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?