Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Turning of Tides and the Change of Seasons

Greetings, friends. Sorry it has been an ETERNITY since my last post! I know that Blogs are supposed to be "everyday" kinds of things, but I'm of the "elder" generation that believes that if you don't have something important to say, then don't SAY it.

Much of my attention has been focused on the presidential election. I'm an election "junkie," and since I don't want this Blog to be be too political in nature, I have refrained from commenting. Being that I am a fairly liberal Democrat, however, you can probably deduce for whom I shall vote...

The big story affecting us all--believers, non-believers, governments, churches and other non-profit agencies, rich, poor, you name them--is the "bulbed out" economy. I believe it is greed that got us here. People for whom money is everything, including their profession, devised many and ill-advised ways to "manufacture" wealth, and the bubble on these financial "instruments" finally burst. Others sought mortgages on homes they couldn't POSSIBLY afford, and found institutions foolish enough to lend the funds. Now that the chickens have come home to roost on these sub-prime and other contrived loans, people are losing their homes right and left. Why do we do such things? Is it because we believe we DESERVE to be wealthy, not matter what the cost, or that we believe life OWES us a big, beautiful home? Some have tried to lay the blame on the sub-prime collapse at the feet of certain low-income persons who borrowed at sub-prime rates and have defaulted, but from what I've read, these were not the majority of the cases.

I used to have wonderfully stimulating debates with a conservative lawyer in one of my congregations. He argued that human greed will always be a factor in economics, and that the best we could do was balance it with what he called "enlightened self-interest." His point was that we naturally will look out for ourselves, but that persons who were sophisticated enough to "rise above" the typical neanderthal tendencies, may learn to factor in concern for neighbor and community to the list of what matters. As a more liberal thinker, I tend to believe that God has made each of us with a level of dignity and moral responsibility, and an appeal to this better nature is in order. Whatever we call "sin" can certainly get in the way, but it should not be blamed for everything we choose to do that elevates self above all else--we need to take responsibility for that, personally.

Is there a way out of this mess? Yes, but it obviously involves many people swallowing their pride and allowing government to literally DUMP trillions of dollars into less than public hands, if the economy, the banking community, and the credit situation are to get back on track. Conservatives who profess to hate government intrusion are just going to have to GET OVER IT, and those of us who despise the thought of handouts to the well-off will have to get over it as well. If the economy totally tanks, ideology won't much matter; we'll all be in soup lines again.

Where is God in this? Probably playing the role of a parent who sees his/her child learning a very hard lesson. Such a parent wants to intervene to save his/her child from suffering, but he or she knows that the lesson will be aborted if they do. Still, I pray for those far less fortunate than I for whom this situation is most dire. There are people who won't eat, and that is tragic.

Speaking of the turning of tides (were we?), I got the call from the powers-that-be in my denomination, The United Methodist Church, to a new pastoral appointment commencing January 15, 2009. This is an unusual "mid-year" move, necessitated by a serious illness on the part of one of our district superintendents. I have been appointed as the senior pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Warren, PA. Special thanks to the wonderful people of Sharon First UMC, who have put up with my fits and foibles over these past six years. Pray for the folk in Warren, that they can deal with what is coming. To quote the Apostle Paul, we shall "press on toward the high calling of God..."

Well, that's about all I have to say, so in keeping with the philosophy of my generation, I shall stop saying it. Shalom, my friends.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

We Do Believe!

A new poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has revealed that we Americans are, for the most part, believers. In fact, over 90 percent of us believe in God, including about 20 percent of those who declare themselves "atheists." (Usually, atheists are people who inherently DON'T believe in God or a "higher power," but to each his or her own.)

What is interesting in the poll findings is that most of us--over 70 percent--hold to a non-exclusive view of salvation, meaning we believe there may be many paths to God and eternal life. Those most apt to believe in the "many paths" view are Hindu and Buddhist, which is not surprising, given that Eastern religions view themselves as "pathways to enlightenment" in the first place. It was interesting, however, to see that 82 percent of Jewish people polled and 79 percent of Roman Catholics believe there are other paths to Heaven. The Jewish category obviously lumps all branches of Judaism together, and some are more tolerant than others. The high percentage of Catholic persons who believe in "many paths" was a real surprise to me. Up until the Second Vatican Council, Catholicism was an exclusive faith--if you weren't Catholic, you weren't Heaven bound. It is exciting to see that the ecumenical teachings of Vatican II have been taken to heart in such a "short" period of time (Vatican II was held during the years 1963-65). Protestants were where we usually are--right in the middle. 66 percent of us believe there may be other paths to God. Of course, lumped into the "Protestant" category were many fundamental sects that would NOT agree. Another surprise was the high number of Muslims polled--56 percent--who allowed for alternate paths to salvation. We often think of Muslims as being somewhat intolerant, but this demonstrates again that our opinions are improperly influenced by fundamentalists, who get most of the attention in the media. The religious groups with the lowest response to this question were the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses, respectively (not unusual in that their core doctrines promote the exclusivity of those faiths).

Theologically, I have a problem just saying there are "many paths to salvation." This makes it sound like we are free to "pays our money and takes our choice," and I think there is more to it than that. Using the Bible as at least a cursory guide, I believe God is working in ways I don't fully understand in the three major religions--Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. As a Christian, I believe what II Corinthians 5 says: "God is in Christ, reconciling the world to God-self." I don't know what all God is doing in this action, but I believe God may be working through a variety of pathways to find people who are seeking truth. I know the other verses--"Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life," and "Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord"--but if one views these eschatologically, one can believe that God is working in many venues to bring people into a saving relationship. One thing I know for sure is that I can't say for sure what God is up to, other than the biblical statement that God wishes that "none should perish." Does this mean that all will be saved? Unfortunately, probably not. There will be those who will continue to resist the grace of God throughout life, and as one wise old pastor once said, "There will not be anyone in Heaven who doesn't want to be there."

The Pew research also showed that almost 60 percent of those polled believed in a literal "Hell" as a place people would go to who "didn't live good lives." Of the findings of this poll, what most disturbs me is that we are more affected by Hollywood in our theology than we are the church, synagogue, or mosque. It is the stuff of movies that the "good" will go to Heaven while the "bad" go to Hell. These loose designations are divorced from any theological/doctrinal standards. It would seem that the modern trends of the American religious landscape--more believe in God but less and less affiliate with any specific faith community--have begun to dictate our whole belief structure. Without the church, synagogue, or mosque to offer historically-rooted teachings, guidance, and ethics, persons are free to make up their own belief system--and they are. Even some who ARE affiliated with a faith community are no longer engaged in regular worship or educational programs where they may "learn the faith." Hence, they, too, are making up their own theology, as the survey suggests.

I don't have much time for the cut-and-dried fundamentalist views that it is "my way or the highway." And the overly eclectic, "personalized" theology revealed in the Pew study worries me as well. Making up our own God is not any different from what some of the cults practice. Does this make us the "high priest" of our own religion? As a pastor, I teach the historic tenets of the Christian faith, but also urge tolerance among my congregants, suggesting that ours is a faith journey that will include many "wrestling matches" with what the church declares as "truth," our own appropriation of same, and with God, who is always trying to call us forward to a better future for the Kingdom and for all humankind. The word "wrestle" is the best image I can come up with, but it works.

Bottom line: be a seeker of God's truth; offer the love of Christ to people; work to bring grace and peace to the world. Pray that if there is a Hell, that none will go there because God is in Christ, reconciling the world to God-self. And this action may be far wider than the confines of Christendom. Shalom, my friends.

Dr. Jeff

P.S. The website on my "Ten for the World" stewardship challenge is up and running. Find it at: www.tenfortheworld.org

Monday, April 28, 2008

Living Lite

This title probably sounds like I'm proposing the latest new diet. Lord knows, we, as Americans NEED to do something about the girth we have been acquiring at an alarming pace. I just bought a new digital scale the other day, and while my actual weight it registers doesn't particularly concern me, its readout of my "percent body fat" does. I was surprised to see that I fall in the "high" side of the scale for a man my age, especially considering I lift weights and use weight training equipment two days a week at my local gym. Now, thanks to this marvel of modern weight science--my fancy digital scale--I've set a goal of losing ten pounds over the next year. Yes, I did say YEAR. My lovely wife--a registered, licensed dietitian with a certificate in adult weight loss management--suggests that weight lost more slowly is weight that will probably be easier to KEEP off. And while she says that my goal is pretty wimpy, I figure it should be easy to accomplish, and the adjustments in my eating habits necessary to make it happen should be simple to maintain. Ten pounds should do it, right? Only the scale knows...

This post is NOT about losing weight, however. What I want to suggest by the "Living Lite" title is that we westernized Americans would do well to live more SIMPLE, less stressful lives. We would be healthier for it, and less in debt. In listening to NPR the other day, I heard that we used to save about 11% of our income, as Americans. Now that is down to a little over 1%, and in 2007, our national savings rate actually ventured into the NEGATIVE numbers, meaning we corporately lived on MORE than we earned. Is it any wonder that people are losing their houses in the mortgage crisis or that our credit card debt has us tied up in knots? My friends, stress on the job is enough; why are we so bent on piling it on higher through our own actions and lifestyles?

Do you really NEED that big-screen TV? What about that $35,000 SUV? With the price of gasoline heading for the stratosphere, are we wise to drive gas guzzlers as some sort of status symbol? Our penchant for spending more than we can afford is what put us into the credit crisis that threatens to undo our whole economy in the first place. Unfortunately, our "feeding frenzy" led greedy banks, loan companies, and credit card issuers to offer "free credit" and mortgages far beyond our ability to pay. Many people I know are just one more bill from financial ruin, and some are already there. There is an answer: LIVE MORE SIMPLY!

My wife and I are seeking to do just that. We have less debt than the "average" American at this point, but it is still a lot for us, given that both of us work in human service jobs (she is a dietitian and I am a minister). We also put two kids through college, and are "stuck" with paying a few loans for a person we helped by co-signing for her, something I would not suggest you do, given my $11,000 lesson. Anyway, we are beginning to give prospective purchases and costly activities the "do we really need it?" test. You would be surprised how many things do NOT get bought after asking this simple question. I'm wearing my suits longer, we're buying things at second hand shops and rummage sales, and we NEVER buy hard goods that are not on sale, period. We are paying CASH for what we buy, and have been using almost every dime of my wife's paycheck--after our 10% benevolent giving--to pay down credit card debts. It is working. Lord willing, by the end of 2008, we will be OUT of credit card debt, and will have paid off two other loans. Each dollar freed up by the "pay offs," are immediately being applied to other debts, so the ability to pay each off more quickly is beginning to cascade in our favor.

I'm telling you, living more simply has more than just financial rewards. We have less STUFF to worry about, and are doing more things together with the money we do spend. Our future financial goals--after the majority of our debts are paid off--are simple. Here they are:

1. Save more money for retirement. We--and that is a corporate, American "we"--can't count on Social Security. Even the little report the Social Security folk sends us yearly has the disclaimer, "unless Congress changes the law, these benefits will not be paid at this projected rate..." I'm fortunate to have a decent pension, but even that may not be enough to do some of the simple things we want to do, like be able to travel to visit our children, especially with the cost of fuel.

2. GIVE MORE. I heard someone say recently that we should "live more simply, that others may simply live." I want to be a generous soul. My wife and I have been giving 10% of our income to our local church and to mission projects of our denomination forever. We give beyond the 10% to our colleges, to my seminary, and to our children's college. I want to do more. By getting out of debt, and living more simply, I want to give more to local charities, such as our food warehouse, that supplies local food pantries. I want to put money in "micro credit" programs in developing nations whereby folk can "borrow" money to create businesses and farms to care for their families. (Do a Google search on "micro credit" to read about this exciting way to help the world--you can actually "invest" in this, with a return on your money!) Giving is a really EXCITING thing to do, friends. It will change your life, and your gifts may change the lives of others! I heard a Hall of Fame quarterback giving the graduation speach at his alma mater. In his address, he suggested the student should "give back" to the community, but he said they didn't have to give money, but could just volunteer. His aim was admirable, but he missed the boat on the money thing. The world needs volunteers, but it needs FUNDS as well.

3. Have funds to enjoy simple pleasures such as dining out, going to the symphony, or traveling without incurring debt.

If you are reading this, and it sounds like a pipe dream, let me assure you, it is NOT. Start NOW to live more simply, reduce your debt, and redirect your financial futures. Set goals for yourself. This stuff will not happen by itself.

Well, "Living Lite" has turned into a term paper, hasn't it? Sorry for the length, but this stuff is fast becoming my life message--especially point 2 on giving. If EVERY American were to give 10% of his or her income to benevolent causes--church, charity, education, preserving the environment--you pick, we could change the world. Somebody's got to do it, or it won't be around for our grandchildren. Shalom for now.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Post-Easter Greetings...

We hope all of you had a wonderful celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus this past weekend.

Sorry for the delay in updating this Blog, but Holy Week puts a crimp in the schedule for a parish pastor. Two items I want to comment about:

At the risk of turing this Blog into an obituary column, I should say I was saddened, as was the WORLD, to hear of the death of author/futurist Arthur C. Clarke recently. The 90-year-old Brit wrote a host of wonderful stories, one of which evolved into the screenplay for "2001: A Space Odyessy." He foresaw the coming of geo-synchronous communications satellites, and had a positive vision of human achievement. He--and his ideas--will be missed.

Now to the Barack Obama/pastor flap thing. I will never cease to be amazed at the ignorance of the white community in this country. While I don't profess to being any kind of expert about the African-American church, I have at least attended a few and have heard a number of my African-American colleagues preach. To suggest--as myriad white pundits, journalists, and "persons on the street" have--that the black church should "steer clear" of political issues is just plain fantasy. If the black church and its leaders had NOT addressed political justice concerns down through the decades, I shudder to think where blacks would be today. Do we remember Martin Luther King, Jr.? He was a BLACK PREACHER people! Obama's pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, has not said anything that other African-American clergy have not said from countless pulpits across this land. One might have heard the same thing from a number of white pulpits as well, say for example from the pulpit of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. when the Clintons attended there during Bill's presidency. The Rev. Dr. J. Philip Wogeman was not known for his mild rebuke of the white "ruling class" and the politics of affluence. About our "cluelessness" regarding this aspect of the black culture, Professor Dwight Hopkins of the University of Chicago School of Divinity has said: "Most white Americans have a very limited capacity for dealing with black anger or acknowledging their own racial privileges. Wherever white people are dominant, whiteness is transparent to them. In black church communities, dealing with that problem is an every week issue." I couldn't agree more.

In one of the churches I served, a black professional with a Ph.D. once told my Sunday School class about how when he walks down a street in Pittsburgh--wearing an expensive suit and carrying a fancy leather briefcase--white women coming the other direction will often clutch their purses against their bodies when passing by him. Look at the quote above again, friends. For we white persons, our "whiteness" is transparent. We are easily fooled into believing the race issue is behind us. It is not--not even in the North.

Obama's speech on the matter was superb, but I'm still hearing the churning about his affiliation with Pastor Wright. Let's move on.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

February 27 a Sad Day in the Life...

Wednesday, February 27 was what one of my daughter's childhood stories would have called a "no good, very bad day." The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette carried obituaries for two memorable people: Myron Cope, sports writer and announcer, and William F. Buckley, Jr.

As a Pittsburgher-at-heart (and a former resident of Allegheny County), I add my grief to that of those mourning the loss of Myron Cope. I'm lucky to have enjoyed the "glory years" of the Pittsburgh Steelers, way back in the 1970s. You know, the days of "Greenwood, Green, Holmes and White," and "Bradshaw steps up under center, Harris and Blyer are the backfield..." And then there was Myron, with his outrageous blurts over the radio, and the invention of the "Terrible Towel." (Robert Dvorchak wrote a wonderful piece in The Post-Gazette on 2/28.) It was Cope who, at a fan's suggestion, christened the miraculous Franco Harris catch "The Immaculate Reception." And, of course, beyond being the voice of the "Steeler Nation," Cope was a highly acclaimed sports writer. Did you know that Cope gave all of the profits from "The Terrible Towel" to the Allegheny Valley School for hanidcapped individuals; according to the newspaper, that amounted to over 2.2 MILLION dollars. Rob Rogers, the outstanding political cartoonist for The Post-Gazette, captured the sadness of Myron's passing. His 2/28 cartoon showed a fan crying into his "Terrible Towel" and exclaiming, "Tripple Yoi," as the newspaper in the foreground announced Cope's passing.

William F. Buckley, Jr. died on the 27th as well. While I might often disagree with the views of the conservative commentator, author, and television host, I greatly enjoyed listening to him articulate--either verbally or in print--his points so eloquently. His sublime intelligence and mastery of the English language were worth the price of admission. I remember once watching Buckley as a guest on someone else's talk show. The host (whom I don't remember) was badgering his guest with a barrage of criticisms and accusations, at which point Buckley interrupted the rapid-fire diatribe with the question, "Excuse me sir, what is my current offense?" Priceless. Where are the William F. Buckleys today? When I watch the "talking heads" on the multitude of news programs and cable channels today, and hear the "hip" language they attempt to employ (even while reporting a tragedy), I have to wonder what has become of decorum and appropriate narrative? I can only wish I had one eighteenth of Buckley's command of the written and spoken word, and one thirty-second of his grasp of ideas.

Two distinctly different individuals from entirely diverse circles of influence--but Cope and Buckley made life more interesting. Things just got a bit duller around here.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Thoughts from the Morning Paper

Did you read in the news lately that a U.S. military spy satellite is about to fall out of orbit in early March? This thing weighs over 5,000 pounds, and they expect that about half of it will survive the plunge through the atmosphere. It is also carrying an unknown amount of a deadly rocket fuel that can kill anyone touching it. Boy, if this thing lands on you, it could ruin your day! The satellite also features a top, top secret imaging sensor that others would like to get their hands on. If you hear a big WHUMP in early March and discover a heightened number of individuals in your neighborhood speaking Russian, Chinese, or Iranian, you had better call the Pentagon.

Now, I realize that the chances of this thing hitting someone (or even land, for that matter, given that the majority of the earth's surface is covered with water) is quite remote. But the folly of the military letting it fall is what bothers me. The military has recently been running ads on TV touting their space program, which the spots say "rivals NASA's." Does that mean they have their own space shuttle? I wouldn't be surprised. For those of you old enough to remember the beginning of the space shuttle program, you might remember that several missions per year were "secret military missions." These suddenly stopped. Logically one might conclude that the military started flying their own shuttle and didn't need NASA any longer. I think the Brass could have figured out a way to rescue this satellite, don't you?

This brings me to my main point here. Not everything the military does is "A-OK." People are everywhere with those "support the troops" stickers. I DO support the troops, but supporting the troops doesn't mean we have to support a pointless war like the one in Iraq or "amen" every action of the armed forces. And supporting the troops doesn't mean we have to like the HUGE percentage of the national budget that goes to the military, especially when "military waste" has become such a daily part of the public lexicon. One wonders if cancer and AIDS could have been eliminated a decade ago if some of this money were spent on research and cures rather than things like the V-22 Osprey, a political and monetary boondoggle at best.

Meanwhile, if you are out walking next month, better take a lead umbrella.

On a different newsworthy note, did you happen to catch the Religious News Service article about a recent Barna poll that indicates "born agains" favoring Hillary Clinton? I am not at all surprised to see dedicated Christian people moving toward the democrats. Modern Christians--especially the younger ones--are taking more seriously the "social ministry" aspect of Jesus' teachings ("love your neighbor as yourself"). They are de-emphasizing the dogmatic, doctrinal stuff that sent the last generation's "born agains" to the Religious Right, and are seeking to DO SOMETHING to make this world a better place. Gee, how truly CHRISTIAN! Who knew?

Interestingly, some were critical of the Barna poll, accusing them of using too "wide" a definition of "born again" when surveying people. The definition they used of "born again Christian" was: "someone who has made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ and, based on a confession of sins, believes heaven awaits after death." What is broad about that? Sounds like a pretty good definition to me. In fact, it may be a bit NARROW! While I affirm the concept of a personal affirmation of Christ as Lord, salvation is NOT just a "personal" thing. Paul says in II Corinthians 5 that "God is in Christ, reconciling the world to godself." Salvation is God's action and is a GIFT. Our only response is to say "yes." God is seeking to reconcile the WORLD, not just you and me. I think that some of these "formulas" for what constitutes being "born again" are human efforts to separate the "sheep from the goats." Friends, that is not our job. Our job is to LIVE the Christian life, be disciples, and witness to the love and grace of God through Jesus Christ. God is not a Republican OR a Democrat, but I bet if Jesus were here today he would NOT be a member of the NRA. (Sorry, I just couldn't resist that.)

Shalom, friends.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

First Post--Here We Go

It's the first Thursday in Lent. Still have the dark smudge on my right thumb from imposing ashes at yesterday's Ash Wednesday services. I really like the Lenten season. It is a time for becoming "more real"--growing beyond our hypocritical selves (hypocrites were actors in Jesus' day) into the kind of person we really want to be. Could this also be the kind of person God wants us to be? I hope that is where this is going.

In the Matthew 6 passage, Jesus warns Christians to do our sacrificial stuff in private, and to put on our "best face" in public. This way the rest of the world sees the joy and love, and God witnesses the "giving up" part. Jesus says if we gloat about all of our suffering and sacrifices on his behalf then the world's "adoration" of us will be our reward. If we keep these efforts private, then God "who sees in secret will reward us." Honestly, I think I'd rather have my reward from God than from these other people. Besides, "the world" is tired of professing Christians (or practioners of any other religion, for that matter) trumpeting the "suffering" they are doing or the sacrifices we are making "to the glory of God." Rather than "adore" these proclamations, I think they just see the ones making them as jerks.

What sacrifices are we called on to do in Lent? Don't give up pizza or chocolate and think you're doing God a favor. I bet God sees us as jerks when we do things like that and call it a sacrifice. Now if you eat LOTS of pizza or chocolate and take all of the money you would typically spend on it and give it to a local food pantry, then maybe this makes some sense. This would be a type of "almsgiving," and might be on the right track. But if you are just "giving something up" for Lent and think it blesses God, think again. Where did we get this idea, anyway?

Why not take something UP for Lent? Do something serious to further your personal spiritual growth; go to your pastor and volunteer to start a new ministry or aid one already in progress; get involved in some new type of community service that benefits persons less fortunate than you. Now we're talking.

You know what else might be a project for Lent? Thinking. I don't believe we do enough thinking in our day. We either just jump into things or let others do our thinking for us. Pondering, meditating, day-dreaming, cogitating--whatever you want to call it: Just do MORE of it in the next 40 days. It exercises the mind, might lead to some original thoughts, and for the spiritual seeker, it might even provide space for divine inspiration. If you don't believe people are going off half-cocked today, just observe their driving habits. There's not much thinking going on out there.

Enough for my first post. I don't know if I will have enough discipline to keep up with this; I think I'm one of those adult ADD people. Anyway, feel free to chime in. If you agree with everything I say, I don't want to hear from you. If you take issue with all of it, that might be much more interesting, but then one of us is wrong a higher percent of the time, and my fear is it may be me. Hey, Wesley said we're going on to perfection. It's Lent, so let's get going. Shalom.

What's Next?

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