive) interpretation.  I am grateful that this book includes his perspective, because too often interfaith dialogue only occurs between people who are more committed to getting along with people of other faiths than remaining to to their own faith tradition (more on that at the end of this series).

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Christianity and the Bill of Rights (Part 2)

This is the second in a weekly series discussion between Christian Theology and articles from the Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution.  Today we discuss the 2nd amendment:
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Continuing Spiritual Education

We recently had our first "Back to School" night and met Kate's teachers.  They encouraged parents to continue reading to their children regardless of their age or reading level.  At first this caught me by surprise because we had recently allowed Kate to take over the reading.  She reads well, so at reading time, she reads to us.  But the suggestion was--great, let them read, but if she is able to read every book you read together, then it is time to start picking more difficult books.

It seems this is the concept:  before your child could read, you read to them books that are appropriate for the first and second grade reader.  Now your child has grown up and can read first and second grade material.  So by all means, let them read first and second grade material... but now start picking out 4th grade material that they are not comfortable reading, and read that to them.

Aha!  Of course.  And this never ends...  When a child can read 4th grade material, its time to read 7th and 8th grade material together... it is validation of the growth that has occurred and casting a vision of what is ahead.

What a great model for our spiritual discipleship.  We must always be surrounding ourselves with people further along on the journey--a reminder that we have come a long way, and a vision for greater faithfulness down the road.  We never master Christian living, we are always mastering Christian living.

How have you changed your discipleship practices as you have matured?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Go Therefore to Argue With All People

Rev. Gavin Richardson shared the above photo on Facebook, and it resonated with me especially in light of the current sermon series at Somers Point.  I love a good argument.  I do not mean yelling, mean-spirited arguments...  I mean talking with people I disagree with over important issues and arguing the different sides.  I desire to be loving about it.  I do not particularly enjoy conflict, but arguing is a bit fun, especially if I think I am winning the argument.

And I get it--most people are not argued into faith; its just not how it works.  So I guess the opposite of arguing people to faith would be... not arguing?  More to the point--we might say people are loved into faith rather than argued into it.  But I remember that Jesus did both a fair bit of engaging through love and actions of mercy... But he also argued a fair bit. 

The important distinction is this:  Jesus tended to argue with people of equal or greater worldly stature and power.  Jesus tended to "love" and "work mercy" with the disenfranchised. 

For instance, if we look at the Woman in John 8 who was "Caught in the very act of adultery" Jesus argued with the religious zealots who were armed with stones--"Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone (with whom was she caught one might wonder, and where is he now?)."  Jesus won the argument, they put down their stones and left.  Then to the woman--"Neither do I condemn you... go and sin no more" (words of mercy).

 I have found this true in parenting.  It is sometimes most effective to let my children know they have crossed a line and the time for making war has come.  There there are other times when it seems most effective to patiently respond with grace--the time for making peace has come.

It would seem there is a time for argue (lovingly) and a time to not argue.  How do we decide with whom to debate or argue, and how do we decide to avoid debate and offer mercy and love instead?

Friday, September 21, 2012

Three Religions, One God? (Part 1)

Kathy Armistead, an editor at Abingdon Press and also my Mother-In-Law, sent me a pre-published copy of a forthcoming book Do Jews, Christians, and Muslims Worship the Same God by Jacob Neusner, Baruch A Levine, Bruce D Chilton, and Vincent J Cornell. Since we are studying Christianity and World Religions in the congregation during the coming weeks, I will devote Fridays to commenting on this work chapter by chapter.

Chapter One. One God: The Enduring Biblical Vision (Baruch Levine)
From the Jewish perspective, Levine argues that at the core of the conflict between Jews, Christians, and Muslims is each group's belief that there is but one true God. "It is precisely the 'oneness' (=unity) of God that forces the issue of exclusivity." Instead of arguing which one of many gods is strongest, since all claim a single God the question is which claim to the one true God is accurate. Jews hold that they are singularly God's chosen people, Christians proclaim that Christ is the one true way to access God and thru him they become the new Israel, and Muslims claim that the Prophet Muhammad received revelations from God that are now found in the Qur'an and that these revelations supersede the Old and New Testaments and now Islam uniquely proclaims the fullness of God's will and God's truth.

On the one hand, since we all believe there is but one God, the one God we all worship must in some sense be the same, but simultaneously the variation in details between each group indicates a world of difference.

Levine endeavors to answer a singular core question: "Who holds the rights to the one true God?"

Arguing at great length and detail from the Hebrew Scriptures (or "Old Testament" as we call it) Levine finds his answer in Psalm 145 "The Lord is near to all his 'callers;' to all who call upon him faithfully (verse 18)."

So Levine would say that anyone who faithfully calls upon the Lord and worships the Lord in sincerity, by that virtue holds the rights to the one true God.

I won't respond in much detail until we have had a chance to look at each of the chapters. But here are a few initial reactions:

1. Why are we interested in whether or not three clearly different religions are in fact worshiping the same God? Each faith holds a unique claim to the uniqueness of their God, whether it be the Jewish Covenant, the Christian New Covenant, or the revelation of God through Prophet Mohammad in the Qur'an? The preface to this project, presumably agreed upon by each of the authors suggests the goal of the discussion is peace and justice: "Whether or not Jews, Muslims, and Christians worship the same God, we must find the will (politically, socially, and personally) to continue the process of dialogue despite our differences and focus on the worthy goal of peace with justice for all." I will eventually comment on two apparent assumptions: First, whether finding common ground is necessary to achieving peace. Second, whether the primary goal of the Christian mission is in fact "peace."

2. Because Levine writes from his Jewish faith and establishes his argument from the "first?" covenant, when he states that everyone who faithfully calls upon the Lord and worships the Lord with sincerity, holds the rights to the one true God, I assume that the one true God to which he invites us to hold rights and worship with sincerity is the Lord of the Jews--the One who delivered them from the land of Egypt, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. If there be any distinction between these monotheistic religions then in so much as Levine has offered an invitation that we all worship one singular God together, he has invited us to the God of the Jews. This will also be discussed at greater length in a future post.

Leave your comments and thoughts so that as the conversation continues I can incorporate your responses into responses to the different chapters. Next Friday we will discuss Jacob Neusner's chapter. Jacob also writes from a Jewish perspective, but will argue the opposite perspective: that Judaism stands in judgement against Christianity and Islam.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Christianity and the Bill of Rights (part 1)

For the next several weeks between now and the election, I am going to include a weekly discussion between some of the articles of the Bill of Rights and Christian Theology. How do our rights as Americans intersect with, compliment, and/or run contrary to our living out being followers of the way of Christ?

The first amendment seems on its face to be most connected to religious life. It is the law we give thanks for when we thank God for the ability to assemble in worship without fear of government intervention.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

This is commonly misunderstood as the law providing for the "separation of church and state." At our beach service, one year a woman interrupted our communion service to complain about our worshiping in public on public ground (with a permit): "Haven't you ever heard of the separation of church and state! Gosh people!"

The first amendment explicitly allows for people to gather and to worship whoever they like whenever they like. It also explicitly impedes the right of the government to prohibit or interfere with that worship. It works the same way for speech, the press, the right to assemble, etc.

We are allowed to worship without government interference.
We can teach what we believe the gospels to teach without concern of censorship.
If we are inclined to offer a prophetic word to the government that is critical in nature, we are protected to do so.
If we chose to form an assembly to demonstrate on behalf of disenfranchised people, we are protected.

The Bad
Everything we said about "the good" is true for those with whom we disagree. The first Amendment protects lies as much as it protects truth-telling. It protects hateful speech as much as it protects loving speech. In contrast to God's commands, the first amendment provides allowance for worshiping God's other than the God of the Jews (The God we believe raised Jesus from the dead). It allows for false witness. I can misconstrue your words and knowingly misrepresent your ideas and so long as I don't slander you in clearly false and quantifiable harmful ways I'm protected. God may not like it, but our constitution allows for it.

The Ugly
Groups Like Westboro Baptist Church, the pornography industry, and other clearly destructive expressions of this freedom are completely protected. In fact, this is an aspect of our law that we are seeing non-western people struggling to understand. While The United States as a whole may not approve and encourage such things as the burning of Qurans or the making of videos that insult religious beliefs--these are also protected free speech. People in some parts of the world wonder why this irresponsible activity cannot be punished--and they find it hard to believe such content is protected.

So we give thanks for the 1st Amendment, for the right to assemble and worship without concern for organized persecution. But we should also remember that the constitution is not the gospel. It is good--and we can be proud of our country. But in it is not the life giving good news and commands that we find in scripture and the person of Jesus Christ. We would be wrong to assume that we could not worship without the American Constitution--we just may find such worship to get us into more trouble.

Just because the constitution gives us certain rights does not mean everything that is protected by those rights is ordained by God. Bearing false witness is still bearing false witness. Worshiping other gods is still idolatry, and loose and angry tongues cause a great fire and can even leads to murder.

How do you give thanks for the 1st Amendment while also lamenting some of the negative consequences of it?

Monday, September 17, 2012

ReThink: Open Doors

The United Methodist Church has had as its slogan in recent years, "Open Doors. Open Hearts. Open Minds." The idea has been to project the church as a welcoming place that will not exclude anyone and will love everyone. It is an image of hospitality.

But the truth is, I'm not sure that the core of our Christian calling is hospitality. Hospitality is great--creating a warm welcoming environment in the church is important, and thriving churches certainly do this well. But the new buzzword in Methodism is "ReThink Church," so lets Rethink our open doors. What if we use the same slogan and simply adjust the metaphor?

We have long assumed that when we say, "Open doors," we mean the doors of the church--something through which an outsider could walk through and come inside. A bit more sophisticated might be to think of "Open doors" as the doorway into a relationship with God--and so the church is a doorway into spiritual connection.

But I have come to believe that the most scriptural way to think of "Open Doors" as a slogan for Christians is to think of the doors not as beautiful wooden doors like what you might find on a fancy house or church building, but as the metal barred doors on a prison cell.

In the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus spoke about why God sent him, he said, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me... to proclaim release to the captives." This is the mission of the church. In fact--when we remember the true nature of the church--it isn't a building at all, is it? As a faithful church, we need not be so concerned with how we open our doors to let people in. We do not even have doors to open--we are not a building. There is nothing separating insiders from outsiders when we speak of the church most faithfully. Rather the doors in need of being opened are the doors to prison cells--doors that have made all of us captives in one way or another. The church is the body of Christ, and if the Spirit of the Lord was on Jesus to proclaim release to the captives, so also the Spirit of the Lord is on us to proclaim release to the captives.

Notice what happens. When we say that we are the church of open doors (meaning we let everyone in) there is hospitality, but no clear message of renewal or growing righteousness. We accept everyone as they are, we have open hearts and minds and so do not challenge anyone (including ourselves) as perhaps needing God's word of redemption. There is no redemption in this model. Assuming that Jesus actually meant that people were living in captivity to something, all we did was invite fellow captives to come and be captives with us. There is no release--only fellowship among captives. This does not look like God's Reign breaking in, it looks rather like hell.

But if as the church we cease to have doors--and we find ourselves among all kinds of captives, and we do not simply accept them or, for that matter ourselves as we all are. Rather, with the Spirit of the Lord upon us, we proclaim release: release to those captivated by alcohol and drugs, release to those captivated by poverty, release to those captivated by the love of money, release to those captivated by all kinds of sexual immorality, release to those captivated by gossip, release to those captivated by depression, release to those captivated by pride, and release to those who would rather lock the doors in a fortress and never engage with the other captives...

How can we move beyond the ministry of hospitality and embrace the ministry of proclaiming release to captive hearts and minds? How can we stop viewing people as "church people" or "unchurched people" and begin simply seeing us all for what we are: captives who are in varied degrees of being set free by the God who sent us Jesus for precisely that purpose.

Don't open your doors, there should be no door to open. Rather proclaim the gospel of Christ that will open the door not only to your own heart and mind, but also the door to the hearts and minds of all who have been held captive by all kinds of sin, all kinds of brokenness, all kinds of disease.

May the Spirit of God set us all free.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Irrelevance of Making God Relevant

I am often with fellow clergy who emphasize the importance of making scripture/God/theology relevant to the everyday person. It is such a commonly held view that few would dare to question the accuracy of the core assumption...

When we believe our task as people who interpret scripture is to make it relevant to life today, we assume the scripture to be something that is inherently irrelevant to us. And because the scripture is so irrelevant, it is in need of a biblical interpreter, ideally a person with an advanced education in Theology and or Bible, to do the work of making it relevant.

It seems that when our lives and the biblical narrative do not mesh, we feel the need to change something in order to make it mesh. And being modern, advanced people who are not inclined to have our way of thinking and living impeded by some ancient archaic text, we have decided that the thing that needs to change is the interpretation of the scripture--we must make it relevant.

I reject this assumption. A fundamental Christian belief is that our scripture is the revelation of God. Whether we emphasize it as the infallible direct word of God or as something written by fallible people but under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; either way the scripture is God's self-revelation to us. In other words, it is not inherently irrelevant, rather it is revelatory in its very nature. It is not a mysteriously masked treasure to be uncovered--it is that which unmasks the otherwise hidden and mysterious nature of God. If it were not for the Word of God, God would be entirely a mystery to us; but in scripture, we find the unveiling of a God who so desires to be relevant that God became one of us in the person of Jesus Christ.

To consider Jesus to be a mysterious being that must be made relevant is ultimately blasphemous. It makes God's self-revelation irrelevant until we, the ones who needed that revelation, unveil and make relevant the very revelation of God--thus putting ourselves in the position of Messiah, Jesus in the position of a mysterious God, and God the Father in the position of... well... irrelevance.

Rather than assuming God and scripture are essentially irrelevant and in need of being made relevant to our lives as we live them today, we would do better to assume that the scriptures are God's living word, and if we listen carefully reveal God to us. If anything needs to be "made relevant" it is the story of our lives, which we would do well to make relevant to the scriptures.


How is your life relevant to the scriptures? Are you suffering--does your life experience resonate with the Book of Job, Lamentations, or perhaps one of the psalms? Are you rejoicing--do you resonate with the psalms of praise, the stories of the apostles bringing in the harvest in the book of Acts, the Israelite's as they entered into the Land God had given them? Are you enjoying the beauty of nature, resonating with Genesis or Psalm 8? Are you up against insurmountable odds--not unlike Joshua standing outside of Jericho or David looking up at Goliath? Are you trying to be faithful in the midst of difficult circumstances like Daniel, or Peter who cut off the ear of an enemy only to see his Lord restore the ear and offer himself for arrest...

These are not mysterious stories in need of being made relevant. They are the revelatory gift of God. We need not reinterpret the scripture to make it relevant to our lives--rather let us reinterpret our lives that we might find ourselves relevant to the Word of God.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Beliefs About God/Relationships With God

For as long as I can remember I have discussed the nature of God with people. Questioning what I believe, what others believe. In fact most conversations I’ve experienced about religion focus on belief—what we think, how we explain the world, how we understand our purpose.

Its as if when we start talking God and religion, our thoughts automatically go to the cosmic/transcendent. “When I in awesome wonder consider all the worlds thy hands have made.” So one person says, isn’t God great to have place all the stars in their place, and a secularist says—well the stars are great, but I’m not sure anyone placed them there… We talk about things like whether we are reincarnated lifetime after lifetime or if we have only one shot. We talk about things like the nature of heaven and who gets to go there. We argue over to what extent God (if we even agree there is a God) interacts in our lives—does God answer prayer, or is prayer primarily a changing of our own heart—or does our heart change while praying because in prayer we encounter the God who changes hearts? What do you think—what do you believe.

As important and as interesting as all these questions are, we perhaps miss the point. If we who are Christians believe that God has come to this world in the person of Jesus that by the Spirit we can experience God on a regular basis… then lets move beyond what we think/believe about God and discuss how we have experienced God.

This is the nature of the great discourse among the people called Methodists a few hundred years ago, They talked with one another about how God had convicted them of their sinfulness and their renewed commitment to holy living. They shared how they believed God was moving them towards new ministries, or how they felt abandoned by God in times of conflict. Sure they talked about doctrine, but always in direct relation to what it meant about their relationship with God. In 1770, Elizabeth Mortimer wrote:

Mr. Illingworth particularly insisted on the natural depravity of man, on justification by faith only, the new birth, and the influences of the Holy Spirit. These subjects were news to me… but I heard from others and often said to myself, ‘This is very necessary for persons that have been openly immoral;’ but I still remained ignorant of my own deep interest in them, in ‘til it pleased the Holy Spirit to remove the veil from my heart. (Chilcote, Paul Wesley. Her Own Story: Autobiographical portraits of early Methodist Women, p. 107.)

If only every time we discussed/debated our doctrine (what we believe to be true about God, humanity, etc.) we couched such believes in the examination of our own experiences of them.

In The Story of my Experiments with Truth, Ghandi recounted the experience of witnessing a doctrinal debate between a self-satisfied atheist and a Christian clergy.

“Well, sir, you believe in the existence of God?”
“I do,”
“You also agree that the circumference of the Earth is 28,000 miles, don’t you?
“Pray tell me then the size of your God and where he may be?”
“Well, if we but knew, He resides in the hearts of us both.”
“Now, now, don’t take me to be a child,” (Griffiths, Paul J. Christianity Through Non-Christian Eyes, p. 220)

It isn’t enough to know/believe the doctrine that God lives inside the hearts of the people God created… we must also be able to consider what that doctrine means for us… how have you experienced God living in your heart? How do you experience the living Christ? How do you not only believe God will give you comfort in dark hours, but what does that look like? Beliefs about God detached from our Relationship with God are meaningless.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Learning to Breathe

A couple of years ago, I started taking Capoeira classes to increase my physical fitness and give me a place of community outside the church. But I also learned something about the power of breathing.

Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art that in addition to kicking and dodging techniques, involves a certain degree of acrobatics--the most simple including things like cartwheels and handstands [pictures to be edited in at a later date?!?!?].

I quickly learned that when doing something that is physically and even mentally difficult, the body has a natural response to stop breathing. I learned this when attempting my first cartwheels in 20 years, then again when learning how to balance myself on my hands. My instructor often reminded me (and occasionally still does), "breathe!"

Its interesting that I also find myself less likely to observe a Sabbath when engaged in ministry that is challenging and fruitful. I become engaged in the ministry and forget to breathe. As if holding my breath (working without rest) will allow me to focus entirely on the work at hand and not become distracted with something as mundane as breathing (taking Sabbath)

But what I found in Capoeira is that breathing helps. That may seem intuitive, but what I mean is that breathing helps beyond the obvious--keeping you alive, etc. Breathing increases my strength and my balance. I am capable of doing more when I am breathing properly.

I believe this is why God commanded rest. It's not because we deserve it, not even ultimately for our enjoyment--though it is enjoyable. Rather we are commanded to rest because God rested. It is as if God created by breathing out for six days, then on the seventh day breathed in. The breathing out is the "productive" part, but the breathing in allows for breathing out again. Literally, when God created humans--the scripture describes a lifeless corpse into which God breathed the breath of life; then God rested. He stopped exhaling in order to inhale.

So whatever you do--whatever you are doing; find time to breathe. Stop, rest..take a deep breath, and enjoy some Sabbath--not because you deserve it, but because God knows you need it. Breathing helps. It brings strength and balance to our lives.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Called to Love; Not Necessarily to Please

I've long known that it is impossible to please everyone. But we all know that there is a difference between knowing a thing and knowing it. It has been helpful recently to draw the distinction between showing love to a person and pleasing them.

The distinction lies in the identity of the judge. If we seek to please people--we have made them our judge. We begin to interact with them with significant regard for what they will think of us--how they will judge us; will they be pleased, or disappointed.

For the Pastor, a common time at which we are tempted to make other people our judge is in our preaching. We are tempted to want people to be pleased with our sermons. Every pastor wants people to like their sermons. If people don't like a sermon, it can be viewed as a failure, and if they do like it, it is a success. But whether or not a person likes a sermon has multiple variables. One is the sermon itself--was it or was it not good. But a second variable is the value system by which a person likes or dislikes the sermon. For instance, a person could dislike a sermon because it is not faithful to the text being preached (in which case, they have judged rightly in disliking a sermon), or a person could dislike a sermon because it challenges them in ways they do not wish to be challenged. In this case, ultimate faithfulness lies not in the pleasure of the congregant as it does the pleasure of God. If the person's method of judgement is in alignment with God, their pleasure is important; but only by virtue of the pleasure of God happening to align with theirs. If the person's method of judgement is at odds with God, their pleasure is unimportant, because they are not judging as God would judge... In other words; we are not called to please people, but rather to please God.

However this can be abused. Some take the idea that they cannot please everyone to be a license to disregard everyone's opinion, especially if they disagree.

Finding the balance between attempting to please everyone and disregarding them can be challenging. But the answer, I believe, is love.

It is appropriate that we please God, and God has called us to love. God has called us to the same radical self-giving love that we received in Christ.

So, while we cannot please everyone, we can please God who has called us to love everyone. This means that it is possible that a person will not be satisfied/please with us, and we need not be overly concerned with that so long as we have made a faithful attempt to demonstrate love and generally engage with them in such a way that would please our God.

What are your experiences with trying to please people? How can you release yourself from their judgement but remain faithful to the call to love them under the judgement of God?

Thursday, September 6, 2012

First day of School: Sending Out the Sheep

It was supposed to be a beautiful morning at Seaview Elementary. Today was the first day of school and several hundred adults were to gather in the parking lot sending off a few hundred students to their first day of the school year, and some of them, like me, would be sending off a first time student to her first real day of school.

But today it rained. There could be no gathering in the parking lot. There was no walking your child to the line where a parent transitions their child to their teacher and the rest of her classmates. Rather because she is a first grader (having completed Kindergarten at home last year) she was to be dropped at the cafeteria door, where she was on her own to navigate through the helpful crew of teachers and aids who would show her where to go in order to wait for her teacher and the rest of her class.

Through the window I could see that as she found her seat, she remained a little nervous, unsure what to do at the cafeteria table, still bundled in her raincoat; and carrying her over-packed backpack with all her required school supplies... there was no helping her now--she is on her own to figure it out. There will be helpful guides along the way, there will be obstacles, on occasion she will likely fall--but ultimately it is the beginning of her learning to fly.

At the risk of confusing metaphors... it is not unlike when Jesus sent the disciples out as "sheep among wolves." I know a great school, like Seaview, is a great place, and we don't think of such places as wolf dens... but it is the beginning of learning how to be on your own. And school is the place where we begin to learn about things like bullies and social hierarchy. It is the place where we begin to learn that sometimes we fail and other times we succeed. It is good, but that doesn't mean it is easy. There are wolves out there; and as Jesus taught, we must be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

More to the point today is what it must be like for God to look out on all of us. We are God's children, and God has sent us as sheep among wolves to share the good news. Many of us have sent our children to school... anxious, excited, a little sad, hopeful, concerned, and many other perhaps unnameable emotions... In the same way God has sent each of us into the world; and I wonder if the God in whose image we are created in any way experiences those same emotions. Excited about what we can do with the power of Jesus in us, concerned about our well-being in world filled with wolves, and knowing that if the world will be redeemed; it will be done through Jesus work in us--the sheep who have been sent.

Several Facebook friends have shared a "photo" today:

Can you imagine our loving God sharing those same thoughts with regard to us in the world... Yes we have been sent into difficult times, difficult circumstances... at times we feel afraid, incapacitated, hopeless, frustrated... Indeed we have been sent as sheep among wolves, but we have been sent by a loving shepherd--just as loving parents have recently been sending out their children.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Prayer of Suffering

In his book, Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home, Richard Foster discusses different "types" of prayer, including the "Prayer of Suffering."

I came across this as I was remembering to prayer for many in the congregation who experience suffering as a regular part of their daily living. Some struggle with the aging process, others with financial stresses, some with illnesses, many with wayward family members and friends. I don't have to worry about whether or not you feel as though I'm talking about you--because no matter who you are... I am talking about you. We all have dealt with suffering--some it seems more than others; but suffering is common enough that we all know something of what it is.

But do we all know something of the "Prayer of Suffering?" Are we prepared to direct our suffering and the suffering of others to God. Foster reminds us that suffering (on behalf of ourselves and others) is a significant part of our conversation with God. He suggests that we should not ask, "Why is there suffering in the world?" but "How do I enter into the suffering that is in the world in a way that is redemptive and healing."

We may forget that suffering is redemptive--but the core of our story is the redemption we receive in Christ through his Suffering on our behalf. And so if we who are "Christian" are "little Christs" and Jesus, the suffering redeemer lives in us... if we who are called "Church" are in fact the Body of Christ... How can we become redemptive and healing agents in the suffering of the world? How do you channel your suffering and the suffering of others onto God?

Monday, September 3, 2012

Labor Day: Remembering Labor

As a child, the only meaning I knew of the word "labor" was what happens when a woman begins to give birth to a baby. I thought it funny that we had a general holiday to celebrate this activity.

Then I learned that labor also simply meant "work." I then found it funny that we had a holiday to celebrate such a mundane every day experience.

It was much later that I learned why "Labor Day" exists--when I learned that it was a great feat for individuals to earn certain "rights" within their places of work.

Regardless of your political beliefs in labor unions and their missions, we can probably agree that Unions have done both good and bad things for our country. I have seen both.

Recently at a "Five Guys" restaurant, the 16 year old working the french fries was working on such a greasy floor that he literally skated (tennis shoes on grease) his way to the counter to deliver our fries. He was working with grease that was probably 400 degrees, can could not take 3 or 4 steps without sliding significantly. I wondered if he felt empowered to tell the management that something needed to be done about the floor. Of course, if he complained too much, it is possible that they could fill his slot with someone else desperate to make $7.50/hr. The usefulness of unions representing workers became apparent.

When I was a teenager, my family moved from the Indianapolis, IN area to Evansville IN. That move forced my mom to retire from the school district where she had built more than 20 years of experience. One might think that in a world that at the time needed more teachers, she was more than qualified to find a good teaching position in Evansville. However, the union required that she be paid on scale with teachers who have 20 + years of experience. While that is not entirely inappropriate, it caused her to be unable to find work. She was not already in the system, so when the school system would hire a new teacher, they would hire someone right out of college, as that is the least expensive choice. Mom would have probably taken a pay cut to do the job, but the union would not allow it... (sets bad precedent for other teachers with significant experience--or so the argument would go...)

So regardless of your support or disdain for labor unions, I find in Labor Day an interesting reminder... that left to their own devices far too many employers will take advantage of their employees... saving money at the cost of safety; firing people who express legitimate concerns; employing under-qualified people to complete critical tasks in order to pay less salary, etc. Certainly not all employers would engage in such practices, but enough that in most all developed industrialized countries the need for labor unions arose.

Why does that matter to the Christian? Partly, it matters because we are a people called to bring good news to the poor (i.e. working class) But also it matters, because it gives those who are workers (laborers) a way of understanding what Jesus was saying when he said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant..." If you have a union boss or employer exercising authority over you; let that be a negative example... it is not so among you who call yourselves followers of the way.

Or in 1 Samuel 8, when the Israelites demanded a King, the Lord instructed Samuel, tell them,
This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle[c] and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day. 19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us.”

Labor Day reminds us that Power corrupts. It corrupts Kings, it corrupts Union Leaders, it corrupts employers. And if we are not careful it can even corrupt leaders of the Church. So today as we celebrate the advances in labor rights, let us remember--it is not so among you. There is no contentious fight for power in the church. There is no need for arbitration and conflict over contracts.. It is not so among you; rather the one who is to be great must be the servant.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Including Those Who May Be Difficult to Include

On the question of being inclusive, often the answer is intuitive. Of course we should be inclusive. And of course we are--we are Christian, we love everyone. We say this quickly, I think, because we fail to have a broad imagination about what kinds of diversity are possible.

Being truly inclusive is not out of the goodness of your generous heart allowing someone who is different from you in your presence so long as they are willing to continue doing things your way. Rather it means entering into community with people who may be different in many ways, and may also have different ways of engaging in community, and different ideas about how to do things.

Today I met with Jeanie Mason from the ARC of Atlantic County, which serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Jeanie is working to organize places of worship that will work with the ARC to provide an option for individuals living in a group home or on their own. The trick is, they don't need a place where people will "put up with them" or even a place that will "take pity on them" or even "minister to them." They will need congregations that are willing to incorporate them into the entire life of the church. To engage them as beloved creatures of God.

In this particular case, true inclusion requires a delicate balance. It requires the grace of God. On the one hand people with disabilities need to be treated like anyone else. They are not a target for ministry, but people with whom relationships are to be had. But just as a family with a person of unique needs requires unique care and provisions. That might mean a person from the church picking people up from their homes to bring them to church. It could also allowing for less predictable moments during worship, or otherwise helping in ways we don't normally help one another. And yet all the while doing so with love, and with the mindset that this is not a job, or even a ministry, so much as it is living in the way Jesus called us to live.

I suspect this is something our church can handle. I honestly believe we are strong in the area of providing an inclusive environment, and I think we would learn new depths of love and grace along the way. So I am asking you to consider this possibility. In what way might God call you to serve in a ministry like this in the future?

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Rejection and Taking Offense

Journal-keeping has historically been a significant part of Methodist Spirituality. Paul Wesley Chilcote has compiled the journals, memoirs, etc. of many Methodist Women of history in "Her Own Story: Autobiographical Portraits of Early Methodist Women." 219 years and 3 days ago, Grace Bennet experienced and wrote about what many of us have experienced in one way or another. She wrote:
When I came to live at C-----, I promised myself great pleasure amongst the people of God. I proposed to several to set up private meetings amongst the women for prayer and religious conference, but they all made excuses. This was a grief to me, yea, it hurt my spirit, and caused me to go mourning many days. The spirit that was amongst them was quite different to what I had been used to. There was such stiffness and shyness in their looks, as if they would say, 'Stand by, we are holier than you.' If I had not known in whom I had believed, and something of my own heart, I might have thought their religion all a delusion and been turned out of the way. But blessed be God, he kept me from taking offense. He knew my aim was right. Therefore I persevered in going amongst them to hear the gospel. Oh for the mind that was in Christ! If we are Christians we must act according to the rule laid down in his word.

I won't say that I have ever myself experienced people making excuses, nor have I ever felt it a grief to me, nor would I say such things hurt my spirit, causing me to mourn several days... wait... That is exactly what I have at times experienced! I presume Grace and I are not alone. I suspect this is fairly common. But blessed be God for the witness of Grace Bennet who reminds us that if we know in whom we believe, and know our own hearts... we need not take offense.

I sometimes feel that we live in a world filled with people just waiting to be offended. This is why we have something called "Political Correctness" in order to protect some from being offended--but of course there are others who are offended at the need for "political correctness." If you praise someone in the wrong way, you might offend them--if you say nothing, that may offend... Many of us, myself included, can at times be easily offended.

And if ever we wondered why so many of us are easily offended--it is perhaps found in Ms. Bennet's introspection; few of us really know in whom we believe, and something of our own hearts. If we are grounded in God--and know our hearts to desire nothing other to please and serve the God in whom we believe and to whom we have entrusted our hearts, then we can face rejection, being overlooked, being forgotten, being pushed away, etc... with perseverance.

So the next time you or I feel offended, let us take a step back and remember exactly who we are; what is our one desire; in whom do we believe, and live, and even have our existence. Oh for the mind that was in Christ!

Growing By Imitation

Today I passed by a few of young girls (ages 7ish-9ish). I didn't catch the complete nature of their banter, but I did hear one of them say with a fair bit of sassyness, "That's how I get my... (pause)" then the other girls chimed in together "SATISFACTION!"

I found it humorous because the whole scene just seemed a little big for them: the way they were hanging out together in front of the store, the tone of their voices, and even the concept of being "satisfied." No doubt they were putting their own twist on something they have seen and heard from adults. Its cute because the behavior outsizes them. Its like large ears on a puppy dog, or the big head on a baby, or a young child's eyes that seem full grown long before the rest of the face has caught up. Its like when my 3 year old stands in my shoes--he is being very serious, literally walking in the shoes that he imagines figuratively filling some day, and at the same time it is quite cute to see such smallness behaving so big.

These images remind me of what I was taught in a clinical pastoral education class while still in seminary about ten years ago now. Our instructor said something to the effect of, "starting out in ministry is like standing in shoes that don't fit. Its uncomfortable, you second guess whether or not you belong there, and you wonder whether or not the shoes are actually yours given how loosely they fit. But the longer you walk in them, the more they become yours, and the more comfortable you become in them."
In other words, our teacher was telling us--you grow into ministry.

I find this very applicable in the general walk of faith. People who have renewed their commitment to God, or who have come to Christ and the church for the first time may find the shoes of faithfulness to be a bit uncomfortable and perhaps to big to walk in. Individuals who are highly effective and eloquent in their daily life - whether at work, home, or with friends, find themselves mute on matters of faith. They may shy away from taking too significant a part in the church ministries because they feel a little outside their zone.

But like a child grows into adulthood--at first clumsily imitating adults, then growing more comfortable with themselves, then finally reaching adulthood; so too a person of faith grows into maturity--at first imitating fellow believers who have journeyed further along the path of faithfulness, then maturing into one who strives after God with their whole heart--still imitating those further along, but far more focused on imitating the perfect image found in Christ.

This is what Paul was referring to in 1 Corinthians 11 when he told believers, "Imitate me even as I imitate Christ."

I say this to encourage those in the congregation who feel like they are being pushed outside their comfort zones. We are calling many of you into greater service, calling on you to seek deeper growth, and calling on you to take on new leadership responsibilities. The clothes may not fit properly today, and at times you may feel as though you embarrass yourself. But soon you will be who you now feel you pretend to be. We are all growing; growing happens by imitation; imitation can feel inauthentic; but we do become who we imitate, just as Zach who today tries on my shoes--much too big--will one day fill them comfortably.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Being Spiritual, But Not a Spiritualist

I have encountered several positive references to "Spiritualism" recently by people I know profess Christianity and thought it important to clarify that Spiritualism is not part of Spirit-filled Christianity.

You probably have heard people say they are spiritual, but not religious. What they usually mean is that they deny religious "institutions" and rigid belief systems, but do believe in some sort of spiritual world/God system, etc.

Equally possible is being a spirit-filled "spiritual" Christian who does not adhere to all things "spiritual."

One example is Spiritualism, a belief system that the spirits of the dead live in the spirit world and are able to and inclined to communicate with the living world. People are often drawn to this type of practice in the pain of having lost a loved one. They seek to still communicate with their deceased friend, and so the spiritualist encourages such a person to be open to the spirit of the deceased person, to look for signs of their presence, and experience the presence of the spirit.

There tend to be two immediate responses to this. First, this is a hoax that takes advantage of hurting people. Or second, this is real--I believe in it.

Perhaps for the Christian, the best case scenario is that it is not real and is a hoax. Far more problematic might be, what if it is real? The scriptures are pretty clear on warning us against consulting mediums and the like (Leviticus 19:31, Deuteronomy 18: 10-13, 2 Chronicles 33:6).

So what is the difference between opening yourself to the spirit of a deceased person and opening yourself to the spirit of Christ? We believe Christ is alive. Isaiah wrote:
When men tell you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living?
Death is part of life, and something we all have to deal with. But rather than living in the desire to reconnect to loved one who have died, part of the good news is that we can continue to live in hope of the resurrection. We pray to a living God and seek connection with the living Spirit of God in Christ. It is the living Spirit that enables us to face death with boldness.

Have you had experiences with friends who have claimed some form of spiritualism, or who think of all things "spiritual" as related and essentially the same? How have you dealt with the death of loved ones?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Church & State: The Russian Orthodox Church as a Case Study for Americans

Activists tend to be smart with regard to picking powerfully symbolic locations for their demonstrations. Therefore a thinking person might question why the Pussy Riot activists would have chosen a Russian Orthodox Cathedral as an appropriate place to protest the nature of Vladimir Putin’s increasingly oppressive government.
A May 17, 2007 Time Article described the Russian Orthodox Church as

“increasingly a symbol and projection of Russian nationalism…. Nationalism, based on the Orthodox faith, has been emerging as the Putin regime's major ideological resource. Thursday's rite sealed the four-year long effort by Putin, beginning in September 2003, to have the Moscow Patriarchate take over its rival American-based cousin and launch a new globalized Church as his state's main ideological arm and a vital foreign policy instrument.” Read more...

An August 23rd article by Gabriela Baczynska reported that the the group’s demonstration was in response to close ties between the Putin’s government and the church.

“[Russian Orthodox Church leader], Patriarch Kirill, likened Putin’s years at the helm to a “miracle of God” a few weeks before the band’s protest.” Read More...

I do not claim to be an expert on the Russian Orthodox faith, but I do see in these descriptions and ancient problem that has plagued the Christians throughout the century. Since the conversion of the Roman Emperor, Constantine, Christians who are committed to the Kingdom of God face the question of to what extent they should embrace the worldly power given to it by worldly kingdoms. On the one hand a powerful church could be well placed to significantly impact its nation and the world. On the other hand, Paul tells us, “the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1 Cornthians 1:25).”

A corollary of Paul’s teaching is that in order to embrace the strength of God’s weakness, we might have to forfeit human strength. When a church like the Russian Orthodox Church finds human power in a cozy relationship with a government like Putin’s it seems likely that the gospel of God’s Reign might be compromised.

Of course, as American Protestant Christians, this may seem like a rather foreign problem. But I’m not sure the same concepts are not at play in the life of American politics. Republicans seek a cozy relationship with the Religious Right while the Democrats are increasingly seeking a cozy relationship with the Religious Left. In both cases religious people of goodwill and a desire to effect positive social change that they believe will make the nation more “godly” by using the power of voice and vote to give power to the politicians of their choice. But I’ve always thought that the church is most powerful when keeping enough distance from the political powers using a unique voice to speak words of truth to our elected leaders rather than lending our voices and power to a worldly political entity.

Would a liberal protester find our churches appropriate places to demonstrate against the Republican Platform? Would a conservative activist find others of our churches appropriate places to demonstrate against the Democratic Platform? And would the average Christian in the pew readily know the difference between their beliefs as Christians and their beliefs in one or the other party’s platform? If there were ever a modern call that we be careful about linking our faith to elements in our government and even our national identity — it is the case of the Russian Orthodox Church and Vladimir Putin.

Forgiveness With Punishement?

Most of us are aware of the punk rock group Pussy Riot who was arrested in Russia for disrupting a Russian Orthodox Church worship service to demonstrate against Russian President Vladimir Putin. The protesters were sentenced to two years in a labor camp. Church leaders tried to clear up what they consider to be misconceptions about whether or not they forgave the group for their riot.
‘The church has been accused of not forgiving them,’ the cleric said. ‘We did forgive them from the very start. But such actions should be cut short by society and authorities.’ His view was shared by Archpriest Maxim Kozlov: ‘We are praying and hoping these young women and all the people shouting in front of the court building realise their acts are awful. And despite this the church is asking for mercy within the limits of law.’ ...Read More
There are two issues--the first, which we will consider later this week is the relationship between church and state that made the church an appropriate place to stage a protest against state leadership. However my question today is:
Is it possible to truly forgive someone and still desire their punishment?
Archpriest Kozlov's statement, "despite this, the church is asking for mercy within the limits of law. I think the apostle Paul would reject limiting grace to the confines of the law. The confines of the law are precisely what grace circumvents. Christian forgiveness is radical. It no longer seeks restitution because it believes restitution has been paid. It no longer seeks punishment because it believes punishment has been applied. We either believed Christ's sacrifice was sufficient or we do not. We can't believe Christ's sacrifice was sufficient enough that we can forgive so long as the one we've forgiven still has to suffer for their misdeed.