Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Not again...

Another terrorist attack, this time in Paris, France. Way too many of my blog entries over the few years I have been "blogging" have been responding to mass shootings and acts of terrorism. How sad this is, indeed.

Why terrorism? I guess terrorism is what factions resort to which have no standing army or military resources beyond guns and bomb-making supplies. Terrorists have no bomber planes or submarines. They are usually the "vehicle" of destruction themselves. And they are cowards--legendary cowards of the world--who harm or kill others and then blow themselves up. And most of them aren't too bright. From "shoe bombers" to suicide bombers, many of them have blown themselves up prematurely or failed to detonate themselves before getting caught in the act. The victims of terrorists die several deaths: they lose their physical life; their death serves absolutely no purpose, let alone a redeeming one; and they are totally innocent, killed during innocent, everyday pursuits such as shopping, going to school, the theater, or having a restaurant meal with friends.

Again, why terrorism? Are there goals on the part of the perpetrators? One columnist recently penned that the goal of the Islamic State  (I will honor France by calling them by the name ISIS detests: Daesh) is to polarize the West against all Muslims. If the West lumps these KKK-like extremists into the broader category of "Muslim" and acts on the prejudiced assumption that Muslims are all bad, then Daesh thinks these marginalized Muslims will flee into the their arms, uniting all Muslims against the West. It is an asinine idea, but if some of our public leaders don't wise up, they could make it work for the bad guys. Most Muslims--like most Christians--are peaceful, god-fearing people. They should not be viewed through the distorted, discolored and puny lens of the Daesh. How would Christian people feel if they were viewed by the world as equated with the tactics, beliefs and hatred of the Westboro Baptist Church or the Ku Klux Klan? And while some wing nuts posting on FaceBook have complained that the Muslim community has been silent over the carnage carried out by Daesh, nothing could be further from the truth. Muslim leaders from many nations and "offices" from within Islam have condemned these acts as being in total opposition to the Koran and the faith of the Prophet Mohammed.

Remember, polarization against Muslims and the breakdown of Western religious freedom designed to exclude Muslims is exactly what Daesh may be wanting to accomplish. The best thing we could do to flummox the aims of Daesh is to grow closer to our Muslim compatriots, embracing them, seeking to understand their faith, and treating them as the loyal citizens that they are.

Defeating the "forces" of Daesh will not be easy, as has been said by our current President and his predecessors. It was actually President George W. Bush who said clearly in speeches after the September 11, 2001 attacks that the "war" against terrorism would be long, hard, and expensive. Conservative AND liberal politicians call terrorism a "cancer." If we can agree on that, can we also agree that it may only be defeated in the manner of treating a cancer? We attack cancer surgically or with precisely targeted radiation or drug therapy. When someone gets cancer, we don't just snuff out their whole life. And yet, that is what some--including a few of those aspiring to the Presidency--want to do. "If I'm President, I'll bomb the sh_t out of 'em," one said during a recent public speech witnessed by the whole world. Sure. Where? Does he know where they are? And how much collateral death will he accept in attempting to kill this "cancer"? George W. Bush was very right about what would be necessary to defeat global terrorism. We would be best served by forming broad, international coalitions--even across ideological lines--and enhancing our intelligence operations so they can better perform a "PET scan" to detect this "cancer" wherever it may be so it may be carefully and surgically removed.

And again, we should embrace our Muslim friends, here and abroad. Raising our children to respect and not hate persons from other nations and religions will sow the seeds of peace. If our kids hear us ranting about how "evil" Islam is, or how we should "just bomb the sh_t out of 'em," different seeds will be sown, and God help us if those "plants" grow and produce "fruit" in our future. America will be stigmatized by and isolated from the rest of global society. We're headed in that direction now. A great biblical word--repentance--could be the salve. To "repent" means to stop, turn, and go in the opposite direction, and for the believer, that direction is "Godward." Let us, as a society, repent of the evil we harbor in our hearts toward innocent, respectful Muslim neighbors and citizens who choose to live at peace with us. Salam and Shalom, Yinz.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Mourning in America...

Since I wrote my last post (which was forever ago--sorry, life happens!), we've had another school shooting. The gun people immediately countered with some of those whacko statements ("Guns don't kill people--PEOPLE kill people"; "If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns"; "If everybody was armed, these things wouldn't happen", etc. etc.) I call these statements "whacko" because from a logic standpoint, they are total nonsense. Oh, and I left out one that really gets me: "Saying a gun killed someone is like saying a spoon made me fat." What? One fact that is lost in all of this is that guns were created to kill--period. They are killing machines--a small "nuclear weapon" one can carry in a purse or pocket. Capital punishment--judge, jury, and sentence in the palm of your hand. Spoons are, well, they are spoons--an implement designed to aid in eating or portioning out substances. What part of this don't gun people understand?

After the flurry of whacko stuff came a few that, on the surface, make some sense. Fostered by the belief that people who shoot up schools have mental issues, the NRA and other gun rights spokespersons suggested that we need to do a better job of dealing with mental illness in America. That would fix the problem. Great. However, a vast majority of gun people (and this is according to some of their own surveys) advocate for tax cuts and cuts in programs that are designed to expand aid to persons with various spectrum disorders and mental illness. And most of them oppose the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") that seeks to provide healthcare coverage--including therapies for those with mental disorders--for many persons who, otherwise, would not have it. So, the "America needs to deal with mental illness" is a straw-man statement meant to take the spotlight off of the real problem--the rapid proliferation of guns in America and the ease with which a person can buy a gun, including at "roving loopholes" called gun shows.

Another statement you will hear--which sounds sane on the surface--is "We need to enforce the laws on the books." Well, take a look at some of those laws. Of course, you have to go from state to state, because the NRA has succeeded in keeping most laws about guns at the state level. Many of these "laws" are either unenforceable or are clearly inadequate to regulate the myriad ways a person can now buy guns (massive gun shows of the variety we have today, and the Internet, were nonexistent when these laws were passed).

And then there are the "entitlement" philosophies--but not the ones you are thinking about! What I mean is the almost universally prevalent idea that if I have a job and am a "hard-working" American, I should be entitled to all of the services I need without having to pay for them through taxation. These are the people who want "smaller government" and tax cuts until their kid winds up in a declining school system, or their streets need paved, or when they are living on Social Security and a COLA raise is not forthcoming. Many of these same "entitlement" people decry the public assistance and SNAP programs for those who are either not able to work or who can't find a job making enough to live on. Let's face it: There will always be people who never progress beyond a "low skill" ability and who may never be able to have a job beyond the service or hospitalities industries. We need those people and we need those services. Why not pay them a wage they can at least survive on? Or, do we just let them starve? Sorry, I got a little off track here, but I do see a lot of this as related. After all, if I can't keep a job because of a mental disorder and have either no--or poor--healthcare services, but have no problem buying a gun, is this not a recipe for disaster?

This whole scenario is extremely complicated. Solutions will require the best minds, malleable laws, compromise, and funding. We'll not fix any of them--the gun issue or that of mental illness--with trite, nonsense bumper sticker quips.

And, here we still are, in the wake of more senseless gun violence. Of course, the statistics tell us that better than 60% of gun deaths annually are suicides. Hmmm, sounds like mental illness to me. And about 10% are accidental--people who die because a child gets ahold of a parent's unlocked, loaded firearm or in accidental shootings that occur when someone buys a gun and has no idea how to operate it (other than pulling the trigger) or make it safe. [My own nephew could have been killed when a "friend" was eager to show off a new handgun and because he did not understand his own gun, accidentally fired a bullet through my nephew's shoulder, inches from his heart.]

Are there some simple things we can do to address some of these cases? Sure--simple, but not without costs. Here are a few ideas:

1. Create a national, computerized background check system that screens applicants for mental illness (including catching those being treated by psychotropic medications). Persons wishing to buy a handgun would have to sign a waiver permitting this system to access their medical records.

2. Eliminate any exemptions for gun shows or Internet purchases.

3. Require mandatory training about the weapon in question before it can be possessed by the buyer. [A few years ago, my wife and I bought "his" and "hers" identical automobiles a year apart. When we picked up the second vehicle--from the same salesman who sold us the first one--we had to sit through a complete orientation to all of the controls. When I reminded him that we had been driving the exact same car for a year, he said, "I am required to give you this training before you drive the car off the lot." Hmmm.]

4. If a person seeks a concealed carry permit, they again should have to go through the background check AND have a mandatory marksmanship training class at a gun range. [Even the best-trained police officers only hit their intended targets 30% of the time when using a gun in the line of duty, not on the gun range.] Imagine what happens when the untrained open fire--actually, you don't have to imagine, as their are tragic statistics about the "collateral" injuries which result.

"Law-abiding gun owners" should have no problem with these kinds of regulation. There is nothing here that would prevent a mentally stable, law-abiding individual from owning (and even carrying) a gun. When I ran these ideas by a few gun people I know, the immediate reaction was that if we allow more gun regulations, "soon they will be after our guns." No...haven't we had speed limits and traffic laws since the horseless carriage hit the streets, and no one is trying to get our cars, are they?

Now, here's the punchline: If these measures save even 10% of those who currently die in shootings each year, we would save over 3,000 lives! We wear seat belts in our cars because of far fewer fatalities when that law was passed. If you examine the statistics I listed earlier (60% of gun deaths are suicides, 10% are accidental), note that this leaves only 30% of gun deaths that fall into the "criminal" category. And yet, if you listen to the NRA, you would believe that there are two kinds of gun people--law-abiding citizens and criminals. There is a whole third category they miss--victims.

What can we do about this? Begin by writing your public officials. And if they don't listen, vote for new people. Become informed. As people of faith, pray, and work with your church or parish to urge instituting safer gun laws and providing better treatment and care for those with mental illness. If we don't begin to do something, we can just count the days until the next shooting and wring our hands once again about how sad it is.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Vacation's over...

Everyone surely experiences "end of vacation" anxiety, don't they? You know, that "blue" state that sets in when your time away goes away and the stacks of papers on your desk haunt anew? That's what I'm talking about in this blog post, so if that never happens to you, just go away.

Now, I really love my job. I really LOVE my job. Actually, being a pastor is a special calling that doesn't seem to fit into the "job" category. While we believe that ALL vocations are callings (from the Latin, vocatio, meaning "a call"), no one should take on the role of being clergy without a specific "call" story or faith experience leading to pursuing this unique "job." We're on call 24/7, carry the burdens of our parishioners around in our hearts right alongside those of our own kin, and "should be ready to preach, pray, or die at a moment's notice," according to a popular saying among pastors. Being a clergyperson is not for the faint of heart--or spirit. That being said, we all need some time to reflect, recharge, and remind our spouses we're still on the planet with them. Hence, vacations, usually in the "less active" weeks of Summer. In most churches--and especially in larger ones like St. Paul's--September through mid-June is just GO, GO, GO. (Of course, at St. Paul's, Summer just means you can drop it into second gear, but not pull over and park. And some of our staff--Children and Youth Ministries Directors, for example--have major events to coordinate in the Summer, too!) But still, Summer is when many pastors "steal away" for a respite.

By the way, I've tried just about every kind of vacation experience one can imagine. When our children were young, the Sterlings bought a tent camper and spent time with friends camping at the ocean. Between the sun, the mosquitos, and the wild horses jostling the camper in the middle of the night, that was about as restful as a hurricane. Oh, we even went through one of those on a vacation once--I don't recommend it. We've "done States" using AAA guides, flown to faraway places, and even stayed home for a few days of local R & R. I wish I could tell you that we found that miraculous blend of experiences making for the perfect vacation, but it would be a lie. Honestly, I still enjoy most those vacations where I can learn about things to be the most enjoyable. Art galleries, museums, science centers, historic venues--these are the fodder for a great vacation, in my book! I even like the occasional zoo, but when you've seen one Llama, you've seen 'em all. Pressed to answer the question, "But what has been your favorite vacation?", I would say the two times we have spend several days at Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. Yeah, that would be my answer. My wife wants me to promise that we will spend the first Christmas after I retire in Williamsburg.

Back to the anxiety issue...when pleasant, restful experiences like a good vacation end, we do experience a bit of a letdown, typically. (Like many of you, this is amplified for us because part of our vacation is almost always spent with our grandchildren, and leaving those two precious little ones behind is hard!) Since I am writing this on my first full day back in the office, I thought I might suggest a few ways to combat this post-vacation malaise. Here are a few I came up with:

1. Make a list of all of the things about your vocation that really jazz you up. On your first week back, spend some time doing a couple of those particularly enjoyable tasks (I'm writing this blog post, and I like to write).

2. Pick one important task that you have been putting off, and tackle it with the force of a blitzing linebacker (I hope to clean up my desk, sort out the trash from the "keepers," and file some of this stuff--even Jack Lambert would have shied away if he saw this desk).

3. Get in touch with your soul! Take some extra time the week after vacation to meditate, pray, and read scripture. Here's a good thought to guide us from Philippians 4:8: Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things.

4. Review any photos you took on your vacation and talk about the memories created with those who accompanied you. Remembering is a way of reliving a positive experience.

5. Start planning next year's vacation!

Here is another thought. My wife, the registered, licensed dietitian, tells me that humans would be much healthier if we would eat five or six small meals throughout the day rather than one, two, or three larger ones (or, in some of our cases, one small breakfast and then one LARGE dinner!). The same may be true of vacation time. Maybe we would do better to take two or three days here and there, if possible, throughout the year, rather than two or three weeks at one time? I know, some "experts" say that you should take at least two weeks because it takes a full week to "wind down." These people don't understand "Type A" personalities, do they? We never wind down, and usually don't even run down--we just make everybody else tired. So, vacation time spread judiciously throughout the year might be a good thing to consider...hmmmm...

I will say this: If ending your vacation and returning to work causes you such anxiety or depression that you fear even taking vacation, then maybe you should pray about finding a different job? Or maybe at least getting some counseling about whatever pathology is causing such a heightened state of discomfort? One of the greatest promises we have from God is Jesus' statement, Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Even Jesus took brief "vacations" from his work--and the constant yammering of the disciples--to get in touch with his inner dialogue through prayer and meditation. So, even in the Divine, we have a model. But why not make coming back from vacation just as planned and anticipated as was the respite time itself? Think about it, Beloved. Shalom!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

And more questions...

First of all, let me say that I could post about the recent violent and senseless shootings, but that is all over the media and FaceBook, so I won't say anything except urge us all to pray for the families of the victims, the shooters' families, and the souls of the shooters themselves. I do believe our society has to come to grips with the incredible proliferation of handguns as well as the rapidly growing number of "carry permits" being issued across the States of this great nation. We are arming ourselves to the teeth, and often with the false sense that somehow this will protect us, while it makes guns easier and easier for criminals, persons who are mentally disturbed, or young drug gang members to procure. I don't believe there is any way we can "fix" all of the ills of humanity (including those listed above), so the only alternative we are left with is rational limiting of the availability of concealable firearms. Even if making guns less available--and harder to get--only saves ten percent of gun deaths annually, we'll have saved between 3,000 and 4,000 lives. Otherwise, are we just going to sit back and lament, "Well...what are ya' gonna' do?"

Here is another question from St. Paul's UMC's "Ask the Pastors" Sunday:

What should I say to my child who says they don't believe in God?

When a person makes a statement like that, she or he is being brutally honest, and such honest feelings--when expressed--are wonderful "talking points" for parent and child (or young adult?) to engage in meaningful conversation. I would begin the dialogue by asking, "Tell me about that..." There are many reasons a person would make this statement:

They have heard about or experienced something that causes them to doubt that "anyone's in charge." The comment that someone "doesn't believe in God" may just be a way of asking for help and understanding in the wake of a tragedy (for many people, even one they see on TV) or a personal event that "rocks their world." Don't assume it is a theological question at all. Begin at this level. You may find out quickly that God--or the lack of God--is just a scapegoat for fear or confusion. Work with that in your discussion. Leave "God talk" out of it at this point.

Younger children see the world very objectively. Back in the day, when most families went to church and Sunday School, kids just "grew up" in an environment where they were taught God exists, and in their objective worldview, they just accepted this. This "prevailing environment" period had its problems, too. When that same child matured and her or his mind made the transition to the subjective, questioning "adult" mode, the church often didn't know how to "update" the faith message to make sense to this new mental reality (or it didn't even take the time to try). Therefore, many a young adult "abandoned" the faith of their childhood because it didn't square with how they were beginning to see life, the universe, and everything. If the "child" in question is one of these young adults now doubting the existence of God, talk with her or him about your own personal faith, and your own struggles with it. They need to hear honest talk about how we all have doubts, and not just about the existence of God. Healthy people are questioning people. Never denigrate them for their current doubt. Urge them to keep seeking greater truths, and be an open-minded, loving witness to them of God's love and grace. The last thing a young adult needs in this period of maturation is someone telling them they will go to Hell, or spouting verse after verse of scripture at them. Some of the greatest Christian people in history wrote or spoke honestly about their doubts. Mother Teresa of Calcutta is an example of this. We grow through our doubts and questions--lock-step "believing" and rigid doctrine imprison the mind and stunt human development.

Now, back to the objective child issue. Today, so many families have little history of being "churched," and may be the first-generation seeking a relationship with a community of faith. Therefore the "objective" oriented child has no heritage that gives her or him a "picture" of the existence of deity. Hence, after attending a Vacation Bible School, Sunday School class, or other such event for the first time, she or he may make a statement like "I don't think I believe in God," based on the other lessons they have learned about what is "real" (observable, provable, a lesson learned from someone they trust). Again, this is not time to panic, or to say, "Oh Honey, but we should believe in God!" Talk to them about why they made this statement. It could be something as simple as their friend "Jimmy," with whom they spend hours playing and whose friendship they value, told them recently, "I don't think there really is a God." You may just be hearing a repeated sentiment.

For the person who is reacting to some "trauma" they have experienced by denying the existence of God, just offer your support and be a loving presence while they work through it. God is big enough to make godself known to them at the proper time. For the others who may just be going through a developmental stage, continue to provide a context for them to explore and question her or his faith. Keep the conversation open, and don't panic. If God is love, then just love them and embrace them, and God will show up.

Finally, let me say that, as a pastor, I much rather deal with a person who claims to be an unbeliever than those who feign faith and yet only give it lip service or follow a few rigid rules they then call divine. Questioning is always good. And as the ancient Rabbis taught us, not every question has an answer, but every question expands our knowledge.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

...And justice for all!

If you are a FaceBooker, you know that, in the wake of the Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marriage, the "posts" have been showing up like flies at a deer carcass. Now, anyone with even a little legal knowledge pretty much knew where this ruling was going to go. Justice dictates equal rights in situations like this. The only reason it didn't come sooner was the historical disdain with which same-sex marriage (or even relationships, for that matter) was viewed by the wider society, thanks in part to religious beliefs on the matter. That being said, the court ruling (based largely on the due process clause of the 14th amendment, as I understand it) means the U.S. Constitution allows for this freedom and resulting legal protection. Same-sex couples can enjoy the same benefits, protections, and privileges as heterosexual couples, under the law. The court did not (and cannot) dictate how religions treat the subject.

Some denominations just simply will not accept same-sex marriages. They won't condone them, host them, or perform them. That does not have to change under this legal ruling, and in many cases will not. Others are willing to affirm the legal justice of the ruling, and even affirm the full rights of same-sex couples, but cannot marry or host religious ceremonies recognizing them, based on their current denominational "rules." That is the case with my denomination, The United Methodist Church. At our 2016 General Conference, which is the every-four-years assembly that has the power to make changes in our rules, the topic will be furiously debated. I am one who believes our church should remove its restriction on LGBT individuals (our denominational rule book states that "...the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching...") as the shelf life on this particular rule has expired. Science, medicine, and psychology have spoken about how LGBT persons just "are," and that theirs is not a chosen "practice" or lifestyle. As a pastor, I would like the freedom to minister equally with LGBT persons, including perform marriages or holy unions for them, without jeopardizing my career or church. I am in favor of removing the restrictions, but not including new language that "requires" pastors and churches to engage in these activities. In this time of re-evaluation and "widening the circle," this would give each a chance to search her or his own conscience on the matter.

I won't get into "The Bible says..." debates, as this is a short blog, but I will say that my tradition, and indeed the entire Christian tradition (and Jewish tradition, for that matter) has regularly revisited and revised our interpretation of scripture, based on new information and changes in the societies and times in which we minister. We no longer make "slaves obey their masters" or tell the women, "keep silent in the church." Our denomination has ordained women as full Elders for 60 years (and it's sad that is all the LONGER we have done it!). I believe that the few verses that address "homosexuality" in the Bible were addressing specific dysfunction in that time and place regarding sexual practices. The Hebrew law code (the same one that condemns persons with tattoos or body piercings and suggests that children who sass their parents should be stoned to death) was dealing with barbarous and predatory sexual practices. And in Paul's writings, he was addressing rampant "sexploitation" of young boys in the Roman culture (just read a little history of the Roman Empire, and you will get the picture). It is my belief that the Bible does not address persons who are attracted to their same gender and wish to spend their lives together in a covenantal union.

Now, some of my most tolerant and accepting religious friends have remarked that they are OK with all of the legal freedoms--and even religious affirmations--LGBT persons are beginning to enjoy, but struggle with applying the term "marriage" to their partnering practices. I confess that I was a short-term holdout here, too, but not for any biblical reasons. When you spend 60-plus years locked into a single definition of that word, it just takes a little time to widen it in one's mind. However, after conversations with LGBT friends, expressing their desire to be married to the person they love in the same way their parents were, I began to understand and adapt. Actually, marriage is a legal thing, anyway. Bonhoeffer felt the church should get out of that business, and perform blessing services for church members after their "State" marriage ceremony by a civil justice. The Bible has no consistent set of "rules" about marriage. In the various periods in which it was written, "marriage" was arranged by the families, with the woman as "property." Love had little to do with it, nor had choice. Women who were raped were ordered to marry the rapist! Sons were told they had to marry their brother's widow. Our current "Say yes to the dress" model of hollywood marriage has absolutely nothing to do with the Bible, nor its ancient standards.

One irrational fear that some FaceBookers have been propagating is that now that same-sex unions are acceptable, then next will be polygamy and other liberalizations of marriage rights. The court has regularly been more open to protecting individual rights but conservative about rulings that could harm second parties or the society at large. Take, for example, the First Amendment freedom of speech: It is stringently protected unless the speech could cause irreparable damage to others, like shouting "FIRE!" in a crowded theater. Then the speech is NOT protected. Polygamy has great potential for societal harm. The economics and legal quagmire of multiple "legal" partners becomes staggering. At a time when fifty percent of marriages end in divorce, imagine what a mess the courts could be when polygamous relationships begin to self-destruct. And what of the rights and welfare of any offspring of such marriages? These are key reasons why polygamy has not been legal in most societies, and why I don't believe the Supreme Court would ever extend freedom and protection to it.

Another irrational fear is that same-sex relationships might in some way weaken heterosexual or "traditional" marriages. I can't figure out the logic of this assertion at all. In fact, if LGBT persons use their new freedom to marry to build stable, loving, and nurturing homes, then they certainly could teach the rest of us a thing or two. Did I mention that that fifty-percent failure rate in heterosexual marriages is actually higher among church folk?

My prayer is that Christians will continue to support the great rights and freedoms we have as American people. We can debate among ourselves the "religious" issues of these, but when we do, we should go back to the ones that have proven to be far more destructive, like the proliferation of firearms, or the rapidly growing disparity between the "haves" and "have nots," especially when it comes to the availability of a decent education.

Did I say short blog? This is longer than most of my sermons! Shalom, Dear Ones!

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Questions IV

Question from one of our church members: I have the desire to serve God, but I feel like I don't know how/where to start. What do I do?

First of all, we have all been offered many opportunities to serve God and be partners in the Realm of God emerging into our world. Jesus gave us all some "marching orders": Love your neighbor as yourself; Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; Forgive seventy times seven; Give a cup of water to one of these "little ones", and many more. We all can be about God's business doing these things, and returning kindness for hostility ("turning the other cheek"). Kind words, unexpected kind actions toward others, and a spirit of gratitude and joy will turn heads in our world, one that is at the least becoming more apathetic, if not down right angry. We don't need any special "call" from God to embark on a life-long journey of meaningful and compassionate engagement.

However, I believe the questioner may be asking something more. is there something special that I should be doing to serve God? Each of us is a unique individual, endowed with gifts and abilities. The first step in figuring out our personal "call" to serve God is to discover what these gifts are. Some of they may not be obvious--dormant until discovered and explored. We have a spiritual gifts test called "Spirit Gifts" available at St. Paul's United Methodist Church, but a person can also go to our denomination's look through the drop-down menus at the top of the homepage until you find the "Spiritual Gifts Test," which you can take online. It is a much simpler version of "Spirit Gifts," but it may give you some clues to explore.

Beyond spiritual gifts, it is good to ask yourself what you like to do. For some reason, many people feel that serving God--or being a responsible church member--means you have to "sacrifice," and do hard jobs or sign up for service opportunities that stress us out. I don't know why that is. Involving oneself in ministries of various kinds can be hard work, and it can mean giving time, money, and energy, but there is nothing wrong with it being fulfilling, meaningful, and even FUN! Read your church bulletin or newsletter, ask your pastor or other church leaders, or call your church office to see where people are needed to help. Then sign up or just show up. If you match your gifts to your service, things will go much better, but when you work with others on a "team," even simple jobs like setting up for church dinners or decorating the sanctuary for worship can be a blast.

One more thing. When you show up or get involved in a ministry or task around your church (or in the community, for that matter), you may find that the other members of the "team" have been doing this for some time and have formed friendships and bonds. You may, initially, feel like an outsider. Please don't be discouraged by this. Take simple task, do your part, and begin to methodically break into the conversations and "the circle." Your gifts may cause you to quickly analyze the situation and discern better ways to accomplish the task at hand, but resist the urge to be overly enthusiastic or forceful about suggesting your "fix." Remember, most opportunities to serve in the Realm of God are first and foremost opportunities to build community and create new, supportive relationships. The actual job is secondary to that, so make that your priority. It will all work out, as God's Spirit will be your guide.

And a final word to you church members who are already veterans of service and ministry: Be very intentional about watching for new people who join in. Make them feel welcome, help them build relationships within the group, and give them meaningful tasks to do and whatever orientation they need. People drop out when they can't break in.

Here is another: When you take Communion, what should you say when you accept the bread? 

When one receives Communion, that is exactly what you should do--receive. Communion is a sacrament, which means it was instituted by Christ and is God's action, not ours. Hence, we receive God's grace through receiving the elements of bread and wine. No words from the one receiving are necessary. I admit that when I receive Communion from a colleague, though, I usually say a simple "Thank you" or "Thanks be to God," both to express my gratitude to God and to God's "agent" administering the sacrament. Sometimes, though, I say nothing and just receive. That is most appropriate. United Methodists believe that Communion is a "means of grace" whereby God bestows a unique blessing called grace upon us. One simple definition of grace is "God's unmerited favor." Grace is not earned; it is a gift. Communion is a perfect example this grace, as well as a means of it. United Methodists practice a fully "open table," meaning that anyone who wishes to may receive. We don't require the communicant to be a "baptized Christian," a member of the church, or our denomination. John Wesley, who was Methodism's founder, believed that persons might be enlightened or even make a life-changing connection with Jesus Christ in this sacrament.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Questions III

Yet another in a series of "questions" from our congregation which I shall attempt to address...

Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? And why is God's answer sometimes "No"?

This is one of the timeless questions labeled the "theodicy" question by theologians. Of course there is, in this time and in this realm, no absolute answer possible for it; we can only speculate. If a person harbors a belief that all things about God have to make total, logical "sense," or fulfill some expectation of divine "perfection" whereby everything has to be in harmony, then a long, convoluted explanation would be in order. I am not one of those people, and I don't recommend the approach.

Instead, I will default to my "heavenly parent" model whereby God creates humanity and loves us like a loving parent does her or his child. When we love our children, we want the best for them, and we do our best to provide opportunities for them to grow and thrive. But our love also requires that we "turn them loose," at some point, and this necessary freedom puts them at greater risk. So it is with us, as God's children. The world is a beautiful place and a great blessing to inhabit, but there are diseases, dangers, and consequences out there that may befall us, as we explore this freedom and carve out our own life and lifestyle. When bad things happen to our children, we do all we can for them, surrounding them with love and compassion, or grieving deeply for them if they don't physically survive the particular malady. I think God does the same for us. I believe this is what love is all about. How loving would it be to so totally control our lives that nothing bad could ever happen to us? We know that "helicoptering" parents can rob the joy and potential of children, and making God the ultimate helicoptering parent would be antithetical to the love in which we were created.

And what of God's "no" answers to some of our prayers? Again, the parent illustration applies: Does a truly loving parent give the child everything the child asks for? It would not be prudent, and it would not be loving. It might even be dangerous, from time to time. Sometimes God's answer may seem like a "no" when it is really "not yet." Patience and preparedness are two qualities we learn form this "delayed" fulfillment.

I had a young church member who tried and tried to get into law school because he wanted to be a lawyer. He was a good student, and a friend who was his academic equal had no trouble being admitted to one. "Why?" was his favorite question. By not getting into law school, that young man started working with the youth at his church, met the woman who would become his wife, and got called into the ministry. Today he and his wife are each pastors, and he is an important leader in his denomination. What seemed like a "bad thing" turned out to be an integral part of a future opportunity and calling!

How about some tips or advice about how to pray more purposefully? You know, without "begging" God to work for you? Is it best to pray for general guidance or with specific desires?

Let me try to answer the last part of the question first: YES! I pray for general guidance daily in my life, while at the same time--and throughout the day--asking for specific things, including letting God know how I'd like things to go or be. There is nothing wrong with focusing one's prayers on a very specific concern or need. Neither is it ever a bad idea to pray for God's guiding hand in our affairs.

Prayer is just conversation with God, and as a child asks its parent(s) for the things it needs to tackle life, so we should make our desires known to God. It doesn't even have to be in flowery language. If you're not sure how to pray about something, use the Lord's Prayer. Years ago, someone taught me the ACTS model in a Sunday School class: Start with Adoration - that's the "hallowed be thy name" stuff; move on to Confession - tell God any things you are sorry for doing or thinking; then be Thankful to God for your blessings, and even name some of them! And THEN move on to Supplication, which is a 64-cent word for "the ask." What's nice about this model is that you don't just start with the laundry list of stuff you want/need. Imagine how hard it would be to begin a conversation with a friend with "Hey, give me a dollar..."

I don't think an earnest prayer can ever be "begging God to work for us," anymore than a child sincerely asking a parent for assistance or for some resource that the child deems--at that moment--necessary, would be considered "using" the parent. It's just what we do when we love someone and are loved by someone. Such it is with God and us.

Can we bug God too much? Jesus tells a story about a friend who has a stranger come by his house late at night, and because of the Jewish code of hospitality, he is obligated to feed the guest. Having no bread, he knocks on his sleeping neighbor's door until the neighbor wakes up and give him some bread for the stranger. Jesus says God rewards us for this kind of persistence! So, the moral is: never be afraid to pray for anything. But remember, sometimes God--for reasons which may not yet be clear to us--may say "no" or "not yet"!

More questions next week...Shalom!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Questions II

As I mentioned in last week's post, we held a "Question and Answer" weekend at St. Paul's recently, and Pastor Karen and I fielded written questions from the various congregations during our five weekly worship services. The questions we didn't have time to address are the subject of this Blog over the next few weeks. Here are a couple more questions:

If God is perfect, why did God allow sin and an angel to become Satan?

And related to that:

Does God forgive Satan?

The second question is a little like the questions the sophists asked during the Dark Ages: How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? or Can God make a rock too big for God to lift?

Does God forgive Satan? Or put it in "Christian" terms, Does the redemptive power of Jesus extend even to Satan? Of course, the answer is unknowable. Could God forgive Satan? God can forgive anybody. What of the redemptive power of Jesus being able to bail Satan's butt out? Yes, I'm sure the redemptive power of the Christ Event could even redeem the devil. But beyond this wild speculation, we just don't know, nor do we need to. What we DO know is that God forgives any human who asks, and that the redemptive action of Jesus is able to transform anyone who desires for it to happen. The Bible is our main source for any information about God, and it does not address the question, Does God forgive Satan?

The first question, If God is perfect, why did God allow sin and an angel to become Satan? is much more interesting.

What do we mean when we say God is perfect? Are we using human understandings of perfection? Greek philosophical categories of perfection? The Hebrew descriptions of God in the Old Testament talk of a God who "mixes it up" with the human creation: arguing with Moses (and losing some of those arguments!); wrestling with Jacob; getting angry at Israel's lame-brain actions; and playing a game of "Survivor" with a guy named Job. This is not the "god" of Greek philosophy who is the "unmoved mover," or the Greek Gnostic construct of God who is so perfect and "pure" that God has to be in "a galaxy far, far away" from the human condition because God's utter perfection doesn't let God be any where near sin. While the writers of the Hebrew scriptures may be accused of overly anthropomorphizing God (applying human characteristics to deity), the reality of God's interactions with the Jews and which Christians through the coming of Jesus DO seem to demonstrate a God who chooses to relate to the human creation quite actively. I don't think we can say God is perfect anymore than the Bible does. The Bible talks of God's WAYS being perfect, although a better way to say it might be: "God's ways are perfected." Another text in the Psalms says "God's WORKS are perfect." Well, I would expect that God is pretty good at what God chooses to do. What, then, does the Bible say about God being "perfect"?

It says that God is LOVE, and that perfect LOVE casts out all fear. What is perfect about God is God's LOVE. Now that is something you can take to the bank. Perfect love "never leaves us or forsakes us." Perfect love is patient, kind, etc. Perfect love always holds out the offer of forgiveness and reconciliation, never jerking it back in anger or because, "Sorry, time's UP." Perfect love affords full freedom to its object--us and the creation. I often use the example of a loving parent as an analog for how I understand God being with God's children. A loving parent never stops loving a child; a loving parent provides lavishly for a child, while at the same time teaching the child how to be self-sustaining and productive; and a loving parent gradually gives a maturing child freedom to become the person she/he is to become, even when this seems fraught with risk. To protect, shelter, and coddle a child beyond the days of infancy and childhood becomes a form of abuse. "Helicoptering" parents are usually more selfish and controlling than loving, and may even cross the boundary to living vicariously through her or his child.

If God is a loving parent, God necessarily grants great freedom to the human creation. This freedom includes the ability to rebel, go in a direction in life quite counter to what is fruitful, or even safe, and to "sin with the best of them." Imagine if God had made us to automatically do the right thing, never free to "choose" our own directions and actions? Wouldn't we be automatons? Human robots? How much "life" would that be for us? And if God's purpose in creating us was to be able to have a relationship with us and to enable us to live abundant lives in this beautiful world God created, would this fulfill God's aim? Who wants to relate to something "programed" to love us and to be limited to a list of approved activities? What makes our most intimate relationships so fulfilling is that we choose the persons to whom we relate in this way, and they choose to reciprocate. Without the choice it is not a relationship but a contract, or maybe worse.

Jews and Christians believe in a God who does grant these freedoms and choices, and who invites us to follow, love and relate to the deity. Christians believe that God even "came down" among us in Jesus Christ to fully experience the human condition--especially the temptations of it--and to show us a better way of relating (there's that perfect love again).

Regarding the second part of the question--about allowing an angel to become Satan--we are back to some serious speculation again. The Bible says very little about this. Some of the extra-biblical literature talks more about the apocryphal understanding of Satan being originally Lucifer, a "top angel" who decided to stage a coup in heaven, and was banished to the earth. But if that is what did happen, in some cosmic drama, it would be for the same reason as why humans are "free." The few informational references we have about angels indicate that they are a created order--different from humans, which Psalm 8 says are God's crowning achievements. Angels have a defined job: they are messengers. As a created order, they don't share many of God's attributes, other than they are either immortal or at least have very long lifespans (we have no tales of angels dying, although there are apocalyptic references which talk of Satan being "thrown into the lake of fire," which sounds like capital punishment to me).

I find speculating about angels unfulfilling. I think there are angels, and in the Bible, they usually bear a message or a warning. Some of the descriptions of angels in the Bible make them sound like horrible looking, scary creatures. There is a reason why the first thing they say when they encounter a human is: "Be not afraid." If any of those "living creatures" surrounding the throne of God in the Book of Revelation are angels, well, good luck not freaking out when you meet one! Hollywood and Hallmark have given us our "nice" images of angels, and I'm OK with that, as long as we aren't too disappointed when we come face to face with a real one.

Let's summarize: God loves perfectly; God, in this love, creates us as "friends" and gives us a beautiful world in which to live and thrive; and God grants the freedoms necessary for us to choose how we will live this life and to whom we will relate. However, freedom allows for some bad choices and selfish living, just as it allows for affirming, joyous and "others-centered" ones. Let me finish on this note: I read recently that the motto of the Franciscans (a Catholic order following the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi) is: Engineering people for others. I like that. God's perfect love caused God to give us more freedom than this, but here is a group whose goal is to help put the crown on God's human creation by helping us become the kind of children that our Parent God would be very proud to have! Shalom!

Thursday, April 23, 2015


The Sunday after Easter of this year, Rev. Karen Slusser and I invited questions from the congregation via cards handed out to attendees as they arrived for worship in each of our five worship services. We addressed quite a number of these questions during the typical "sermon time," but were not able to take a shot at all of them because of time constraints, and I promised to get to those questions via this Blog. So, here goes...

With one God, why so many religions?

First of all, some might say that these various religious manifestations witness to more than one god. There are those who say that Muslims worship a different god than Jews or Christians. And this will always be a point of debate, I suppose. My take is that we, as human beings, have in intrinsic need to seek a wider, bigger, or encompassing truth, and that causes us to seek a divine being, or a divine mind that is behind our reality, drawing us together, in spite of our cultural, racial, philosophical, or socio-economic differences. Whether such a being exists is a matter of faith, as no proof (at least one that meets the criteria of science) exists. While the various religions have stories and beliefs codified in holy writ, or passed down by oral tradition or legends, we all tend to view deity from intensely personal angles, based upon our experience. The good news here is that we can imagine a God who cares for me as well as the we of the wider community or world. The bad news is that we can fall prey to something Ludwig Feuerbach, a 19th Century philosopher and anthropologist said: God is just our own humanity writ large. It would seem, therefore that the various religions are our attempts, within our cultures and human communities, to draw some tighter boundaries around what is "human" and what is "divine," and how the two entities interact. If this is true, then the next question is: Is God at work in all of these religions?

To that, I would answer yes, but I have to admit, my answer is connected with my own Christian faith. In the Christian scriptures (II Corinthians, chapter 5), it states to God is in Christ, reconciling the world to god-self. My belief system understands that the coming of the Christ into the world necessarily begins God's effort to find covenant, community, and relationship with humankind. Therefore, I don't question the "how" of that, and accept on faith that God really is working through the Christ Event to connect with all of God's people. Therefore, I believe God is at work in all faiths where people are seeking to "connect" with God, and to be reconciled with her or his creator. I put Jesus at the center of this effort. Obviously, I am not free to force this belief on persons who don't put the same degree of trust in Jesus, but this give me hope that--because it is God's effort--we will all eventually be brought into a benevolent relationship with God and each other, in time.

At this point in history, however, we continue to explore and seek faith through our cultural and religious differences. Even as Feuerbach's critique is a cautionary boundary, so is any doctrine of exclusivity by any one faith. If the Christian holds to her or his faith expression as being the "one true" one, or the Muslim, or the Hindu, then human boundaries are erected that create conflict and subdue necessary and helpful religious conversation. Isn't that just what we see happening? If we believe in a God big enough to be the creative force behind the processes which resulted in the universe and this world, can we also have confidence in that God to guide us toward a peaceful human community that manifests acceptance, compassion, understanding, and the ability to cohabit in said world? If our religion doesn't foster respect, one for the other, then it is a false religion.

How can we encourage other United Methodist Churches to be more accepting and diverse?

This question seemed to relate, to some degree, to the larger one above of "one God, many religions." United Methodist churches each have their own "cultures," history, and contexts, like the various religions referred to in this earlier question. As such, we have our different understandings. St. Paul's is generally a more progressive church whereby inclusiveness is a core value for us. This doesn't mean that we hold to one particular theological, political, or social philosophy, necessarily, but that we have decided as a church that the "open doors" part of our United Methodist promotional slogan, Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors is central to our congregation's ministry and witness.

Mr. Wesley wrote and preached about a few "essentials" of the Methodist faith: Jesus Christ as the central figure in God's redemptive action; the Bible as our main source of information about our faith; and the wider Christian Church as the "Body of Christ" in the world. He said if a person accepted these "essentials," then he would relate to that person as a fellow Christian. However, there are many points of life and faith which Wesley called the "non-essentials," about which we should "think and let think," meaning we can sometimes "agree to disagree," or to continue in conversation about without breaking our relationships with each other. This is something unique to Methodism. The danger here is that we grab some of those "non-essentials" and try to make them "essentials," using them as a proverbial "litmus test" of another's faith. What we think about the "hot-button" issues of our time such as abortion or sexual orientation, how we "do Communion," or for whom to vote are things we can continue to debate, seek more light about, and work out within the faith community.

Even as St. Paul's seeks to be a "broad-based community of faith" that welcomes all persons, some United Methodist churches make evangelism or missions and outreach their highest core value. I have always said that a healthy denomination has churches that understand these "contextual" or spirit-gift-driven values, and ministers according to them. Our church will appeal to folk who may not be reached by a church that offers only contemporary worship or where the preaching is mostly aimed at "the unsaved." And vice versa. We should be OK with that, and not want every church--even every United Methodist Church--to look alike.

That said, there are elements of welcome and inclusiveness which need to be on our denomination-wide agenda. Ethnic and racial diversity should be a universal goal for all of our churches. If we are not diverse, why? What keeps persons of color or persons of a different national origin from attending our churches? These are important questions for us to ask. Many of us believe it is time for the denomination to end religious discrimination against LGBT persons, allowing them to be ordained for ministry and supported in their quest for equality as citizens. Not everyone is there yet, but the world and many of our faith partners (Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, United Church of Christ, to name a few) are passing us by. As was stated earlier, Mr. Wesley believed, "In the essentials, unity; in the non-essentials, liberty--we think and let think..." But there was a third part to this philosophy: "...and in all things, CHARITY (love)." May God's Spirit guide us as we seek to become "more accepting and diverse."

Next week, we'll look at a couple more of the submitted questions. Hope this was helpful. Shalom, Dear Ones!

Friday, April 10, 2015

Jesus is Rising...

Every Easter, we pastors stand in front of our congregations--usually swelled to capacity by the mystical "call" to turn out for the Resurrection Story--and begin the service with "He is RISEN!," to which the congregation has been conditioned to respond: "He is RISEN, INDEED!" And then comes the impressive music by the choir, brass, pipe organ, praise band, or what-have-you. Oh, and if you are a Methodist, you will sing the rousing Charles Wesley classic, "Christ the Lord is Risen Today!" What are we celebrating?

It is a tenet of orthodox Christianity that Jesus the Christ, the unique God-human being who embodied both the full attributes of humanity and the full attributes of divinity, was crucified by religious leaders and Roman authorities, and on the third day, arose from the dead, fulfilling various Bible prophesies, including his own promise to arise. Christians since that historic first century have affirmed a "bodily resurrection" whereby Jesus was physically raised, although conservatives and progressive theologians alike espouse that more happened on that first Easter than just a "resuscitation" of the physical body of Jesus. The Apostle Paul refers to the resurrected Jesus as the "first born of the dead," and the "second Adam," setting forth the idea that Christ--in his risen form--was a kind of "prototype" or hybrid being who was both a physical being and an eternal being as well. In the general epistle of I John, the author suggests that in eternity, we will be given this same "eternal body" like Christ models in the resurrection. It is an intriguing thought: a physical body with form and feeling and "looks," but one that isn't touched by time, disease, or the "Dorian Gray" effects of aging. Which brings up another question: if this is so, how "old" will we be "frozen" at in this eternal visage? Well, if we want to play that game, how about this: if it is an "eternal" body no longer subject to linear, temporal bounds, maybe we can be any age we want to be at any given moment? If I don't live to see 90, maybe I can "run up" there in Heaven and check it out? Or maybe an infant who perished gets to "grow up" and experience a full life, maybe in the presence of the perpetually grieving family which lost her or him? We could do this kind of speculation all day long, and about all we might end up with would be a "B" screenplay.

I don't know what happened on that first Easter some 2,000 years ago. I can confess to what I believe, but that's about it, at least when it comes to Jesus being physically raised from the dead. But what I can clearly see is the on-going evidence of whatever happened back then, and the continuing rising of the life, teachings, and reconciling power of Jesus in us today. The Christian experience continues to transform lives--we hear stories of this every week. The media is full of usual and unusual testimonies of people "finding God," kicking addictions, being reunited with loved ones via God's program of reconciling people to God and people to people. This stuff is certainly real and has staying power. I suggested to my Easter congregation at St. Paul's that we should change that greeting to "Christ is RISING! In YOU and in ME!

How real is this unfolding Christ experience? Just ask someone who has been changed by it--or someone who is being changed by it. Or, if you belong to a mainline denomination church (such as my own United Methodist Church), and know how we seem so adept at making lame-brain decisions and creating unnavigable structures, the incarnational miracle is that we are STILL here, and even growing in many places! If this isn't evidence of divine resurrection power, I don't know what is!

In the final few years of my ministry and the whatever number of years of my life, I think I'm going to stop talking about something that supposedly happened over 2,000 years ago that I didn't witness, and start pointing others--and myself--to the "rising" Christ who continues to break into the human condition and reconcile us all to God. Oh, some of my colleagues will say, "Are you denying the bodily resurrection of Jesus?" No. With apologies to the apocryphal "Gandhi-ism": I'm just trying to BE the resurrection I want to see in others and in the world. Less "living for Jesus," and more "living WITH Jesus," I guess. Won't you join me?

This Sunday, St. Paul's is doing a kind of "stump the pastor" thing whereby we're passing out note cards and inviting members of the congregation to submit questions for Rev. Karen and I to answer during the message time. If we get a bunch more good questions than we can address on Sunday, watch for a few of then to turn up here on my blog. Could be intriguing...Shalom, All!

Saturday, March 21, 2015


"I am the true vine, you are the branches..." These are the words of Jesus from John 15, and one of the "I Am" statements of Jesus which we are exploring during the Lenten season at St. Paul's UMC in 2015. Vines and branches...what do I really know about them? Hmmm.

When I was a kid, our family moved into a new house. The former owners had a grape arbor in the back yard, and I remember it looking like a straggly vine hunched over a wooden lattice, with a few green leaves but bunches and bunches of grapes. The former occupants made wine from the grapes. The Sterlings were not wine people at that time, and even if we were, we had no interest in nor expertise about making wine. Since these grapes were "wine grapes," they didn't taste great right off of the vine. My dad apparently thought the same thing about the sad looking vines as I did, and the next growing season, he applied some of the "horse sense" gardening which he knew, and the vines perked up, the branches multiplied, and verdant leaves just covered the trellis. But no grapes. Common sense said that if the plant was healthy, there would be fruit. Didn't happen. Maybe this is why Jesus used this illustration.

Apparently--and believe me, I'm STILL no expert about viticulture--when you are trying to create a large yield of grapes from a vine, you need to know things like: What kind of soil does this particular variety of grape grow best in? What and when do you prune? (And I think you really have to do a LOT of pruning!) How do you "train" the vines to handle the burden of the fruit? There are more questions than these, but these are some of the most important ones.

When you do the right things to culture the grape vines, you get the large, "straggly" brown vines, far less leaves, and bunches and bunches of lush grapes. If you do the "horse sense" stuff, all of the energy of the plant goes into creating leaves and branches--no fruit. Now, if we pull this dangerous little bit of viticultural knowledge back into the spiritual illustration that Jesus intended, what can we learn?

Jesus is the true vine. The vine will always be central to getting nourishment into the buds, which become fruit. The branches are the conduits through which the "power" flows to the buds and eventually the grapes. Branches need to be pruned so their aren't more than the vine needs to produce the fruit. If WE are the branches, we should understand this principle of being conduits of what the vine provides. You don't grow grape fines to produce perfect-looking and multitudinous branches. It seems that many of our "church growth" strategies are aimed at doing just this. Instead, Mr. Wesley believed in accountability, hard work, sacrifice, whatever it took to take God's grace and redemptive love from the vine to the "fruit," which were the people we aim to reach and help. This vine/branch metaphor is about mission and outreach, not nurture for the "church people." In fact, the text says that we--"the branches"--will be pruned if we don't make fruit. Hmmm.

Productive "branches" (Christian disciples) in our United Methodist tradition do their best to fulfill the membership vows to support the ministry of our churches with "our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness." If we purpose to do these things, the rich nutrients flow from the vine THROUGH the branches, and fruit is produced--others' lives are touched with the message of the Gospel and their needs are met. They might even become branches of the True Vine!

Are too many of our churches putting all of their energies into the branches? Are too many of us "branches" wanting all of the attention of our church? Wanting to be what people see when they look toward our proverbial grape vine? Or are we willing to become conduits of the "good stuff" the True Vine has for the world? For our neighbors? Our enemies? Challenging questions aren't they? Hmmm.

As we near Holy Week and Eastertide, it's time to review our priorities, make sure our spiritual connection to the True Vine is up and running, and be ready to produce fruit for the Vinedresser. Oh, and we church leaders have the responsibility to build the support network to uphold and support the branches while they do their duty, and make sure that it is strong enough to support the burgeoning fruit that will result if the Vine's nourishment gets to its ultimate destination!

Jesus said: "I am the True Vine, you are the branches..." Them's marching orders, not a statement of comfort, Dear Ones. Shalom!

Friday, February 13, 2015

We All Fall Down...

The season of Lent is looming before us; Ash Wednesday begins the "process" of walking through the Gospel stories of Jesus and his turn toward Jerusalem, the trial, and the cross. When I was a kid, the Methodist Church (and yes, I'm old enough that it was just the "Methodist Church" then!) did not impose ashes on Ash Wednesday. In fact, when I was appointed to serve my first church almost 30 years ago, imposing ashes was still a fairly "radical" thing for protestants to do. However, it turned out to be a very meaningful thing to my parishioners back in 1986, and we never looked back. So, in this first year of my sixth appointment, we will impose ashes again.

Remember the childhood song "Ring Around the Rosey," which had the lyric, "Ashes, Ashes, we all fall DOWN!"? Maybe the little ditty had a theological truth attached to it. We impose ashes because of the proclivity for us humans to "sin," as the ashes are a sign of our desire to "repent." I'm putting those two words in quotes, as they have become firmly ensconced as "church words," and ones not used much in the culture, unless you are talking about Congress. Could the "we all fall down" line have something to do with what theologians call "the fall of humanity," as in the mythical Garden of Eden story when Adam and Eve disobey the one rule they were given? Theologians through the centuries point to this "original sin" as the "fall." At the risk of sounding a bit like humorist and skeptic Bill Maher, do we still believe in the concept of "original sin," and that some duo of proto-humans broke a rule and got us all condemned as a race?

I'm going to explore this a bit in my meditation on Ash Wednesday here at St. Paul's, but here's my thesis in short: Regardless of what "got into us" as humans that make it so hard for us to love one another (especially if those "one anothers" are very different from us), one of the key roles of our faith is to give us the teachings, the tools, and the spiritual encouragement to do this--love one another. "Sins" are those self-centered things we do that cut us off from the human community and from God, because God has chosen to exist within the hearts of those who make up that community. To "repent" literally means to stop, turn, and go in the opposite direction. So when we "repent" of sinning, we should be turning our lives Godward, and right back into the center of God's call to love our neighbors and build a peaceful and affirming human society.

Was there a single event in human history that brought about "the fall"? I guess to me it doesn't matter. But the weirdness in our DNA that causes us to behave sometimes like members of the animal kingdom (self preservation, "survival of the fittest", etc.) can be short-circuited by the teachings of Jesus, and the presence of God's Spirit as the Spirit leads us, again, toward love as a God-given, human core value. That somehow Jesus' death on the cross took away the "automatic" nature of human sin, granted pardon for it, and empowered us to NOT have to live in captivity to this selfish state, is central to the Christian message.

When the Beatles sang, "All you need is love..." they were partly right, although is not so much the "nutrient" as the goal of redemption--Love, God; love neighbor as ourselves. Ashes, repentance, yielding to the leading and power of the Spirit--these things keep us from trying to just personally "gut out" the transition from self-centered "sinning" and true, healthy life in community where the welfare of all is at least as important as the welfare of ME. Jesus message to us, therefore might be, "We've fallen, but we CAN get up! Here, take my hand..." Shalom, Yinz.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Spirit of the Age

Each year, as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day rolls around, I pull King's book, Stride Toward Freedom off the shelf and reread it. This is his personal telling of the Montgomery bus boycott, launched by the arrest of Mrs. Rosa Parks. It is a powerful and "tear-jerking" tale of something wonderful that happened that began prying open the floodgates of racial justice. King just doesn't chronicle the story--he comments, theologizes and philosophizes about what really happened during those events. Here is  his telling of the arrest of Rosa Parks:

On December 1, 1955, an attractive Nego seamstress, Mrs. Rosa Parks, boarded the Cleveland Avenue Bus in downtown Montgomery. She was returning home after her regular day's work in the Montgomery Fair--a leading department store. Tired from long hours on her feet, Mrs. Parks sat down in the first seat behind the section reserved for whites. Not long after she took her seat, the bus operator ordered her, along with the three other Negro passengers, to move back in order to accommodate boarding white passengers. By this time every seat on the bus was taken. This meant that if Mrs. fParks followed the driver's command she would have to stand while a white male passenger, who had just boarded the bus, would sit. The other three Negro passengers immediately complied with the driver's request, But Mrs. Parks quietly refused. The result was her arrest.

There was to be much speculation about why Mrs. Parks did not obey the driver. Many people in the white community argued that she had been "planted" by the NAACP in order to lay the groundwork for a test case, and at first glance that explanation seemed plausible, since she was a former secretary of the local branch of the NAACP. So persistent and persuasive was this argument that it convinced many reporters from all over the country. Later on, when I was having press conferences three times a week--in order to accommodate the reporters and journalists who came to Montgomery from all over the world--the invariable first question was: "Did the NAACP start the bus boycott?"

But the accusation was totally unwarranted, as the testimony of both Mrs. Parks and the officials of the NAACP revealed. Actually, no one can understand the action of Mrs. Parks unless he realizes that eventually the cup of endurance runs over and the human personality cries out, "I can take it no longer." Mrs. Parks's refusal to move back was her intrepid affirmation that she had had enough. It was an individual expression of a timeless longing for human dignity and freedom. She was not "planted" there by the NAACP, or any other organization; she was planted there by her personal sense of dignity and self-respect. She was anchored to that seat by the accumulated indignities of days gone by and the boundless aspirations of generations yet unborn. She was a victim of both the forces of history and the forces of destiny. She had been tracked down by the zeitgeist--the spirit of the time. [Stride Toward Freedom, Harper and Row Publishers, San Francisco, 1985, pp. 43-44]

Thank God for the zeitgeist, or the "spirit of the age." When she lands in human affairs, things begin to happen and things begin to change! The zeitgeist is an incarnation moment when the divine intersects with humans, and often, "regular folk" become the catalyst for novelty. If there is a giant "justice timeline" on the walls of Heaven, you will see on it the account of Mrs. Rosa Parks.

And what of King? He was the "new kid in town" in the local ministerial association, and thereby was contacted by a clergy colleague officer in that ministerium and asked to intervene on Mrs. Parks' behalf. He did, and the rest--as they say--is history. He, too, was singled out by the zeitgeist for a leading role in the unfolding, shining moment of human justice and freedom.

Of course, the pursuit of racial justice is an unfinished agenda. Ferguson showed us this. A recent study released by the University of Pittsburgh and splashed across the front page of the Post-Gazette shows us this, too. (The study showed that the economic disparity between whites and persons of color is no better now than it was two decades ago, and this disparity is much larger in Allegheny County than is the national norm.) M.L. King once said that the most segregated hour of the week is Sunday morning at around 11:00AM. The church has not shown itself much of an agent of the zeitgeist in this matter.

So, we can wonder when the zeitgeist will strike next? Some--such as author Thomas Piketty--suggest that the huge, huge wealth/income gap between the "haves," the "have nots," and the middle class may trigger a visit of the Spirit of the Time. I think the zeitgeist may already be at work in the national movement for equality of rights for same-sex couples and LGBT persons. How about the growing problem with gun violence? The zeitgeist may be the only stroke of divine/human power that can take on the NRA, whose agenda is getting curiouser and curiouser (a spokesperson for the NRA recently said on a TV talk show that Americans should be permitted to own any weapon their government could use against them, including a cruise missile or a warhead!).

But this we know--for the zeitgeist to appear, a human being has to stand up--or sit down, in the case of Mrs. Parks--and say "enough." Who will be the one to say "enough" to continuing racial injustice? Who will be the one to say "enough" to the disparity of wealth? Who will be the one to say "enough" to the ecological destruction of Planet Earth? (A recent report by the Commonwealth organization said that we have already crossed 4 of 9 key danger thresholds in maintaining the viability of Earth to sustain human life.) Who will be the one to say "enough" in the church to using the Bible to bash gay people and make then "second class" Christians? (Yes, this is a controversial topic among persons of faith, but let's just see where the zeitgeist lands in this one!)

Who knows? Maybe 2015 will be "The Year of the Zeitgeist"! Blessings, Yinz.

Friday, January 2, 2015

2015...and Counting

How long will it take me to get into the routine of writing 2015 instead of 2014? Is that another one of those "You know you're getting old when..." confessions? With the new year comes all of the prognostications, hopes, fears, and resolutions which add to its mystery and overload our expectations. And then it is over before we know and we have to start writing 2016 on our checks and forms!

As my personal years advance, I find myself wondering more about what the future will hold. My Christian faith serves to remind me that I am not alone on this quest, and that whatever may happen, it will not be beyond God's grace and presence. As a United Methodist in the wesleyan tradition, in theological parlance, I don't believe God has an ironclad "will" for my life, which I must live out sort of like a rat in a cheese maze. Instead, I believe God works in "partnership" with my gifts, interests, and circumstances to assist me in carving out a life with meaning, and one dedicated to serving others. While I do not believe my primary purpose is "to glorify God," I suspect that if I live out what my life calling is, and what I am about, then God would probably be pretty happy about that.

One of the things I feel "called" to is to be an encourager of persons. With love as the prevailing operative, I do my best--both in my vocation as a pastor and in my role as me (husband, father, grandfather, friend, neighbor, etc.)--to be a positive presence in each person with whom I am privileged to interact. And I am usually drawn to those who are the most currently oppressed by the society and/or the church. Ethnic minority persons will always be high on this "encouragement" agenda, but the most current group I am trying to affirm are LGBTQ persons, as they are still "second class citizens" in my denomination, and may even suffer more hurtful oppression in some churches. May 2015 be the year we stop harassing people and include all persons in the Realm of God and the full participatory life of each church. As I told my current congregation in one of my first sermons, "If our interpretation of the Bible causes you to exclude persons who do not wish to be excluded, then your interpretation is in error. A simple "The Bible says..." is never an acceptable way to shut out any child of God who wishes to fully participate in the church.

Oh, and as persons of color will quickly remind us, mere encouragement is not enough. Justice doesn't happen just by well-wishing or back-slapping "atta-boys." May 2015 be a year the church seriously focuses on justice as well as justification. 2014's numerous incidents of deadly clashes between minority persons and law enforcement officials reinforce the fact that institutional racism is still an unfinished justice agenda. Our systems are still prejudiced and repressive. And we can be concerned for the injustices suffered by persons of color and believe also that "police lives matter." These two "sides" should never be "sides," and we cannot be seduced by the narrow view that they are mutually exclusive. One can want justice for blacks and have respect for law enforcement, but the justice part can't happen until our law enforcement officials exorcise all vestiges of prejudice and fear based on skin color.

I'm also praying that 2015 will be a year when grace gushes forth from God and through God's people. May we not just espouse our opinions, be they political or otherwise, without relying upon this grace available to all. Grace is both the vehicle of forgiveness and the grease of justice. Let's stop bashing one another--that will be the single most effective way of glorifying God! And the time to start is upon us. As someone posted the words of the Dalai Lama on Facebook this morning: "There are only two days in the year that nothing can be done. One is called yesterday and the other is called tomorrow, so today is the right day to love, believe, do and mostly live." Amen. Peace, Dear Ones!

What's Next?

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