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: