Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Wars and Rumors of Wars...

Are you on Israel's side? Or do you stand for justice for the Palestinian peoples? Which is it? Isn't this the "formula" for opinion in today's polarized climate? "Who's side are you on?" is a common, demanding question substituting for debate in our time.

Oh, I could address a long list of polarized topics from the contemporary slate of affairs, but I'll not waste your time, for you know what would be on that list. And in many circles, you had better land in one of the two poles, or people won't listen to you. The truth is, if you DO land in one of the two artificial "poles," only people on "your side" will listen to you. If you don't believe that, then how else do you explain Fox News/MSNBC, NPR/Rush Limbaugh, and the NRA/sane people?

As we walk down memory lane, we recall a time when persons could stand at a party, drink in hand, or in church, hymnal in hand, and discuss controversial social, political, and economic topics with an eye to persuade, compromise, and eventually collaborate in a world filled with complex problems and ideas. That your perspective was very different than mine was not a threat. Why? Because we had the same aims--a better world with equal opportunity for all persons. We weren't trying to make society look just like me or you. While it may not have been a time of racial or cultural diversity, it could be seen as at least a time of "diversity of thought." Worldviews were discussed, debated, and woven into a tapestry of healthy thought and often action. Scorched earth only occurred during wildfires.

Can we clip off a piece of that past and paste it into our time? Could we agree that Israel and Hamas will never see eye-to-eye and work instead for a safe and sane peace? And can we refrain from the viral oversimplification of HIGHLY complex issues that makes everybody with a mouth and/or a microphone an expert? Might it be possible that abortion is much more complicated than just being labeled either "murder" or "choice"? Can we stop saying that, because it is 62 in July in Western Pennsylvania that "Global Warming" is a myth? Or that Climate Change will kill off all life as we know it before our grandchildren reach puberty? Unfortunately, the "X-Files" was right: The truth is still OUT THERE. WAY out there. And we can't reach it with a moon rocket unless we are willing to dial back our rhetoric and begin to talk--with a civil tongue--again.

[I really want to add "gender identity" to this rant, but THAT has become such a hot topic that people who claim to be compassionate, caring individuals have screamed, threatened, and intellectually "carpet bombed" the topic, and will let the fire fly without reading further, so I'll leave it alone for now.]

These things are all "rumors of wars," to quote Jesus. We know what a real war is. "Rumors of wars" may be a cleaver way of suggesting that going nuclear instead of carrying on a meaningful conversation meant to gain information, understanding and perspective, and to promote respect between free-thinking persons, is debasing debate to the level of a zero-sum game like war (zero-sum meaning that for me to "win," you have to "lose" completely--I get all the marbles).

Our humanity creates a problem, at this point. If I think it is wrong to discriminate against a person because of who she or he "is," and you feel it is necessary to devalue them or draw them outside the circle precisely for that reason, then we have created an insurmountable zero-sum game, for there is no compromise that says it will be OK to discriminate against them "just a little bit." Some say Hamas wants Israel wiped off the map. If there is any truth in this, then for peace, Hamas must be willing to admit that this is an untenable position, and Israel must be allowed to exist. Others say that Israel occupies land "God promised them in the Bible," and has a right to posses it. Peace cannot occur until Israel admits that this position can have no grounding in contemporary "fact," and must be willing to compromise on border issues. Maybe they just hate each other? Believe it or not, this can be fixed! Give up the "rumors of wars," folks! No more "Onward Christian (or Jewish or Moslem) Soldiers, Marching as to War(!).

As the years tick by, I grow in my appreciation of the reality that nothing worth believing in is simple, and nothing worth loving can be reduced to a political slogan or a war cry. We're going to blow each other up and planet earth will have to heal itself for the next tenants, if we don't come to our senses soon. Think about it. Grace and peace...

Friday, July 25, 2014

Spirit Stuff

Trinitarian Christians let the phrase "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" roll off our lips like salt from a Margarita. We affirm this classical formula--that God manifests godself in three "persons." One is the "grand old man" of the Creation, as is pictured by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. One is the Jewish long-hair who drives religious leaders crazy, heals the broken, hangs out with the "least of these," and, of course, experiences death and resurrection. The Holy Spirit? Holy Ghost? What are we to make of her/him?  This is starting to sound like science fiction, isn't it?

Why is it important that we understand God as three "persons"? Especially when our Jewish friends pronounce, "The Lord our God is ONE"? What if we view this concept as God "modeling" family and community for humanity?  If we come to understand the very nature of God as a "we," WE can be a part of this realm, as beloved children of God. God calls us into relationship--community--with godself, and God IS a "family" within God's own existence. A divine "relationship" models a functional community for human beings to emulate and be a part of. (There is a lot more to my thinking here than I can put into a simple blog, but suffice it to say, my answer to the question "Why the Trinity?" is not just "Because the Bible says so.")

Now, let's briefly examine the "persons" of the Holy Trinity...

God the Creator--often labeled "Father"--seems to be the ringleader of the operation, at least functionally. There are things that Jesus says only God knows, such as when things are going to wrap up down here on Earth. Now, it is a heresy to suggest that one "person" of the Trinity is somehow "greater" than any of the other two, but there appears to be a separation of powers or assignments, at least. Unfortunately, Michelangelo did us a great disservice when he portrayed God as the white-haired old gentleman reaching out to touch Adam and give him life. The Bible says that God is spirit. And while Jesus calls God "Father," we must note that because of his human sojourn as a male, Jesus adopts this paternal label for God to keep first-century disciples from getting confused. In actuality, God must embody all gender identities, as the Bible says we are "made in the image of God," and we are manifest as different gender identities, aren't we? In our time, it is unnecessary to always view the Creator as "Father." "Parent God," "Father/Mother God," or just "God" as terms for Creator help us not exclude those for whom "Father" is a negative or unnecessarily patriarchal term. (I once had a young, single Mom in one of my congregations who was overjoyed that she didn't have to think of God as "Father," as she had suffered much abuse at the hands of men, including her own father.)

Jesus the Son. If I really want to gain an understanding of a loving, forgiving, humble-yet-powerful God who gather's God's people like a "hen gathers her chicks," I read about and imagine Jesus. The closeness of God, made possible by The Christ coming into our human existence, is profound. Christianity would do well to rediscover the "Christ Center" of our faith and get away from a watered-down "it's all God" approach. There is magic and wonder in the concept that God took a divine field trip, and even in some mystical way, offered a supreme, loving "sacrifice" on our behalf. We have to bring the "blood shedding" imagery into a modern idiom, as it doesn't speak as well to our age. In Jesus' time, this made perfect "religious" sense. The Jews sacrificed an animal for the forgiveness of sin. But this is not our practice, is it? This is quite foreign to us. The closest "bloodshed" image we might have in our time is the story of a young soldier throwing her or himself on a grenade to save others. But there are other models: a parent giving a child an organ to save its life; a single parent doing without for herself in order to feed, clothe, and nurture her children; a partisan politician "stepping across the aisle" to vote a compromise bill into law, even if it means their defeat at the next election. Perfect love, parenthood, and even leadership, often involves serious sacrifice. Jesus models this in the context of his time. In 2014, his unction to "take up your cross and follow me" means far more than just a beating or persecution. It means changing ones priorities to benefit our neighbor and others. That is sacrifice, and out of this comes genuine love.

The Holy Spirit. Boy, do we have a fit with this "person" of the Godhead! In fact, many Christian people refer to the Spirit as an "it," even when they don't realize it. I know I have. You see, we have trouble seeing the Spirit as a "person," because she/he is SPIRIT! Now, I tried to make the case that using exclusive male imagery for God is archaic. Jesus clearly comes in male form (again, probably because of the context of the time he entered the world), but what of the Spirit of God? I think of the Spirit as the "female" manifestation of the Godhead. The various words for Spirit in the Bible are feminine. The ministries of the Holy Spirit seem to be in the realm of what are often female roles in our culture. And, forgive me if I'm stereotyping here, but the way the Spirit is totally subsumed in the work of nurturing, educating, guiding, and comforting tend to me more invested in female persons in our time. To call the Spirit "she" makes sense to me. I'm telling you this so you don't freak out if I do so in worship!

One final note about the "Spirit stuff"--the work of the Spirit seems to be the most mysterious to me of the agencies of the Godhead. Sure Paul talks about gifts of the Spirit, and a few "practical" resources borne by the Spirit, but mostly the work of the Spirit is a mystery, and it's a good thing. If we had as much "didactic" information about the Holy Spirit as the Bible (especially Paul) gives us about God the Creator and Jesus the Son, we would dogmatically create a hierarchy of control, superimposing it upon the work of the Spirit, and probably "quenching" her, to use Paul's language. I really like the Celtic "wild goose" metaphor for the Holy Spirit--much more exciting than the "dove" imagery given us by the Gospel writers.

So, that's "Spirit Stuff." Hopefully these thoughts open an on-going dialogue about the rich faith we share, Beloved. Shalom!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

New Places...

The United Methodist appointment engine roared to life this year and the Sterlings got caught up on its momentum. In what may be the closest thing to reincarnation for Methodists, yours truly was appointed back to a church I had previously served as an Associate Pastor (from 1992 to 1997). St. Paul's UMC is a vital, growing, suburban congregation that was blessed by the 22 year ministry of its Lead Pastor, Dr. Ronald Hoellein. When the good doctor decided to retire, it was discerned that I could return, presumably in an attempt to have me get it right the second time around. So, guess who is STP's new Lead Pastor? Just to be reminded of the legacy I am following, I have a 2 x 3 foot photo of Ron on the wall behind my desk. And in this photo, he seems to be saying, "WHAT in the world are you doing?"

And, there is no pastor's house provided in this new, exciting setting for ministry (we call that a "parsonage" in Methodist parlance). Instead, STP pays a housing allowance, which means that my lovely and talented wife and I had to find our own place. We decided to land in a place where we could presumably retire--a town house/condominium--with the theory that the groundskeeping, mowing, and snow plowing was best left to someone else, especially if we decide to go away for awhile. Most of the homes we looked at before settling on the town house were small, but plunked down in the middle of large expanses of hilly grass screaming "Mow me, MOW me NOW!"

If you ever get the chance to move 37 years of marriage into a town house, don't go gently into that good night, my friends. It is not for the faint of heart, nor for the garage sale mini-horders in our midst. We thought we had "weeded out," and the moving company confirmed that our move to Mars, PA was a full THREE TONS less than our last move, but we are still trying to find a place to put stuff in a fairly spacious town house as town houses go.

Yes, we are now Martians. I always got a kick out of this little town just North of Pittsburgh, for as you enter Mars, you are greeted by a small, shiny metal flying saucer. Remembering my Ray Bradbury, every time I look at my reflection in a pool of water now, I say: "WE are the Martians."

The people of STP have been AMAZING in their welcome, and the highly competent staff has given their newbie Lead Pastor the benefit of the doubt to this point. I'm going to do my best to "offer them Christ," as Mr. Wesley said, and work with this great staff to provide vision, ministry, and programs that address the needs of the communities we serve. After that, we'll see what happens.

Seriously, I am most grateful to the Bishop and the Cabinet for offering me this leadership opportunity. I will do my best to not screw up. And I'm thankful that when the Staff-Parish Relations Committee met us, they didn't run out the door thinking, "WHAT in the world are you doing?"

Now let's take this baby out and see what she'll do! Shalom, Yinz!

What's Next?

  What’s Next?   2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 6:1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 6:2 David and all the people...